Whole Language Research Base

Whole Language Research Base

I believe that the criticisms of cueing systems based on a dichotomy between phonological decoding and the use of “context cues” is the product of a misinterpretation of what whole language (psycholinguistic) researchers meant by “context.” Consider that the term/name Whole Language contains the words “whole” and “language.” I have always interpreted this to mean that WL is based on research that rejects the notion that phonology is the most important, and possibly the only important, source of cueing about words’ meanings (semantics) and therefore, the only part of language that is really needed for decoding words. The term “whole language” emphasizes that all of the subsystems of language that make language whole in order for it to convey meaning, must be considered in teaching children to read and write.

Professor Kenneth Goodman’s describes his Transactional Sociopsycholinguistic Model of Reading and Writing in his 1994 chapter, where he presents the history of his model and theory of reading. Prof. Goodman explains that he based his metaphor of the “psycholinguistic guessing game” on Noam Chomsky’s concept of “tentative information processing.”  Noam Chomsky proposed his theory about language’s “surface structure versus deep structure.” Consequently, when my colleagues in the literacy research community treat the term “context” as referring to something that is not, first and foremost, the whole context of language, referring to all of the subsystems of language, I become dubious about their arguments against the use of “cueing systems. The book On the Revolution of Reading (Flurkey & Xu, 2003) with a compilation of the selected writings of Ken Goodman is an excellent place to start if a person wants to explore Goodman’s contribution to our understanding of reading and writing. Professor Goodman authored 131 research articles, 26 books and monographs and 86 book chapters, along with 6 national research reports, several of which were funded by the U.S. Government.

As for the approach to instruction referred to as whole language, the theoretical and research base includes the following theoretical orientations: constructivism (the general concept), psycholinguistic theory, schema theory, transactional/reader response theory, metacognitive theory, and systemic-functional linguistics. Professor Kenneth Goodman himself calls what became known as whole language the Transactional Sociopsycholinguistic Theory and Model of Reading and Writing (Goodman, 2003). In his book In Defense of Good Teaching (1998), Goodman states that the theoretical model of the reading process and the pedagogical principles that it supports are inextricably linked.

It is necessary to point out the difference between “a theory” and a theoretical orientation. I refer you again to Diane Tracey and Lesley Mandel Morrow (2006). Lenses on Reading: An introduction to theories and models. Very infrequently is there a “strategy” that a teacher employs in the classroom that is not associated with a particular or multiple theoretical orientation(s), to reading instruction. These logically and theoretically related clusters of instructional strategies and related learning activities are frequently referred to as approaches. For example, Tracey and Morrow (p. 69) state that Whole Language is “associated with the following instructional strategies.”

  1. Use of real, high-quality literature for literacy learning.
  2. Use of real, meaningful contexts for literacy activities.
  3. Child-centered instruction based on children’s interests.
  4. Heavy emphasis on student choice.
  5. Use of thematic instruction.
  6. Use of active, social learning experiences.
  7. Use of “teachable moments.”
  8. Use of a variety of grouping systems.
  9. Use of large blocks of time for integrated literacy activities.
  10. Use of alternative systems of assessment, such as portfolio assessments.
  11. Use of centers in the classroom.”

These instructional strategies are all included as recommended features of curriculum and instruction in the Center for Applied Linguistics Guiding Principles for Dual Language Instruction (Howard, et al., 2018) However, rather than asking how a theory or theories are validated, we need to understand how they are formulated. This is because a theory is our best guess (hypothesis) for describing and explaining how some complex phenomenon or process works.

Models of Reading

Ken Goodman has presented and explained his theories using a complex and comprehensive theoretical model that he calls a Transactional Sociopsycholinguistic Model of Reading. The model is based on the convergence of theories about reading from several disciplines, including linguistics, psycholinguistics, constructivism, cognitive theory, sociolinguistics, systemic functional grammar, neurocognitive theories and research and eye movement studies. Goodman’s greatest contribution is the data base for his model from miscue analysis procedures from hundreds of readers. His data base is a comprehensive and extensive base of systematic observations of reading behaviors. Consequently, it is not experimental research. His theoretical model describes 11 steps that are involved in a reader’s process of making meaning from text.

So, the question becomes for Goodman’s fellow researcher and practitioners: Do you believe that Goodman’s data base of direct observations of reading behaviors of real readers during oral reading of real, authentic text is sufficient to support the elements of his theoretical model to render a valid explanation of how readers read to make meaning from text? Claims in the media and critics/opponents of Goodman’s research and the pedagogy that it has influenced are made that Goodman’s “theory” of reading has been “disproven” (MacPhee, et al., 2021). For this Disproven-theory Theory to be true, every one of the theories on which Goodman based his theoretical model and all of the steps and elements of his model would have to have been disproven. Of course, the journalists who make this claim never cite an authoritative source for their proclamation because this claim is patently false.

Ken Goodman and his colleagues used eye movement research and miscue analysis, where they used computer programming to superimpose the eye movement data to identify the relationship between eye fixation and miscues of some 500 plus readers. Then they overlayed the eye movement/fixation data onto the records of the identification of their reading miscues according to the meaning subsystem(s) that was hypothesized to be the source of the non-recognition non-comprehension of the word: grapho-phonic processing (decoding) and/or semantic processing and/or syntactic processing. This large body of data on oral reading performance of hundreds of emergent readers is known as EMMA data, an acronym for Eye Movement Miscue Analysis overlaid observational data (Strauss, Goodman & Paulson, 2009). The miscues were coded according to their amount of, and proximity to, graphic representation of the word. Ebe (2008) used this data to analyze the oral reading processes of bilingual readers using English text and Spanish text to compare their processes.

The SoR movement is using this “3 cueing approach” as a straw man argument. They have basically invented an “approach” in an attempt to discredit Ken Goodman, Frank Smith and Whole Language, the entire miscue analysis research base. Efforts to discredit a research base and basically get it banned through legislation and policy initiatives is so very dangerous. There is a vast body of research in second language acquisition and second language reading research on what is termed “lexical inferencing” that addresses how L2 learners use context (in both listening and reading) to make meaning, build vocabulary, etc. The research points out that L1 readers who are reading in their L2 have an advantage because they have already developed the metacognitive strategies for meaning-making that they can apply to both word form and semantics in comprehending unfamiliar words.

There is no modern research that I know of that refutes or invalidates any aspect or component of Ken Goodman’s Transactional Sociopsycholinguistic Model of Reading. Critics of his research find fault with his work for ideological reasons and other reasons that have nothing to do with the value of his comprehensive body of work in enhancing our understanding of how readers make meaning from text. Those who reject a database from systematic qualitative and quantitative analysis of reading behaviors are discounting a valuable and informative source of scientific knowledge about how language and literacy work without any scientific basis (Smith, 1999).


Flurkey, A. D., & Paulson, E. J. G., Kenneth S. (Eds.). (2008). Scientific realism in studies of reading. Routledge.

Flurkey, A. D., & Xu, J. (Eds.). (2003). On the revolution of reading. The selected writings of Kenneth S. Goodman. Heinemann.

Goodman, K. (2003). Reading, writing and written texts: A transactional sociopsycholinguistic view. In A. D. Flurkey & J. Xu (Eds.), On the revolution of reading: Selected writings of Kenneth S. Goodman (pp. 3-45). Heinemann.

Goodman, K. (1992). I didn’t found whole language. The Reading Teacher, 46(3), 188-199.

Goodman, K. S. (1967). Reading: A psycholinguistic guessing game. Literacy Research and Instruction, 6(4), 126-135.

Goodman, K., Goodman, Y. M., & Paulson, E. J. (2009). Beyond word recognition: How retrospective and future perspectives on miscue analysis can inform our teaching. In J. V. Hoffman & Y. M. Goodman (Eds.), Changing literacies for changing times: An historical perspective on the future of reading research, public policy, and classroom practices (pp. 146-161). Taylor & Francis Group.

Goodman, Y. M. (2015). Miscue analysis: A transformative tool for researchers, teachers, and readers. Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice, 64, 92-111.

Howard, E. R., Lindholm-Leary, K., Rogers, D., Olague, N., Medina, J., Kennedy, B., Sugarman, J., & Christian, D. (2018). Guiding Principles for Dual Language Education (3rd ed.). Center for Applied Linguistics.

MacPhee, D., Handsfield, L. J., & Paugh, P. (2021). Conflict or conversation? Media portrayals of the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S145-S155.

Smith, F. (1999). Unspeakable acts, unnatural practices: Flaws and fallacies in “scientific” reading instruction. Heinemann.

Strauss, S. L. (2010). Neuroscience and dyslexia. In A. A. McGill-Franzen, Richard L. (Ed.), Handbook of reading disability research (pp. 79-90). Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Strauss, S. L., Goodman, K. S., & Paulson, E. J. (2009). Brain research and reading: How emerging concepts in neuroscience support a meaning construction view of the reading process. Educational Research and Review, 4(2), 021-033.

Tracey, D. H., & Morrow, L. M. (2006). Lenses on reading: An introduction to theories and models. The Guilford Press.