Learning to Read is Natural

This is the first post in a series examining the question of what is natural and unnatural in learning to read. For an introduction to the series, see this post, What is (un)natural about learning to read and write? In this first post, we’ll unpack a controversial paper from Ken and Yetta Goodman.

Goodman, K. S., & Goodman, Y. M. (1976). Learning to Read is Natural. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED155621

In this presentation/paper, the Goodmans make the argument that in a literate society, learning written language is as natural as oral language because it is part of their functional environment.

“Language learning whether oral or written is motivated by the need to communicate, to understand and be understood.”

The Goodmans compare and contrast oral and written language, and I found this the most interesting section, as even today there is an unnecessary chasm between the two domains of research and practice, and I think they do make some important points about the connections between the two:

“It’s unfortunate that many linguists began to equate speech with language to such an extent that written language can to be treated as something other than language. . . . if written language can perform the functions of language it must be language. . . . Written language in use is also meaningful, contextualized and social.”

“For literate users of language, linguistic effectiveness is expanded and extended. They have alternate language forms, oral and written, which overlap in functions but which have characteristics which suit each for some functions better than the other.”

“Speech lends itself easily to here-and-now, face-to-face uses. Writing is best suited for use over time and space.”

“As language functions are extended beyond the immediate concerns, needs, and interactions of children to exploration of the real world, the world of ideas, and the world of what might be, language expands, takes on new textures and begins to transcend the immediate contexts in which it occurs.”

“The language of children expands to serve their needs as they become fully interactive with their communities. . . . We must focus more and more attention on how written language is used in society because it is through the relevant use of language that children will learn it. They will learn it because it will have meaning and purpose to them.”

Essentially, their argument that just like oral language, written language is functional within a literate society, and in this way learning it is natural. For a society that is not literate, there is little use beyond that of what might be taught briefly in a classroom, and so written language would not be functional there in the same way, and so not acquired.

They then go on to describe how a child in a literate society becomes aware of print simply by being in an environment with signage, symbols, print media, etc. “Just as oral language meanings are developed and used in ongoing everyday experiences so written language is learned through functional use.”

So what does this mean for instruction, according to the Goodmans?

Since learning language is natural, the role of the teacher is act as “guides, moniters, environmental arrangers, and stimulators to help the process happen.” Ah yes, the old “sage on stage vs. guide on the side” debate so ubiquitous in our field.

The Goodmans do hasten to caution that their position is “not Rousseauian. . . Teaching children to read is not putting them into a garden of print and leaving them unmolested.”

Yet they then go on to boldly state, “Instruction does not teach children to read. Children are in no more need of being taught to read than they are of being taught to listen.” In their estimation, since learning language is about function and meaning, a teacher needs to provide a context for children to respond to written language that is motivating and meaningful to them.

In fact, they argue that directly teaching the form of written language at the expense of function can be detrimental. They state that “it’s a serious mistake to create curricula based on artificial skill sequences and hierarchies” based on studies of proficient readers. . . ” and that sequential instruction in those skills is as pointless and fruitless as instruction in the skills of a proficient listener would be to teach infants to comprehend speech.”

Later in the open discussion section after the paper, which captures the comments of various reading researchers discussing the presentation and Ken Goodman’s responses, Goodman goes even further and says, “such instruction may actually interfere with the development of literacy, because not only does it not build on function, it actually distracts the child at an age where, according to Piaget and others, the child is likely to have trouble dealing with abstraction; it makes learning to read dependent on the ability to deal with abstraction.”

Since the Goodmans wrote this, research has demonstrated quite convincingly the important role that systematic beginning reading instruction plays for many children. So this next passage is all the more damning:

“Here we will focus on instruction for children growing up in a highly
literate society. But in passing we must reiterate our premise that literacy
will not be acquired if the community and society do not use literacy to any significant degree for any significant purpose
[bold added].” In other words, if a child is not so fortunate enough to be raised in an environment immersed in written language all around him, then . . . well, good luck learning to read, buddy!

They then go on to give some advice to teachers to build initial literacy, such as:

  • “Take children for a walk around the school, the neighborhood, or a supermarket to get quick insights into literacy kids have already attained.”
  • “there must be lots of written language pupils will need and want to read.” Helpfully, they add, “It does not mean that every chair, table or window should be labeled.”
  • “Dictating a set of “Rules for Taking Care of Our Hamster”
  • “create a classroom post office which delivers letters and notes between class members”

Seriously, though, I found these two pretty good:

  • “Literacy development, therefore, must be integrated with the science, social, studies, math, arts, and other concerns of the classroom.”
  • “Reading needs to be kept in constant relationship to writing. Wherever possible composition in written language should be related to reading activities.”

Reading Researchers of the Time Respond to Ken Goodman

The “open discussion” following the paper is fascinating to read, as various researchers either praised his argument or began pressing Goodman on some of the misconceptions he had about learning to decode.

In response to a comment from Jeanne Chall, Goodman again reiterates that “I don’t believe you can” teach people to read, and “I think all we can do with instruction is facilitate learning.”

He goes on to say many teachers “have intuitively understood the things that I have been talking about. They have intuitively understood that if reading doesn’t matter to kids, if it isn’t functional for them, they are not going to learn. Those teachers have intuitively understood that whenever instruction interferes with development, that’s the time to drop the instruction and to work at facilitating what the kids are doing.”

Or maybe it’s that the instruction isn’t actually teaching kids to read successfully, and we shouldn’t make assumptions that “reading doesn’t matter to kids”?

A couple of researchers start to pin him down on his stance that reading can’t be taught. Posner points out that learning to read signs in the environment is logographic, and that written language in English is reliant on the alphabetic principle, for which “children need additional help.” Venezky then jumps in and pushes Goodman to the ropes: “Every experiment that I am aware of that tried to induce the child to discover these [letter-sound] relationships on his own or her own failed.”

Goodman and Venezky go back and forth on this, with Venezky pushing him around the idea of refusing to actually teach letter-sound correspondences. Finally, Venezky asks: “Are you opposed to the child acquiring the ability to recognize letter correspondences?”

Goodman’s response here is incredibly revealing: “Am I opposed to him acquiring letter correspondences? Not if I believe be does acquire them, and I do believe that. If you are asking if I am opposed to his being shown letter correspondences, you bet, at any point.

So I think we can stop here. Goodman’s views on how children learn to decode words is clearly problematic and have been well-debunked, and were already being pinned to the wall even as he made such pronouncements. It’s remarkable indeed that yet somehow, his views have remained so pervasive in the field!

Perhaps it is because there is a strong logic to the Goodmans’ overall argument about language, and the strong interrelationship between oral and written language.

After reading this paper, it did get me wondering: Just what is it that is natural and unnatural about language and literacy development?

That brings us to what can be seen as a strong rebuttal from Gough and Hillinger, “Learning to read: An unnatural act.” Stay tuned for our next post in this series.

5 responses to “Learning to Read is Natural”

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