[Spelling Reform Anthology §13.8 pp191,192,196]
[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Winter 1975, pp11,12,16]

Illiteracy: Is English Spelling a Significant Factor?,

by Marjorie Chaplin.*

* C/o S.S.S., London, England.
* A paper presented at the First International Conference of the Simplified Spelling Society, at College of All Saints, London.

According to a pamphlet published by the British Association of Settlements in May, 1974 [1], there are at least two million 'functionally illiterate' adults in England and Wales. This term is used to describe those who can read a little, but whose attainment is so low that in practice it is more or less useless to them. This is a scandal in the Britain of today.

In my opinion, the irrationality of the English spelling system is an important factor, among a great number, contributing to the high level of reading failure and illiteracy in English-speaking countries. I am very concerned at the lack of recognition of this fact in educational circles.

Just what are the causes of reading backwardness?

Almost all educationists, social workers and others agree on a number of major causes of reading retardation.

a) Social causes: bad housing, overcrowding, lack of child care facilities where mothers are out at work;

b) educational causes: large classes in First schools, changes of school, changes of teacher, absence from school, late discovery of reading failure, and insufficient remedial help after discovery;

c) causes related to the family situation: over-mothering, leading to late development of independence, over-anxious parents or lack of parental interest, lack of time for talking in the home, leading to speech retardation; and emotional disturbance due to tensions in the home, broken families, and so on;

d) secondary to all these causes, there is a child's loss of confidence in his ability to learn to read, because he has fallen behind others of his own age, or even behind a younger brother or sister.

While there is a considerable degree of agreement that all these factors play a part in reading failure, other theories are more controversial.

Some claim that a child may have an inborn weakness as regards visual memory for shapes, or an accident of birth in the form of 'cross-laterality,' such as left-handedness but right eye dominance; some children's tendency to reverse letters or words, mirror fashion, is also widely regarded as a cause of reading retardation.

Shortcomings in the methods of teaching reading and writing in the schools of today and of the recent past are also blamed for reading failure.

Finally, the nature of our English spelling is blamed, and although at present the number of those who consider it would be worth while to reform our spelling seems to be small, there are thousands who would agree that learning to read in the English language is made much more difficult by its irregular spelling.

Experience In Teaching Retarded Readers.

Having taught in an Open Air School for delicate children, and a School for Partially-sighted Boys, my last 14 years were at a Remedial Reading Centre. In consultation with the educational psychologist, the schools selected children to attend the Centre three times a week, the rest of school hours being spent in their normal school classes.

Before selection all were given Reading Age and I.Q. tests. No child with a so-called IQ of less than 80 was admitted, and in practice very few had an IQ below 90. (I say 'so-called IQ' because I am among those who have reservations as to exactly what an IQ test establishes.) Most of the time that I worked at the Remedial Centre, I was working with a colleague who, like myself, was completely convinced of the necessity of teaching by the phonic method. The children came to us in small groups of five or six, so that we were able to make considerable use of games, to give practice in recognition of digraphs, and in word-building. We agreed to pool our ideas for games and picture-clues, and gradually we developed what was virtually a systematic, programmed course in reading by phonics. We also built up a wide range of simple books to read, including the earlier books in a number of Infants reading schemes.

Children in any one group were usually of similar age and had a similar level of reading attainment. In other respects their problems might be very varied, but experience showed that, in spite of this, almost all of them made an immediate and very positive response to the learning of phonics. Over my entire period at the Centre, the number who resisted the phonic approach, or who failed to benefit by it, was so small that those particular children stand out in my mind as exceptions.

Some experts may be horrified to learn that I made no use of preliminary diagnostic tests. I did not worry as to whether a child had crossed laterality, nor whether their visual, oral or spatial abilities were the more developed. Neither was a new group, on arrival, invited to do painting or clay-modelling to acclimatise them. Such activities were left until the last 15 or 20 minutes of the session. I used to plunge straight in, and say to them, 'You are coming here so that I can help you to be good readers. I know you think reading is difficult. But I am going to teach you a very easy way. I am going to teach you the sounds of all the letters, and then teach you how to join the sounds to make words.'

I immediately set them to work matching up sets of letter cards with picture cards - a for apple, b for bat and ball, etc. Yes, indeed - 'out of the Ark,' as many would say! But it worked. Boys of 11 or 12 made no protest because this was something they deeply wanted to know about.

A few children did know the sounds of some letters on arrival; a smaller number could sound th, sh, ch. But in all my experience at the Centre, so far as I remember, not one child knew the sounds represented by vowel digraphs, apart possibly from ee.

As soon as a few letter sounds were firmly established by games, further types of games were played to give practice in 'building' words, (or blending, as it is sometimes called). The time children took to develop the knack of blending sounds into words varied greatly. This was their first, and most important, hurdle in learning to read. However many lessons had to be given in acquiring this skill, I never gave up. Once learned, this is the key to the reading of any alphabetical language in future life.

I can instance a boy and a girl aged about 9 years who, it seemed, never could learn to 'build.' I arranged to have them together for a few lessons, without the rest of the group, and one day I raced them against one another. Holding up a single short word on a card, I said, 'See who can call out this word first.' The idea of a race worked a miracle; they both discovered that they could read the words. Afterwards I realized that they both had a reason for wanting to stay at the Centre as long as possible.

What amazed both of us who were working at this Centre was the discovery that none of the children who came to us had been taught how to sound digraphs, although we had been told that teachers were using a combination of the visual and phonic approach. Then one day an incident opened our eyes to one possible cause of this contradiction.

We had a visit from two nuns from a Catholic school which had children attending the Centre. They said that these children had told them about the sounds they were learning, and they had come to learn about them. My appreciation of the professional humility of those two nuns, both fully trained teachers, will always stay with me.

What this event brought to light was that numbers of the teachers themselves did not consciously know the sounds represented by digraphs. If they had ever known this, they had forgotten about it. This would explain why so many teachers, while claiming to teach phonics, actually only drew the attention of the children to a handful of phonic aids, and left them to find out the digraphs for themselves.

To return to the retarded readers at the Centre, there was no doubt whatever about the enthusiasm of their response to this enlightening field of knowledge. For to these non-reading children, the fact that letters meant sounds and sounds could be joined together to make words was light at the end of a long tunnel - it was sight to the blind.

Children who had been apathetic towards school and books awoke to life and applied themselves to excel in the word games, and the race to learn the 'two-letter sounds.' Most of the games had an element of chance in them which prevented anyone from being regularly defeated.

Sometimes a child would voice his appreciation of our kind of teaching in a way which summed up the reactions of the majority. One small boy aged about 9 or 10 said to me, "At school the teachers just say to us, 'Go on, then, read it!' But you learns us how to read."

An older boy, in the top class of primary school, physically tall and well built, who had been so humiliated by his poor reading, said to me when he was leaving the Centre, 'You know, Miss, I still read more slowly than the other boys, but when they can't read a difficult long word, they come to me to read it for them.' What better testimonial to the phonic approach could one have?

Some Thoughts on Learning to Read.

In voicing criticism of the lack of systematic teaching of reading and writing, I am not ranging myself with the authors of the so-called Black Papers. I am enthusiastic about the general pattern of the modern approach in education as practised in the best of our state schools. But I am sure that systematic teaching of fundamental skills still has a place. It is certainly found necessary in many fields, so why not in relation to reading and writing, without which education cannot be carried out?

I would suggest that current procedures in teaching reading have taken such a hold in this country because it is almost impossible to teach an unsystematic spelling system systematically. The usual line of argument is that since efficient reading involves the recognition of thousands & thousands of words on sight, the habit of recognition of whole words should be encouraged from the start. This sounds good as a theory, but it neglects one important fact - that to memorise the patterns of 10,000 and more whole-words is tremendously difficult. It can only be achieved after a prodigious amount of reading, sufficient to encounter each of the 10,000 words 12, 15, or more times, as only repetition will ram them home for most people. Success does not simply depend on visual memory, but on having the interest, the opportunity and the time to read and read and read. For the modern child, TV and a wealth of other pursuits leave little time for reading. Thousands of children may take out library books, but there are probably many thousands more who do not.

Even more difficult than learning to read is learning to spell. Gone are the days when the bad speller was the exception among high school pupils and university students. Nowadays the good speller is a rarity. This is not due solely to modern methods of teaching reading, but rather more, probably, to the fact that today's teachers are not willing to devote precious school time to the learning of spelling lists and the giving of dictation. Since learning the idiosyncracies of the English orthography has little educational value, it does not take place, and spelling has become permissive.

The correct traditional spelling is losing its usefulness and its hold. And along with correct spelling, clear, legible handwriting seems to be on the decline also. In the days of typewriters, this may not matter so much, but I believe it would still be worth while for children to be shown how to form letters when they first begin to write. The retarded readers whom I taught also had the most rudimentary idea of how to form letters. I used to watch some of them as they wrote, and I discovered that to write a small a they might go round and round as if they were going to draw a snail, and would always draw an upright stroke first, and then add the curved stroke. In other words, they did not progress from left to right, but pure chance decided at which end of a letter they would start. Strokes were often made upwards instead of downwards. The result of teaching themselves to write was that they probably never learned to write fluently, and they lacked the kinaesthetic sensation of writing b as a sensation differing from that of writing d. Such writing confusion could help to reinforce the usual confusion among very little children over b and d.

So much for the criticism of the teaching of reading in our schools. Present methods do succeed in the vast majority of cases, and it is only those who, for one or other of the reasons I listed at the beginning, seem to suffer badly from the lack of systematic teaching.

Any criticism of our schools or out teachers must be balanced by a recognition of the enormous problems they have to cope with. The most urgent change needed is to reduce the size of classes in First Schools, so that children can receive far more individual attention in the decisive early years. Simple arithmetic can show us that even if a class is no larger than 30, and many still are, each child can only receive two minutes of the teacher's time in one hour, and only about ten minutes in the whole day. How can a teacher hear each child read daily in these circumstances, with all the other matters that have to be attended to?

Would a reform of our spelling make much difference?

If we compare the time it takes an English child to learn to read an adequate vocabulary in his own language with how long it takes an adult to learn to read a foreign language such as Italian, German, even Russian, in the sense of decoding the printed word, we can begin to realise the enormous amount of everyone's time that is wasted in the teaching and learning of English spelling.

I have indicated that retarded readers can rapidly learn to decode English words, but because our English spelling is so irregular, there can rarely be an entirely happy ending for anyone who is late in learning to read.

A boy came to our Remedial Centre at the age of about 10½ in his last year in Primary School, unable to read a single word. The school had thought him to be unintelligent until an IQ test showed that he was of normal intelligence. He set to work with excellent application to learn phonics. Although he only attended the Centre two or three times a week, after two and a half school terms he had completely mastered the reading of any word which could be read phonetically. But he still could not remember the common, irregularly spelt words. Clearly, these would only be learnt in the course of the following years, as he met with them, over and over again, in the course of reading.

Because such a high proportion of words could not be read phonetically, a limit was set on the attainment that could be reached within ten months. On the other hand, if our spelling were reformed so that all words were spelt according to a regular system, reasonably phonetic in character, anyone, child or adult, could become completely literate, able to spell correctly as well as to read, within a few months. Compare this with the years it now takes.

When we consider the misery caused by illiteracy, and the danger of children who are failing in school taking to vandalism or petty crime, and the many other advantages of a reformed spelling, such as saving of time spent on looking up words in the dictionary in offices, apart from the educational benefits, I believe we should all begin to take this question really seriously.

[1] A Right to Read. Action for a Literate Britain. Pub, by The British Association of Settlements. 20p. London, England, May, 1974.

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