[Spelling Reform Anthology §17.4 pp232-234]
[Point VII is not in the Tune anthology.]
[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Fall 1978, pp2-5]

[Ayb Citron: see Journals, Newsletters, Bulletins.]

English Orthography: a Case of Psychological Child Abuse,

by Abraham Citron, Ph.D.*

*Dept. of Educ. Sociology, Wayne State Univ, Detroit, Mi.
*SR 1 used (Spelling reform, first step), see section V, p.4.

At the portals of education we have laid, not a highway, but a labyrinth.

Brainwashed as we are, we do not perceive our spelling as difficult, irrational, deceptive, inconsistent, clumsy, frustrating and wasteful; but it is and especially so to children.

Our spelling devours hours of study for years, squanders teachers' energy, blocks and frustrates children, renders writing more onerous and reading more difficult, strings out our words and inflates every cost of written communication. Our child-defeating spelling is one of the basic sources of academic discouragement and failure, aiding in the transformation of many children into psychological or physical dropouts.

The large majority of elementary and high school students in this country are either very poor, poor or mediocre spellers; the big majority of adults are no better. Millions of student hours are spent on spelling, millions of dollars are spent in teaching time, yet results are quite poor. Most students dislike spelling, many students abhor it.

Make no mistake about it, spelling is inextricably interactive with reading; our inconsistent spelling contributes greatly to reading difficulties.

Our culture is based on words and on power over words; our instructional system is built almost entirely of words. Every other power and expansion in academics comes through mastery of words. Even the artist, mathematician, musician, athlete finds his or her career stunted without power over words. Our system moves on words, runs on words, exists on and in words. At the narrow base of this immense system are 26 letters which we combine into hundreds of thousands of written words.

Much depends, therefore, on how we combine these letters. Note that we are working with an alphabet not at all designed for the sounds of English, but borrowed from the Romans, who had designed it to express the sounds of Latin. At the outset we are stuck with only 26 letters to express 41 (some say 44) phonemes of spoken English.

A second difficulty which has been gathering on our word system over centuries is that letters have been combined into words according to differing schemes at different times, letters have been stuck on just to justify lines of print, spellings have been borrowed from other languages. We have changed the sound of letters, we have changed the way we pronounced words while the spelling has often congealed on the old form. All this and more has evolved over centuries in haphazard ways.

The result is that we have inherited an orthographic system full of inconsistencies, irrationalities, quirks, exceptions and disorganization. And because, by the time we have become adults, we are accustomed to it, we unthinkingly force this "system" on our children.

We double-cross children in hundreds of ways as they struggle to master our unnecessarily difficult word forms.

We teach children a hard 'c' as in 'cat,' 'can,' 'candy,' and then double-cross them with words such as 'certain,' 'center,' 'cement.' In a word such as 'cease,' the first 's' sound is expressed with a 'c,' the second with an 's '; in 'civic,' two different sounds are expressed with 'c.' Observe what a complicated mess we make with 'necessary.' We teach children to sound 'k' as in 'kick,' 'kid,' 'klan,' and then confront them with 'knee,' 'knob,' 'knife,' etc. Further, if hard 'c' and 'k' are sounded alike, why do we need them both? We teach children 'p' as in 'poor,' 'put,' 'push,' then force them to handle 'photo,' 'phrase,' 'pneumonia,' etc.

We cross up children with our miserable 'ie' and 'ei' combinations as in 'believe' and 'receive'; and the "i before e" rule is little help since the exceptions are nearly as numerous as the examples. With 'craze' and 'haze' we use a 'z', but to express the same sound in 'please' and 'tease' we use an 's.' We cross up the kids by spelling 'lease' with an 's' and then 'fleece,' the same sound, with a 'c.' In both these words, the vowel has the same sound but in one we express it with a double 'e' and in the other with 'ea.'

We force children to drag along outmoded and useless 'ough' forms in words such as 'through,' 'bough,' 'plough,' 'though,' ; and useless 'gh's in a host of words such as 'light,' 'might,' 'bright,' 'night,' etc. Our spelling is literally laced with these inconsistent and meaningless forms outmoded in the long, long ago.

Godfrey Dewey, a lifelong student of our orthographical system, found that for the 41 distinguishable sounds of our spoken language (phonemes), there are 561 spellings currently used. The 26 letters of our alphabet are pronounced in 92 ways. Also we have 132 sets of two letters (digraphs) such as 'th,' 'ch,' 'ie,' 'ea,' etc., and for these we use 260 pronunciations. [1]

What would happen in our educational system with numbers if we told children that a 2 was two except when it had the value of 4 or 7? Or take a more extreme example: what would happen to children if we used red lights for 'stop' only some of the time and green lights for 'stop' some of the time? Such examples highlight the cruciality of consistency in basic education. Yet we throw orthographic inconsistencies at children all the time and wonder why so meny* find our written system difficult. [2]

II. A Small Experiment.

A seven word list was submitted to 621 sixth graders distributed in 9 schools and 20 classes in the metropolitan Detroit area, Nov., Dec., 1974. The words, in traditional and approximately phonemic form, were as follows:
traditional spelling
approx. phonemic spelling
In each class the traditional list was analyzed and discussed for seven minutes, then written to dictation; then the phonemic list was analyzed, discussed for seven minutes and written to dictation.

On the traditional list 1481 words were misspelled as agenst* 764 on the phonemic forms. This is an error reduction of 48%. Such a result would occur by chance less than one time in a thousand. The number of perfectly spelled lists jumped from 192 (31%) traditional to 332 (53%) phonemic. The poorest spellers, those who missed 3 or more words on the traditional list, numbered 248 or 39%; but on the phonemic list they were reduced to 109 or only 17%.

There is no question but that there is Hawthorne effect in these results; the students were playing an interesting game. (They were told at the outset that this experiment had nothing to do with their grades in spelling.) Even so, the phonemic forms were new to them, meny were quite familiar with the traditional spellings before the tests, and exposure to the new forms was only seven minutes. They were enabled to do so well so quickly because they were familiar with the sounds of the letters of the alphabet, and, following the sound of the word, they could fit the letters needed. Eny teacher who deals with spelling will report that children often fail back upon "instinctive" spelling, spelling the way a word sounds to them. These sixth graders were excited to find that they could smell "instinctively" and it would be "right."

III. Reliability, Reliability, Reliability.

Children learn most of the things they need to know, without formal training. If we look at the way they learn it "naturally" we see that, given motivation, they learn things most quickly and easily if they can rely on an environmental response, if they can discern a pattern that does not fail them.

Learning to walk is a complex matter, but doubtless one reason it is achievable is that the child can depend on the forces of gravity, distribution of weight and balance, which are constant. The child is rewarded every time balance is maintained and taught by a tumble when balance is lost. The child feels balance being maintained or being lost.

Learning to talk is enormously complex, but agen surely one reason it is achievable is that certain sounds are always associated with certain objects, actions, ideas. The spoken word 'mother,' or 'mamma,' or 'ma' always means a given person in a given role, as does 'pa.' The spoken syllable 'milk' always means milk, 'jump' means jump and so on. The sounds are reliable hence learnable. We have little trouble teaching children to tell time because we are consistent on the differing jobs of the clock hands, and we are consistent on the numbers and their positions on the clock face. Learning always involves perception of a pattern - the simpler and more reliable the pattern, the quicker the learning.

A basic principle of all learning is that children need a perceived reliable and integrated world as a basis for learning. All aspects of socialization, including necessary skills, are much more readily acquired if the child has the confident feeling of being in a reliable, secure and therefore a trusted world. Such a world is integrated in that one aspect of experience builds into or reinforces another. For example, learning to walk builds into learning to run, which builds into participation in (social interaction) children's games requiring running. This means that learning to talk will build into learning to write and read. In an integrated world, writing and reading should be as closely and as naturally as possible linked to speaking.

The principle of reliability does not mean that a child never be surprized or shocked or puzzled or discouraged. It does not require a world of monotony. But it does require a regularity of pattern in the skills crucial to the culture.

IV From the Natural to the Less Natural.

(By Making the Less Natural More Natural).

Speech is primordial. Children speak as naturally as they walk and almost as naturally as they breathe.

Speech is so natural that we often fail to note that it is built on abstraction and on symbolization. In speech we endow vocal sounds with meaning, we clothe sounds with life, with human experience. In other words, speech, which appears so natural, really combines the sound apparatus of homo sapiens with a contrived system of symbolization. To make a sound is at one level of the natural; to contrive a system of meanings and assign given meanings to given sounds is a different level of the natural. If this can be done with sound, can we come closer to it in our written symbols?

These sounds, as received by the ear or voiced by the organs of speech, become an intimate part of our being. We do not experience them (usually) as sounds at all but as direct meanings. So much a part of us do they become that we get to feel the syllable 'dog' is inherently doggy and that water could hardly be called anything else. We cleave to our native tongue and dialect and feel that our speech must be the language meant by the universe.

Thus, the world over, all people speak, but only some cultures develop a written language; and in the cultures which do develop written forms, only some of the people learn them. It is necessary to conclude that speech is primordial and on a level of naturalness denied to written forms. Homo sapiens takes to speech like a duck to water but it takes effort and sustained discipline to learn to read. (Some children learn to read unaided or with very little assistance but they are quite exceptional.)

It is true that we have not tried to raise children from infancy using only written language for communication. Were we to do this we might find that written forms too can become very intimate and "natural." But the facts remain that we always find humankind with speech, that written forms arise only in some cultures and only at some points in the development of those cultures, that all people speak but only those specially trained read and write.

We are thus drawn to the idea, often repeated in the study of reading, that the greatest difficulty in leading children from speech to writing and reading is the gap between a natural activity and one more abstract, less natural, more artificial. If this approach is correct, we should hypothesize that the more natural the written forms can be made to be, the more easily children will learn to write and to read. What does "natural" mean in this context? This again is an hypothesis, but I take it to include the following qualities: (a) as close as possible to the forms of speech, (b) as simple as possible, (c) experienced so early (3, 4, 5 years of age) and so often and so normally as to be taken as a part of the natural world of the child, (d) directly related to the sounds of speech, (e) reliable, always related in the same way to the same sounds.

Social scientists often speak of "internalization" of attitudes, values, points of view, roles. By this they mean an individual has made his or her own possession, an aspect of behavior modeled in the social environment. In this way, mention has been made of the magnificent way children make the sounds of native speech their own down to the last intonation. Learning (or socialization) has been remarked to occur when some aspect of the world is emotionally assimilated (internalized) into the self. Freud, Piaget, Rogers, Montessori, Maslow, among many others, have noted an emotional internalization theory of socialization and of learning. That which is learned becomes a part of the self; if we "grasp" or "understand" something, an idea or relationship, it in some way has become a part of us. To learn means a flowing of the psyche into the world and a flowing of an aspect of the world into the self, which is a way of describing experience.

And if the sounds of speech are "natural" because they are so early and so thoroughly absorbed into the self, then we can make the written forms more "natural" by making them early more familiar, more friendly, more supportive, more a natural part of the child's environment. We should make the cultural arrangements to cause children to induct into their hearts with familiarity, friendship and delight the letters of the alphabet. (A child who knows his or her letters as frends, tried and true, as animated pals, as companions - a child who knows their shapes, voices, characters, quirks - a child, in short, who has adopted the 26 friends, is ready to follow them into writing and reading. Such a child feels they are a part of the natural world. "These letters are mine." just as a child develops favoritism for certain numbers, so may feelings of positive or negative valence be developed for letters. A child who feels "Good ole' A" and "Bad ole' Z" is more ready to write and to read than a child who feels next to nothing for the letters. In these cases a non-preferred letter is neither fearsome nor overlooked, but constitutes a doleful and friendly imperfection like the Cowardly Lion.)

Cultural arrangements should be made such as nursery schools with parental involvement, childrens' TV programs, children's' product advertizing, toy emphasis, kindergarten and first and second grade emphasis. (Children should be able to experience the alphabetical letters not only pictorially, but with personalities as dolls, puppets, pillows, blocks, cut-outs, cartoon characters, crackers, cookies, cereal nuggets, etc. At an early age, children should be taught to arrange and read block letters making up their names, later to feel and draw and manipulate them in many ways.)

The next step is crucial, for as the letters are used to build words, each letter must remain true to itself, true to its sound. This reliability will enable the children to see and hear and feel how letters are put together to form words. And in "understanding" this they will be more able to assimilate and adopt (take into themselves) the words. [3]

Just as reliability of sound to object is crucial in learning to speak, so the reliability of grapheme (letter) to phoneme (sound) is crucial in learning to write and to read.

In an alphabetical system, a written word is a collection of letters directing a reader (speaker) to produce certain sounds. A written word is exactly like a brief musical score, only the instrument playing the score is not a violin or piano but human breath as formed by vocal chords, palate, cheeks, tongue, teeth and lips. Observe a perfectly spelled word, (our lexicon still has many of them), such as 'tip.' Here the speaker is directed to combine a 'T' a short 'I' sound, and a 'P' sound in that order - three distinct sounds (phonemes) and three letters (graphemes) exactly corresponding to the sounds required. This is the basic plan of an alphabetical system. Over the centuries our orthography has strayed from this basic plan. We need desperately, for the sake of our children in a complex, symbolic, technological culture, to return to it.

Will a child who learns to read by sounding the words aloud or silently be limited to always going from the print to the sound and thence to the meaning? Not at all. (Very few of us, as a matter of course, realize we only hear sounds when we hear speech; we go directly to meaning.) Altho some readers move their lips or imaginatively hear the sound before they can get to meaning, the vast majority of readers learn to go directly from the written symbol to meaning. Many readers, for example, can read much faster than they can speak. [4] With all reading there may be some residual cerebral activity corresponding to speech activity, but if there is, it doesn't slow us up or interfere. Once the words are ours, the phrases begin to hang together and soon, if the notion takes us, we can soar over the printed page, skimming several times faster than speaking.

This means that the phonemic construction of a word, to maximize its naturalness and ease of learning, in no way limits its symbolic function. 'Thru' can mean everything that 'through' can and still be much easier to learn and to use. 'Hed' can signify everything that 'head' can signify; 'litl' is just as small as 'little' and much more sensible; 'nịt' (dots on both ends to signify long 'i') is just as dark as 'night,' etc.

V. Step by Step Reform.

It should be emphasized that with our 26 letters it is impossible to spell many of our words perfectly phonemically. Lack of perfection, however, should not stop us from making the vast improvements which are quite possible. For example, the Australian Teachers Federation has recommended Spelling Reform One (SR-1) which is to spell every word with a short 'e' sound with an 'e'; thus 'bread' becomes 'bred,' 'head' becomes 'bed,' 'friend' becomes 'frend.' 'said' becomes 'sed,' etc. This change affects only 120 out of the most commonly used 25,000 words of our lexicon and thus would be rather easily assimilated. Through a series of such steps, say one every four years for 40 years, we could, while reducing the shock and displacement of change, revolutionize our spelling. A second change, for example, might be to change all 'ph's pronounced as 'f' to 'f'; thus 'telephone' would become 'telefone.' [5] A third change might be to drop all silent consonants such as the 'k' in 'knee,' [6] the 'l' in 'could,' 'would,' 'should"; the 'p' in 'pneumatic,' etc.

VI. Our Present System Constitutes Psychic Child Abuse.

What is being insisted upon here is nothing other than we have all said repeatedly over the years as a basis for the education of children. We have said, "Don't lie to children." The position here pit forward is that our orthography is deceptive - it is one lie after another and hence it constitutes, not education, but psychic child abuse. Unnecessarily difficult and confusing word forms which many children fail, are not helping them to "grow"- it is not "educating" them - it is child abuse.

It is no less abuse because the system is administered in the name of knowledge and culture, or because it is enshrined in tradition. It is no less abuse because the forms come down to us wrapped in the prestige of "English literature:' It is no less abuse because the system is standard throughout the land or because we all participate in it, nor because it is curricularized and blessed with the authority of every school board of every state. It is no less abuse because children cannot manage the perspective or the courage to cry out specifically against it. It is abuse because it traps children in needless drudgery and frustration, detracts from their feelings of success and of adequacy, defies and negates their sense of logic, robs many of them of love of written forms, and forces them over a course which many fail.

VII For the children, we should have the courage to change.

Why haven't we long ago shifted to a consistent phonemic spelling which was and is the intent of our alphabetic system? Despite high sounding "lexical" and etymological rationalizations, the real reason is that we are used to the forms and do not want to undergo the inconvenience of change. As one graduate student put it, "I've learned to operate in one system and I'll be damned if I'll learn another."

But tremendous educational and monetary benefits could be reaped through such a change. Before we opt for costly pie-in-the-sky gimmicks, we should reform our child-defeating spelling. Simplified spelling could be the most fundamental and far-reaching educational innovation since the introduction of the common school.


[1] Godfrey Dewey, English Spelling: Roadblock to Reading. Teachers College Press, New York, 1971, p.6.

[2] It is well known that experimental psychologists have induced apathy and behavioral breakdown in rats by training them in behavior leading to reward (food) and then switching the reward to punishment.

[3] E. J. Gibson, A. Pick, H. Osser, M. Hammond, "The Role of Grapheme-Phoneme Correspondence in the Perception of Words." Amer. Jour. of Psychology, 1962, v.75, p.554-570. "The results of this experiment demonstrate that a letter group with a high spelling-to-sound correlation is reproduced more accurately than an equivalent letter group with a low spelling-to-sound correlation. ('Vuns' was reproduced more accurately than 'nsuv,' 'besks' more accurately than 'skseb,' etc.) "Practically, this result suggests strongly that the proper unit for analyzing the process of reading is not the alphabetical letter but the spelling pattern which has an invariant relationship with a phonemic pattern. This may be of great importance for children's learning to read and write." (emphasis mine.)

[4] With the aid of strongly literate family and peer environments, letter cleverness, special interests or strong motivation, most of our children learn to operate at some level of efficiency in our present system. But millions of our children are discouraged and turned away by its difficulty, irrationality and unnaturalness.

[5] Since in an honest orthography, all 'o's would be long, the eventual spelling of 'telephone' would be 'telefon.'

[6] Some silent initial consonants cannot be dropped without other changes in spelling. For example, know, knew, and others such as knot become homographs when the silent initial letter is dropped. In many words with gh, this digraph cannot be dropped unless another way is used to indicate the vowel sound.

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