[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Spring 1980 pp6-8]
[Axel Wijk: see Bulletins.]

The Right to Read,

by Axel Wijk, Docent.*

*Stockholm, Sweden.
*Presented at the 2nd International Conf. of S.S.S. at Nene College, July 29, 1979


I would like to tell you how much I appreciate having the opportunity of reading my husband's lecture to you.

My husband, Axel Wijk, passed away July 2 this month.

The thought of coming here to deliver his lecture never occurred to me at first, but then I got a call from three of Axel's colleagues, professors of English at the Univ. of Stockholm, urging me to do so.

I feel honoured and deeply grateful to be here today.

For so many, many years my husband has been working on and devoting his main interest and thinking to the same problem that you all have come to Northampton to discuss and try to solve.

My husband's lecture is entitled:

The Right to Read.

In my book, Regularized English/ Regularized Inglish, published in 1977 by Almqvist & Wiksell International, Stockholm, I have described the outlines of an entirely new approach to the English reading problem. It is suggested that an experiment should be undertaken to test whether English reading and writing can be taught more efficiently and successfully by the aid of the proposed new method than by the various combined whole-word and phonic reading schemes that are now in general use. In view of the wide-spread dissatisfaction with the results of the existing methods of teaching reading it seems to me that we owe it to our children to leave no stone unturned in order to make it easier for them to learn to read and write. Since there can be no denying that the principle cause of the difficulty of learning to read English is the confused and antiquated spelling system of the language, it seems highly probable that a temporary regularization of the spelling for the period during which children are learning to read, may offer the most effective solution to the problem. In the proposed new spelling system, Regularized Inglish, we may have the tool that is required to solve the problem. By the aid of this spelling system which preserves the present spelling in from 90 to 95% of the vocabulary and only changes the present spelling in from 5 to 10% of the words, we shall be able to teach all the regular phonic units of the language before starting to teach the numerous exceptional spellings. In spite of the impression of hopeless confusion that the English language at first makes on the young beginner, a closer examination reveals that its pronunciation and spelling are not nearly so confused as most people are apt to think. It is only among the 3,000 commonest words that we find an exceptionally high percentage of irregular spellings, amounting to between 20 and 30%.. Since the majority of the important anomalous spellings - between 400 and 500 in all - are to be found among these 3,000 words, it is actually a comparatively simple matter to change the present irregular spelling system into a fairly regular one. This is what has been done in the proposed transitional spelling system called Regularized Inglish.

Analogy Spelling.

The great jester, G. B. Shaw, who took a keen interest in the science of phonetics and who when he died bequeathed some of his money to try to bring about an English spelling reform, once stated that the spelling of English was so grotesque that the word 'fish' could be rendered by the spelling ghoti. There can be little doubt that he made this statement with his tongue in his cheek, but a great many people and even scholars have evidently regarded it as a statement of fact. Actually the spelling gh for the f-sound which we find in such words as enough, laugh, cough, is never used in English at the beginning of words. The spelling o for the short sound of i is only found in one single word: 'women', and whereas the spelling ti for the sh-sound is found in a large number of words, such as 'nation, action,' etc., it is never found in final position.

The spelling ghoti can only be regarded as a grotesque, humerous invention by Shaw, but there are a very considerable number of actual spellings in English which deviate from the general rules of the spelling system and which will therefore have to be learnt by heart, such words for example as the following:

any, many/ half, calm/ talk, water, want, was, wash/ scarcely, says, said/ aunt, laugh/ pretty, there, where, were/ bread, head, pleasure, weather, ready, heavy/ break, great/ bear, wear, heart/ eye, key, seize/ give, climb/ friend/ do, who, lose, woman, women/ come, son, among, one, once, love, move/ word, work/ broad, does, shoe, blood/ enough, though, through/ could, should, would/ you, young, four, journal/ pull, put, bury, busy/ debt, sugar, two, whole, etc.

Since the spellings of the above words, and of a great many more, constitute infringements of the general rules, it is no wonder that children who have often a strong sense of logic, are bound to get the impression that there are no reliable rules for the connection between spelling and pronunciation in their language. The question then arises whether they should be told openly that the words are irregular or whether they should be told to learn them by heart, as is usually the case in the existing reading schemes. The latter procedure which implies a kind of indoctrination, leads to the harmful effect that the children cannot distinguish between regular and irregular spellings.

Owing to the confused spelling system, a large proportion of English children experience immense difficulties in learning to read. According to an official investigation into reading ability which was carried out in 1948 by a committee of experts at the request of the then Minister of Education, Mr. George Tomlinson, and which was reported in the Ministry of Education Pamphlet no. 18, entitled Reading Ability, no less than 307 of all 15-year-olds were classified as backward readers, i.e. as having reading ages 20% below their real ages. Furthermore 1.4% of these were illiterate and 4.3% semi-literate with reading ages of below 7 years and between 7 and 9 years respectively. Very similar conditions occur in America, as may be seen from Rudolf Flesch's book, Why Johnny Can't Read, published in 1955, which became a best seller, evidently because so many parents had found that their children had great difficulties in learning to read. Judging from recent official investigations into reading ability, we have no reason to think that conditions have materially changed since the above-mentioned investigation was carried out about 30 years ago.

In order to try to find a solution to the reading problem, special organizations have been founded in recent times. Thus the International Reading Assoc., IRA, was founded in USA in 1956 through amalgamation of a number of separate associations in various American states, and soon after, in 1963, the United Kingdom Reading Assoc. was founded in Great Britain. Besides other activities, these associations hold annual conferences, which are intended to provide an opportunity for discussions of common problems and at which members may present papers concerning research that has been done in the field. So far, however, it can hardly be said that these activities have led to any tangible results as regards an improvement in the general standards of reading and writing in the various countries.

In this connection we should further draw attention to the "Right To Read" movement which was started in the USA towards the end of the 1960's and which has set up as its goal solving the reading problem and hoping to do away with virtual illiteracy in the course of the 1970's. A brief account of the movement will be found in the article, "The Right to Read," by Prof. Alton Raygor, published in the proceedings of the UKRA conference in Manchester in 1971 (pp. 21-23). According to this article, the American educational authorities were planning to spend about ten million dollars of federal money and in addition some 460 million dollars from the various states for the fiscal year of 1972 in order to help solve this problem. Similar sums were probably intended to be spent for each of the following years during the 1970's, but there seems to be no reason why this immense expenditure should stop by 1980, since new millions of children desiring to learn to read will continue entering schools every year. The problem of reaching children to read English is, however, not one that requires an enormous expenditure of money for its solution in the first place. It is instead a question of hitting upon the best method to deal with the problem.

Experiment Needed.

Since it is generally recognized that the principle cause of the reading problem is the exceptionally large number of irregular spellings among the commonest words, the most rational and very likely also the simplest and most efficient solution to the problem would seem to be to eliminate these irregular spellings and replace them by regular ones for the period during which children are learning to read. That's why I have suggested that an experiment should be carried out to teach reading by the aid of Regularized Inglish which can be used as a transitional stage before passing on to ordinary English spelling. Unfortunately my proposal has not so far met with much response from the British and American reading associations. No one has, however, maintained that I am wrong in my ideas, nor has anyone tried to refute my arguments. Seeing that the associations have been founded for the purpose of finding a solution to the reading problem and seeing that they have no other solution to offer than the existing unsatisfactory reading schemes, it is difficult to understand why they should be unwilling to carry out an experiment with a regularized system of spelling. It is perhaps not altogether unlikely that such an experiment might lead to demands for a reform of English spelling, but since there is nothing in the plan itself that must of necessity lead to reform, this can hardly be regarded as a serious objection to the experiment. In view of the enormous difficulties to which the existing reading schemes expose a very large proportion of the children and considering the immense pedagogical and financial advantages of a satisfactory solution to the problem, it is difficult to see why we should hesitate to undertake the suggested experiment.

A New Approach.

One may of course feel sceptical as to the possibility of discovering an approach to the reading problem which will enable children to learn to read more or less exclusively by the aid of phonic methods, but since Regularized Inglish would seem to offer such a possibility, there can be no valid reason why the suggested solution should not be investigated. In order to try to convince sceptical teachers, I will give a brief account of the main features of my suggested reading scheme accompanied by references to the copy of the scheme on view at the Book Exhibition.

The reading scheme consists of two parts, Book One for the introductory stage and Book Two for the more advanced stage. For each book there is a table of contents which indicates the phonic details in the progress of the reading ability. The reading scheme is accompanied by a Teachers, Manual which offers running comments on the General Plan to be followed for teaching reading by the aid of the new method. The whole manual has been written in Regularized Inglish so as to illustrate that anybody who can read traditional English will be able to read the new regularized form of the language without any difficulty.

Book One.

Book One is intended to lay the foundations of the art of reading by first teaching the commonest sounds of the alphabet, i.e. the short sounds of the five simple vowel letters and the normal sounds of the 21 simple consonant letters. When these have been taught, it will be convenient to pass on to the sounds of the various consonant digraphs and further to the sounds of the combinations ar and or at the end of words and before consonants in stressed syllables. Towards the end of Book One we may finally also deal with the vowel and consonant sounds that are found in the unstressed endings -y, -ies, ied, -er, -ed and with the sound of the combination et at the end of words and before consonants in stressed syllables. As will be seen from the Table of Contents, Book One comprises, besides the introductory page displaying the English alphabet in small and capital letters, just over 80 lessons in all, generally of one page each.

The first 25 lessons are devoted to teaching the short sounds of the simple vowel letters in combination with various consonant sounds. The pace is extremely slow. For each vowel there are four pages with three short words only, illustrated by pictures in colour and ending in the consonant sound. The short lists of additional words at the bottom of the page should at first be omitted altogether. When reviewing the lessons, some of the words enumerated at the bottom of the page may, at the discretion of the teacher, be added to increase the vocabulary, but great care should be taken not to force the pace. Although these lessons are mainly intended to teach the short sounds of the five simple vowel letters, it goes without saying that the children are bound to get familiar with a fair number of consonant sounds as well, both in initial and final position.

From the short sounds of the simple vowel letters, we pass on to a systematic study of the consonant letters. As may be seen from the Table of Contents, the consonants have been divided into four groups of from 4 to 7 consonants each. The first group compromises lessons 26-32 and deals with the letters m, n, r, h, voiceless and voiced s, z, which can all easily be joined to vowel letters. Each letter is illustrated with examples of the different positions in which the letters occur. It should be pointed out that for nearly all the words which have been illustrated by pictures in lessons 1-32, the spellings are the same in regularized and traditional English. Generally speaking this is actually characteristic of the whole of Book One.

It should be further emphasized that owing to the regular spelling system and to the slow steady progress, it ought to be very easy to teach children to read by the aid of this reading scheme. It seems indeed highly probable that by the aid of a regularized spelling system, parents would themselves often be able to help their children to learn to read without the assistance of trained teachers.

Having become familiar with the short sounds of the five simple vowel letters and with a fair number of consonant sounds as well as with a fairly large number of short simple everyday words, the children should now be ready to learn their first two sight words, the indefinite and definite articles, and to join words together into short phrases and short simple sentences. Lessons 33-38 are devoted to their first exercises in reading with such words as 'and, in, on, Tom and Ann, Jim and Sal, has,' etc.

In the three next following sections of Book One we pass on to the remaining consonant sounds. In lessons 39-45 we deal with the fricatives and liquids: f, v, w, l, -le, in lessons 46-54 with the plosive consonants, b, d, hard g, p, t, hard c, k, ck, and in lessons 55-60 with j, voiceless and voiced x, y, soft c, soft g. At the end of each section follows a number of sentences for reading practice.

The remainder of Book One is devoted to a similar systematic account of the various consonant digraphs, ng, nk/ sh, ch, th/ wh, qu, to the sounds of the combinations ar, or, er, in final and preconsonantal position and to the vowel and consonant sounds that are found in the unstressed endings -y, -ies, -ied, -er, -ed. With the continued increase of new phonic units, it becomes increasingly easier to compose suitable material for practice in reading.

Book Two.

Book Two is mainly devoted to a similar systematic account of the long sounds of the five simple vowel letters and to the sounds of the various vowel digraphs, the details of which may be studied at the Book Exhibition.

If English speaking children were to learn to read by the aid of Regularized Inglish during their first, school years, I am personally convinced that the great majority would learn to read just as easily as children who have other European languages as their mother tongue. In all probability they would in this way save a whole year's work. The spelling systems of Swedish, Italian, German, Spanish and other European languages are fairly regular. - Knowing from experience how much easier it is to learn to read by a regular spelling system, I created Regulariz Inglish.


So far, my husband's words.
And now, allow me to add a few words.

There are in this society so many members who have shown great interest in Axel's work, and who have encouraged him, who believe in his theories and who in this way have helped him to think it worth while struggling on. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.

During the last few years Axel realized more and more that he would never during his lifetime have the great satisfaction of seeing an experiment with Regularized Inglish carried out.

But by no means did this affect his fighting spirit for a cause in which he believed so firmly. He was convinced that sooner or later, maybe sometime in the future, his system would be adopted, or at least given a fair trial.

I sincerely hope so too. Thank you for listening.

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