[Spelling Reform Anthology §t13.5 pp185-187]
[Spelling Progress Bulletin Winter 1980 pp14-16]
[Albert Mazurkiewiez: see Bulletins.]

Toward a Spelling Reform,

by Albert J. Mazurkiewiez, Ph.D.*

*Dept of Communication Sciences, Kean College, Union, N.J.
*A paper presented at the First Internat. Conf. on Reading and Spelling, Aug. 1975, at College of All Saints, London.

If the reader-to-be of English, whether he/she is a child, illiterate adult, or foreign language speaker, is of concern at all, the problems inherent in the task need analysis and correction. We now recognize that if children have difficulty in telling time based on the circular 12-hour, 60-minute clock, for example, that the substitution of the digital clock eliminates the complex learnings involved in this type of telling time, and telling time is learned as the child learns to recognize and use numbers. The same process of analysis and substitution of a simpler procedure is not always the case in learning to read, though reformed orthography procedures exist and are an immediate solution to the problem.

While transition to reading the complex spellings of English is accomplished with relative ease from a reformed orthography, the child taught using a reformed orthography has some of the same problems of developing efficiency in commanding the printed page at later levels as the child taught using conventional print since teachers often fail to carry on the instruction necessary for the child to decode and internalize to the point of automaticity the remainder of the complex spellings of English. Developing efficiency in reading conventional print needs continuing attention since we cannot expect the reader to be self-motivated to puzzle out the complex grapheme-phoneme correspondences of increasingly more difficult matter. In fact, research has shown [1] that few young adults will even use dictionaries to determine the pronunciation of a word since the procedure is an interference in the reading act. Research also shows that if a child needs to refer constantly to other sources for aid in decoding print, he turns away from the task, just because it is a task and also because it is task which is often unrewarding.

The analysis of the learning to read activity (and reading well) indicates that the orthography as conventionally printed is a major handicap.

The work of Downing and colleagues [2] on the use of i.t.a. has demonstrated conclusively that traditional orthography is a significant handicap to the child's task of learning to read. Soffietti, [3], in his linguistic analysis of the language, demonstrated that traditional spelling was the primary cause of failure in learning to read. Makita [4], in a study of the extent of reading disability among Japanese children as compared with United States populations, demonstrated that the incidence of disability was about one-half of one percent as opposed to the average of twenty-five percent found in the U.S. and convincingly demonstrated that this difference could be attributed to the spellings of English. The phonemic form of Japanese, Romanji, was then compared with Pitman's i.t.a. to indicate that this reformed orthography compared favorably to Romanji and, as such, provided the basis for an attack on the problem.

Since the initial teaching alphabet in reading and writing instruction has been shown to be one viable alternative, why then a spelling reform? Like all alphabetic innovations of the past, gross misinformation, the pressure of the market place where large corporations with their huge staffs of representatives and investments of countless millions in conventional reading materials overwhelm the "opposition," insecure educational administrative staffs who are preservers, or believe they are to be preservers, of the status quo and make administrative or public relation rather than educational decisions, parental concern that spelling might be negatively affected, etc. have combined to limit the employment of educationally sound alternatives and only a limited usage can be expected in the future.

Certainly spelling reform is not needed for those of us who are literate. But research has demonstrated that countless millions are barely literate, that millions of others read badly or, if able, read little, and that countless thousands of young children continue to suffer failure, ego-damage and frustration. Others continue to spell badly even after 12 or more years of education.

Additional research [1] examining another aspect of the development of literacy - learning to write (spell) the language - have demonstrated that children and young adults often choose to write a word they know how to spell rather than the word that first came to mind, rarely use a dictionary to check the spelling of a word ("since I cant find it because I don't know how it's spelled."), and suffer embarassment because their spellings don't conform to the "accepted"ones.

Even the words "accepted spellings" indicate a problem since most children and adults are unaware that off-times their spellings are equally correct alternative spellings. Instruction on these is rarely, if ever given since teachers are as unaware of these alternatives as the children they teach and, if a choice is given, the more difficult of two alternatives is taught on the assumption that it is the "preferred" and therefore the correct spelling.

But conventional spelling is also racist and the arbiter elegantiae (supreme arbiter) of social class or status. There is a marked tendency to use the spellings a person writes as a measure of his literacy or social status: good spellers are associated with the well-educated upper class, poor spellers with the poorly-educated lower class. Rewards, in terms of employment, promotion, etc. are often related similarly for as Perrin and Smith [5] point out in their Handbook on Current English:

The man who writes with no misspelled words has prevented a first suspicion of the limits of his scholarship, or in the social world, of his general education and culture.

Recent Reform.

Arguments against spelling reform abound in the literature, yet, as anyone familiar with the subject knows, each of these are errored on one or more bases and nearly all may be traced to sentiment. It is also true that enough attention to the peculiarities inherent in English spelling has been demonstrated or experienced so that one sample of 230 educators, business men, and secretaries [6] showed that 88% favor some type of spelling reform while another sample of almost 800 educators confirmed this finding [7], indicating a widespread current interest.

Responses such as that of a manager indicated that "In my high school graduating class, half of the class could hardly spell the easiest words," or of a teacher who stated that "Many times when I'm writing reports, I have to consistently refer to the dictionary to check spellings," or that of another teacher "the more phonetic the spelling, the easier it would be for children to succeed in spelling and related tasks," or still another "Modern spelling reform would prove an invaluable aid to better reading success by many who now find reading and related skills an impossible barrier," are illustrations of the felt need for spelling reform.

While the reformer has not been able to have much direct effect in recent years in producing change, it is notable that no research other than that cited above exists to support a change. Many reformers and alphabeteers exist but little evidence exists that these reformers have proceeded logically to marshall support. In spite of this lack, reform, slowly and inexorably, has taken place with little or no outcry. Changes in spelling have occurred primarily in the realm of business and industry and these have been adopted by the public at large. Yogurt, popularized as a food by television commercials in the U.S., and spelled five different ways (all of which are equally correct) has been accepted as the standard spelling. In one study [8], a sample of 910 teachers and parents only vaguely recalled that yogourt and yoghourt were alternative spellings a few short years ago and none would replace the phonemic yogurt with any of the five previously used spellings. A group of psychologists when tested on the spelling of donut questioned whether there was another way of spelling it. When shown the spelling doughnut, individuals remarked "Oh yes, but we haven't used that for years; that's obsolete."

Oddly enough, the spelling of draught, mispronounced by many to rhyme with caught, for the game of checkers (draughts) is hardly recognized as the spelling for draft beer with the switch by beer manufacturers from the antique spelling to the phonemic draft only a few years ago. The wholesale abandonment of ue after g in epilog, analog, catalog, monolog, by millions and by publishers of catalogs, producers of analog computers, makers of television dramas, etc. is resisted by a relatively few. The American brand of catsup, pronounced /ketchup/, and alternatively and equally correctly spelled catchup, catsup, or ketchup, has been formalized as ketchup by industry. In fact, one study [9] of product names currently underway shows that over 300 different items have been respelled to represent their pronunciations more closely (e.g., Snak-Pak), are spelled to provide instant identification with the hope for or planned purpose of the product (Fab suggests fabulous, Duz - does everything, etc.), or show the most phonetic alternative of several available (ketchup). The use of the macron in Nodōz and Nestlē to indicate the pronunciation of the glided vowel is paralleled in corporate names: Apēco.

Resistence to spelling reform, identified by Lounsbury [10] as primarily based on sentiment, is often encouraged by managing editors of publishers whose style sheet or house manual indicates what spellings are acceptable in its publications. Equally correct alternative spellings as identified by Deighton [11] for 2000 words in four collegiate dictionaries are given short shift. Catalogue may still be foisted on children in spelling materials and workbooks, in readers and phonic programs, because editors believe that they are the final arbiters to keep the language "pure" and, if a choice is available, will apparently choose the more complex, the more unphonetic, the more irregular spelling.

The following is a sample of alternate spellings, both of which are correct:

antennas - antennae
aunty - auntie
buses - busses (for transportation)
practise - practice
busing - bussing (for transportation, not kissing)
blond - blonde
bluish - blueish
brocoli - broccoli
brunet - brunette
calory - calorie
cigaret - cigarette
curst - cursed
drafty - draughty
gasolene - gasoline
gelatin - gelatine
glamor - glamour
defense - defence
instal - install
license - licence
liquify - liquefy
beefs- beeves
bran-new - brand-new
cagy - cagey
develop - develope
drout - drought
pinocl - pinochle
past - passed

While it is commonly reported that there is only one correct spelling for every word in the language, the above list is representative of some 2400 words having alternatively correct spellings as found in various collegiate dictionaries. Although the belief that there is only one correct spelling has been supported by teachers in the spellings they accept, by the uniform usage to be observed in newspapers and magazines, resistance to such arbitrary behavior has also been noted. One publisher in its books has dropped the apostrophe in such words as dont, wont, cant; another allows its authors the freedom to spell aids as aides when referred to in instructional materials; another avoids teaching the so called "es rule after words ending in o" to indicate the plural spelling of tomatos, zeros, potatos, tobaccos, nos, mottos; newspapers generally use buses rather than busses, etc.

Oddly enough, teachers when informed that each spelling in a list similar to that above was correct [12] and asked what they would do as a result of this knowledge, were first surprised, indicated little knowledge of the availability of alternatives, and that they would modify their teaching behavior to include teaching "bright" children that there are equivalent spellings but would hold lesser able children to one spelling. When asked which spelling that would be, the uniform response was that which was shown in workbooks or spelling texts. The assumption that when the more phonetic, the more regularly spelled words found their way into lists or into spelling materials, then teachers would teach these spellings suggests one way to move spelling reform forward.

A replication of this study using parents, teachers and seventh and eighth grade children in one suburban community [8] indicated that only 4% of the population were aware of some of these alternatives, that responding to the questionnaire was a learning experience since most examined their dictionaries after completing the questionnaire and that parents often excused their spelling knowledge by pointing out that "I went to school some 20 or 30 years ago and spelling has changed."

The expectancy of change suggests a predisposition to accept change and reinforces the findings of Stern's study that spelling reform would be supported.

Direction for Change.

It would certainly be incorrect for me to state "this is the way it should be" since no one individual's prejudices should dictate the direction for change. Rather we can rely on research and the documented views of many reformers in history to establish a commonality for direction. Rather than a reform of the orthography - if such it can be called since "unphonetic, irregular and illogical as it is, modern English spelling does not merit the name orthography, which is made up of two Greek words meaning 'correct writing'." [13] - it is my belief that a reform in orthography should be our aim.

If those words which do not consistently follow the consonant and vowel rules as established for reading instruction (Mazurkiewicz, 1976) were made to conform, learning to read and write would be vastly easier since no exceptions would exist and only 25 to 30 rules would be needed and readily mastered. We should move in the direction of an elimination of unnecessary silent letters and might start with those which were inserted based on false etymology (the b in dumb and doubt, for example),but not those which are morphophonemic (the b in bomb, bombard, the g in sign-signal); the elimination of the diacritic silent e (Mazurkiewicz, 1974) following v, z, etc. where the signal today is meaningless or redundant, the reduction of the number of alternative graphemes to represent the sounds of English, the addition of the diacritic e following vowels to provide digraphic representations; etc.

Since research has demonstrated that a moderate reform would be most acceptable at this time [7] by the largest number of people, if we care that children should not be subject to the risk of failure and unnecessary frustration in learning to read, should not risk ego damage and being turned off from the adventure of education, we can start moderately by shifting to the use of alternative and equally correct spelled words which use the past tense morpheme t in such words as curst, spelt, etc., to those which are more phonemic, less complex, etc.

We should encourage more business and industries to utilize additional phonetic spellings and expect that television and other advertizing media will establish these as the accepted spellings since nearly all of a sample of 500 adults [14] indicated that many of the words they now write have been learned from these sources.

Whatever the rationale we choose to adopt, there is little doubt that support for a reform exists, that we can effectively use modern means of exploitation and that a reform is possible if we take the initiative to move one to the fore.


[1] Mazurkiewicz, Albert J. A Comparative 10th grade Study of i.t.a.-T.O. Beginnings. Reading World, May, 1975.

[2] Downing John. The i.t.a. Symposium. National Foundation for Research in England and Wales, Slough, 1967.

[3] Sofietti, James P. "Why Children Fail to Read: A Linguistic Analysis", in Mazurkiewicz, Albert J. New Perspectives in Reading Instruction. Pitman Pub. Co. 1968.

[4] Makita, Kiyoshi. "The Rarity of Reading Disability in Japanese Children," American Journal of Orthopsychiatry vol. 38, no. 4, July 1968, pp. 599-614.

[5] Perrin, Porter G. and Smith, George H. The Perrin-Smith Handbook of Current English. Scott, Foresman Co. Fairlawn, N. J. 1962.

[6] Stern, Ruth. Interest in Spelling Reform. Unpublished Research Report, Kean College, N.J. 1973.

[7] Stern, Ruth. Educators' Acceptance of Spelling Reform. Unpub. M. A. 'I'hesis, Kean College, N. J. 1975.

[8] Mazurkiewiez, Albert J. and Berk, Barbara. "Spelling Equivalency Awareness," Reading World, Mar. 1976, pp. 131-142.

[9] Mazurkiewiez, Albert J. and Alloway, Ruth. "Spellings in Commerce; Logical? Anathema?" Reading World, May 1977, pp. 258-269.

[10] Lounsbury, Thomas R. English Spelling and Spelling Reform. Harper & Bros. New York, 1909.

[11] Deighton, Lee C. A Comparative Study of Spelling. Hardscrabble Press, Pleasant Meltier, N. Y. 1972.

[12] Mazurkiewicz, Albert. J. and Gould, Jane. "Spelling Preferences & Instructional Considerations Reading World, May 1976, pp. 203-215.

[13] McKnight, George. Modern English in the Making. Appleton-Century Crofts, N.Y. 1928.

[14] Mazurkiewicz, Albert J. and Rath, Charlotte. "Affects on Adults' Spelling Choices." Reading World, Oct. 1976, pp. 15-20.

[15] Emery, Donald W. Variant Spellings in Modern American Dictionaries. (Rev. Ed. ) Washington, D.C. National Council of Teachers of English, 1973.

[16] Mazurkiewicz, A.J. Teaching about Phonics, St. Martin's Press of New York, 1976.

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