[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Summer 1982 pp15-17]
[Valerie Yule: see Journals, Newsletters, Media, Anthology, Bulletins, Personal View 10, and Web links.]

Position Paper, by Valerie Yule*

On Spelling Reform and the i.t.a.

* Dept. of Psychology, Univ. of Aberdeen, Scotland.

Spelling reform has been held back by many false assumptions. The most serious are that: armchair argument is sufficient. without experimental testing; the only way forward is backward to a purely fonemic spelling; English spelling compensates for being difficult to learn by being best for the skilled reader through its redundancies and variety of distinctive visual patterns; that it can only be introduced through schools or official decree; that economic costs of change would be huge; that everything now in print would be lost to future generations.

I have been experimenting with what happens if those assumptions are tested.

1. The most dramatic finding is that adults improve their reading speed within five minutes when the printed word is 5% shorter through the omission of letters that serve no apparent purpose:

have, give, are, were, parallel, recommend, embarrass, learn, research, answer, quick, miscellaneous, through.

This offers a potential saving of millions of dollars and pounds through economies in printed matter, time and energy for input of unnecessary letters, storage, and decoding effort. Experiment suggests that the most effective way to introduce changes are simply to use them randomly as acceptable alternative spellings, without prior training of the reader, preferably leaving the first and last lines of paragrafs unchanged until familiarity is established. Teletext, videotext and microfiche are places to start. This finding refutes the belief that redundancy is an advantage in spelling; on the contrary, reading is easier with less print to process, fewer spelling patterns and misleading covert fonological decision points, less complexity.

2. Experiment in optimum spelling for skilled readers and learners, including second language learners, is showing that maximising representation of morfemes helps learners' vocabulary extension and skilled readers' immediate semantic access. (Using the technique of more consistent use of 'magic e' to indicate preceding long vowels, and its avoidance to indicate preceding short vowels - e.g. finish/ infinit /finel /finite.)

John Beech of Ulster has shown that adults can read a rule-based spelling at normal speed after reading 6000 words of text, although they still do not regain normal speed after 8000 words of text in a pure fonemic spelling (WES). I am finding that the average adult approaches normal speed or even better after under five minutes practice with a morfo-fonemic spelling with fewer rules. (Massed practice produces slowing through reactive inhibition - separated trials are best to promote familiarity.)

On reading tests using this morfo-fonemic spelling in running text, slow and backward readers tend to show marked improvement after the initial trial; good readers tend to leap ahead by several 'years' of 'reading age'; average readers vary more - when they have learnt by rote, some are quite non-plussed, and some girls refuse even to attempt what is unfamiliar.

3. Present spelling would remain readable to those accustomed to a morfo-fonemic spelling. Experts in backward compatibility, which is required of most advances in information technology today, indicate that reading running text remains possible, though at a slower rate, and speed improves rapidly - especially for the good readers who are those most likely to want to 'read in the past.'

4. Shift of spelling set and confusability of alternative spellings. Experiment is disproving this bogey too. Conclusion: Investment in research, development and implementation of improvement in spelling technology is demonstrably warranted, particularly by the modern communications industries - so that English spelling no longer burdens our economy by exacerbating educational and social problems and reducing the efficiency of almost every other area of communication.

Initial Teaching Alphabets.

Two assumptions have limited progress in initial teaching alphabets:

1. That they can be designed without prior research into what would be the optimum spelling for learners in practice.

2. That basic literacy is first acquired in the initial learning medium, and then follows the awkward transition conventional orthografy.

I am investigating what happens when these assumptions are questioned.

1. Optimum spelling for learners - derived from recent research in cognitive psychology of spelling (c.f. Frith, Kavanagh, and Venezky), cross-cultural research requiring more investigation, observation of childrens' 'natural spelling', and testing the possibilities of using alternative forms of standard reading tests of text.

A purely fonemic spelling is certainly easier for children than present orthografy, but it is still harder than one might think, especially for children who are learning-disabled, with problems in auditory discrimination or general linguistic skill. Visual patterns can be clumsier than present spelling for polysyllables, increasing coding difficulties with letter strings.

The optimum spelling appears to be the shortest possible that can still carry enough information for fonological decoding, and can be reasoned out according to the simple sort of rules that children use in their own linguistic generalizations at early school age. It should be sufficiently connected to the conventional orthografy for learners to be able to continue practising their skills outside the classroom.

2. 'Immediate transition' with an initial learning medium. I am experimenting with 'Teach Yourself to Read Manuals' for maximum learner control of his own progress. The theoretical basis is cognitive - that is, unless learners develop from the start reading strategies that include comprehension and use of context clues, they may fail to develop those later. Fonics and look-and-say are tools to make this possible, as well as a specific technique of 'reading with' a competent reader, which merges from earlier 'being read to', and merges into 'reading to' and independent reading, so that from the start children are reading content at their mental age level at a reasonably fluent reading speed, governed by the child himself. Right hemisphere abilities (the dyslexics' asset) are utilised in visual-structure charts always visible on the wall and in books, for use like maps.

First books can be 'multi-level' or 'dubl-decker,' with cribs - that is, can span from GO to 8 year R.A., with three levels of worthwhile content even on the same page (e.g. 3 versions of Cinderella) so the learner can use the level he prefers and revoke the others. Or on the same page, especially at the beginning, there may be the same text in several steps of transition from initial teaching print (and/or the child's own dialect, if required) to initial teaching spelling to the national spelling, based on psychological principles of language learning that are found to be used intuitively by excellent spellers and linguists.

Color or bold type is also used at different points to cue learning strategies:
distinguishing nouns and verbs to show sentence structure,
distinguishing vowels to show word structure,
distinguishing initial letters or digrafs to prevent reversal habits,
distinguishing 'spelling traps' to raise decoding confidence and speed,
marking the words a poor speller has read, to show progress and cheer him up.
Ideally, the optimum spelling for skilled readers and writers should also be introduced to learners in this way too.


[Newell Tune: see Newsletters, Anthology, Bulletins.]

Position Paper, by Newell W. Tune, Editor SPB.

Spelling Reform and the i.t.a.

I think that by now educators should be convinced that the main cause of illiteracy among English learners is the irrational, confusable, conflicting English spelling. If this were simplified so that English would be easy to learn, it would result in a much better percentage of literate English learners. But I realize that international agreements must be made with English-speaking countries as to the kind of reform or simplification, and plans for putting the agreed system of .spelling into use. This may take many years - and we cannot afford to wait for this to happen. The need is urgent.

There is something that we can do now. There is a system of spelling that has already been shown to be easy to learn to read. Teaching reading in Pitman's i.t.a. has had the test of classroom experimentation and found to be very successful. I'm sure you are aware of the Bullock Commission's Report that said (in essence) that the conclusion was reached that the best way to teach reading is not by starting with conventional spelling but by the use of the initial teaching alphabet.

I have heard of only one serious criticism of the use of Pitman's i.t.a. - that when a pupil starts to learn via i.t.a. and is moved to another school where they are learning via conventional spelling, there is a considerable setback. Conversely, when a pupil who is learning via conventional spelling transfers to a school that uses i.t.a., he finds he is away behind the i.t.a. learners and must make a strong effort to catch up. The solution to this problem is to make the use of Pitman's i.t.a. universal so that all schools are using it and then transfers from one school to another never encounter that problem.

If you are acquainted with the Early to Read series of i.t.a. primers by Mazurkiewicz and Tanyzer, you will know that the transition to Traditional Orthography is programmed in Book 8 so that it in done gradually and easily - thus minimizing the set-back that sometimes occurs with the transition.

I am convinced that the universal use of Pitman's initial teaching alphabet would be a tremendous benefit to the teaching profession and to the eradication of illiteracy. Let's take advantage of this opportunity to make real progress in educating our children and foreigners.


[Leo G. Davis: see Newsletters, Bulletins.]

Position Paper, by Leo G. Davis.*

The Dictionaries as a Start for Change.

*Livermore, CA.

Spelling reform is for beginners who have no spelling habits to break, rather than for laymen who have a practical degree of literacy. Thus revised spellings should be taught in textbooks - beginning with dictionaries. Contrary to prevailing opinion, our dictionaries do not dictate our orthography - they merely record most common spellings. However they are in position to take the initiative in this field.

So many of us habitually left out the u of "labour" that American lexicographers now list "labor" as the entry word - and define "labour" as obsolescent British.

There being no law against it, lexicographers could take the lead in stabilizing the alfabet - instead of leaving it to illiterates. With the "labour-labor" precedent as a pattern, they could list and define "hevy, dout, senry, etc." as entry words, and treat "heavy,, doubt, scenry, etc" as obsolescent.

A subsequent edition could stabilize the most rational of homofones as the single spelling for them all. Thus "mite" would have two definitions, and "vane" three, while "rite" would have several. But when used properly, there would be no confusion as there is none in speech.

Webster lists "drout" as optional, in keeping with American pronunciation. Therefore our lexicographers could exploit the unwritten law of "Silence gives consent" by treating countless rational spellings as bonafide spellings - with their current ir-rational forms as obsolescent.

Under such a step-by-step reform, the changes would take place so slowly as to be hardly noticed and so not to be objectionable.

Obviously, truly fonetik spelling would distort the script beyond fluent recognition by oldsters who would, eventually, have occasion to work with it: Thus it in suggested that we focus our efforts on changing the dictionaries. I have written World Publishing Co., New York, publishers of the Webster's dictionary. Why not join me?


Position Paper, by H. Ward Ewalt, Jr, O.D.*

Vision and Reading.

*Vision Specialist, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Reading, in the usual sense, in a visual task. Anything that interferes with visual efficiency has some adverse effect on reading.

Most children with visually related reading problems have a visual acuity of 20/40 or better on the distance eye chart. Failure in the coordination of the eyes at the reading distance frequently causes difficulty in reading.

Almost fifty years ago, Louise Farrell (later Louise Farrell Davis) of the National College of Education at Evanston, Illinois wrote, "When I cannot teach a child to read in any other way, I cover one eye. Then he learns to read."

Vision in an information processing system that in based on the psychophysiological adequacy of the oculomotor mechanisms, the ranges in the focusing mechanism, the relationship between them and a high level of binocularity.

Clinical experience with thousands of children indicates that among the significant visual performance skills are:
1. The oculmoter skills, both pursuit and saccadic.
2. Dynamic visual acuity at the reading distance.
3. Adequate ranges in focusing mechanisms.
4. A well developed binocularity - as measured by the accomodative-convergence relationship, fusion, stereopsis and the fuseonal reserves.
5. Body imagery, laterality directionality.
6. Form vision.
7. Figure-ground.
8. Eye-hand and eye-motor coordination.
9. Speed and span of perception.
A well designed research program to measure the effect of these and other visual performance skills on learning to read and reading achievement is essential to understanding this relationship.

Back to the top.