[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Spring 1983, pp2-8]
On another page: part 1.

The Principles of Reforming our Spelling, [part 2]
by Edmund V. Starrett, Ed.D.

The Simplified Spelling Society and Nue Spelling.

The British Simplified Spelling Society in 1940 developed a digraphic system called Nue Spelling, which was a modification of the system called Anglic developed by Zachrisson in 1929.

The principles upon which Nue Spelling was based may be summarized as follows:

"(1) No new characters to be introduced.

(2) No new accents or diacritics to be introduced, and detached marks as such to be used in any case as sparingly as possible.

(3) Unused or relatively unfamiliar combinations of letters to be avoided as far as possible (though some exceptions to this are inevitable).

(4) Current usage to remain unaltered whenever common sense and expediency suggest. This 'principle of least disturbance' means that as far as possible each sound should be written with its most habitual single letter (or pair of letters).

(5) Each symbol (letter or digraph) to be self-contained; that is, its significance not to depend on any other letter in the sequence. This precludes, e.g., the doubling of consonant letters to indicate the (short) value of the preceding vowel.

(6) The complete scheme to be thorough-going, simple, regular and free from exceptions and anomalies, economical, easy to learn and to use, and no concessions to be made to the habits of generations brought up on our present spelling, if future generations might thereby be inconvenienced."

Godfrey Dewey: World English Spelling.

The Simpler Spelling Assoc. on the United States; which later became the Phonemic Spelling Council, developed over a period of years a digraphic system of spelling called World English Spelling (WES). This system was made popular through the research, studies and writings of Godfrey Dewey, grandson of the famous educator, John Dewey. It was really a modification of the Nue Spelling of Ripman and Archer, adopted by the Simplified Spelling Society.

World English Spelling (WES) like the Initial Teaching Alphabet (i.t.a.) of Sir James Pitman was originally conceived as an initial teaching medium and not generally considered a system of permanent reform.

"To teach children to read effectively is increasingly being recognized as the paramount problem of American education. In this effort, it has long been realized that the complex irregularities of our traditional orthography (T.O.) are a chief obstacle. The simple and obvious way to remove this handicap would be to reform our English spelling, but that long-sought goal still lies one or two generations in the future. There is, however, an immediately available alternative which minimizes the impact of our spelling difficulties - a phonemic notation to be used for the first teaching of reading and writing, to be followed by a complete transition to reading and writing English in its traditional form. Such an initial teaching medium (i.t.m.) is not spelling reform but an educational tool, to be judged strictly on its merits in producing better results more quickly."

Dewey further explains and describes WES as follows:

"WES, in the modified form here presented, assigns the same values to the 24 Roman alphabet letters when written singly, but supplies the remaining phonemic symbols required by standardized combinations of the Roman letters (usually familiar digraphs) instead of new characters, and makes substantially the same concessions from strictly phonemic writing made in i.t.a., keeping strictly within the resources of the universally available Roman alphabet."

World English Spelling has often been called the typewriter version of i.t.a. because they both derive most of their phonemic structure and much of their symbolization from the same source. "It is not surprising that, they are virtually identical except for the elimination of new characters by use of digraphs instead of ligatures or new letter forms:" For example, the 24 Roman alphabet letters of i.t.a. are assigned exactly the same phonemic values as in World English spelling.

WES is similar to i.t.a. regarding the use of the dot to separate what could be confusing because they are not digraphs (e.g. short.hand, en.gage) in the earliest stages of learning: In later stages, the dot need not be used. Dewey also recommends the use of a ligature below a digraph (ou, ie, th, wh) during the first weeks of learning to show that the digraph is a unitary symbol.

According to E. A. Betts, WES has many advantages over other systems, especially i.t.a.:

"1. It employs 24 of the 26 letters of the universally understood Roman alphabet.

2. A standard typewriter may be used.

3. Digraphs rather than ligatured characters are employed, but this is one hypothesis yet to be explored via experimental research.

4. The common spellings for speech sounds (phonemes) are based on the extensive research of Dr. Godfrey Dewey.

5. WES spellings have been simplified for the i.t.m. version; e.g. th is used for both the voiceless sound in think and the voiced sound in there.

6. A dictionary, World English Spelling Dictionary, lists the few guidelines, spelling rules, and the spelling of about 3,600 commonly used words, as is done for i.t.a.

7. The spellings are highly compatible with T.O., as is true of i.t.a.

8. The names of the letters usually recorded in standard dictionaries are retained and respelled in WES, i.t.m., e.g., the name of the letter is bee not buh. (This procedure minimizes the probabilities of a teacher telling the child that the first letter of bat is buh - a confusing absurdity of the first rank).

9. The need for the schwa (ə) sound in unstressed syllables is solved by retaining "any single vowel letter of T.O., or when that might be misleading, write /e/." WES Dictionary, pg. 24).

10. Syllable-by-syllable reading (i.e., the stressing of all syllables observed in some classrooms) is reduced by respelling certain unstressed syllables, as in captain-capten, stable-staebl, situation-situeaeshon, probable-probabl.

11. To avoid 'clumsy' spellings, a redundant spelling ue is used for the /yu/ glide, as in i.t.a. For example, the letter y as in yet and the oo as in moon are available; but few is simply spelled fue rather than fyoo.

12. Diacritical markings are obviated by employing digraphs, as sh in sure-shoor, sugar-shuugar, ng in finger-fingger, versus singer-singer.

13. Lower case letters are used, as in i.t.a., so that the child will not have to learn different letters (graphic shapes) for the F-f, G-g, and so on.

14. Spellings with zero or almost no signal (predictability) of sounds are significantly reduced as road-blocks to reading; e.g., one-wun, once-wuns, you-yoo, eight-aet."

Problems in the use of Digraphic Spelling Systems.

There are several objections to the exclusive use of digraphs to reform our present spelling.

In their proposals, most authors start first with a system of spelling changes and then apply that system to meet all contingencies. They assume that the only solution is to create a completely new phonemic system of spelling with little consideration given alternative spellings or other principles that may constitute a good spelling system. But basing the complete system on the principles of phonemic spelling can lead to extensive changes in spelling and a transformation in the appearance of the written language as to make its acceptance much more difficult.

Another objection to the use of digraphs stems from the fact that in order to make digraphic spelling work, several more digraphs are needed than presently exist. This is especially true for vowel sounds. This fact alone almost equalizes the number of letters saved through the elimination of silent letters or double consonants. One of the most powerful arguments presented in favor of spelling reform, the savings of "various kinds - savings of children's learning time, of the writer's writing time, of typists' and printer's wages, of paper, ink, transport, storage, and so on" is for all practical purposes meaningless when applied to most digraphic spelling proposals.

Rearrangement of letters to produce more phonemic spelling often conjures up unpleasant associations. Digraphic spellings, for example, are often suggestive of near-illiteracy (e.g. nollij, elefunt); of substantial speech as represented in comic anecdotes (e.g. wat, luv, guv'nor); of commercial catchwords (e.g Phit-eezi for a brand of footwear, kumbak for a tennis trainer having a ball attached to, a length of rubber chord, etc.). These connotations all work against the acceptance of the reformed spelling that is liable to evoke them.

Ed. comment:

 His opinion, not facts)
Despite these objections; the enormous practical difficulties involved in adding diacritics or new characters to the present alphabet, or switching to a totally new alphabet and the almost impossible task of getting popular acceptance of such systems; makes digraphic spelling the one system most capable of development and acceptance.

Implications of this Study.

An analysis of the proposals for spelling reform of the English language prove beyond a doubt that there is little if any consensus among spelling reformers themselves regarding the best way to accomplish this monumental if not impossible, task. The two common denominators drawing all spelling reformers together is their agreement on the need for reform (not always for the same reasons). Aside from this one unifying principle, their proposals, plans, schemes and ideas on the nature and extent of reform are often as varied and unique as the people who created and promoted them. One writer pointed out that the most disabilitating factor, and the main reason why spelling reform has failed to catch on, has been the inability of spelling reformers themselves to agree with one another on the nature and extent of the change and how it should be accomplished. If spelling reformers themselves cannot agree on what to do, it should come as no surprise why their proposals have never gained wide support.

Another general criticism is that with the possible exception of the Spelling Action Society of Australia and its Spelling Reform Step One (SR-1), most have attempted to do too many things too quickly. Or as Mencken expressed it, "All American spelling reformers, beginning with Noah Webster, have made the capital mistake of trying to cover too much ground in one operation."

In light of the perceived difficulties and resistances, it should be clear that the spelling reform organizations in the United States, Great Britain and Australia should attempt to coordinate their efforts and set up a few guidelines for programs and procedures for systematic spelling reform. Friction, disagreement, lack of communication and ignorance of each other's efforts cannot help but retard the whole process and give validity, to the arguments of those opposing reform.

If spelling reform is ever to get beyond the proposal stage, the first thing that must be done is to lay the foundation for the reform by educating the public to the need for reform. History teaches that no reform will ever take place unless the climate is ripe for reform.

No reform can ever get started if it lacks public support, especially a reform of that which is so ingrained as the spelling habits developed over the years. Students and adults are conditioned from early years to the notion that there is only one way to spell a word - "the correct way" the way it appears in the dictionary and the spellers. Any deviation from this one accepted spelling is branded a "wrong", "ignorant" and "objectionable." The child who spells the word love as luv can never content himself that he is logical or phonetically correct in the face of the laughter from his classmates or the scorn on his teacher's face.

At a very impressionable age children are conditioned to accept inconsistency of spelling as an educational challenge and to take pride in their ability to spell words that contain silent letters or are especially inconsistent. Winning a spelling bee is something to tell the grandchildren about and a crowning recognition of superior ability.

As a result of teaching where drill and repetition, so necessary for reading and writing; are at the core of the curriculum, people are unable later on in life to think rationally about spelling without prejudice. "That's the way I learned it; and that's the way everyone should learn it;" they contend.

Even those who have experienced failure or difficulties in learning to read or write may agree that spelling reform is desirable but would reject it on the grounds that a new system would involve their learning all over again. Once having partially mastered the old system, especially with difficulty, one has no desire to, learn a new system, especially one that may be untried, untested, or poorly promulgated.

Spelling reform proposals have a long, hard battle ahead to prove their worth in the light of such immense, ingrained resistance or apathy. Certainly any proposal that is not well-conceived, well-planned and promulgated will stand no chance at all of reaching any kind of acceptance. Poorly planned, illogical, grotesque, amateurish proposals based on nothing more than the whims and fantasies of their inventors, will only set the whole cause back and make acceptance of more logical proposals that much harder to accept.

Overcoming the natural resistance to change that comes from long habit, constant repetition, education, and the understandable resistance that stems from many of the proposals themselves, will take time and effort. One cannot realistically expect change of attitude to come overnight. To ignore this fact is to assure failure. Acceptance, then, is the key word in spelling reform, for without it even the most logical and erudite system ever proposed for English will be relegated to the trash heap.

In order to overcome public indifference or resistance and to gain acceptance, it will be important to proceed gradually and logically over a period of years. Whatever changes the public is asked to make should at first be rather simple or innocuous. Once the public understands that spelling changes can be made that improve the language, cause relatively little inconvenience, and are less a problem in learning than the old system, then more complicated changes can be made. It goes without saying, that radical and unfamiliar spelling systems which would cause dramatic and traumatic changes in the way we spelling and read would have little if any chance of acceptance.

The first and most important or critical consideration is to find a place to begin that does not cause confusion in its initial introduction; does not require much new learning or special equipment, and will not contrast too greatly with existing literature. Fortunately for English, there are many good minimal changes that many people would readily accept and to which antagonists could hardly take exception.

A good place to start might be with a program of systematic gradual change involving the elimination of unnecesary silent letters. N. Tune has a list of 888 such words. Harry Lindgren's SR-1 and SR-2 to SR-5 are also not too radical that the public should object if fed to them gradually.

Regardless whether we start with these suggested minimal spelling changes or a host of others that may be proposed, it is important that the first changes do not radically disrupt current spelling patterns: Especially the first change or the beginning series of early changes should contain the following characteristics:

1) They should be easy to learn and require little, if any, relearning.
2) No new letters or unfamiliar digraphs be added to the words.
3) The spelling change should be similar to the mote common spelling pattern for that sound.

If it seems probable that the general public cannot or will not accept gradual, systematic, minimal spelling changes, they certainly will not accept the more radical changes that may occur later on. Without public acceptance, any spelling reform is unlikely or impossible.

Recommendations of this Study.

1. Research into Effects of orthography on Reading.

Despite of antagonists of spelling reform, the whole question of to what extent the irregular spelling of English interferes with reading and spelling ability, of school children has still not been thoroly investigated by educators, especially in the United States. In searching for answers regarding the increasingly high rate of reading failure in the United States, many reading research projects annually investigate methods, techniques, materials for teaching, and the motives, incentives and background of the teacher and learner. Rarely do educators give any thought to investigating to what extent children are handicapped by all the anomalies of English. As Sir James Pitman asked, "Can it be perhaps that researchers into reading have overlooked, or at any rate neglected, the largest factor of all?"

Educators then should not categorically rule out the irregular spellings as a source of confusion. Through research they should attempt to answer the following questions:

1) To what extent, if any, does English orthography interfere with beginning reading?

2) To what extent does English orthography handicap spelling and/or writing ability?

3) What experimental programs can be set up in schools to test and evaluate the effects of different types of of spelling reform proposals on different types of students?

4) If spelling reform is advisable (would make a difference educationally), how can the general public be educated to this need and how can teachers be trained?

5) What in-service programs can be developed to better educate teachers regarding dealing with learning problems that stem from an irregular and inconsistent orthography?

6) How can educators eliminate for beginning readers the unavoidable spelling irregularities inherent in what is read?

The Bullock Committee, composed of over eight researcher efforts from different disciplines, concluded in 1976 that "these is no evidence whatsoever for the belief that the best way to learn to read in traditional orthography is to read in traditional orthography. It would appear that the best way to learn to read in traditional orthography is the initial teaching alphabet."

Results from extensive use of i.t.a. in Great Britain indicate that most children using i.t.a. "benefit in a variety of different ways" and that "their writing ability was of consistently higher quality."

In light of these results, it is regretable - some might even say shameful - that educators continue to ignore the evidence and cling to mote traditional methods and materials, many of which have led to increasing failures on the part of a substantial number of students.

2. Establishment of a National Commission to Investigate Language Arts Programs.

With the recent establishment of the Department of Education, it seems a good time to establish a National Language Commission to investigate different types of language programs and to make recommendations and suggestions in the area of language improvement and development. Since language touches all aspects of life, the commission should have broad representation from a variety of sources. It should include at least linguists, educators, businessmen, writers, publishers; and other interested individuals from other walks of life.

If and when spelling reform programs, or other programs in language arts; claim to be helpful for a certain group in the population (low achievers, foreigners wishing to learn English, pre-schoolers, etc.), a National Language Commission would be there to evaluate the claims, publish the results, and be instrumental in propagating the program if warranted. In the absence of any recommending and evaluating source with any authority, the whole area of language arts suffers to some degree.

3. More Relevant and Practical Information on How to Teach Spelling.

An increasingly embarassing phenomenon of the present educational system, which one educator called "programmed illiteracy," is the increasingly high number of high school gradates who find it difficult to write a simple sentence without making spelling mistakes, adults who are ashamed to write a friendly letter for fear of making mistakes and secretaries who type 90 words a minute but spell on a low fourth grade level.

In light of this serious educational problem, it seems important for local school districts and colleges of education to evaluate the effectiveness of current methods and materials used to teach spelling. After honest evaluation, if the methods prove successful, then they should be included in more practical and expanded courses in teacher education. The relative lack of any in-service training in teaching spelling in many colleges of education and the total lack of library and reference material books on the subject , is indicative of educators' indifference and/or ignorance on the subject.

Future Related Studies.

Several related areas of studies suggested by this study are the following:

1) A survey of a cross-section of the country could be made in order to determine the types and nature of spelling' changes that would be acceptable to the widest number of people. This survey could well serve as the initial starting point for future efforts at spelling simplification.

2) Investigations could be undertaken to determine the general qualities that make English acceptable as an international language and what difficulties or irregularities hinder English as an international language.

3) Intensive and systematic investigation into many different word lists in order to determine major spelling patterns (and phonological rules supporting these-spelling patterns) could prove useful for future spelling 'reformers to delineate what aspects of orthography need changing and what aspects do not..

4) Experimentation with different types of phonemic alphabets (or different types of spelling proposals for different types of students and different situations) might shed additional light on how different individuals learn to read.

5) The experiences, methods and materials used to reach reading in such countries as Italy, Russia, and Germany, which have a more phonemic language, merit investigation.

6) Attempts to coordinate the national spelling reform organizations in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia should result in more accurate and authoritative information on the subject titan presently exists.

7) Investigation into the educational and social advantages that have resulted from spelling reform in such countries as Turkey, Russia, Brazil and Finland could prove enlightening:

8) One-sound, one-symbol alternative alphabets (which could be easily transliterated into traditional orthography) could be developed to better serve the needs of business and industry when using voice-triggered communication equipment such as advanced typewriters and computers.

9) Carefully controlled and objectively evaluated studies and experiments comparing simplified spelling and traditional orthography with such diverse groups as prove school youngsters, the mentally retarded, non-English speaking students, adults, etc., ought to produce objective data which will enable all to make better judgements about the subject.

10) An intensive investigation of the relationship between spelling and reading (encoding and decoding) should result in a better understanding of both subjects.


Despite the ingenious spelling reform proposals of many learned scholars, linguists, educators and statesmen presented in this study, and the hundreds of other spelling enthusiasts omitted from this study, the problem of the irregularity, and inconsistence of English orthography, and what to do about it is no closer to, solution than it was in the 16th century.

Ed. comment:

 Not true).
It is hoped that this study will shed some light on the subject of spelling reform; perhaps it will be a source of inspiration for some new and realistic approach to the problem.

Contrasted to the wishful thinking of some modern linguists who state that English orthography couldn't be better for all users of English, comes the harsh reality that a high percentage of school children fail to read and write, and an alarming number of adults are not much better off.

Instead of investigating all the irrelevant and/or extraneous factors involved in reading and writing (class size, materials, teacher preparation, environment, etc.), perhaps some day investigators might begin to pay more attention to the orthography itself and eventually eliminate the avoidable difficulties inherent in how words are put together. When that day comes, it will be the beginning of the dream of many educators for hundreds of years. (So many references were available that we could not spare space)

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