[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1989-2 pp32-34 later designated J11]
[Chris Upward: see Journals, Newsletters, Leaflets, Media, Pamflet, Book, Papers.]
[Chris Jolly: see Journals, Newsletters, Media, Bulletins.]
[Ronald Threadgall: see Journals, Newsletter.]

Kingman, Cox, the National Curriculum and Spelling.

Readers may have followed the Society's submissions to the British government's recent committees which have been preparing the ground for the National Curriculum's programme for English language teaching in English and Welsh schools. Our first submission to Kingman, appeared in Journal J6 1987/3 (pp8-12). Our comments on the Kingman Report in J8 1988/2 (pp21-23), and our submission to the Cox Committee (National Curriculum English Working Group) in J9 1988/3 (pp23-26). The first part of the Cox Report was published by the Department of Education and Science entitled English for ages 5 to 16 in November 1988 and the full (amended) version English for ages 5 to 16 in June 1989. Journal J10 1989/1 (pp32-33) excerpted the passages concerning spelling in the first Cox Report. Our latest submission is here presented in slightly abridged form.

Submission to the National Curriculum Council
from the Simplified Spelling Society
and the United Kingdom i.t.a. Federation
25 September 1989

The submission was prepared by Chris Upward, Editor of the Journal of the SSS, in consultation with Chris Jolly, Chairman of the Simplified Spelling Society and Ronald Threadgall, General Secretary of the United Kingdom i.t.a. Federation.

1. Kingman to Cox to the National Curriculum.

This submission is the latest in a series ... which progressively refined our views of how English spelling needs to be treated in the National Curriculum.

A marked shift of view is detectable between the Kingman and Cox Reports. The first emphasizes the regularities of spelling and ... that children should spell correctly. The second, while not downgrading ... accuracy..., recognizes that the ... writing system is highly irregular, and that complete accuracy ... therefore cannot reasonably be expected. Instead, it stresses that children should make maximum use ... of such patterns and regularities as do occur in written English; and that at any given stage a fair degree of accuracy should be expected in spelling words of certain kinds (i.e. short words, common words).

Although the much greater understanding and realism of the Cox Reports must be ... welcomed.... the Reports do contain statements whose validity must ... be queried or which beg some fundamental questions. These queries and questions should however be regarded positively, as their answers, if rightly interpreted, suggest ... a future when English spelling could be much less of a problem.... with concomitantly higher standards of literacy. The passing of the Cox proposals to the National Curriculum Council provides the opportunity to establish some basic principles whose immediate practical impact would be imperceptible, yet which could lay the foundation for real improvements in ... English spelling ... in the long term.

The following comments are designed to set the context for that conclusion.

2. Comments on Cox 1: English from 5-11.

The numbers ... refer to paragraphs in the Report.

3.12 What is 'English'?
"The overriding aim ... is to enable all pupils to develop to the full their ability to use and understand English." Perhaps this statement should appear highlighted on the title-page of the Report, since it surely states a criterion by which all subsidiary aims and recommendations must be judged. But with regard to spelling, it contains a crucial ambiguity. What is 'English' exactly? Is it the spoken language, or the written language, or something more abstract than either, which has spoken and written forms each with an equally valid, interrelated, yet to a significant extent independent existence? The latter definition would be the most generally accepted today. But then, just what is the status of the written form which ... happens to be so difficult that most people cannot be expected to achieve total accuracy in using it? What if, as is surely the case, this very difficulty of the written form actually prevents most pupils from fulfilling that overriding aim "to develop to the full their ability to use and understand English"?

We ... argue that the written language can usefully be regarded as the visible clothing of that more abstract entity which is 'English', while the spoken language resembles the body within the clothing ... Clothing, to pursue the metaphor, wears out over time, and old styles ... become impractical for ... new requirements ... ; it is then replaced, and its style modernized. Most languages understand that this metaphor applies to ... writing systems, but as yet the point is not widely grasped in the English-speaking world.

An ambitious... educational project like the National Curriculum ... needs that understanding - and ... to consider its implications. While recognizing the ... constraints on what can be undertaken in the short term, we would hope to gain acceptance for some basic principles that may prove useful ... for the longer term.

4.19 Standard forms.
The concept of a linguistic 'standard' is frequently referred to in the Report. Such a concept is recognized to be hard to define ... as far as the spoken language is concerned. But for spelling it is in theory easy; in German for instance there is little question about ... the standard spellings of words... All that is required is for an authority (and the National Curriculum Council could emerge as ... such an authority) to state ... the standard spellings of words ... in English.

... At present there is no ... explicit authority and no explicit standard. Dictionaries are the only authority that can be appealed to, and they usually claim merely to reflect usage; furthermore, they disagree among themselves. Although most common words such as one, who are always so spelt and no ... alternatives exist, for a ... number of words there are alternative forms which cause ... uncertainty... These alternatives may not impinge much on ... younger children, but they reflect the absence of a ... standard. One extreme example is ... the ... fruit lychee, which is also found spelt lichi, litchi, lichee. Far more problematic is uncertainty over the formation of inflexions (or ... inflections?), which the Report says children should master. Here uncertainty and variation are rife (do we write traveled or travelled, gased or gassed, benefited or benefitted, kidnaped or kidnapped ... for instance?), and it would be very helpful if a standard were indeed prescribed.

However, when setting such standards, it is important to appreciate that in most cases there are clear arguments, often of a complex and technical nature, in favour of one form or another, and it is ... essential that, if a standard is set, it should be based on sound ... criteria. Setting standards in such cases could be a small and uncontroversial, but highly significant step in the direction of ... simplification ... ; and decisions would need to be based on the best possible advice and take many factors into account (for instance, the impact on the world outside England and Wales).

Setting such standards would at one and the same time an awesome responsibility and an exciting, desperately needed undertaking.

5.32 Specifying lists.
"We do not propose to specify lists of terms and concepts which should be taught ... It is the responsibility of teachers ... to decide ..." It goes without saying that it cannot be the responsibility of teachers to decide what the standard spellings should be. Lists ... will be needed.

10.5 Public and private standards?
"...it is perfectly appropriate to demand ... correct spelling ... in work which has a public purpose. But this may be less appropriate for work with essentially private purposes." This is a puzzling statement. If children are expected to spell correctly for public consumption, it will not help them to achieve that correctness if they do not practice it in private writing. If they are used to writing frend in private, how will they remember to insert the <i> for public purposes? A key concept with literacy skills is automaticity: if children are expected to write friend in public (and there is an argument for saying they should be explicitly taught always to write 'frend'), then they need to practise that spelling on all occasions until the movement of the ... hand produces the correct letters automatically, without hesitating ... whether to write frend, freind or friend.

10.12 Spelling for oneself.
"...children should be helped to be confident in attempting to spell words for themselves." This approach is to be applauded, but although it will encourage self-confidence and self-expression, it can only be detrimental to the achievement of 'correct' spelling as long as 'correct' English spelling is so grossly at variance with the underlying alphabetic principle of sound-symbol correspondence. "Spelling for oneself" is also to be welcomed as encouraging understanding of the alphabetic principle and of the deficiencies of ... English spelling.

10.17 Principles of English spelling.
"...the most frequent sound-letter correspondences and the other principles of English spelling. Despite the undeniable irregularities of English spelling, it is important that teaching and assessing focus on those areas that are systematic." These will need specifying, because they are not well known.

10.22 Levels 4, 5.
"Spell correctly words which display the other main patterns in English spelling, including the main prefixes and suffixes,...words with inflectional suffixes, (eg -ed, - ing) consonant doubling, etc; and words where the spelling highlights semantic relationships (eg sign, signature)." it would appear that the Report here perhaps underestimates the lack of system currently displayed in English spelling by these features. The uncertainty about consonant doubling before the inflexional suffix <-ed> has already been mentioned, but before <-ing> the situation is even less straightforward (contrast singing: singeing: hinging, ageing: raging). As for semantic relationships, many people cannot see a relationship between sign: signature even when it is pointed out, because sign is initially taken to be a noun, not a verb. However, the idea that semantic relationships are a useful guide to English spelling is dangerous anyway, as we see from ... speak: speech, high: height, wise: wizard, inveigh: convey, enjoin: injunction.

10.33 How do you look up the unknown?
"...they should be encouraged to check difficult spellings in a dictionary." Here again the difficulties are understated: this may be an impossible task if not even an approximate spelling is known - except perhaps in a work such as David Moseley's Aurally Coded English Spelling Dictionary. For instance, if the learner wishes to check the spelling of gnaw (for which nor, nore, naw would be possibilities worth looking up in the dictionary), then unless the silent initial <g> (the greatest spelling difficulty in the word) is already known, the word will not be found. Of course, if English words were not spelt with unpredictable letters, the problem would be less; but in that case there would be less need to check spellings in the dictionary in the first place.

11.4 Standards of Welsh bilinguals.
"The evidence suggests ... that there are no significant differences between the performance at 11 in English of pupils educated mainly through Welsh and other pupils..." The evidence in this field is notoriously difficult to interpret, and this statement does not specifically mention spelling. However, if it is the case that such bilingual pupils achieve the same standard in English spelling after a significantly shorter period of study, that would seem to imply that perhaps non-bilingual pupils are wasting rather a lot of their time. This is an extremely serious question whose implications need to be explored. It is for instance conceivable that if pupils reach the automaticity-level of literacy first in a regular spelling system such as Welsh, this might then benefit their subsequent performance considerably in English. If this were so, it would be another example of what we may call the i.t.a. effect: literacy is best achieved in English by introducing pupils first of all to a phonographic spelling system, and when they have mastered that (as they do very quickly indeed), they transfer to traditional English spelling with far greater confidence, motivation and success. The lessons for teaching methodology of this experience have been insufficiently drawn upon.... and the National Curriculum Council would do well to consider recommending a regularized Initial Teaching Orthography for literacy acquisition.

3. Comment on Cox 2 English from 5 to 16.

The above comments generally apply to the second Cox Report (English for ages 5 to 16) too, from which part of a single paragraph (§17.33) is now quoted. We have italicized certain words for emphasis.

"With regard to spelling, the aim should be that by the end of compulsory schooling pupils should be able to spell confidently most of the words they ar likely to need to use frequently in their writing; to recognise those aspects of English spelling that are systematic; to make a sensible attempt to spell words that they have not seen before; to check their work for misspellings and to use a dictionary appropriately. The aim cannot be the correct unaided spelling of any English word - there are too many words in English that can catch out even the best speller."

A comment often heard on this paragraph is that it is entirely realistic in its modest expectations. But it constitutes an admission of defeat: in future, schools are to be satisfied if their pupils' spelling is only fairly correct. However realistic, this begs some serious questions ... :

- Are we to be reconciled to a future in which people no longer care ... about precision and accuracy in ... spelling?

- Can there be such a thing as a standard written language in those circumstances?

- Will dictionaries in 50 years time ... have to list acomodate, accomodate, acommodate, accommodate as four equally acceptable alternative spellings for the same word?

4. Dangerous realism.

Such are the inevitable long-term implications of the new tolerance that the Report advocates. At worst, they could imply a return to the chaos that prevailed in written English in the 16th century, a step backward to a more primitive condition, and the very opposite of the standard by which such store is otherwise set. The Report's realism is thus at the same time dangerous. Whatever defects the present spelling system of English has, at least it is relatively fixed and serves-more or less-as a standard worldwide. We have a responsibility, in Britain as the original home of the language perhaps more than anywhere else, to ensure that standard is not jeopardized.

Teachers also need a fixed standard by which to teach (and the rest of society needs one too, for different reasons) and pupils need a workable standard to aim at. Yet the present standard, however unclear it may be, is unworkable (increasingly so, for various reasons that cannot be explored here, and with every prospect of further deterioration unless countermeasures are taken). But the conclusion to be drawn should then not be that the very notion of a standard for pupils to achieve must be abandoned, which is what the Report in practice is urging (though it does not say so explicitly). On the contrary, the conclusion should be that a new, workable and realistic standard needs to be devised.

5. Political constraints and possibilities.

The Simplified Spelling Society and others who have long preached a thoroughgoing reform of written English have often been seen as asking for the impossible. Certainly it must be recognized that to ask for radical changes today in the way words are spelt in English is not to cultivate the art of the politically possible. When innovation as radical and as controversial as the National Curriculum is being legislated, it would be inopportune to add yet further radical and controversial proposals to those already being debated.

Yet steps could be taken which would begin to lead in a positive direction without at this stage noticeably disturbing the existing consensus and conventions on English spelling. They are, by implication, actually called for by the Cox Report itself when it recommends the teaching of standard English. The present spelling of English, as was shown by several examples above, does not today offer an adequate standard, and it is acknowledged to be an unrealistic target for pupils to aim at. By applying certain linguistic principles it would be possible for the National Curriculum Council to set a more workable standard than now exists and to simplify a few of the complications that so often defeat pupils today.

6. Standardizing alternative spellings.

The principle on which a good alphabetic orthography is built is predictable sound-symbol correspondence. For ... 1,000 years that principle has not been systematically applied in English, and the consequence is a ... system of unfathomable complexity that is a serious handicap to a society (and a world) in which the highest possible level of literacy is an economic and social necessity.

English spelling has never been officially standardized, and although most ... words today have a single agreed form, many others occur in variants, some of which conform better to ... predictable sound-symbol correspondence than others. For instance ... jail: gaol has two forms, the first ... is predictable from the pronunciation, while the second flouts two normal rules of sound-symbol correspondence. In these circumstances the National Curriculum could specify that jail should henceforth be the standard. Similarly, the patterns of consonant-doubling in inflected form of verbs are in many cases unstable, causing widespread uncertainty and error; these too could be standardized ... There are numerous other examples.

Such a procedure would not constitute spelling reform as such, because no new spellings would be introduced, but rather just a rational choice between existing variants.

Such a proposal probably has implications going beyond what was originally envisaged for the National Curriculum, but it is hoped it will be found sufficiently promising for its ... possibilities nevertheless to be explored.

7. Conclusions.

The concept of standard English, which is central to the National Curriculum, must apply to ... spelling if it applies anywhere... At present there are no clear standards for English spelling, and the National Curriculum offers an opportunity to set them. This is a serious task with profound ... implications for the future of written English, and should only be undertaken on the basis of expert... analysis. Yet unless it is undertaken, the prospects for a significant improvement in standards of literacy, which is another key aim of the National Curriculum, are slim.

In terms of teaching methodology, we would also recommend that the benefits of using a regularized Initial Teaching Orthography ... be taken into consideration.

We will be glad to advise further on these questions.

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