[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1993/1 pp3-8 later designated J14]
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The Society's 1992 Submission to the National Curriculum Council.

Chris Upward.

In September 1992 the National Curriculum Council invited the Simplified Spelling Society to contribute evidence and advice for a review of requirements for English teaching in England and Wales. We here publish the Society's response, in which the important new concept is developed of 'managing' English spelling as a preliminary to its reform.

21 October 1992
Richard Knott
English Review Team
National Curriculum Council
Albion Wharf
25 Skeldergate

Dear Richard Knott

Thank you for inviting the Simplified Spelling Society to contribute evidence and advice on spelling for the review of the English Order. We welcome this opportunity to refine our earlier ideas (submissions to the Kingman Committee, the Cox Committee, LINC and the NCC itself), in keeping with the evolving situation. Please find our submission enclosed.

We have two particular reasons for being pleased that the NCC's review is aiming to define the necessary knowledge, skills and understanding more closely. The first reason is that we feel most recent statements on spelling, both official and unofficial, have lacked the precision required to give teachers and learners proper guidance.

The second reason is that a contributory cause of the problems of English spelling is the failure of any authority hitherto to assume responsibility for it. Responsibility for spelling in societies that aim for universal literacy should in our view reside with the educational authorities. We therefore see the NCC's concern with spelling as an encouraging development.

Most of our submission explores the implications of this new responsibility. We are very willing to elaborate on any points that the NCC may wish to discuss further with us, either in writing or in person.

Yours sincerely
Christopher Upward
on behalf of the Society's Committee.

English in the National Curriculum.

Submission from the Simplified Spelling Society.
October 1992


The Simplified Spelling Society has followed the debates on spelling in recent years with interest, but has found most of the views expressed limited by inadequate understanding of how alphabetic writing systems work. We readily confess that our own understanding of the subject has been maturing over that period, and we do not wish to imply we think we know all the answers. Nevertheless, we do believe we can offer a better founded perspective on the issues and more constructive proposals than most contributors to the debates. This submission is presented in the spirit of wishing to improve all our understanding and so help progress towards the universally shared goal of raising standards of literacy.

In our view, the current concerns with 'returning to basics' and 'correct' spelling point in the right direction. However, we have yet to see any discussion of the fundamental questions of what the 'basics' of spelling are and which spellings should be considered 'correct'. The NCC will presumably need to give specific guidance on these matters in its review, and we hope that our ideas may prove useful for that purpose.

A historical perspective is indispensable. We must ask how English spelling came to cause such trouble in the first place, what the nature of that trouble is, and whether we wish it to continue for the foreseeable future. We welcome the renewed recognition of phonics as central to mastery of alphabetic writing, but we urge the NCC to make plain just how inadequate a phonic approach is when applied to the present spelling of English. In the first part of our submission we set out the historical and phonic 'basics' of alphabetic writing in the form of ten axioms, which we believe should underpin the NCC's recommendations on English spelling.

Although the basics are in principle very simple, we assume their practical and political implications are too far-reaching to be actively espoused by the NCC in the short term. We therefore suggest that for the present they be merely acknowledged as the conceptual basis for a proper understanding of English spelling. The second part of our submission outlines some of those further implications: it examines the constraints on attempting to address them in the short term and the preparation that would be needed for effective action to be taken in the longer term, and suggests how the NCC might nevertheless lay the first foundations on which substantive action could one day be based. We believe that the present state of English spelling demands such a long-term strategy, but for the interim we suggest that the concept of 'spelling management' should be promoted as embracing a policy for dealing both with short term issues as well as, potentially, with long term problems.

The remainder of our submission consists of an Annotated Bibliography (pp11-13) of publications whose analyses we believe should be familiar to those professionally concerned with spelling policy for English.


Ten axioms on English spelling.

1. Alphabets provide the simplest way of writing most languages.

2. The letters of the alphabet were designed each to represent a distinct speech sound; that is the alphabetic principle.

3. Literacy is easily acquired by the alphabetic principle, because readers can decode words by interpreting letters, and writers encode words by analysing sounds.

4. As languages change through time, the transparency of the alphabetic principle is steadily obscured unless writing systems are modernized.

5. Spelling means fixed writing conventions at any one point in time, but changing conventions over a period of time.

6. By its failure systematically to modernize over nearly a thousand years, English spelling has seriously neglected the alphabetic principle.

7. By tolerating widespread inconsistency, English spelling has become exceptionally difficult to master.

8. Because English spelling is so difficult, undue time is spent achieving unacceptably low levels of literacy in English-speaking countries.

9. To improve literacy, English needs to modernize its spelling, as other languages do.

10. There are no quick or easy solutions: a first step must be the public adoption of the concept of 'managing' English spelling, i.e. controlling it rather than letting it continue on its own arbitrary way.

The Simplified Spelling Society will be glad to elaborate on any of these axioms.


Managing English spelling.

1. The need.

1.1 An opportunity.
The National Curriculum Council today has a rare opportunity to promote a better understanding of English spelling that would correspond to historical, linguistic, psychological and educational realities. Essentially, such a view would recognize that the problems of English spelling are not a law of nature, but that, like the spelling systems of other languages, the spelling system of English can be 'managed' to reduce those problems.

1.2 English spelling in a time-warp.
For over 400 years proposals have been made for English spelling to be reformed, but the gap between idea and implementation has proved hard to bridge. English spelling has evolved over that period mainly thanks to the practice of printers and the example of dictionaries, but with little regard to that consistency of sound-symbol correspondence (i.e. the alphabetic principle) which best suits learners and indeed users generally. The need for universal literacy was until the later decades of the nineteenth century not a paramount consideration - but by then the evolution of English spelling had slowed almost to a halt. English spelling is now so antiquated that it fails to meet the educational and communicative needs of our time. Its modernization would be a step comparable to the decimalization of the currency, or the metrication of weights and measures, or the revision of the translation of the Bible, though the different factors applying to each of these reforms would make modernizing English spelling in some ways more difficult, in other ways easier.

1.3 The need to raise literacy standards.
Today, when comparisons are increasingly made between standards of literacy and education in different countries, the need to raise standards of literacy assumes greater importance than ever before. However, it is now no longer (as it perhaps was 100 years ago) a need just for basic literacy, but for ensuring that whole populations acquire the highest possible levels of literacy skill. When present spelling conventions are themselves demonstrably an obstacle to fulfilling that need, it is time to take stock of those conventions.

1.4 Spelling and curriculum overload.
Furthermore, although literacy is the foundation of all education, the need to raise standards is not confined to literacy itself. Succeeding generations face new areas of study in the curriculum, with additional demands on curriculum time. This means that, even if literacy skills could be significantly improved simply by devoting more time to them, it may be difficult to make that extra time available. The NCC is aware of the danger of curriculum overload, and ways have to be sought of achieving higher standards of literacy without greater input of time. When present spelling conventions demonstrably waste learners' time, the role of those conventions as a major cause of the problem demands even more urgent attention.

1.5 Advantages of regular sound-symbol correspondence.
A recent comparative study of literacy acquisition in English and Italian (Thorstad, 1991: see Section 3 of the Bibliography in Part III of this submission) showed that the much greater simplicity of Italian spelling enables Italian children to acquire their literacy skills faster, more effectively and with greater self-confidence than their English-speaking counterparts. Here lies a profound lesson for English, confirmed by the fact that whenever regularized spelling systems have been used for teaching literacy skills in English in the past 150 years, the same dramatically beneficial effects have been observed (see Bibliography, Section 2: Downing, 1967; Upward, 1992/2; Warburton & Southgate, 1969).

2. Constraints and opportunities.

2.1 Diagnosis easy, treatment difficult.
It is relatively easy to diagnose the problem, though there has been a widespread failure to attempt even that. It is rather less easy to devise improved spelling systems for English which, if implemented, would at least partially solve the problem (though the Simplified Spelling Society can suggest a range of possibilities). But not easy at all is the practical question of how changes to the English spelling system could be introduced. Some obvious obstacles are now discussed, along with the opportunities those very obstacles paradoxically also offer.

2.2 Political inhibition as a constraint.
One obstacle is political inhibition. Before World War I President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to simplify English spelling in the USA, but finally desisted in the face of political opposition. In 1952 a Private Member's bill on spelling reform gained a majority in the House of Commons and in Committee, but the education minister (Florence Horsbrugh) only offered government support for experiments in teaching by simplified spelling, with no longer-term commitment. (The offer nevertheless had an important consequence in enabling the i.t.a. experiments to proceed.) In 1987 the Minister Baroness Hooper rejected the idea of any official spelling reform on the grounds that language change takes place gradually and naturally and is an inappropriate subject for legislation. Since writing is not 'natural' and its changes result from conscious human decision, the aspect of natural change will not be further considered here; but the concept of gradual change to the writing system will now be looked at more closely.

2.3 Change as an educational responsibility.
Any proposal to make radical changes to English spelling must be expected to arouse controversy, anxiety and hostility in many quarters. A gradual (ie largely imperceptible) approach is likely to be the only politically acceptable one. We believe that the NCC could and should take some preliminary steps towards restarting the gradual evolution of English spelling which has virtually halted in the past 100 years. It is time that educational interests asserted a determining influence on English spelling again, as should be both their right and their duty. If this were done it would be for the first time since Edmond Coote's The English School-maister, which with its 54 editions over 150 years from 1596 onwards perhaps more than any other work brought about the modernization of Elizabethan spelling. How the NCC might approach the task is discussed in §3 of this section, below.

2.4 Change as constraint and opportunity.
Another obstacle is the difficulty of transition. No changes can be contemplated that would risk undermining written communication in English. Compatibility between old and new is a key requirement: no new spellings can be introduced that would not be easily understood by adults, nor must they endanger children's ability to read older texts. The implications for public use of new spellings (especially in publishing) would also need careful consideration, so that for instance any changes made did not entail bulk reprinting of old material. Again, a long-term programme of gradual change could ensure a smooth transition. Above all, in the present climate, spelling modernization must not involve heavy investment - it needs to be conceived as a process of wealth creation and economy, rather than of expenditure.

2.5 The international dimension.
A third constraint is the international dimension. English is the prime world language, and ill-considered spelling changes to its written form in one country could have the effect of disrupting rather than facilitating international communication. However, if changes were organized in an appropriate manner, that danger could be avoided, indeed international interest could lend a strong impetus to the process, as the non-English-speaking world is acutely aware of the problems of the present spelling of English. There could be an opportunity here for Britain to give a lead to the world for which it is uniquely qualified. Indeed, if the changes were suitably conducted, there could be considerable commercial benefits, both for EFL teaching and for publishing.

2.6 'Managing' rather than 'reforming'.
Dealing with such issues would be later stages in the process of 'managing' English spelling. Our Society has ideas on many of these questions, but believes they cannot be effectively promoted unless the concept of 'spelling management' itself is accepted in principle by an authority such as the NCC. In the longer term, the establishment of some kind of international advisory council for the English language would need to be envisaged.

3. Possible first steps in a gradual approach.

3.1 Educating public opinion
The Simplified Spelling Society's research suggests that, although British public opinion does not as yet consider modernization of spelling as a matter of urgent practical import, it would welcome some rationalization of 'silly spellings'. The Society believes that the potential for public and political assent could be encouraged by building on such currently approved concepts as a 'return to basics' and 'correct spelling'. Firstly, public opinion could be educated as to the nature of the 'basics' by propagating the 10 axioms set out in Part I of this submission (we do not propose to discuss them further here). Secondly, by setting 'correct' spelling as an educational goal, the NCC could guide public opinion and the teaching profession towards a better and more critical understanding of the notion of 'correctness', which we will now explore further.

3.2 The importance of 'correctness'.
The Simplified Spelling Society believes it is important that children learn to spell 'correctly', i.e. according to accepted conventions. We would urge that the reason for this should be made explicit in the NCC's review: children should learn to spell correctly not simply because the authorities say they must, but because the prime purpose of writing is to communicate, and successful communication depends on the writer of the message using the same conventions as the reader. 'Incorrect' or unconventional spelling interferes with, and at worst may even prevent, the communication of the message. Children should be motivated to spell correctly not out of blind obedience, but out of self-interest (successful communication) and consideration for others (their readers).

3.3 Limitations of correctness.
Two natural limitations on correctness need to be taken into account. One is that while learners are still at the second stage (the practice stage) of acquiring literacy skills and until they have reached the third stage (the stage of automaticity), mistakes are a natural part of the learning process. We would not presume to advise teachers on how to treat such errors. The second limitation on correctness is more serious, in principle entirely avoidable, yet an inevitable consequence of the antiquated English spelling system. As the Cox report observed, English spelling is too irregular for any writer (let alone the learner) to be expected never to make spelling mistakes. There is thus a dilemma: correct spelling must be the normal expectation, yet that expectation is at present unreasonable and unrealistic. We think that teachers and learners need the reassurance of knowing that the difficulties they face with English spelling today are inherent in the system's neglect of the alphabetic principle, and are not primarily the result of poor teaching, or of stupidity and laziness on the part of learners. We hope that the NCC will make these points in its review.

3.4 The need to define correctness.
While the long term answer to the dilemma can only be to change the spelling of English so that correctness becomes both normal and realistic, in the short term a closer examination is needed of what 'correctness' can mean in practice. The concept is beset with uncertainty, and we believe that the NCC therefore needs to make a clear statement on the subject in its review. In §3.5 below we show just three examples of the uncertainty surrounding the concept, but at a deeper level there are as many uncertainties about correctness as there are irregularities in English spelling.

3.5 Three examples of uncertainty about correctness.
1. Some conventional spellings are historically 'incorrect'. For instance, the conventional forms scythe, foreign, could, island, which flout the alphabetic principle with their silent <c, g, l, s>, are in fact historically less 'correct' than the alphabetically more consistent forms sythe, iland, coud and forein. Since one of the virtues often claimed for the present spelling of English is that it reflects the history of the language, we must ask whether children should be penalized if their natural inclination to observe the alphabetic principle leads them to use such historically more 'correct' and altogether more regular, although unconventional, spellings as sythe, iland, coud, forein.

2. A very large number of (especially rarer) words in English do not have a fixed, conventional spelling at all. Some more common examples are jail, organize, yogurt, lychee which can also be written as gaol, organise, yoghurt or yoghourt, and lichi, litchi or lichee. The NCC could specify which of such alternative forms is to be taught as 'correct', as determined by a longer term strategy for the modernization of English spelling based upon the alphabetic principle.

3. There is confusion (which can cause learners real distress) between British and American conventions. Should one write traveled, in accordance with the normal rule for <‑ed> endings as the Americans do, or should one insist that British children learn that words ending in unstressed <-el> are exceptions and write travelled (but paralleled as an exception to the exceptions)? (Incidentally, if the form travelled is used, non-native speakers will tend to misconstrue its stress pattern and rhyme it with compelled.) Do British children have to be burdened with learning the arbitrary <pp/p> variation between worshipped/gossiped, when American children enjoy the single pattern of worshiped/gossiped? Can British children be allowed to write program in all cases as the Americans do, or must they learn an additional rule to distinguish computer programs from other programmes?

Again, as part of a longer term strategy, the NCC could specify that children be taught such more regular alternative spellings as may be current anywhere in the world.

The above examples of spelling uncertainties in English that unnecessarily confuse learners represent but a minute fraction of the total. Authorities who dispute this, claiming that English spelling is 'near-optimal' or 'superb', that its irregularity is 'exaggerated' or can be mastered by 'keeping one's head', should be challenged. The Simplified Spelling Society can present copious evidence that they are mistaken (see Bibliography, Section 1).

3.6 Applying the alphabetic principle.
Such spelling variations as were listed in §3.5 above demonstrate that what is commonly thought of as 'correct' spelling is often merely an arbitrary convention, and that when such arbitrariness conflicts with the alphabetic principle, it adds enormously to the difficulties faced by learners. We would urge the NCC to state that 'correct' spelling is to be required of children, but to specify which spellings are to be taught and marked as 'correct'. In recommending one variant rather than another, the NCC should apply the alphabetic principle, and choose the spelling that conforms to the commonest patterns of sound-symbol correspondence in English. Taking the examples listed above in §3.5, the 'correct' forms to be learnt would be jail, organize, yogurt, lychee, traveled, worshiped, program. Such recommendations do of course require expert knowledge of the ramifications of English spelling, and the Simplified Spelling Society would be glad to advise.

3.7 Uncontroversially establishing a radical principle.
Such recommended spellings would scarcely be controversial, as they are all widely used already, but they would apply a principle that has been largely ignored in the spelling of English since 1066. They would in themselves contribute only marginally to improved standards of literacy in the short term, but they would open the door for the extension of the principle to other spellings at a later date, once the principle had been publicly recognized, and thus to a more significant raising of standards eventually. Above all, they would alert the public and the teaching profession to some of the basic principles of good spelling of which there is at present little understanding.

4. Conclusion.

In this submission we have only scratched the surface of a vast subject that has profound implications. No doubt the NCC could take other (perhaps much bolder) steps which would equally point English spelling forward to a better future. But in our judgment the above proposals have special merits: they are sensitive to the likely hostile reaction to any radical changes in English spelling, but would help educate the public and educationists in the true disciplines of a good alphabetic writing system. We would summarize our proposals in the following terms:

1 The NCC should give clear guidance on the 'basics' of spelling, along the lines suggested by our 10 axioms.

2 The NCC should consider the nature of 'correct' spelling, and apply the 'basics' to give appropriate guidance as part of a long-term strategic concept.

Annotated bibliography on English spelling, its problems and some possible solutions

* Authors asterisked are (or were) members of the Simplified Spelling Society

1. General information on the nature of English spelling

*ed. John DOWNING, Comparative Reading, Cross-National Studies of Behavior and Processes in Reading and Writing, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1973 (demonstrates the ease with which literacy skills are achieved in languages with regular spelling systems, compared with English).

*Alfred Charles GIMSON, An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English, London: Edward Arnold, 3rd edition 1980 (lists spelling possibilities for each phoneme).

ed. Tom McARTHUR, The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford University Press, 1992 (separate entries, by *Christopher Upward, on the uses of each letter of the alphabet for spelling English).

Ian MICHAEL, The Teaching of English from the sixteenth century to 1870, Cambridge University Press, 1987 (gives a historical perspective on the confusion English spelling has always caused to both teachers and learners).

David MOSELEY & Catherine NICOL, ACE (Aurally Coded English) Spelling Dictionary, Wisbech: Learning Development Aids, (1986) 1989 (structured analysis of sound-symbol correspondences in English for use by learners).

The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981 (1984) (includes guidance on difficult spellings for professional writers).

Ed. G E POINTON, BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names, Oxford: University Press, 1983 (guidance on how to interpret the spelling of names, for professional speakers).

*Donald G SCRAGG, A history of English spelling, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974 (classic brief history of how English came to be spelt as it is).

*Christopher UPWARD, 'English Spelling and its Reform' in terminologie & traduction, Luxemburg: Commission of the European Communities, 1993/1, forthcoming (the history, problems, and present state of English spelling in an international context, with an outline of the main approaches to its reform).

George H VALLINS, Spelling, André Deutsch, 1954; revised by *Donald G Scragg, 1965 (readable overall survey of structure, history, reform proposals, etc, including chapter on American spelling).

2. Ideas on how English spelling and/or its teaching might be improved.

*Robert BROWN, Spelling reform in context, Simplified Spelling Society, 1991 (a typology, list and bibliography of English spelling reforms).

*John DOWNING, Evaluating the Initial Teaching Alphabet, London: Cassell, 1967 (major research report demonstrating the dramatic advantages of acquiring initial literacy skills in English using a regularized writing system).

*Laurence FENNELLY, New Spelling 90, Simplified Spelling Society, 1991 (updated, popularized version of Ripman/Archer New Spelling, listed below).

Harry LINDGREN, Spelling Reform - a New Approach, Sydney Australia: Alpha Books, 1969 (proposal for one-phoneme-at-a-time regularization of sound-symbol correspondences in English, leading ultimately to total regularization using diacritics).

John Henry MARTIN and Ardy FRIEDBERG, Writing to Read, New York: Warner Books Inc., 1986 (IBM-sponsored system of teaching literacy skills on computer using regularized spelling).

*Sir James PITMAN & John ST JOHN, Alphabets & Reading, London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd, 1969 (broad historical account of writing systems and the psychology of their use, as a basis for explaining the rationale of the initial teaching alphabet).

*Walter RIPMAN and William ARCHER, New Spelling, London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd, 1948, revised by Daniel Jones and Harold Orton (classic system of fully regularized spelling of English using only letters of the traditional alphabet).

*Christopher UPWARD, English Spelling and Educational Progress , CLIE Working Papers No.11, British Association for Applied Linguistics/Linguistics Association of Great Britain, 1988 (refutes recent favourable assessments of English spelling and tries to place it in historical and global context, concluding that it needs to be modernized).

* -, Cut Spelling: a handbook to the simplification of written English by omission of redundant letters, Birmingham: Simplified Spelling Society, 1992 (detailed analysis of redundant letters as the most serious problem of present English spelling, with demonstration of the effects of their removal).

* -, 'Teaching Literacy First, Spelling Second', chapter in Psychology, Spelling & Education , Multilingual Matters, 1992 (describes the successes achieved over the past 150 years whenever literacy skills in English have been taught initially through regularized spelling system).

F W WARBURTON & Vera SOUTHGATE, i.t.a.: An Independent Evaluation, for the Schools Council, London: John Murray and W & R Chambers 1969 (independent confirmation of John Downing's 1967 evaluation of the initial teaching alphabet).

*Axel WIJK, Regularized English, Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1959 (detailed catalogue of the irregularities of English spelling, with suggestions for how symbol-sound, though not sound-symbol, irregularities could be overcome).

3. Some relevant recent articles.

David MOSELEY, 'How Lack of Confidence in Spelling Affects Children's Written Expression' in Educational Psychology in Practice, April 1989 (demonstrates how the irregular spelling of English restricts writers' powers of written expression more generally).

*Gwenllian THORSTAD, 'The effect of orthography on the acquisition of literacy skills' in British Journal of Psychology, 82: 527-37, 1991 (demonstrates the dramatic advantages learners enjoy in acquiring literacy skills in Italian compared with English).

*Christopher UPWARD 'Is English spelling more difficult than German?' in Journal of Research in Reading, 1992/2, pp82-94 (demonstrates how native speakers of English find English spelling to be almost seven times more difficult than German).

* -, 'A simplified spelling answer to literacy problems' in Viewpoints 13 - Methodological Issues in Basic Skills, London: Adult Literacy & Basic Skills Unit, pp28-36, 1992 (discusses some widespread current misapprehensions about the acquisition of literacy skills in English, and suggests how simplified spelling could help overcome the problems).

*Valerie YULE, 'The Design of Spelling to Match Needs and Abilities', in Harvard Educational Review Vol.56, No.3 August 1986, pp278-307 (a humane philosophy of rational spelling design).

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