[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1993/2 p22-24 later designated J15]
[See summary of the proposals.
[See Journal and Newsletter articles, Pamflet 15 and Cut Spelling by Chris Upward.]
The Simplified Spelling Society's response.
to proposals for English spelling contained in
English for ages 5 to 16 (1993).
Chris Upward.(The Response is divided into sections A, C, D as requested by the Department for Education.)
Our response is confined to Sections A, C and D, but within these sections most of our observations do not fall neatly under any one of the Codes (A1, C3, etc), and we have therefore numbered them in sequence A-i, A-ii etc, in the order that the points arose from our reading of the Proposals. We hope this arrangement does not make processing our response difficult.
Section A: General issues.A-i "Pupils to develop to the full their ability"
All experience and research shows that the present spelling of English represents a major obstacle to the achievement of the admirably stated aim of enabling "all pupils to develop to the full their ability to use and understand English ... in reading and writing". The new emphasis on phonics must be expected to highlight this conflict even more sharply than before between the aim and the medium through which it has to be achieved. We would urge the Curriculum and Assessment authorities formally to evaluate the extent of this problem as a preliminary to considering how it might best be tackled.
It appears to us that the problem of the Manageability of the literacy programme should be considered the other way round. The problem is not primarily, as implied, that the National Curriculum is too broad to allow time for the proper acquisition of literacy skills, but that the acquisition of literacy skills is taking too much time for the full breadth of the National Curriculum to be implemented. What has to be asked is why, when in many other languages the acquisition of basic literacy skills is a straightforward task that occupies only the initial stage of schooling, it takes so much longer and causes so much more trouble in English. The answer is implicit in the NC Proposals themselves when they still, in all seriousness, have to envisage pupils learning to spell words at Level 6: the present spelling of English confuses beginners, holds back older pupils, restricts expression, generates countless errors, and is an impediment to learning in all subjects. What the Proposals are in effect saying is that, because literacy acquisition is so time-consuming in English, pupils must receive a narrower education than originally thought appropriate. There is here a conflict of educational objectives which a country with high educational aspirations needs to resolve. See also our comment D-vi on this point.
A-iii Explaining the rationale behind phonics.
The SSS welcomes the new emphasis on phonics as the foundation for literacy acquisition. We think the importance of phonics should however not simply be asserted, but explained in terms of learner psychology. In Section C-i below we suggest some points that could be made. We consider this an important precaution, as phonics will be found not to be the panacea some may imagine, and educators need to understand why, despite its limitations and pitfalls in English, it is nevertheless essential to the learning process.
A-iv Training needs.
Recent reports have suggested that many recently trained teachers feel unprepared for literacy teaching in general, let alone a phonics approach in particular. This is not surprising, since not merely are teachers themselves naturally as uncertain about English spelling as most people, but there is little explicit understanding of English spelling available on which their training might draw, and myths are widespread (eg 'English spelling is not as irregular as is sometimes claimed', 'Shakespeare couldn't spell', 'the spelling of other languages is just as difficult as English', etc, etc). If higher standards of spelling accuracy are required, then teachers at all levels will need appropriate training, for which appropriate training programmes will then need to be developed.
A-v Psychological unity of reading and writing.
Although the insistence on phonics represents a crucial advance in the recognition of learner psychology, we believe further steps in this direction are needed. The first of these would be to recognize and exploit the essential psychological unity of the processes of learning to read and to write. These processes take place within the same brains and involve the same writing system, yet the Proposals scarcely seem to take account of the way they interact. We would mention two specific examples of this hiatus. Firstly, AT2 (Reading) mentions the learning of sight vocabulary without reference to spelling; but learning to spell words is the most direct and accurate way of acquiring sight vocabulary, as it entails learning by active involvement in the spelling rather than just its passive registration (in Section C-ii we call for a clearer statement of what is to be understood by 'sight vocabulary' anyway). Secondly, AT3 refers to the spelling of categories of words to be mastered for certain levels in the Curriculum; but pupils will often already have encountered such words in reading; and that experience that could be regarded as a first step towards mastering their spelling.
A-vi Learning psychology requires regular spelling.
It is the mission of the SSS to draw attention to the difficulties of English spelling, and to try and persuade the relevant authorities to consider strategies for their alleviation. The reason why literacy is currently such an issue in English speaking countries is that the present irregular spelling makes satisfactory standards of education impossible to achieve for a large percentage of learners. Failure can cause reactive behaviour disturbance or depression, and there is even some evidence that the developing intellect of learners is actually damaged by the attempt to master English spelling as it now is. The psychology of learners (based on the neuro-physiology of memory acquisition) and of all users of writing systems cries out for regular spelling. Although it is clear that the forthcoming revised Order for English in the National Curriculum cannot now go to the root of the problem, the SSS will continue to make this point.
A-vii Varying standards.
An important question which appears to us not to be addressed in the Proposals concerns the standard of proficiency in English spelling which can reasonably be expected from pupils of different ages, and in particular, of different levels of ability. The blanket aim of 'correct spelling' cannot be applied in English as it can in many languages: while one may expect an able A-level candidate to make perhaps no more than one misspelling in a page of relatively sophisticated writing, such expectations are unrealistic at younger ages and for less able pupils, especially those who need special tuition. The crux of the dilemma is this: pupils with good visual memories (to say nothing of other advantages) will achieve higher standards of accuracy in spelling more quickly than less advantaged pupils; to achieve the same standards, those less advantaged will therefore need more time - at the expense of other learning; so how much more time does the National Curriculum recommend be so spent? In a nutshell: how long should any pupil spend mastering, say, the different endings of assistant, consistent, persistent, resistant, instead of acquiring other knowledge or skills? Teachers need to know when time spent on spelling should be considered time wasted.
A-viii Phonics for writing.
We note that the Proposals link phonics particularly to reading skills. Phonics is however no less relevant to writing.
Section C: AT2 Reading.C-i Explaining the psychological necessity for Phonics
We feel that the necessity for phonics needs explaining, as the irregularity of English spelling has long prevented a proper understanding of the role of phonics. Such an explanation will also help teachers acquire a 'conceptual map of reading (and writing) development'. The following may be thought useful points to make:
1. Phonics is the psychologically natural starting point for the acquisition of literacy skills. It starts with what is familiar: the sounds which pre-school children produce and understand in speech. The first step is thus to teach pupils to identify those sounds. Phonics then proceeds from what is familiar to what is new: the relationship between those sounds and the letters of the alphabet.
2. Phonics provides a firm cognitive foundation and training in accurate observation which will stand pupils in good stead in facing the cognitive confusion of English spelling.
3. Phonics provides a simple system of rules which enables learners easily to master the correct reading and writing of a significant proportion of English words, ie those that are spelt in accordance with those rules. The fact that phonics fails with many other English words is the fault not of phonics, but of the irregular spelling of those words.
4. An essential literacy skill is the ability to read and write unknown or less familiar words, as well as words out of context. Phonics provides a necessary, if in English often insufficient, tool for the de- and en-coding of such words.
5. Phonics provides a systematic insight into the phonological structure of English. That will also help pupils articulate clearly, understand the morphology of words, and refine their appreciation of the language generally.
6. Knowledge of phonics is essential in learning foreign languages. The ability to apply phonic analysis to English can then be transferred to the sound-symbol correspondences of other writing systems.
C-ii 'Sight vocabulary' an unclear concept.
It appears to us that more thought should be given to the implications of 'sight vocabulary'. For the fluent reader all commonly occurring words constitute 'sight vocabulary', whereas for the absolute beginner there is no 'sight vocabulary'. The question is: how can unfamiliar spellings be best transferred to the steadily growing 'bank' of pupils' sight vocabulary? The Proposals refer to the 'teaching' of sight vocabulary, which suggests a 'look-and-say' or 'psycholinguistic guessing game' approach to the precise written form of words which sits ill with a phonics-based approach and is detrimental to the aim of correct spelling. It is over-reliance on 'sight vocabulary' that in the past has led to difficulty in distinguishing similar pairs such as quiet/quite, cloud/could, infection/injection. Perhaps it is only intended that teaching 'sight vocabulary' should apply to irregular spellings which are not readily amenable to phonic analysis; but if pupils are to spell correctly, it is surely better that they learn to recognize words like once, who, ought by writing them, than that they learn to recognize them as 'sight vocabulary' without being able to spell them.
We wonder why 'print' in particular is referred to more than once in the Proposals as the target of learning to read. The target is written language in general, whether printed or not.
C-iv 'Initial' or 'medial'?
P4, §6.7 of the Proposals ends with the parenthesis "(eg the identification of initial and final sounds in words)". Initial sounds were already discussed in the same sentence, so we assume 'initial' is printed here in error for 'medial'. Phonics requires a grasp of the tripartite structure of most syllables (initial, medial and final segments, typically CVC or Consonant + Vowel + Consonant), but we could not find the term 'medial' mentioned anywhere in the Proposals.
C-v Why reading schemes are needed in English.
We would point out that reading schemes are needed chiefly because the irregularity of English spelling makes free-range reading difficult for early learners. We understand that reading schemes are not used, for instance, in Italian because such restrictions on pupils' reading are unnecessary in writing systems based on regular sound-symbol correspondence.
C-vi Greek spelling for vocabulary enrichment.
We note (p5, §6.18) that the spelling strand terminates at level 6, but that vocabulary enrichment is here emphasized, presumably as a continuing task. At some point, it seems to us, vocabulary enrichment requires systematic examination of the spelling of Greek-derived words in English. Greek-derived words are central to the more learned (eg scientific) vocabulary of English, yet their patterns of sound-symbol correspondence (eg words such as diphthong, psychology) frequently conflict with those of other categories of English vocabulary. This point is equally relevant to AT2 and AT3.
C-vii Reading skills taught or acquired by practice?
On p28 it is stated that "pupils learn to read when they are taught the necessary skills". We think this should be rephrased if it is match the 'conceptual map of reading development' teachers need. Skills are essentially acquired through practice. What pupils have to be taught is the cognitive basis of what they are to practise. While phonics is central to this cognitive basis, the irregularity of English spelling generates cognitive confusion, and thereby constitutes for most pupils a major obstacle which has to be overcome. Insight into the rules, followed by practice, however laborious and however frustrating, is the only way to overcome it.
C-viii Experimenting with sound-symbol relationships in writing.
We wonder if this reference, which comes on p28 under AT2, rather belongs under AT3. We support experimenting with sound-symbol relationships to help pupils develop both strategies for spelling less familiar words, and a critical understanding of the problems of English spelling, and a willingness to consider how these problems could best be eliminated. Nevertheless, experimentation needs to be pursued selectively and with caution: with regular spellings, it provides useful practice in the application of phonics, but if applied to irregularly spelt words, it is bound to interfere with the aim of 'correct' spelling. Our view, which we set out in detail in our submission to the NCC in October 1992, is that the concept of 'correct' spelling in English is at present profoundly flawed, and needs to be re-appraised.
C-ix Reading common usage words aloud in narrative.
P29, SoA says "Pupils should be able to read aloud a minimum of 30 common usage words in a simple short narrative". We do not see how pupils' ability to read such words can be tested in a narrative, where context and guesswork can conceal the inability to recognize words of all kinds. Reading words without a context is a vital literacy skill whose importance has been underestimated in recent years. If pupils can read words without a context, they can read them in context; but the reverse does not hold good. Nor do we understand how reading words in a context relates to 'sight vocabulary', when presumably the latter is envisaged as not having a context.
C-x What are 'irregular words'?
P30 states that pupils should "learn common irregular words". This needs clarifying. Are 'irregular spellings' meant? Does 'learning' them mean learning to recognize them in context, and/or out of context, or learning to spell them? The latter would help ensure that recognition both in and out of context was learnt too. The National Curriculum will also need to list which common words are 'irregular', as there is at present no agreed definition of which they are, nor indeed of what is meant by 'regularity' either (see our comment D-x for an example of the Proposals' confusion on this point, resulting from this lack of a definition).
C-xi How can unknown spellings be checked in a dictionary?
We are surprised that pupils should be expected to check spellings in a dictionary at KS1 (p30, Level 2). (Does this perhaps belong under AT3, rather than AT2, anyway?) We have more to say about this under D-xii.
C-xii Only teaching 'about' inconsistencies?
We find this statement on p30 epitomizes a problem which we referred to under C-x above and will discuss more directly in connection with AT3 below. The irregularities of English spelling are inadequately dealt with in the Proposals. Does this statement mean that pupils have to memorize the inconsistencies, or just to know that inconsistencies exist? 'Correct' spelling would require the former.
Section D: Writing (mainly spelling).D-i How realistic is the aim of 'correct spelling' in English?
As explained in our submission to the NCC in October 1992, we are strongly in favour of pupils being able to spell correctly. However, whether such an aim is realistic depends very much on how 'correctness' is defined. We would recall the words of the Cox Report (§17.33): "The aim cannot be the correct unaided spelling of any English word - there are too many words ... that can catch out even the best speller." The present Proposals only refer marginally to the learning of irregular spellings (indeed several of the examples given suggest that the nature of spelling irregularity has not been understood - see D-v and D-x below) and do not discuss the difficulties they give rise to. If 'correct spelling' is to be an aim of the National Curriculum, these difficulties must be fully acknowledged and their implications thought through. We discuss a number of aspects of the problem in the following paragraphs.
D-ii What order of difficulty?
While spellings have to be taught in order of difficulty, we doubt the practicality of scheduling by word structure (eg monosyllabic, polysyllabic), which does not correspond to the real-life experience of children in the classroom and in the world outside school. It implies that children will not have access, either in reading or in writing, to the full vocabulary of English which in practice they may encounter or wish to use at any time. In particular, it raises the problem of incorrect spelling. If pupils are not expected to spell, say, polysyllabic words correctly below Level 3, then teachers will face a choice: either they should forbid pupils to use such words, or they will have to allow incorrect (or 'experimental') spelling, or else require them to ask an adult for the correct form. Yet for children to be forbidden to use certain kinds of words must be an intolerable constraint, while first to acquire the habit of incorrect spellings is clearly not conducive to correct spelling at a later stage. This dilemma is inherent in the present spelling of English, and it needs to be acknowledged as such by the National Curriculum if pupils and teachers struggling with English spelling are not to be excessively demoralized. They need to realize that their difficulties and the contradictions in what they are trying to achieve are not their fault, but the fault of the currently 'correct' spelling.
D-iii Categories of spelling difficulty.
Concern with correct spelling should mean concern with those spelling patterns which are most error-prone. The following aspects of English spelling pose particular problems which the National Curriculum needs explicitly to address:
- Almost all spelling patterns in English can represent more than one sound, many of them many different sounds. How and when are they to be learnt? How far can the Phonics programme deal with them?
- Almost all sounds in English can be spelt in more than one way, many of them in many different ways. Over 400 such spelling patterns can be listed, most of which apply unpredictably to different words (eg why receipt but not *conceipt, *deceipt?). How and when are they to be learnt, and in particular what is the best way to learn which pattern is correct for which word?
- Many of the most elementary words in English have spellings that confuse the beginner and ensure a shaky start to the process of literacy acquisition for many learners: one, two, four, once, who, come, does, could, they, all, where, their are some well-known examples. How and when are such spellings to be learnt?
- Related words can vary unpredictably in spelling: compare comparative/ comparison, four/ forty, fire/ fiery, high/ height, precede/ proceed/ procedure, speak/ speech. How and when are such variations to be learnt?
- Suffixes affect words in unpredictable ways: past/ passed, rapt/ wrapped, coming/ homing/humming, ageing/ raging, singing/ singeing/hinging, abusing/ busing/focus(s)ing, befitting/ benefiting/inviting, debatable/ traceable, eatable/ edible. How and when are such variations to be learnt?
- Many words have alternative spellings: gaol/ jail, organize/ organise, yoghourt/ yoghurt/ yogurt, guerilla/ guerrilla. If children are to be allowed such alternatives, how and when can they learn not to write accomodate, a commonly seen alternative to accommodate?
- British pupils facing spellings like septic/ sceptic/ sceptre, travelled/ traveller/ travelling, vigour/ vigorous have more irregularities to learn than Americans with septic/ skeptic/ scepter, traveled/ traveler/ traveling, vigor/vigorous. How and when are British pupils to be taught that the more regular American spellings they naturally often prefer are wrong?
- How can pupils be taught when and where to insert silent letters, and which ones? When to write strait and when straight, and whether straitjacket or straightjacket? Whether it is gauge or guage, gaurd or guard, biusness, buisness or business, biuld or build? And how to spell the /th/ in eighth, the /r/ in colonel and the /f/ in lieutenant?
- How and when can pupils be taught the correct vowel letter(s) to use before the final R of briar/brier, adapter/adaptor, vicar/soccer, enter/centre, miner/ minor, vigour (despite vigorous), honour (and honourable, but honorary), figure, murder/ murmur, barter/ martyr and the literally thousands of words for which just one of these endings is correct and the others all incorrect?
- How and when can pupils be taught which words have double consonants? And that affraid/ afray, abbridge/ abreviate, embarass/ harrass, ommit/ comit/ vommit, inocuous/ innoculate are all incorrect?
- How can pupils starting to learn a foreign language be taught which of the following spellings is correct in which language: carot, carrot, carott, carrote, carotte, carrotte? Comitee, commitee, comittee, committee? Personal, personnal, personel, personnel, personell? Negociate, negotiate? Accommodation, accomodation, acommodation, acomodation? Responsable, responsible? French, french, Français, français?
D-iv Names and sounds of letters.
When it is suggested (SoA, p51) that pupils "add the letters of the alphabet to an illustrated version of the poem 'A Was an Apple Pie'", the Proposals should warn of the phonic confusion liable to arise from associating letter-names with sounds (especially vowels). In this case, for instance, 'A was an Ancient Ape' would avoid this difficulty. Similarly (p29), highlighting the initial letters or children's names needs to be done selectively: Celia, Christopher, George, Philip for instance are known trouble-makers.
D-v Dubious examples of regular spellings.
The SoA for spelling on p55 includes the words because, animal among examples of "polysyllabic words which conform to regular patterns". They are not: with its common pronunciation rhyming with was, Boz, the spelling because is unique - its closest (but still inexact) parallels are sausage, Aussie, but they certainly do not constitute a regular pattern; and animal contains two major unpredictabilities, <n> rather than <nn> (cf anniversary), and <i> rather than another vowel - it thus appears scarcely more regular than *annemal would be. Such spellings have to be learnt individually, and not by 'regular patterns'. That is why they are difficult.
D-vi Overdrawing the "bank of words which pupils can spell correctly"
The contradictions between the "bank of words which pupils can spell correctly" (p58), "correct spelling", and the overall aim of enabling "all pupils to develop to the full their ability to use and understand English ... in reading and writing" are glaring. It is an absurdity and a scandal ("an insult to human intelligence" - Mario Wandruschka) that English spelling does not allow writers to spell correctly, without reference to a dictionary, whatever words they wish to use. The curriculum and assessment authorities of all English-speaking countries should adopt as a long term aim the simplification of English spelling, so that it ceases to be the obstacle to education which it is today.
D-viii Dictionary listings.
Not all dictionaries list loveliness under lovely, as stated on p58. Some list these words in alphabetical order.
D-ix Misapplying misapplied generalizations.
The SoA on p59 lists some fairly regular instances of consonant doubling and vowel deletion to be learnt for KS2. At what stage, however, should pupils be able to distinguish the single and doubled consonants of such spellings as gossiping/ worshipping, galloping/ kidnapping, travelling/ paralleling, having/ revving etc? Should pupils write busing/ gasing or bussing/ gassing? The case of verbs ending in L like travel is especially problematic, since British spelling here misapplies the generalization that verbs ending in an unstressed syllable do not double their final consonant (eg visit/ visiting, compel/ compelling, but travel/ travelling); should British pupils be penalized for misapplying the misapplied generalization, and writing traveling as Americans do?
D-x Difficult regularities and simple irregularities.
The SoA on p65 lists accommodation, acquaintance, irrelevant as not conforming to regular patterns; but that depends on a how one defines regularity (hence the importance of defining the term, as mentioned in C-x). If regularity means (as it surely must in English) the most common spelling pattern for a given sound in a given context, then the above spellings are not irregular at all. The reason why those words are so prone to misspelling is that the regular spellings they use are not the simplest way of representing the sounds they contain: it is rather the simpler alternatives which are the irregular spellings in these cases. Such paradoxes are characteristic of the present spelling of English and naturally the cause of great learning difficulty. Their resolution should therefore be a prime objective of an effective policy for improved literacy in the English speaking world. Specifically, the single <m> in comic is irregular (but much easier to spell) compared with the regular pattern of <mm> in accommodation; the <aqu> in aquatic is irregular (but much easier to spell) compared with the regular pattern of <acqu> in acquaintance; and the <ir> in Iran is irregular (but much easier to spell) compared with the regular pattern of <irr> in irrelevant. In our view, children should be taught that accomodation (cf Spanish acomodación), aquaintance, irelevant are correct spellings, and that accommodation, acquaintance, irrelevant are merely archaic variants they may encounter in print; in this way simplicity of sound-symbol correspondence would combine with regularity, instead of conflicting with it. (Of course, accommodation, acquaintance, irrelevant also contain other difficulties besides those discussed here.) If children were taught that such simpler spellings were 'correct', not merely would higher standards of literacy be achieved in less time, but the value of phonics in the learning process would be greatly enhanced. In fact the spelling difficulties of innumerable English words could be quite easily simplified along such lines, and so made more appropriate for a society that desperately needs the highest possible standards of literacy.
D-xi What are sight rhymes?
On p66 tough, rough, slough are described as 'sight rhymes', when in fact (assuming slough = 'to shed', not 'a swamp') they are full (ie sight and sound) rhymes. Examples of pure sight rhymes are bough, tough, trough, though, through, thorough. Sight rhymes (indeed all GH spellings) are a further symptom of the chaos of English spelling and yet another obstacle to literacy acquisition. To be fully effective, phonics would require that rhymes align in both sound and spelling - and that the letters represent the sounds in the simplest possible way.
D-xii The difficulty of checking English spellings in dictionaries.
Checking spellings in a dictionary is difficult in English, unless a specialized dictionary such as the ACE Aurally Coded English Dictionary is used. It is one of the most tantalizing consequences of the irregularity of English spelling that one can only be sure of finding a word in an ordinary dictionary if one already knows its spelling. Pupils certainly need to know how to use dictionaries - but we wonder how many by KS2 could find such words as colonel, nephew, saucer, wring, which are precisely the kind of words most likely to need checking. We think the considerable difficulty of checking spellings in an English dictionary should be acknowledged. The use of electronic spelling checkers should perhaps also be mentioned in this context.
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