[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1993/2 pp9-11 later designated J15]
[Chris Upward: see Journals, Newsletters, Leaflets, Media, Pamflet 15, Book, Papers.]

'Quite good' or 'totaly unacceptbl'?

Christopher Upward revews

Spelling it out: the spelling abilities of 11- and 15-year-olds.

by Greg Brooks, Tom Gorman, Lesley Kendall (1993), National Foundation for Educational Research (Slough, Berkshire), 39pp, £5, ISBN 0 7005 1332 9. This revew is ritn in Cut Spelng.

Th study.

Readrs ho hav not previusly considrd th importnce of spelng err analysis for questions of spelng policy cud do worse than start with this butifuly desk-top-publishd study. Its lucid styl, clear and wel-explaind statisticl charts, and helpful hedngs make it a plesur to read. It has receved publicity as a fresh contribution to current debates on litracy standrds in England, and concludes that standrds ar 'quite good' (§4.2). Th reserch is based on a corpus of 3,342 spelng errs, wich is substantialy larjr than th undr 2,000 examnd in th Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J6 1987/3, pp21-24. Th errs wer colectd from short exerpts from nearly 1,500 texts ritn by 11- and 15-year-olds in four difrnt years in th period 1979-88.

Th questions and th ansrs.

Besides givng a brod pictur of spelng standrds, th study askd wethr certn variabls (aje and sex of riters, dificlty of topic, year of composition) wud be reflectd in difrnt err frequencis found in th scripts. Som of th variabls showd up clearly (as one wud expect): 15-year-olds spelt betr than 11-year-olds, girls spelt betr than boys, and esir subject matr containd fewr mispelngs than mor dificlt. One wondrs howevr wethr th comparisn of standrds by aje was fair to th 11-year-olds, as th 15-year-olds wer askd to rite a story as tho for a 4-year-old audience, wich shud hav encurajd them to strive for childish vocablry hos spelng they ot to hav mastrd many years befor. Th difrng years of composition wer examnd for any syns of a chanje of spelng standrds over th 10 years concernd.

If ther had been a markd chanje, th results wud hav add furthr evidnce to th public debate on litracy standrds jenrly; but altho ther wer som syns of improved performnce of 11 year olds from 1979 to 1988, th authrs express resrvations, sayng that th improvemnt may hav been du to samplng difrnces. This then rases th question wethr a survey of errs made by som hundreds of pupils can posbly demnstrate a nationl trend, even wen they constitute a 'nationly representativ sampl'.

Classification of errs.

Of most intrest to readrs unfamilir with spelng err analysis wil be th tecniqes for classifyng errs. Trubl was taken over a watrtyt defnition of a 'mispelng', with an 'agreemnt trial' beforhand to ensure al th script-markrs wer asesng errs in th same way. Words with 2 mispelngs wer countd twice, but discrimnation was needd in a case like *thort for thought, wher it was decided that esentialy only one err (a singl 'grafeme substitution') had been made, rathr than two, or thre, for the number of letters mispelt. Each err was classifyd undr one of th foloing 'major err categris' wich describe th typ of letr-misuse that constituted th err:

1) insertion (eg *untill for until),
2) omission (eg *occuring for occurring),
3) substitution (eg *definate for definite),
4) transposition (eg *freind for friend), and
5) grafeme substitution, as in *thort for thought.

Altho such categris ar comnly used in spelng-err analysis, we shud realize that they ar of limitd explanatry powr: they tel us wat kinds of errs wer made, but not wy they wer made. It is th causes of err that shud be our primary concern. Here wat th report merely cals 'minor err categris' ar of much gretr significnce. These categris classify errs undr th hedngs 'homofones', 'real words', 'efects of pronunciation', 'dubld letrs', 'silent letrs', 'majic e', 'shwa vowls', 'transposition of i and e'. These ar al featurs of english spelng wich ar comnly observd to trip peple up. It wud hav been useful if these categris had also been cross-refrnced against th categry of 'redundncy', to se how many of th errs involvd redundnt letrs (wich is wat Cut Spelng specificly targets); past studis sujest th numbr myt hav been in th rejon of 65% of th total numbr of errs.

Dubius statistics.

Th study provides evidnce for asesng curent litracy standrds in England, and readrs wil natrly look to se wat spelng standrds wer found. It is therfor unfortunat that, to save time, th reserchrs used a countng method wich seriusly blurs th results. They countd th errs in th first 10 lines ritn by each pupil, and not from a fixd numbr of words (say, th first 100). Consequently, wen th covr of th report reasuringly tels us "over half the scripts contained only one error or none in the first 10 lines", this dosnt actuly say how err-prone th pupils riting was. Larj handriting with 5 errs in 50 words spred over 10 lines was thus deemd to be of th same standrd as 5 errs in 100 words of smal handriting. It may also be that certn categris of riter tend to hav larjr handriting than othr categris: perhaps yungr riters rite larjr than oldr, or girls larjr than boys, or less skild riters larjr than mor skild. Th reserchrs did considr this question, but decided it was not a significnt variabl. It is dificlt not to conclude this misjujmnt that invalidates ther results.

How bad is 'quite good'?

Once one realizes that an importnt part of th statistics thus laks a firm numericl basis, one looks again at th claims that standrds ar "quite good", that ther is a "very lo mean numbr of errs" (§3.1), and that most pupils "can sho control over a gret deal of th english spelng systm" (§4.2). Th study found an avraj of 2.2 mispelngs per 10 lines of riting, wich (for th sake of argumnt) myt hav containd an avraj of 66 words. That wud mean that pupils wer on avraj mispelng one word in evry 30 they rote. Anothr conclusion in th report (§3.2) states that only 6% of pupils ar making frequent errs by the end of compulsry scool; so evidntly one word in, say, 30 mispelt is not considrd 'frequent'. Othr jujmnts made by th reserchrs similrly tendd to produce mor favorabl results than one myt feel wer justifyd. Punctuation errs wer excluded. Riting 'of' insted of 'have' was rated a syntactic err, not a mispelng (by that argumnt, confusion of there/their myt be ignord as merely syntactic too). And al th riting was of an elementry kind, ie it did not relate to any of th pupils scool subjects othr than english. Wen one takes al this into acount, th pictur looks far less reasuring than th reports conclusions imply.

Lo expectations.

In th presnt crisis of english (british? americn? english-speakng?) education, a constnt coment is how lo expectations ar in England, compared with those on th european contnnt or in japan. Regretbly, th NFER study of spelng standrds bers furthr witness to those lo expectations. Even if english teenajers only mispelt one word in 50 wen riting elementry english, that wud surely be an indictmnt of 6 (or 10) years of litracy teachng. Th fact is that, in english, peple ar ofn unable to rite words proprly (or at al - se David Moseleys findngs on how pupils avoid using dificlt spelngs in ther riting), wich they ar perfectly capabl of thinkng and speakng. This is a severe limitation on th potential for litracy, and shud be regardd as an absurd and unacceptbl situation. Yet th litrat classes stil seem larjly oblivius to th problm. Th presnt riter did not spot a singl mispelng in th 39 pajes of th report undr revew, and th authrs no dout took care to ensure acuracy. Yet they describe as 'quite good' th fact that undr 25% of 11-year-olds and undr 40% of 15-year-olds manajd to acheve th same standrd wen riting just 10 lines on th most undemandng of subjects. Wy this discrepncy of expectations?

Inadequat undrstandng.

Conspiracy theorists put it down to th educated tryng to keep th uneducated in ther place, and ther ar indeed teachrs ho fear improved litracy wil undrmine ther own status. A mor charitbl vew wil note that, in th english-speakng world, a profoundly iregulr spelng systm obstructs undrstandng of how an alfabetic riting systm shud work. Th very title of th NFER study demnstrates this: it refers to th 'spelng abilitis' of 11- and 15-years-olds, wen in fact it is concernd not with their abilitis, but with ther performnce. Ability and performnce, as educationists shud no, ar by no means always th same thing. Othrwise Thorstads findings on litracy aquisition in England and Itly wud mean that italian children hav an inate speling ability sevrl times gretr than ther english countrparts. But of corse english children ar not stupidr than italians - they just face an infnitly hardr task wen lernng to read and rite; and wen th task is made esir, ther performnce improves acordngly (se Downing on th Initial Teaching Alphabet).

Anothr area of inadequat undrstandng concerns th fonics versus visul stratejis debate. On p13 th report cals for teachng to incorprate "not just fonic but also visul stratejis" (an od ordr of precednce, in vew of recent prioritis in teachng methodolojy), and one of th reports conclusions hylytd on th covr is that "many of the errors involved misapplicaton of phonic or 'sounding-out' strategies". Yet in one form or anothr this argumnt about a fonic versus visul aproach has been going on for over 400 years (se Ian Michaels histry of english teachng), and as th one aproach is found unsatisfactry, so th pendulum swings bak to th othr. But just as th ke to th success of th weel was that it is round, so th ke to th success of th alfabet is that th visul and th fonic shud reinforce each othr. In modrn english th two al too ofn contradict each othr insted. Until they ar betr harmnized, litracy standrds can nevr be as hy as in most othr languajs. Th systm generates cognitive confusion: it is just not user-frendly.

Diagnosis without treatmnt.

Th NFER study presents fresh and useful data in an atractiv manr. Its garddly optimistic verdict on current litracy trends is howevr not suportd by its evidnce. Mor seriusly, it was soon exajrated in th media, wen Profesr Brian Cox, editr of th 1989 'Cox Report', claimd on television that th study showd a larj improvemnt in spelng standrds. But if its verdict is questionbl, its analysis of errs provides a useful diagnosis of th disese. It is to be hoped that one consequence of th presnt crisis wil be that litracy professionls wil begin to look beyond th symtms and ask about causes and cures. Th analysis of 'minor err categris' in th presnt study sets out along th road towards establishng causes - but th idea of cures apears not yet to impinj on its discorse. Th spelng reform movemnt stil has evrything to ofr!

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