[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J18 1995/1 p37-41]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles, Pamflet 15, Cut Spelling and Papers by Chris Upward.]

No ansrs here yet.

Christopher Upward revews,

Carol Elkinsmyth & John Bynner The Basic Skills of Young Adults.

London: The Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit (ALBSU), February 1994, 118pp, ISBN 1 870741 80 3, £6.

This revew has benefitd from discussion with ALBSU and is ritn in Cut Spelng.

1. Th (in-)significnce of surveys.

In its J8 1988/2 issu (p32) th Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society revewd th 1987 ALBSU report Literacy, Numeracy and Adults, wich was based on a survey carrid out in 1981. Th report anlyzd th deficits in litracy and numeracy of a sampl of evry persn born in England, Scotland and Wales in one week in 1958, and noted that 13% of respondnts stated they had dificltis with one or mor of these basic skils.

Th new ALBSU report, publishd in febry 1994, and based on a 1992 survey, reachs virtuly th same conclusion in its study of peple born in 1970: this time 12% declared they had dificltis. Besides askng respondnts to asess ther own dificltis (self-asesmnt), th intrvewrs set them a 30-minut test to provide an objectiv asesmnt of ther standrds. Th disparitis between th subjectiv and objectiv responses ar th subject of som intrestng analysis, as outlined in §3 belo. Th reports findngs ar presentd in 6 short chaptrs, each with sevrl subhedngs that clearly structur th infrmation. Both litracy and numeracy ar covrd, but in this revew we shal concentrate on th implications of th litracy findngs. Th chaptr titles reflect a strong emfasis on th social dimension of basic skils deficits, and ar as folos:

1. Background to the study.
2. Who has problems?
3. What are the difficulties?
4. Basic skills and working life.
5. Basic skills and personal life.
6. Conclusion.

First impressions of th hole report ar of atractiv layout and admrbl lucidity of presntation, with straitforwrd tables and charts bakd up by discussion of th findngs. Howevr, wethr because of th presnt revewrs obtuseness or because of lak of space in th report for ful explnations, closer examnation did sujest that perhaps not al th detail was quite so tidily workd out. Ther apear for instnce to be som statisticl discrepncis: did th survey hav contact adresses for over 10,000 membrs of th cohort (p11) or only for 8,175 (p68); and if 9% males and 6% females ansr a question rongly (p33), surely th joint figr shud be in th rejon of 7-8%, not 17%? Nor was it always esy to folo th analysis or interpret th data in its finer points, as wen th shocards on pp105-111 wer printd in th rong ordr. But such minor shortcomngs scarcely detract from th overal impact of th report.

With th reports findngs esentialy replicating those publishd in 1987, we ar bound to ask wethr th new survey was justifyd. But obviusly no one cud no in advance that th new results wud be so simlr to th old, and it was certnly useful to establish wethr a mesurbl improvemnt or decline in standrds had taken place between th two surveys. Th report dos not atemt any deepr, causl analysis of th results, but we may wondr if th 1% improvemnt (13% declaring dificltis in 1981 reducing to 12% in 1992) myt concevebly reflect th quite wide experience of th Initial Teachng Alfabet enjoyd by children around 1975-76, wen th respondnts wer ajed 5-6. But as we shal se in §3 belo, th figrs conceald such a larj grey area that a mere 1% difrnce dos not in fact alow such interpretations.

It is importnt that litracy standrds ar monitrd from jenration to jenration, but also that posbl reasns for any chanje ar explord. It is especialy importnt that simlr surveys ar carrid out in th comng decades, as we need to no whethr th fluctuations in educationl policy and litracy-teachng methodolojy of th past 15 years in England and Wales hav afectd th litracy standrds of th jenrations concernd. And if chanjes ar identifyd, then it is esential that futur reports considr th posbl reasns. We myt alredy speculate that yung adlts in th year 2000 wil sho a decline in standrds reflectng th fashn for 'fonics-fobic' teachng methods in th 1980s, such as 'real books', 'hole languaj', etc, and that yung adlts in th year 2010 wil sho an improvemnt resultng from th firmr groundng in fonics required by th english/welsh education authoritis today. Syns of a corelation between teachng methods and litracy standrds cud be profoundly significnt, and if they ar reveald by futur surveys, th conclusions they sujest shud help gide litracy policy.

2. Brodr perspectivs.

A furthr justification for th 'repeat' survey of 1994 is that th publicity shud help remind public and politicians alike of a continuing problm. Howevr, if we ar proprly to apreciate th significnce of th repeat findngs, we need to take a brodr vew than ALBSU dos, and ask wethr th litracy problms reveald ar repeatd not merely historicly, but also jeograficly. Sure enuf, othr english-speakng cuntris hav simlr worris. New Zealand is welnown for its extravagnt remedial sceme 'Readng Recovry', wich has atractd som politicl suport in Britn (tho recent reports sujest that finance is now being withdrawn); and in th USA litracy standrds ar a matr of extreme concern. A 1983 report ('A Nation at Risk') produced undr th Reagan administration was subsequently ecod by a 4-year study publishd in septembr 1993 undr Presidnt Clinton. Th sampl for th latest americn study was many times larjr than that of th ALBSU survey (26,000 compared with around 1,600), and produced simlr conclusions. Not merely did 10% of respondnts say they had dificlty with readng and riting, but objectiv tests showd mor like 20% functionng at th loest of 5 levls, with anothr 20% at th next loest levl and 30% at th midl levl, with only about 30% at th two hyest levls. Th New York Times playd up th seriusness of th problm with th hedline "Study Says Half of Adults in U.S. Can't Read." As in Britn, a particulr cause of concern was that lo educationl standrds wer perceved as a brake on ecnomic performnce, especialy vis-à-vis competitr cuntris.

Particulrly these americn findngs promt th question wethr ALBSU is liasing with othr english-speakng cuntris. If not, it wud seem sensbl that som coordnation shud be developd. Coordnated surveys cud sho how far litracy problms ar comn to th hole english-speakng world, and how far ther ar variations between educationl systms. If ther ar significnt variations, ther cud be importnt lesns to be drawn for futur litracy policy. Just as one of th aims of th EU is to asimlate european standrds to those of th best existng in any european cuntry, so th hole english-speakng world cud with profit lern from th most succesful presnt litracy practis. On th othr hand, if litracy standrds ar found to be simlrly lo thruout th english speakng world (as this revewr wud predict), then conclusions of a rathr difrnt sort wud seem indicated.

For no less importnt than comparisns between english-speakng countris ar comparisns with non-english-speakng cuntris at comprbl stajes of ecnomic and social developmnt. Such comparisns regulrly sho poor performnce by english-speakng cuntris. Th recent IEA survey (and othrs) sho Finland consistntly hedng th intrnationl litracy tables. Othr studis hav shown italian children making almost eit times fewr spelng mistakes than ther english countrparts, and british students making nearly 7 times fewr spelng mistakes in jermn than in ther mothr tong. Indeed, th aquisition of litracy skils jenrly is not considrd a problm in a numbr of european cuntris. Howevr, not merely do litracy standrds in english compare unfavorably with those in othr languajs, but they also do so compared with beginrs standrds in english wen lernrs aquire ther first litracy skils in a regulrized english orthografy.

Considrng al these findngs togethr, and even alowng for th dificlty of making exact comparisns between difrnt educationl systms, a hyly significnt mesaj begins to emerj: that ther is somthing about litracy aquisition based specificly on traditionl english spelng wich causes problms. Som educationists hav of corse been fuly aware of this for over 400 years. Al lernrs and al litracy teachrs in english com up against it, tho few conciusly anlyz it to th point of identifyng its tru natur. Th 1994 ALBSU report on th othr hand dos not even mention it, indeed th few remarks it dos make about posbl causes of litracy problms sho it to be lookng in quite othr directions. This matr wil be furthr discusd in §6 belo.

3. Limitations of th survey.

In adition to this brod limitation on th reports overal perspectiv, certn naroer limitations ar declared in th report itself (p10). One was that it was carrid out by professionl survey intrvewrs workng to a strict scedule of questions, rathr than by adlt education specialists ho cud hav explord individul causes of deficits in a sensitiv but fre-ranjing manr. Th only question in th survey wich tuchd on th litracy teachng receved by th respondnts was Q163 (p77): "How often did you receive special help at school for these problems?" Th posbility of establishng specific educationl causes for litracy problms was thus larjly excluded from th report.

Anothr limitation was that, altho respondnts wer askd for a self-asesmnt of ther litracy standrds both in readng and in riting/spelng, th results of th objectiv tests publishd in th report only covr readng (and numeracy), and not riting/spelng: "The results of the writing task remain to be analysed" (p12). We must await these results with keen anticipation. Thus th specific role that spelng may hav playd in th litracy deficit has not as yet been elucidated, tho th self-asesmnt figrs sujest (p13) that dificlty with riting/spelng was th most acutely felt Basic Skil problm of al (Figr 2.1 on p18), and Figr 3.4 (p30) tels us that 93.2% of respondnts ho had riting problms of any kind admitd to problms with spelng in particulr.

Not merely ar th results of th objectiv riting/spelng tests not yet availbl, but th readng tests wer desynd in such a way as to minmize th efect of spelng on th results. Al consistd of comprehension questions, and did not involv readng aloud. Qualitis of readng-fluency and pronunciation, wich can be directly afectd by spelng, wer therfor not asesd. Som questions indeed required numeric rathr than orthografic decoding, and sevrl involvd colation and interpretation of data, or som lojicl analysis, in othr words skils over and abov th basic need to identify words from ther spelng (this anomly is aluded to on p34 in terms of "task specific features overriding literacy skills").

Altho self-asesmnts wer found to be a useful diagnostic tool, interpretng them was not straitforwrd. Typicly, respondnts hos work demandd litracy skils myt say they experienced dificltis even if th objectiv tests showd they had a fair levl of competnce; wile those hos work did not require such skils to th same degree myt admit to less dificlty, altho ther objectiv levl cud be much loer. Females wer disproportionatly inclined to minmize ther dificltis, wich sujests that ther overal performnce on th objectiv riting tests may also prove worse than ther self-asesmnt. Poor female performnce in riting may furthr reduce overal standrds because female respondnts outnumbrd male by a ratio of 53%:47%. (It shud howevr be noted that othr surveys, such as th latest by th Nationl Foundation for Educational Research revewd in JSSS J15 1993/2, pp9-11, sho females to be betr spelrs than males.) Anothr dificlty in interpretng th self-asesmnts arose from peples reluctnce to admit to th stigma of poor litracy.

Mor serius douts about th validity of th ALBSU results arise from th sampl mesurd, and ther is perhaps reasn to suspect that those results ar significntly overoptmistic. Th report says (p64) that a numbr of membrs of th orijnl cohort cud not be intrvewd because "some disadvantaged young people, such as those whose parents had no fixed address when they were growing up or were homeless when we tried to contact them, are missing" (p64), and that these absntees mean th figrs for poor litracy ar probbly undrestmats. (One wondrs how many of th misng wer in prisn. Ilitracy in th prisn population merits a study in itself, and indeed a mor recent ALBSU report Basic Skills in Prisons, June 1994, has now takld this very subject). This caveat howevr hints at a much mor substantial undrestmat. Th foloing calculation sujests th proportion of th orijnl cohort excluded myt hav amountd to 65% of th total: firstly, th 1,650 respondnts wer 10% of th cohort (p9), wich therfor amountd to som 16,500; secndly, it seems only 8,175 wer stil contactbl, leving 8,325 'lost' respondnts; thirdly, of th selectd sampl of 2,359, as many as 30% (709) wud not or cud not participate (som perhaps for fear of being stigmatized for ther poor standrds), so we may asume a simlr proportion of th contactbl cohort (ie 30% of 8,175 = 2,452) wud hav dropd out in th same way; this makes a total of som 10,777 'dropouts', or 65% of th orijnl cohort (a litl less if Scotland was included in th total cohort). If this numbr containd, as we must suspect, a hyr-than-avraj proportion with poor litracy skils than those intrvewd, then th tru statistics cud esily be far worse than those publishd. But we shal nevr no, because, as usul, conditions ryt at th botm of th social heap remain least wel iluminated.

4. Wat standrds shud we expect?

If th nationl sene now apears a good deal cloudir (murkir, even) than implyd by th crisp statistics of th report, th reports asesmnt of th seriusness of th problm may be open to mor than one interpretation. Th reports fundmentl mesaj is clearly that we canot be satisfyd with curent standrds ("Nineteen percent failed to get beyond Foundation level in literacy", p7). And a gloomy enuf pictur is paintd of th efects that litracy deficits hav on peples life-chances in jenrl: they reduce th potential for educationl achevemnt across th bord (poor litracy also undrmines numeracy, for exampl), and for fulfilmnt in evry aspect of life, in employmnt, in th famly, and in th individuls sense of self-esteem.

Less clear is wethr th standrds found represent a serius problm for society at larj. Th report contains statemnts such as: "poor literacy is restricted to a fairly small minority" (p19), "literacy difficulties of the kind assessed are fairly rare among young adults" (p21), and "the very serious problms a small but significant minority have" (p64). Is it therfor posbl that practicl competnce in litracy is inherently too dificlt for that minority realisticly evr to be expectd to acheve? Myt one hav to accept that 10, 12 or 13 percent of th population wil considr it has problms (especialy wen som respondnts ar undrestmating ther own standrds, and som may think they do not 'need' hyr standrds anyway)? Peple hav a ranje of abilitis, and by defnition som wil be weakr than othrs. So how much efrt shud be devoted to tryng to rase th standrds of th weakst?

Ar hyr standrds an achevebl target? Th ALBSU report implys that they ar, but its optmism seems based on faith rathr than evidnce. To beleve improvemnts ar posbl at least requires causes of presnt lo standrds to be identifyd and shown to be surmountbl. Wat causes ar sujestd by th ALBSU report?

5. Implyd causes of litracy deficits.

Th report dos not hav much to say about th causes of unsatisfactry standrds. Social factrs ar presumed to undrlie many of th dificltis, as wen p15 says with regard to furthr reserch: "we shall be able to identify the family background characteristics, earlier experience in the home and the school and current attributes of people lacking skills, with a view to explaining how and where these deficits originate" and p55 says "Poor literacy and numeracy are associated with unskilled family backgrounds in which the parents have failed to gain any educational qualifications." ALBSU is now particulrly concernd to brek this cycl of deprivation and poor litracy, by developng famly litracy programs aimd at parents as wel as children.

But it is not only th social bakground of poor performrs that th report blames for th problm. On p9 th report also refers to "serious failings of an education system which ... has failed to impart the most basic of all educational skills to a proportion of children", and ads: "the problem persists, not least because schools have yet to achieve the goal of literacy and numeracy for all children". On p65 it firmly says "the main solution resides with teachers in their responses to the individual child."

Altho it thus implys that society and th education systm ar to blame, th report also admits to not fuly undrstandng th causes of th problm (p9): "Gaining a better understandng of the types of problems adlts have and how these develop are essential to making literacy and numeracy teaching effective".

We shud not for one moment belitl th importnce of social bakground and of teachrs as factrs in influencing educationl standrds. Th 1994 ALBSU report, like its 1987 predecesr, has don a useful job in explorng, with exemplry undrstandng and humanity, th role of social bakground in educationl undrachevemnt. But social bakground and th 'failur' of scools to educate al children to a desired levl ar comn featurs of educationl disadvantaj th world over. Wat crucialy needs to be examnd is th peculir natur of litracy problms specificly in english-speakng cuntris, as shown by comparisn with othr cuntris.

6. Th english handicap - for evr?

If scools ar part of th problm, they ar certnly not to blame for it, for they can only work with th material they ar givn. And that material is severely defectiv. Unlike othr languajs, english has nevr systmaticly modrnized its riting systm, and it has been justly (if with pardnbl slyt exajration) said that, altho english has radicly chanjed its pronunciation since th midl ajes, it has hardly chanjed its spelng at al. Som 320 difrnt spelngs hav been listd for 24 english vowls, wher in norml languajs each vowl has just one spelng, or at most two or thre difrnt posbilitis. Howevr, th real problm is not th numbr of difrnt spelngs that hav to be lernt for each sound, but th fact that lernng th difrnt spelngs dosnt help much in deciding wich spelng is used with wich word. Th eccentricitis of english spelng took over 500 pajes to describe in a recent study, and that was without even mentionng al th anomlis like EA in speak contradictd by EE in speech. Th spelng of most european languages (french is th big exeption) can by contrast be described comfrtbly in a few pajes.

Th ALBSU report sees litracy problms in ther social setng, and implys social problms ar at ther cor. It dos not ask how far social problms may be caused or at least exacerbated by litracy problms in th first place, altho it dos note that poor litracy limits yung adlts oprtunitis in society. Th probbility of a two-way feedbak efect between society and litracy needs to be considrd. Likewise, th report looks to teachrs for a solution, but dos not ask wethr wat pupils ar being expectd to lern is realistic or sensbl. If it is no longr apropriat for pupils to hav to resl with ozs, lbs, stones, cws and tons, wy shud they stil be expectd to mastr th infnitly mor complex vagaris of an antiquated spelng 'systm'? For that is a ke component of litracy problms in english.

It was recognized in Britain and som othr english-speakng cuntris in th erly 1970s that medeval systms of curency and of weits and mesurs wer inapropriat for eficient, educated societis at th end of th 20th century, and th necesry steps wer taken to rectify matrs. Th curency was decimlized, and th weits and mesurs wer metricated (if in th latr case halfhartdly in Britn, by contrast with th overnyt transfrmations carrid out in Canada and Australia). Th same realization has yet to dawn across society as a hole with regard to th presnt medeval riting systm. Educationists canot agree wethr 'look-and-say' or 'fonics' is th one tru way to aquire litracy skils in english, but they fail to notice th futility of th debate, wen a caotic spelng systm dooms both aproachs to unacceptbly poor outcoms. Report aftr report on litracy fails to mention th esential unlernbility of english spelng (th 1989 Cox report was a striking exeption, but it neglectd to draw th obvius conclusions). Th latest ALBSU report is not alone in not mentionng a ke factr undrlyng th problm.

Yet until that ke factr is adresd, ther can be no solutions. ALBSUs brief is to deal with th consequences of th problm, rathr than itself to look for causes. Yet th powrful moral imperativ that drives ALBSUs work shud giv it an incentiv to look beyond th eternl, depresng statistics, and ask: wy is th problm so acute in Britn and America, and why did the recent IEA comparativ study of litracy in 32 cuntris find Finland, with its exeptionly regulr riting systm, th outstandngly best performr, and Hungry and Itly performng betr than ther ecnomic conditions wud lead one to expect? For it is th brodr intrnationl and intrlingul perspectiv that imediatly givs th clu as to wat is going rong in english. Dare we hope that, wen ALBSU delivrs its next report on th (groing? - but that is anothr story) litracy problms of Britns undrclass, it wil hav somthing mor hopeful to say than simply repeatng th dreary mesaj of 1994 and 1987? Meanwile, continuly pointng out that a problm exists is a gret deal betr than ignorng it entirely and leving it to festr out of syt.

7. ALBSUs 1992 spelng test.

Ther is a footnote: bak in october 1992 ALBSU askd 1,000 adlts to spel th words necessary, accommodation, sincerely, business, separate, height, and found that only 17% of respondnts wer able to spel al of them corectly. Its brief report said "These were not the simplest of words to spell" but, despite that, "We wouldn't wish to claim anything conclusive about the results. Merely they suggest that many people have some problems with spelling." This is like sayng 2 + 2 = , but modestly declining to say anything conclusiv about th ansr, such as '4'. Translated into verbl form, ALBSUs sum reads: "som spelngs ar dificlt, peple get them rong, ergo - blank." Th ansr it shud be givng is: "simplify th dificlt spelngs". QED.

(Cut Spelng, incidently, gos quite som way towards simplifyng 5 of these 6 forms, with necesry, acomodation, busness, seprat, hyt; only sincerely remains untuchd.)

If in its next report ALBSU decides that it should "claim something conclusive about the results", it myt be setng out on th road to a realy intrestng and useful destnation.

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