[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J18 1995/1 pp33-36]
Also on this page: Letters to policy makers.
[Chris Upward: see Journals, Newsletters, Leaflets, Media, Pamflet 15, Book, Papers.]

Spelling in the English National Curriculum.

Chris Upward.

The Background.

The Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society (JSSS) has endeavoured over the years to keep readers abreast of official education policy in England and Wales where it affects spelling. It has done this by publishing relevant excerpts from official reports, along with the Society's own submissions to the various bodies charged with developing the English language element for the new National Curriculum. Readers wishing to refer to these submissions will find them in back numbers of the JSSS as listed below.

The issues and items concerned are as follows:

JSSS J6 1987/3, pp8-12, terms of reference of the Kingman Committee, and the Society's submission to it;

JSSS J8 1988/2, pp21-23, the Society's comments on the Kingman Report;

JSSS J9 1988/3, pp23-26, the Society's submission to the National Curriculum English Working Group (Cox Committee);

JSSS J10 1989/1, pp32-33, references to spelling in the Cox Report (English for ages 5 to 11);

JSSS J11 1989/2, pp32-34, (slightly abridged) joint submission from the SSS and the UK i.t.a. Federation to the National Curriculum Council;

SSS Newsletter N1 April 1991, p5, Open Letter from the SSS to the Department of Education & Science (DES;

SSS Newsletter N2 September 1991, pp4-7, Reply from DES, excerpts from National Curriculum Documentation, SSS comments;

JSSS J14 1993/1, pp3-9, Submission from the SSS to the National Curriculum Council;

JSSS J15 1993/2, pp22-24, excerpts from the Revised Proposals for English in the National Curriculum, followed (pp25-31) by the SSS's response.

In January 1995, a new, slimmed-down document English in the National Curriculum (London: HMSO) was produced by the Department for Education (DFE, renamed from the former DES). It is hoped that, after years of vituperation, this may provide a stable basis for the English curriculum that will remain in place until the end of the century. It contains the following references that have some bearing on spelling:

Programmes of Study.


• 1. English should develop pupils' abilities to communicate effectively in speech and writing. It should also enable them to be enthusiastic, responsive and knowledgeable readers.

b To develop as effective readers, pupils should be taught to: • read accurately, fluently ... with understanding.

c To develop as effective writers, pupils should be taught to use: • presentational skills - accurate punctuation, correct spelling and legible handwriting.

p3. • 4. Pupils should be given opportunities ... to recognise that: • standard English is distinguished from other forms of English by its vocabulary, and by rules and conventions of grammar, spelling and punctuation.


p6 Reading, • 2 Key Skills.

a ... Pupils should be taught the alphabet, and be made aware of the sounds of spoken language in order to develop phonological awareness. They should be taught to use various approaches to word identification and recognition.

p7. b Phonic knowledge, focusing on the relationship between print symbols and sound patterns. Opportunities should be given for: • recognising alliteration, sound patterns and rhyme, and relating these to patterns in letters; • considering syllables in longer words; • identifying initial and final sounds in words; • identifying and using a comprehensive range of letters and sounds, including combinations of letters, blends and digraphs, and paying specific attention to their use in the formation of words; • recognising inconsistencies in phonic patterns; • recognising that some letters do not always produce a sound themselves, but influence the sound of others.

Graphic knowledge, focusing on what can be learned about word meanings and parts of words from consistent letter patterns, including:

• plurals; • spelling patterns in verb endings; • relationship between root words and derivatives, eg help, helpful; • prefixes and suffixes.

Word recognition, focusing on the development of a vocabulary of words recognised and understood automatically and quickly. This should extend from a few words of personal importance to a larger number of words from books and the environment. Pupils should be shown how to use their sight vocabulary to help them read words that have similar features.

p9. Writing, • Key Skills.

a. Pupils should be introduced to the alphabetic nature of writing and be taught to discriminate between letters, learning to write their own name. Pupils' early experiments ... at using letters ... should be encouraged.

c. In punctuation, pupils should be taught that punctuation is essential to help a reader understand what is written ... Pupils should be taught to punctuate their writing, be consistent in their use of capital letters, full stops and question marks, and begin to use commas.

d. In spelling, pupils should be taught to:
• write each letter of the alphabet; •use their knowledge of sound-symbol relationships and phonological patterns; • recognise and use simple spelling patterns; • write common letter strings within familiar and common words; • spell commonly occurring simple words; • spell words with common prefixes and suffixes.

p10. Pupils should be taught to check the accuracy of their spelling, and to use word books and dictionaries, identifying initial letters as the means of locating words. They should be given opportunities to experiment with the spelling of complex words and to discuss misapplied generalisations and other reasons for misspellings. Close attention should be paid to word families.


p13. Reading, 2 Key Skills.

a. ... pupils should be taught to extend their phonic and graphic knowledge to include more complex patterns and irregularities.

p14. c. Pupils should be taught to: • use dictionaries, glossaries and thesauruses to explain unfamiliar vocabulary.

p15. Writing 2 Key Skills.

b. Pupils should be taught to: • proofread - check the draft for spelling and punctuation errors, omissions or repetitions.

c. In punctuation, pupils should be taught to use punctuation marks correctly in their writing, including full stops, question and exclamation marks, commas, inverted commas, and apostrophes to mark possession.

p16. d. In spelling, pupils should be accumulating a bank of words that they can spell correctly, and should be taught to check spellings and meanings of words, using dictionaries where appropriate. When looking up words, pupils should be taught to apply their knowledge of initial and subsequent letters and the organisation of dictionaries, including headings, abbreviations and other conventions. They should be taught: • the meaning, use, and spelling of common prefixes and suffixes; • the relevance of word families, roots and origins of words; • alternative ways of writing the same sound; • the spelling of words with inflectional endings.

Pupils should be taught to: • spell complex, polysyllabic words that conform to regular patterns, and to break long and complex words into more manageable units, by using their knowledge of meaning and word structure; • memorise the visual patterns of words, including those that are irregular; • recognise silent letters; • use the apostrophe to spell shortened forms of words; • used appropriate terminology, including vowel and consonant.


p24. • 2 Key Skills.

c. In spelling, pupils should be helped to increase their knowledge of regular patterns of spelling, word families, roots of words and their derivations. They should be taught to spell increasngly complex polysyllabic words that do not conform to regular patterns, and to proofread their writing carefully to check for errors, using dictionaries where appropriate. Pupils should be given opportunities to develop discrimination in relation to other complexities in spelling, including heteronyms, eg minute, lead, wind, and sight rhymes, eg tough, dough.

3. Standard English and language study.

b. • punctuation - the use of the full range of punctuation marks, including full stops, question and exclamation marks, commas, semi-colons, colons, inverted commas, apostrophes, brackets, dashes and hyphens.


The latest English in the National Curriculum document shows a more realistic appreciation of the problems of English spelling than did, for instance, the Kingman Report of 1987, which inaugurated this whole curricular development by baldly stating that "spelling obeys rules". Nevertheless, the SSS may wish to consider how far teachers and pupils are now offered the most helpful guidance that can at present be devised to help them cope with TO. At least the following points may represent limitations in present advice.

Although more than lip-service is paid to phonics, implementation appears half-hearted. Pupils are to be given 'opportunities' for phonic skills, rather than having to be taught them; learning 'sight-vocabulary' is implied as a useful way of mastering regular as well as irregular spellings; and in places phonics appears to be confused with phonology. The skills of reading and writing are treated separately, rather than as mutually reinforcing facets of the overall process of literacy acquisition, and it is not suggested that writing difficult words might be a step towards learning to read them. Repeated references are made to pupils using dictionaries, but it is not clear how far the practicalities have been thought through. Pupils are for instance expected to check drafts of what they write for correct spelling, consulting the dictionary where appropriate, though being able to recite the alphabet is not specified as a prerequisite. Research is needed to see how practicable such recommendations are, when one of the characteristics of English spelling is that errors are often not susceptible to 'checking', and it is impossible to check a word in the dictionary unless one already has at least a rough idea of its spelling.

More generally, we may wish to draw attention to three consequences of the present irregular spelling. One is that it is a deterrent to writing, when pupils are expected to draft their work, and then to correct the mistakes, rather than to be able to write correctly at the first attempt. The second is that, as they progress, pupils are expected to master the spelling only of words with more straightforward structures, but apparently not of more difficult forms; one wonders what effect this may have on vocabulary development. And the third is that even at Key Stages 3 & 4 pupils are still not expected to have mastered the spelling of English.

The SSS's submissions to the English curriculum authorities in recent years may (hardly unexpectedly) have failed to persuade them to consider any simplification to the spelling, but the case for simplification has at least been brought to the attention of educationists who might otherwise have been oblivious to it. The SSS must continue to make that case at every opportunity, and in response to the latest curriculum document it must castigate any expressions of satisfaction with the present situation. It must publicize all research findings that demonstrate how unsatisfactory the situation is, whether they concern teaching problems, low standards of literacy in English-speaking countries, or higher standards in countries with more rational writing systems.

Ofsted reports on Standards in Education 1993/94.

Chris Upward.

The 1992 Education Act for England and Wales established the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), whose first annual report (for 1993/94) was submitted by Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector for Schools in England, in January 1995. It included the following remarks having some relation to standards of literacy and hence to the present state of British spelling.


§4. ... Newly qualified teachers have not in the past felt confident in their ability to teach reading (this issue was raised in What teachers in training are taught about reading, NFER, 1991); whether they now do will be revealed by OFSTED's imminent inspection of primary training.

p7. §8. ... Why is it that in too many primary schools 'learning by doing' is preferred to 'teaching by telling' to the point where sitting pupils down and telling them things becomes almost a 'marginal' strategy?

§11. ... Less is expected of pupils in disadvantaged areas. The teaching they experience is more likely to be judged unsatisfactory or poor.

p8. §13. ... While it is reassuring to see that pupils' standards of achievement in KS1 (=Key Stage 1, Years 1/2) in English are judged to be satisfactory or better in the majority of primary schools, it is disturbing to note that pupils' standards in reading in KS1 are unsatisfactory in one in twenty schools and that in three in twenty schools pupils have considerable problems with at least one major aspect of writing. These figures mean that a significant number of children are failing to master basic literacy skills. The situation becomes worse, moreover, in KS2 (=Key Stage 2, Years 3-6) where unsatisfactory standards in reading and writing are to be found in one in ten and one in four schools respectively.

§15. ... Reading and writing standards remain too low in one-fifth and one-quarter of schools respectively in KS3 (Years 7-9). Such figures indicate that a substantial number of pupils have failed to master basic skills of punctuation and grammar ...

§16. Achievements in literacy and numeracy are fundamental to all other learning. Looking to the next century, it is evident that higher standards will be needed than ever before. Listening to parents and employers, it is, equally, obvious that standards are not high enough. All schools need to be absolutely confident that they are teaching their children to become literate and numerate in the most effective ways possible.


Standards in English.

§46. Standards of achievement generally in relation to pupils' capabilities were satisfactory or better in over eight out of ten Pre-KS1 and KS1 English lessons in the schools inspected. Standards declined slightly in KS2 although they were at least satisfactory in a little over three-quarters of lessons. In KS3 standards were at least satisfactory in more than eight English lessons in ten and good or very good in more than three lessons in ten. Standards in lessons in KS4 were slightly better than in KS3.

§47. In reading, standards in KS1 were satisfactory in most of the primary schools inspected and good in over a third of them. In about one in twenty schools, however, children made poor progress in their reading. The position was much worse in KS2, where pupils in about one school in ten were in general not making satisfactory progress in reading; for example in their confidence with a wider range of text and use of reference skills with non-fiction books.

§48. When compared with other aspects of English, writing was weaker both in KS1 and in KS2. In about three schools in twenty in KS1, pupils have considerable problems with at least one major aspect of writing. In KS2, this is true of one school in four. Many pupils in both Key Stages are capable of achieving higher standards of writing, in particular, in the essential skills of handwriting, spelling and punctuation. They should also be taught to write for a wider range of purposes and readers.

§50. Although standards were at least satisfactory in the large majority of English lessons in secondary schools there are weaknesses which persist in both Key Stages 3 and 4. Reading standards across the curriculum are too low in one school in five in KS3 and in more than three schools in twenty in KS4. Pupils in these schools ought to be reading with greater accuracy and fluency, approaching new texts with a greater degree of confidence, and undertaking more sustained reading. Standards of writing across the curriculum are too low in almost a quarter of schools in KS3 and in one school in five in KS4. In such schools pupils should have a firmer grasp of spelling and punctuation ...

p54. ANNEX 2.

Standards and quality summary tables.
Table 2: Standards in English lessons.
Proportions of English lessons in which overall standards in relation to pupils' capabilities were judged to be good or very good, satisfactory and unsatisfactory or poor by Key Stage (%)




The 1993/94 Ofsted report does not tell us about standards in any absolute sense. It tells us that standards were higher in some circumstances than in others, and in what proportion of instances they were judged to be (un)satisfactory. Insofar as the number of 'good/very good' verdicts was higher (except for KS2) than that of 'unsatisfactory/poor', and at secondary level indeed over twice as high, one might almost think the overall situation gave little cause for concern. A normal statistical distribution, after all, ranges from better to worse, with a concentration of results in the middle. When the report calls for an improvement in standards, what is it therefore asking for? That the whole suite of results should improve, or that all results should be above average?

A string of further questions is begged by the Ofsted conclusions. What absolute standard does the verdict 'satisfactory' represent? Can absolute standards of literacy be defined? Were standardized literacy tests used to determine the pupils' level of achievement? What level of expectation were the inspectors applying? Were their expectations demanding, or modest, in terms of the literacy potential of learners at different ages? Can, or should, expectations be raised, and if so, how high?

One approach to answering such questions arises from the chief motivation behind the new concern with standards. In this age of the global economy and international economic competition, there is naturally anxiety that perhaps standards of education in one country may be lagging behind those of competitor countries. Some recent comparative studies have suggested that this may indeed be the situation (eg OECD, 1992). More specifically, several more narrowly defined studies (eg Thorstad; Upward; Wimmer/Goswami) have implied that the English writing system imposes obstacles to literacy which are not suffered in, for instance, Italian or German.

The English National Curriculum represents a major effort to put educational processes on a more explicitly thought-out footing, but it is only the start of what will presumably become a permanent feature of British educational planning and administration. Its techniques and procedures are in their infancy, and will undoubtedly be refined and adjusted in the light of experience and changing circumstances. Ofsted has not yet got round to asking the really important questions about absolute literacy standards, but we must hope that in due course it will do so. And if it does so, the SSS would predict, it will be confronted with the inescapable effects of the English spelling problem. Then some more serious research into those effects might be instigated than have ever been undertaken before, and conclusions might be drawn that, if standards are to be genuinely and significantly improved in the future, there is no alternative but to grasp the nettle of spelling reform.

That line of argument, at least, must be worth pursuing with education authorities.

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J18 1995/1 p31-32]

SSS Letters to Policy-Makers & Replies.

Chris Upward.

The English/Welsh National Curriculum is now aiming for 5 years of stability (see the excerpts headed 'Spelling in the National Curriculum' elsewhere in this issue of the JSSS) after as many years of turmoil. The Society's Committee decided the time was ripe to make its case afresh to key policy-makers, and on 16 December 1994 wrote as follows:

The Rt Hon Gillian Shephard MP
Secretary of State for Education
Department for Education
Sanctuary Buildings
Great Smith Street
Dear Secretary of State

We are writing at the suggestion of Lord Simon of Glaisdale and Alan Howarth MP, in the belief you will wish to be kept informed of fresh ideas on the problem of English spelling.

Our antiquated and inconsistent spelling has long bedevilled education at every level. Children struggle to achieve unsatisfactory standards of literacy, misspelling is common even among the better educated, and educationists cannot agree a transparent policy on teaching methods and assessment.

Following submissions to Kingman, Cox, the NCC, and other bodies, our Society has now evolved a set of 'basics' which we believe should underlie future thinking on literacy policy. They are briefly stated in the attached 'Six Axioms on English Spelling', and some of their implications are explored in the enclosed leaflet 'Modernizing English Spelling: Principles & Practicalities'.

We hope we may persuade you of the importance of these perspectives, and will be glad to advise further.

Yours sincerely,
(On behalf of the Society's Committee).

Sir Ron Dearing
Chairman of the School Curriculum & Assessment Authority
Newcombe House
45 Notting Hill Gate
Dear Sir Ron

The Simplified Spelling Society has followed the development of the English curriculum with keen interest in recent years, making submissions on the problem of English spelling to Kingman, Cox, the NCC, and other bodies. We have now refined our views to a form that we believe offers a basis for long-term policy making, and are enclosing an outline for your consideration.

We start from the observation that our antiquated and inconsistent spelling has long bedevilled education at every level. Children struggle to achieve unsatisfactory standards of literacy, misspelling is common even among the better educated, and educationists cannot agree a transparent policy on teaching methods and assessment.

The attached 'Six Axioms on English Spelling' briefly set out what we consider the 'basics' of this situation. Their implications are then explored in the leaflet 'Modernizing English Spelling: Principles & Practicalities'.

(final paragraph and ending as to Gillian Shephard)

First paragraph variant to:
David Blunkett MP
Principal Opposition Spokesperson on Education;

Don Foster MP
Liberal Democrat Spokesman on Education
The House of Commons, Westminster, SW1A 0PW.

Dear David Blunkett/Don Foster

The Simplified Spelling Society wishes to make a case to you concerning the problem of English spelling. We believe that our perspective is essential for a proper understanding of the problem and for devising effective policies for dealing with it in the future. (cont. roughly as to Shephard/Dearing)

Six Axioms on English Spelling

1 The letters of the alphabet were designed to represent speech sounds; that is the alphabetic principle.

2 The alphabetic principle makes literacy easy, allowing readers to pronounce words from their spelling, and writers to spell them from their sounds.

3 As pronunciation changes through the centuries, the alphabetic principle tends to be undermined; the spelling of words then needs to be adapted to show the new sounds.

4 Unlike other languages, English has done little to modernize its spelling for nearly 1,000 years, until today it only haphazardly observes the alphabetic principle.

5 Neglect of the alphabetic principle now makes literacy unnecessarily difficult in English, and all education suffers.

6 Procedures are needed to manage improvements to English spelling for the future.


Replies were received as follows:

DFE-Department for Education
10 January 1995

Thank you for your letter of 16 December to the Secretary of State concerning standards of literacy in general, and spelling in particular, with which you enclosed your Society's "Six Axioms on English Spelling" and "Modernizing English Spelling: Principles and Practicalities " leaflet. I have been asked to reply.

I should explain that it is the Government's policy that standards of spelling should be raised through the development and teaching of National Curriculum English. Ministers are firmly of the view that pupils should become familiar with the legacy of our language without changing the language itself. However, we are grateful to you for sending details of your ideas for spelling reform, which we have read with interest.

Yours sincerely
Simon Dawson
English Team, School Curriculum Branch

SCAA-School Curriculum and Assessment Authority
13 January 1995

Thank you for writing to me about the work of your Society.

We too are concerned to raise standards in spelling, and believe that the revised Order for English will improve practice in the general teaching of literacy. The Order sets out clear requirements for teaching and learning about the English spelling system, and emphasises the opportunities which pupils need to have in order to understand and make use of the full range of spelling patterns in English.

As you rightly point out, English spelling is complex and always subject to change.

I am sure that your work will go on highlighting those areas where useful changes might be made on a principled basis.

Yours sincerely
Nicholas Tate (Dr)
Chief Executive

David Blunkett MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Member of Parliament for Sheffield Brightside

I am writing to acknowledge with thanks your letter of 16 December and enclosed leaflet.

With all good wishes
David Blunkett

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