[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J18 1995/1 p3-6 ]
[See Journal articles about ALC.]


The long range focus of the American Literacy Council.

Edward Rondthaler & Joseph Little.

On page 23 of the last JSSS (J17 1994/2) Chris Upward points out that spelling reformers "need to ask how their expertise can be practically applied to publicly beneficial ends ..."

That's asking the right question.

Such matters as how to spell the long vowels, what to do about schwas, how much "cutting" is optimal, and resolving other phoneme/grapheme problems are all important. But of greatest importance is how to implement spelling reform. That's always been the tough nut to crack.

In spite of the fact that we have a living language but a deadening writing, the door to writing reform is bolted shut. The only hope of getting it open is to use the Trojan Horse strategy.

Using advanced technology to build that horse has been the focus of the American Literacy Council for years. It's been a challenging task, and still is.

In pursuing this objective the Council has been very fortunate in having had, since the early '70s, the volunteer services of Dr. Edwards Lias, a highly committed humanitarian, brilliant computer programer, author of computer aided instruction courses and the book "Future Mind" which has been used as text in colleges and universities worldwide. Dr. Lias' contribution to the cause of simplified spelling cannot be overstated.

The Trojan Horse strategy calls for tools that will teach traditional orthography (t.o.) efficiently but at the same time sow seeds of spelling reform. Dr. Lias saw how computers could accomplish this and offered to design the software. He, of course needed a good simplified spelling notation to use as a base. We realized all the while that the particular phonemic spelling system chosen for developing these tools was not necessarily etched in stone, and could be changed, if appropriate. when the opportunity for widespread implementation arrived.

So we selected a system modeled on those that had had the best track record. It was a 26-letter no-diacritic notation based broadly on the general concept of British "New Spelling," American "World English Spelling," Pitman's "i.t.a" and, to a degree, IBM's "Writing to Read!" and "PALS." At the outset we made the mistake of calling it "American Spelling," and issued a dictionary under that title. But for several years we have been less insular, and wisely changed "American" to "Fonetic." The decision to use this notation was to extent influenced by our connection with Dr. Godfrey Dewey in the 1970s, and by the fact that "World English Spelling" was strongly supported by the Phonemic Spelling Council, ALC's predecessor. In retrospect it was probably a responsible decision - at least as responsible as any other would have been, and probably more so.

Another point favoring this notation is that in our increasingly technological world much of the burden of spelling change is destined to be borne by inanimate tools - totally unaffected by tradition, habit, or emotion. So it is not amiss to aim at a notation that comes as close as possible to mirroring a clear, unmistakable version of spoken English. That could well be "General American." Our British friends may not agree, but it is worth noting that often on BBC broadcasts the Chinese, Japanese, Russian, German, and other foreigners carefully pronouncing English as best they can, are understood more easily by most listeners in the English speaking world than is the BBC announcer.

The tools now available are listed below, and on the inside front cover. The SoundSpel computer software is fully usable as it now stands but, like all innovations, it is being improved daily as we broaden its scope and iron out imperfections that have come to light in use by certain New York City high school students, by the parents of Head Start children, by teenagers in Newgrange remedial programs, by participants in other installations, as the result of a 1993 test at Columbia University Teachers College.

It should be borne in mind that all except the Fonetic Translator (Item 6) are offered as aids to teaching t.o. Their function in paving the way for spelling reform is intentionally underplayed.

1. Soundspel.

This is the standard teaching program developed primarily to rescue functional illiterates and aid foreign students learning English. It has a corpus of 25,000 words and operates on IBM or IBM-compatible computers with a memory of 640k or more. Words may be typed in either t.o. or fonetic, and are displayed on the computer screen in parallel lines. The t.o. lines stand out in full contrast white-on-black. The fonetic spelling appears on the line below the t.o. and is shown in subdued red-on-black. Translation to or from t.o. takes place instantaneously as the spacebar is touched - a pedagogic achievement supported by the axiom that immediate correction sends much stronger signals - to the mind than delayed correction. After some tutorial assistance in getting started, the lightning speed of correction combined with the computer's infinite patience, privacy and total absence of pressure or censure, tends to stimulate the pupil and encourage the use of words that would otherwise be avoided.

The following illustrations is approximation (without color) of how the parallel lines to t.o. and fonetic appear on the SoundSpel computer screen:

When in the course  of human events
When  in  the  corsof hueman events

it becomes necessary  for one people
it becumsnesesairyfor wun peepl

to disolve  the political bands which
to dizolvthe politicalbands which

have connected  them, and to assume
havconectedthem, andto asoom

among the powers  of the earth the
amungthe powersof theerththe

separate and equal station to which
separetand eequal staeshun to which

SoundSpel is available in both British and American t.o. Major word processing features such as wrap-around, insertions, deletions, arrow key movements, page up, page down, file storage and retrieval, printout, etc. are an integral part of the software. The pupil is given a choice of large or normal size letters on the screen. A reference list of regularized vowel spellings appears across top and down the right-hand side of the screen, and a line at the bottom describes the various F-key functions. For example:

The "Fl" key triggers the "Help" screen which, in turn, summons up other screens that give instructions for using all features in the software.

The "F2" key brings up a series of commonplace sentences to be copied and questions to be answered. The use serve to help a reluctant or unimaginative pupil get started typing. The teacher, of course, may customize or replace the sentences and questions with text more suitable to the particular pupil's needs.

When a t.o. homonym such as "read" is typed, or a fonetic spelling such as "heer" (which could translate in t.o. "here" or "hear), a popup box with brief definitions appears instantly on the screen, guiding the user to a choice.

A very important feature of SoundSpel is the "wild card," "invented," or "ad-lib" spelling part of the program. This enables the computer to translate a word correctly even tho it is spelt erratically in what the pupil may think is the right spelling or the best that he or she can do. This feature is, as it should be, more applicable to long words than to short, The word "hot" for example, may be spelled in only one way - hot - since any other spelling would represent a different word. The word "rule," however, may be typed not only in its t.o. spelling "rule" or the fonetic "rool," but will be translated correctly into t.o. and fonetic if typed ruel, rual, rulle, ruol, ruell, or several other erroneous ways.

A still longer word like "democracy" will be translated correctly into t.o. and fonetic if typed in more than a thousand ways, including, such aberrations as dimokrusy, dammucresi, domakrucy, etc. In all cases the abortive spelling is temporarily shown (in purple) on a line below the fonetic so that the typist may see his or her mistake clearly and be helped in learning not to make it again. (The use purple spellings are automatically erased when the cursor moves to the next line.) Spellings that are too far afield - such as dikumrisy - turn the letters blue. By using the arrow keys or backspacer the pupil may then change a letter here or there in the blue spelling until a quick shift to normal colors signals success. Determining for each word the precise point at which a misspelling would not falsely translate into an unintended word, but would turn the letters blue was, of course, a very exacting and time consuming task, typical of many subtle refinements built into the program.

To help a teacher assess a student's progress, every misspelled word is recorded in a special file. The contents of file may be seem on the screen or printed out. Access to it can be limited to the teacher.

2. Soundspel + Voice.

This program has all the characteristics of SoundSpel described above, plus voice. Words are spoken by the computer as they are typed, and whole sentences are spoken by the computer as they are typed, and whole sentences are read aloud. Syllable stress is an important feature of the voice program. A speaker is provided with the software.

3. The Discovery Game.

This is a varation of the SoundSpel program with a vocabulary designed primarily to help children learn syllabic spelling patterns of English. It should be viewed as rhyming game, and fits well into either the Phonics or Whole Language classroom.

In playing the game the child sets out to discover all the words that rhyme, for example, with "bat." One consonant after another is typed before at. When "dat" is typed the letters turn blue. Thus the child discovers that d-a-t does not spell a word. Another discovery is made upon typing "nat": the top line immediately displays the t.o. spelling "gnat." In the end there are 21 word-pairs on the screen. Twelve of them are blue. Altho those 12 pairs rhyme with bat, the blue color indicates that they do not make words. The other nine pairs are in normal color and do make words - and English spells the n- word "gnat"!

The possibilities of discoveries are endless. Homonyms offer particularly exciting opportunities. When typing words that rhyme, for example, with "air," the "fair" brings a popup on the screen with definitions that give a choice of fair or fare. Typing "bair" triggers the choice of bear or bare.

While the Discovery Game is essentially teaching the patterns of t.o., it is also pointing out English spelling inconsistencies that must be memorized individually - from minor ones like heart and guard to major ones like gnat, debt, wreck, said, come, blood, etc. The fonetic line keeps hammering home how simple such words could be spelled if they were spelled as they sound.

4. "BEFORE teaching the ABC'S".

This is a 25-minute audio tape and 24-page booklet combination intended for use by pre-school teachers and parents of children 3 to 6 years old. It was prompted by reading of Dr. Marilyn Adam's (1990) book "Beginning to Read," a definitive study of Phonics vs. Whole Language funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the exhaustive, 3-year Study of Reading at the University of Illinois. One important fact cited is that children who know the names of the letters when they enter kindergarten or first grade have a better chance of becoming good readers and writers than those who do not.

Any spelling reform advocate who reads the book cannot fail to see that if pre-school children are greatly helped by learning the names of letters - which are, in fact, not the phonemic building blocks of words - they will be helped far more by learning, first of all, the sounds of letters - which are the phonemic building blocks of words. Associating the shape of a letter, upon first encounter, with its name rather then with its sound misses the whole point of alphabetic writing.

Why do letters have names? They were given names long ago to overcome the difficulty of hearing the sound of certain letters when spoken in isolation without accompanying vowel. Letter names are a convenience, just as acronyms are. When you know, for example, where the United Nations is and what is does, then you can use the acronym "UN" for convenience. In like manner, when you know the sounds associated with the shapes M, H, S, W, K, D, C, Q, etc. then you can use the names that have been given to those shapes for convenience - em, aich, ess, double-u, kay, dee, see, cue etc. Letter names are convenience but, except for the five long vowels, they do not clearly represent a letter's only reason for being - its sound. Teaching the names of the letters before their sounds can be misleading.

A struggling child who has been taught letter names before sounds and, as a consequence writes MT (empty), EZ, NV, XL, etc. is showing that he understands the alphabetic principle and would be well on the way to writing if he had first been taught the sounds of letters rather than the names.

Relegating the teaching of letter sounds to second place is a reversal of priorities not easily untangled by some children. Consider this simple, novel proposal that puts the sound of a letter in first place and is easily understood by a child:

Everybody has a first name, like Gregory or Dorothy. we also have nicknames, like Greg or Dot. Since each letter has a name and a sound, why not let the sound of letter be called its nickname? - and teach it first. That establishes the right priority. AU children understand the word "nickname." Using it for letter's sound, and teaching it first, eliminates any misunderstanding of the importance of a letter's sound, and keeps the relationship between the letter's shape and its sound where it should be - up front.

Before teaching the letter names, then, a parent or teacher should point to the letter M (or m) and say "the nickname of this letter is mmmmmm. Every time you see it remember that its nickname is MMMMM.

Using the word "nickname" is much clearer to 3, 4, 5, or 6-year-old than saying, "The name of the letter is 'em', but remember that its sound is mmmm" - or saying " This letter is called 'em'. You can hear its sound at the end of its name, e-mmm."

The booklet and tape, "BEFORE teaching the ABC's," shows how the five short vowels and the consonants m n l r w z j f h s can be prolonged and put together to make certain words. (it also shows how letter names put together rapidly one after the other make jibberish.)

It then deals with the more difficult task of hearing the nicknames of b d g p t c/k - the plosive consonant sounds that cannot be prolonged. For the child who has trouble hearing the difference between certain sounds, plosive or not, the booklet shows how the sense of touch may be used to acquire the muscular "feel" of producing the sound. If a child cannot hear a letter's sound clearly he may be taught to feel it. This pedagogical angle has been widely overlooked until recently.

Next comes the introduction of glides or blends like bl, fr, nt, sk: then vowel pairs like oo, ou, oi: consonant pairs like ch, sh; -pairs like er, or, and finally the long vowels - which are pronounced like their names.

The booklet illustrates how a large print book may be interlined to help a boy or girl read words not spelt as they sound. It also gives a chart of vowel and consonant notations to help a parent interline such a page - until books are printed in that manner.

Once upon atime a bigduck sat high up on theedge of afence
Wunstiemduk hieejfens
built around a large duck pond.  Some of the little ducks wanted
biltlarjduk Sum litldukswonted
to fly up and sit with the bigduck. But he said,"Your wings
flieduksed Yur
are not bigenough yet. Butsomeday theywill be bigenough to
arenufsumdae thaewilenuf
fly uphere. Then we can sit in the sunshine andwatch all the
flieheer sunshienwoch
otherducksswimming merrily."
Interlining a page (perhaps with a red pen) enables a child to sound out the nicknames of difficult words, to memorize irregular spellings, and to read words well beyond those generally found in books for children.

"BEFORE teaching the ABC'S" is not intended to be used by uneducated parents. It is addressed to pre-school teachers and to parents who are confused by the Phonics vs Whole Language controversy in our schools, and fearful that their child may be a victim of this furor. It enables an educated parent to give a child a running start regardless of the method of teaching that will be encountered in school. For the cause of spelling reform, it sows the seeds of a logical, simplified spelling not only in youthful minds, but also in influential parental minds - without confrontation. It is another devious but exemplary way of getting the spelling reform door opened.

The reverse side of the tape is independent of the booklet. It is labeled "A Close Look at English Spelling" and discusses the whole problem of spelling mismatch.

5. SoundReeder books.

This is the interlined format described above, applied in a more sophisticated way. The fonetic line is printed in red, with schwa letters in a lighter type-face, and underscores inserted below the stressed syllables of multisyllable words. The complete text appears in both t.o. and fonetic. A sliding mask enables the reader to block out either the t.o. lines or the fonetic as desired. Thus the pupil may read the complete text in either t.o. or fonetic, or may resort to the fonetic only when needed.

Thus far only one book has been published in the SoundReeder format; "The Gift," based on O'Henry's "Gift of the Magi."

6. The Fonetic Translator.

This is a computer program that presently has a corpus of 44,500 words. It includes all lowercase words (except highly scientific or medical terms) in the Brown University list of a million words of running text (Kucera & Francis 1968), plus an additional 13,000 from other sources. Automatic homonym translations are based on context with a present accuracy ranging between 70 and 90 percent. During translation the original and the translation appear on screen in parallel lines. Either or both may be printed out on standard printers. On 1993 IBM or IBM compatible PC the translation takes place at a speed of about 55 words per minute. More recent improvements in PC hardware should double or triple the output speed.

These Trojan Horse tools are now available (see inside front cover). Readers are encouraged to experiment with them and will, no doubt, find new ways to use them effectively in reducing the scourge of English illiteracy and sowing the seeds of spelling reform - for the lasting benefit of humanity.

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