[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J19, 1995/2, p5-8.]
[Chris Upward: see Journals, Newsletters, Leaflets, Media, Pamflet 15, Book, Papers.]

Orthografy vs Litracy: Findngs of th IEA Survey.

Christopher Upward.

This revew is ritn in Cut Spelng.

1. Dos english spelng hindr litracy?

One of th ke peces of evidnce spelng reformrs shud idealy be able to produce in suport of ther case is comparativ statistics for litracy in difrnt languajs. Difrnt languajs hav difrnt riting systms, wich ranje from th exeptionly regulr (eg finish) to th exeptionly iregulr (eg english). Since a regulr systm is esir to mastr than an iregulr one, a not unreasnbl hypothesis wud be that ther may be som corelation between regularity and standrds of litracy. Certnly ther ar bits of evidnce to this efect, such as: th dramaticly improved aquisition of initial litracy skils in the Initial Teaching Alphabet compared with conventionl english spelng; [1] Thorstads findngs [2] on th much fastr progress of italian lernrs compared with ther english countrparts; and th presnt authrs reserch into th gretr prevlnce of mispelngs in english compared with jermn. [3] A pioneerng worldwide revew was asembld over 20 years ago by John Downing [4] (previus Presidnt of th Simplified Spelling Society), wich repeatdly hintd that regulr spelng is an aid to litracy, but that survey did not provide comparativ statistics.

2. Th IEA survey.

Wen th IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement) publishd its reports [5] on th multi-nation survey of comparativ readng standrds it had undrtaken at th beginng of th 1990, ther was therfor som prospect of mor substantial data to reinforce th case for english spelng reform. In th event, th findngs turn out to be tantlizingly less clearcut that myt hav been hoped, but they nevrthless ofr a valubl demnstration of th factrs that need to be taken into acount in making such jujmnts. Th esential infrmation is to be found in th first volume to apear, How in the world do students read?, by Profesr Warwick B Elley from th University of Canterbury, New Zealand, especialy in th fifth chaptr 'How Do High-Achieving Countries Differ from Low-Achieving Countries?'. Th survey testd 9-year-olds and 14-year-olds on ther comprehension of a variety of texts in som 32 cuntris, including nearly evry cuntry in westrn and northrn Europ, as wel as Cyprus, Grece, Hungry, Iceland, Canada (British Columbia), Iceland, th USA, Trinidad & Tobago, Venezuela, New Zealand, Hong Kong, th Filipines, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapor, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Nijeria. Th tests wer therfor translated into many languajs, with th foloing cuntris taking th tests in english: Botswana(?), Canada (BC), Ireland, New Zealand, Nijeria(?), Singapor, Trinidad & Tobago, th USA, Zimbabwe(?). Needless to say, english was not th home languaj of many of th students in som of these cuntris.

3. British non-participation.

Strikingly absent from th list of participnts is th UK. A letr from Dr Tom Gorman of th National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), wich wud hav administrd th british end if th UK had participated, explains as folos: "The NFER did initially participate in the IEA Readng Literacy Study. The Foundation withdrew ... in 1990. The main reasons ... were technical. It was not thought that an exclusive reliance on a multiple-choice question format would yield information of value to teachers in England ... I and my colleagues ... provided evidence to substantiate our views, but the IEA International Committee did not feel able to take account of these to the extent of modifying the tests ... the policy of the DfE [Department for Education] at the time of the study was that there was little practical value in making absolute comparisons between different educational systems. DfE funds for such purposes were therefore not available."

We can only regret th non-participation of th UK because th world is deprived of an importnt part of th pictur concernng english, as th leadng medium of intrnationl comunication. Watevr th strength of th tecnicl argumnt about th multipl choice format, th argumnt that british participation wud not produce infrmation of valu to teachrs in England is depresngly anglocentric, for, just as infrmation about standrds in othr cuntris is of valu to th UK, so infrmation about th UK wud hav been of valu to othr cuntris. As we shal se, it was of criticl importnce that, for instnce, Finland did not withdraw on th grounds that th findng wud not benefit finish teachrs. As for th british govrnmnts vew that comparisn between cuntris is not useful, one can only note that govrnmnts ar happy to make such comparisns wen outcoms ar favorabl, and refusal to participate therfor sujests th fear that th results myt hav been unfavorabl.

4. Non-orthografic factrs afectng litracy standrds.

Th results of th tests sho th complexity of factrs that determn wethr a cuntry has abov avraj or belo avraj scors. Th avraj welth of citizns of th difrnt cuntris varid by a factr of nearly 100. Helth, as mesurd by life expectncy, varid between 77 and 51, and adult litracy between 99% and 43%. Educationl provision varid in terms such as aje of entry to scool, amount of time devoted to litracy-teachng, levl of teachr trainng, resorces, and availbility of ritn materials. Th survey atemtd to weit th results to alow for these variations by means of a Composit Developmnt Index (CDI), by wich a factr of over 8 seprated th most advantajd from th most disadvantajd cuntry.

Ensuring tru comprability between th test results from th difrnt cuntris was dificlt for othr reasns too. For instnce, th avraj aje of subjects varid significntly, with candidats for th '9-year-old' test avrajng as much as 10.8 in one cuntry, but as litl as 8.9 in anothr; and wile in som cuntris nearly al th subjects took th readng tests in th languaj they spoke at home, in othr cuntris th languaj of education was not that used at home by th majority of students. And then ther is th question that we ar particulrly intrestd in, of wethr th riting systm of th test languaj is itself esy or dificlt to mastr. It is clear that, wen al these variabls ar taken into acount, extreme caution must be exrcised in claimng that any one factr, such as th natur of th riting systm, is shown to hav a decisiv efect on th litracy standrds acheved.

5. Finish and english scors.

Nevrthless, a numbr of obsrvations can be made, tho we canot here begin to do justice to th numerus distinctions that emerj from th IEA report itself, as between th two aje groups (9 and 14), or th difrnt typs of text (narativ, expositry, documentry). Th domnnt, and unsurprising, outcom of th hole survey, is that standrds of readng litracy corelate to a hy degre with th levl of socio-ecnomic developmnt of each cuntry, th cuntris of Europ and North America, plus Hong Kong, New Zealand and Singapor, acheving markdly betr results than cuntris elsewher. Within th hy-acheving cuntris, one stands out for its consistntly superir performnce, and that is Finland; but befor spelng reformrs rush to claim that th outstandngly regulr riting systm of finish is responsbl, it must be pointd out that Finland also scors wel by just about evry othr criterion that is conduciv to hy standrds.

Then coms a surprise: th United States figrs aftr Finland as th secnd best performr in th 9-year-old test. This may surprise first because as an english-speakng cuntry it sufrs th disadvantaj of an exeptionly iregulr riting systm; but secnd because in th US itself litracy standrds ar jenrly held to be disastrusly lo th New York Times recently hedlined a report from Presidnt Clintons Education Department with th words "Study Says Half of Adults in U.S. Can't Read". Yet acordng to th IEA report, ther is 99% adult litracy in th USA. Wen one compares th americn study, wich intrvewd 13,600 16-year-olds, with th IEA study, wich testd about half that numbr of americn 9-year-olds spred over 50 states [6] (ie an avraj of only a litl over 100 per state) from a total population far larjr than that of any othr participating cuntry, one cant help wondrng how representativ th IEA sampl can hav been. By contrast, both Spain and Singapor testd mor 9-year-olds than did th hole USA, and Iceland testd its hole aje-group. Anothr odity is that th IEA report concludes that TV vewng is jenrly detrimentl to good readng, yet americn children ar shown to spend far longr wachng TV than those of any othr cuntry (Figure 7.5).

Howevr, som othr english-languaj countris also performd quite wel, tho here again questions arise. New Zealand 9-year-olds performd wel, altho (Table 6.4) those of its students ho did not hav english as ther home languaj sufrd a gretr disadvantaj than those of any other cuntry; one wondrs how far Marie Clays jenrusly resorced Readng Recovry program may hav boostd overal performnce in New Zealand. Th performnce of Singapors 14-year-olds was remarkbl, considrng that thre quartrs of them did not hav english as ther home languaje, and here one wondrs wethr litracy in chinese may hav improved students visul memry for iregulr spelngs in english. Students in Botswana, Nijeria and Zimbabwe sufrd multipl disadvantajs, including hy percentajs for hom english was not th home languaj; here one is remindd of John Downings reserch in Papua New Guinea [7], wher he identifyd lernng to read in iregulr english spelng as a particulr problm for those ho did not speak th languaj.

6. Efects of spelng regularity inconclusiv.

Th question of how far litracy standrds may be influenced by th regularity of riting systms is discusd, along with many othr factrs, in Chapter 5 of th IEA report, 'How Do High-Achieving Countries Differ from Low-Achieving Countries?'. It is worth quoting th section concernd (p41):
"7. It is often claimed that languages which show a regular correspondence between sound and symbol make learning to read easier than those which have an irregular sound-letter correspondence. There is quite enough for the young child to remember without being confused by exceptions in the orthography. To check out this hypothesis, the main 15 European languages ... were rated on a five point scale according to the extent to which their graphemes mapped faithfully on to their phonemes. The results of this exercise are shown in Table 5.5.

Table 5.5. Rating of languages according to phonetic regularity.

Highly regular5  Finnish
 4Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Hungarian, Slovenian
 3German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Greek
 2Danish, French

Each country had these ratings applied according to its language of instruction, and comparisons were made between the high-scoring and low-scoring nations. While the Finnish and Italian students' results bore out the hypothesis of the benefits of regularity, the results of the remaining countries did not. The degree of regularity may be one factor which assists students when the sound-symbol link is near perfect, and the teaching methods may exploit that fact, but it is apparently not a major consideration in other languages by age nine."
Spelng reformrs wil no dout be surprised by these conclusions (indeed Table 5.3 even states that, acordng to th surveys statistics, for 9-year-olds an iregulr riting systm is actuly helpful!), and they wil wish to no more about ther basis. One peculiarity is imediatly aparent wich may or may not be significnt: th section refers repeatdly to sound-symbl, sound-letr regularity, yet th IEA survey is concernd only with readng, not riting, and for readng it is th reverse corespondnce (symbl-sound, letr-sound) that is importnt. One wud like to no in wat respect jermn and greek for instnce wer jujd, from th readrs point of vew, to be less regulr than, say, spanish and italian, altho from th riters point of vew they ar undoutdly so.

7. Verdict for spelng reform.

To conclude: th IEA report contains a welth of intrestng infrmation, but for th spelng reformr its findngs ar, at least superficialy, discurajng. Nevrthless, ther ar enuf douts arising about th findngs for ther mesaj to apear by no means clearcut. We must also remembr that th IEA survey was concernd only with readng, and not with riting, wich is th side of litracy wher mastry of spelng is indispensbl. But abov al: impressiv tho th IEA survey is in its round-th-world covraj, intelijnt and iluminating discussion of th issus, and sofisticated statisticl analysis, it canot invalidate th evryday experience that we hav of english spelng, that it represents a serius handicap to countless lernrs and that almost al of us find ourselvs flumoxd by it, even tripng over it, from time to time. Th case for english spelng reform may not be strengthnd by th IEA survey, but it is not weaknd by it eithr. Perhaps th ultmat mesaj of th IEA survey is that cross-cultrl evidnce for th damaj don by english spelng is not best sot in multilingul studis at al, wher th variabls ar so complex as to shroud any straitforwrd conclusion in uncertnty, but rathr in bilingul comparisns wher th numbr of extraneus variabls can be gretly reduced. Here we must again emfasize th importnce of Thorstads anglo-italian study: its conclusions ar devastating.


[1] Downing, J. (ed.), 1967, Evaluating the Initial Teaching Alphabet, London: Cassell.

[2] Thorstad, G. (1991) 'The effect of orthography on the acquisition of literacy skills' in British Journal of Psychology, 82, pp527-37. [See Thorstad JSSS articles.]

[3] Upward, C. (1992c) 'Is traditionl english spelng mor dificit than jermn?' Journal of Research in Reading (1992), 15(2), pp82-94.

[4] Downing, J. (ed.) (1973a) Comparative Reading: Cross-National Studies of Behavior and Processes in Reading and Writing, New York: The Macmillan Company.

[5] Warwick B Elley (July 1992) How in the World Do Students Read? The Hague: IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement). T Neville Postlethwaite and Kenneth N Ross (November 1992) Effective Schools in Reading: Implications for Educational Planners, IEA. Ingvar Lundberg and Pirjo Linnakylä (January 1993) Teaching Reading Around the World, IEA.

[6] IEA study, Table D. 1, p 102.

[7] Downing, J. (1987) 'The Transfer of Skills in Language Functions' in JSSS 1987/2, pp5-12, reprinted J28 2000/2 pp3-11.

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