[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J19, 1995/2, p8.]
Also on this page: House of Lords, Unpublished quote from New Scientist.
[Chris Upward: see Journals, Newsletters, Leaflets, Media, Pamflet 15, Book, Papers.]

Chris Upward discusses

NCE/NFER: Standards in Literacy and Numeracy 1948-1994.

Th British NCE (National Commission on Education) was establishd at th instigation of Sir Claus Moser by th Royal Society, the British Academy and the Royal Academy of Engineering, in response to govrnmnt unwilngness to set up a Royal Commission to examn educationl standrds in th UK. In 1993 it publishd its report Learning to Succeed, folod by a series of Briefngs, of wich Standards in Literacy and Numeracy 1948-1994 apeard in june 1995. Havng completed its work, th NCE has now been disbanded. Th foloing discussion is ritn in Cut Spelng, and has benefitd from coments by Greg Brooks.
Th NCE comissiond th National Foundation for Educational Research to produce this study, Standards in Literacy and Numeracy 1948-1994, authrd by Greg Brooks, Derek Foxman and Tom Gorman. Ke points from its introductry sumry ar:

"1. Reading standards have changed little since 1945.

4. Fewer than one percent of school-leavers and adults can be described as illiterate, but almost 15 percent have limited literacy skills.

5. We do not have an effective system of monitoring educational standards throughout the UK. Arguments about standards will continue until such a system is in place."

These conclusions beg som importnt questions. To begin with, th caveat concernng th lak of an efectiv systm for monitrng standrds (at least in England) is in efect telng us that th availbl statistics on wich th basic, measuring conclusion depends ("there is certainly no warrant for doom-laden pronouncements of inexorable decline") ar not necesrly relybl.

But even if it is indeed th case that litracy standrds hav not significntly declined since World War II, we next hav to ask wat those standrds represent in terms of achevemnt, and wethr they can indeed be considrd satisfactry. Can we be satisfyd if, wen education jenrly has expandd enormusly at al levls since 1945, litracy standrds hav remaind constnt? Shud we not expect hyr standrds now than 50 years ago?

Here, comparisns with standrds acheved in othr languajs with mor lernr-frendly riting systms may provide som indication of wethr standrds in english shud be considrd satisfactry. A numbr of studis (eg Downing 1973, Thorstad 1991, Upward 1992, Wimmer & Goswami 1994) point forcefuly to th posbility that in fact, standrds in english may be seriusly held bak by th regularity of th riting systm.

In fact th NCE/NFER study hints intrigingly at furthr evidnce of this kind, undr th hedng 'Literacy in Welsh language', wen it reports as folos:
During the 1980s, the Welsh Office commissioned surveys of various aspects of attainment in the Welsh language. The only valid comparison over time available, however, is the following. Pupils in Year 6 were tested on reading in Welsh in 1978 and 1984. The samples were similar in the two surveys, and the tests included 30 items common to both occasions. The results showed a small but significant rise both amongst pupils speaking Welsh and amongst those learning it as a second language.
This is not th first time that betr results hav been hintd at for welsh, or in Wales, than for english, or in England, and in th presnt context it is worth noting that th welsh riting systm enjoys an exeptionly regulr set of sound-symbl corespondnces. Ther may be scope here for a valubl reserch project to compare litracy standrds in welsh and in Wales with those in english and in England.

Al in al, it is perhaps importnt that we do not accept uncriticly th NCE/NFERs mildly measuring conclusion that, tho ther ar no grounds for complacency regardng litracy standrds in th UK, "doom-laden prophecies" ar uncald for. Th evidnce wich th study provides may to som degree reasure - but ther ar grounds for lookng beyond its limitd purvew.


ed. John DOWNING (1973) Comparative Reading, Cross-National Studies of Behavior and Processes in Reading and Writing, New York: The Macmillan Company.

Gwenllian THORSTAD (1991) 'The effect of orthography on the acquisition of literacy skills' in British Journal of Psychology, 82: 527-37.

Christopher UPWARD (1992) 'Is traditionl english spelng mor dificit than jermn?' in Journal of Research in Reading, 15(2), pp82-94.

Heinz WIMMER & Usha GOSWAMI (1994). 'The influence of orthographic consistency on reading development: word recognition in English and German children' in Cognition 51, pp91-103.

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J19, 1995/2, p9.]

House of Lords.

SSS Vice-President Lord Simon of Glaisdale was recently involved in exchanges on literacy matters in the House of Lords, as reported in Hansard. We are grateful to Lord Simon for making this material available to us.

Marie Clay Reading Recovery Programme.

10 May 1995, questions about the Marie Clay Reading Recovery Programme, supplementary oral question from Lord Simon, with ministerial reply from Lord Lucas:

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, would not the reading ability in primary and other schools be greatly improved if we removed some of the more gross anomalies of English spelling? I refer to the 10 different ways of pronouncing "o-u-g-h" and the six different ways of spelling the sound in the word "see". Would not that be of commercial advantage also in removing discouragement to foreign traders learning English?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am disappointed that such an elegant and frequent exponent of good English should take that attitude to our wonderful language. I celebrate the complexity of English: I celebrate its enormous variety of words and phrases and means of expressing oneself. It is one of the great strengths of our language. If the noble Lord wants an international commercial language, he may care to learn Esperanto.

16 May 1995, consequential question for written answer and ministerial reply.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale asked Her Majesty's Government:
In the light of the Answer of Lord Lucas on 10th May ("I celebrate the complexity of English" - H.L. Deb. col. 61), whether they consider that the anomalies of English spelling tend on balance to facilitate or hamper the acquisition of reading ability by (a) English schoolchildren and (b) foreign traders.
Lord Lucas: How easily people learn to read English depends on a range of factors. The relative importance of the nature of English spelling would be difficult to ascertain.

English: International Commercial Use.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale asked Her Majesty's Government:
In light of the Answer of Lord Lucas on 10th May ("If the noble Lord wants an international commercial language, he may care to learn Esperanto" - H.L. Deb. col. 61), whether it is their view that it is to the advantage of the United Kingdom that English should increasingly develop as an international commercial language, or that Esperanto should be adopted as an acceptable alternative.
Lord Lucas: The increasing use of English for international commerce is likely to benefit the United Kingdom and its people to a greater extent than any increase in the use of Esperanto.

Lord Simon writes:

The above calls for some explanation of Parliamentary practice. At the commencement of business in the House of Lords Members may ask four oral questions in total. These questions are printed in advance. The Government Department concerned drafts a reply for the Minister. It also drafts 'Notes for Supplementaries' to prepare the Minister for supplementary oral questions which may arise out of the original exchange. But a particular supplementary question may not be foreseen, in which case the Minister has to do his best without departmental guidance. Lord Simon's question was obviously unexpected; and Lord Lucas gave his own opinion.

In addition to oral questions members may table questions for written answer; the answers are drafted by the Department, though tabled in the name of the Minister. Lord Simon took an immediate opportunity to question the oral answers he had received. The Department was obviously embarrassed by the questions; and was unusually prompt in answering them, thus removing them from the order paper as soon as possible.

The answer to the second question was a retraction of Lord Lucas' oral answer. The answer to the first is a characteristic piece of disingenuousness of the Department for Education (which should really be called "the Department for Illiteracy"). The reason why we are ignorant of the degree to which the anomalies of English spelling conduce to difficulties in learning to read is because the DfE have prevented our knowledge of it. The terms of reference of the Bullock and Kingman Committees were carefully drawn to preclude their examining the matter. And, extraordinarily, the Department, while expressing concern about bad spelling, have not even bothered to find out what words are commonly misspelt: that might provide material for the SSS.

Unpublished item found in Chris Upward's files for J19.

The following appeared towards the end of an article entitled 'How to cut a dash in Swahili' by Martin Gregory, in the New Scientist, 5 November 1994, pp47-48. The article satirized features of many languages, and had this to say about English:
The only thing that's imperfect about English is the spelling. Millions of kids every year are told that "inuf" is "enough". Intelligent kids conclude that their teacher is a nutcase, and thenceforth disregard everything he or she says. So they find themselves at the bottom of the class, and more great brains are lost to civilisation. Meanwhile those at the top of the class become linguists, and seek to preserve this idiocy to safeguard their own jobs.
[See spel-bites.]

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