[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J21, 1997/1, pp3-8]
[Gwen Thorstad: see Journals and Newsletters, Papers; and about ita.]
Children's Responses to Simplified Spelling - Part 1.
We here present Pt.I (with Introduction and reports on Studies 1 & 2) of a
condensed account of research carried out in 1994-95. Pt.II, with reports on Studies
3 & 4, will follow in the next issue.
Dr Thorstad worked as a tutor for educational psychologists at Tavistock Clinic, England 1964-86.
The rationale and circumstances of the research project are introduced and four
linked studies (1 & 2 here, and 3 & 4 in the next issue) presented as
1. An investigation into how easily schoolchildren can read simplified spelling
2. Children's preferences for the different spelling of vowels in the New Spelling, Equal Plus and Dash Plus simplified spelling systems.
3. Advantages and disadvantages of New Spelling, Equal Plus and Dash Plus, as used in a word recognition test.
4. To examine children's awareness of the function of letters in words: their opinions of the appropriateness of the traditional spelling of the 100 most frequently occurring words and their suggestions for improved spellings.
Introduction.Children have always acquired literacy skills at different rates. Some read early with ease whatever teaching method is used, but in England at least 13% leave school with inadequate skills for future training and employment (ALBSU, 1994). These children usually have some degree of specific learning difficulty, so need remedial teaching using a phonic method for which the traditional orthography of English is ill-suited.
Only about 3 per cent, the most retarded readers with a severe specific learning difficulty (Yule, 1973; Rutter, & Yule,1975), receive remedial help, because this can cost 50 per cent more than the usual educational allowance. Schools lack funds to provide remedial teaching for the other 10 per cent. Yet these children have insufficient reading ability to take part fully in the lessons from eight-years-old upwards. As a result they gradually get angry and depressed about their failure, often reveal behaviour difficulties in class, and frequently end by truanting. About three out of four of them are boys. As they grow older there is evidence from studies in the UK and US that they are more likely to become involved in delinquent behaviour via the truanting (Burt, 1945; Dunivant, 1984; Farrington, 1990; Maugham, Pickles, Hagell, Rutter and Yule, 1996; Skaret & Wilgosh, 1989; Williams & McGee, 1994).
When children are slow in learning to read, the cause is usually attributed to social, emotional and/or cognitive problems. What is insufficiently investigated is the difficulty of English traditional orthography (TO) produced by the irregularity of the relationship between sounds and letters. It is possible to highlight the problem confronting all non-readers by looking at the 12 most frequent words in children's books forming 25 per cent of their reading (McNally and Murray, 1968) and classify them according to Venezky's criteria (1970). Of these 12 words only five are predictable and invariant (a, and, in, it, that), four are predictable and variant (he, is, to, was) and three are unpredictable (I, of, the). Thus TO has always caused problems in teaching, which used to be approached by introducing children to a small sight vocabulary followed by a carefully controlled phonic approach.
In contrast, Italian orthography is mostly predictable and invariant, so that teachers can use a purely phonic approach from the beginning at 6 years, in which reading and spelling become a reversible process. Thorstad (1991) found that 6-year-old Italian children could read and spell words that they did not understand, such as letteralmente and percettibile, whereas the English children could not read or spell literally or perceptible until 9 and 10 years respectively in TO. Yet in the same study 6-year-old English children could read those words in the Initial Teaching Alphabet (i.t.a.) and attempt to write them, although the teacher had given minimal time to teaching spelling, because the children were soon going to transfer to TO.
There were two Italian children in that study, whose literacy skills were not so good as the others' at 6 years. They made the usual mis-spellings found in children with a severe specific learning difficulty, such as in the orientation and sequencing of letters, and confusion of vowel sounds. Yet in a dictation given a year later taken from the same text as previously used, they only made a few errors, showing great progress without remedial teaching. This was probably because the teaching method in Italy encourages children to pronounce words as they are writing them, which is a multisensory approach primarily only used with phonically regular words in remedial teaching in English. It would seem that the method of teaching through writing and saying the sounds as the children wrote meant that, in effect, they had a remedial lesson every day.
One head of a remedial department in an English secondary (comprehensive) school (Threadgall, 1994) discovered that if all of those who were semi-literate (reading age below 9 years) and illiterate (reading age below 7 years), about 10% of the new intake, were transferred in the first year from TO to the Initial Teaching Alphabet (i.t.a.), most of them could return to TO within two or three months with a reading age appropriate to their chronological age. Further help was given for the remainder of the academic year in TO spelling rules, because children who are slow in reading TO seem unable to acquire the 202 spelling rules required in English TO automatically (Hanna, Hanna, Hodges & Rudorf, 1966) and need to be taught the most common ones.
Teachers in the past have considered the possibility of presenting beginning readers with a systematic code, that young children could learn quickly and easily, before they transferred to the more complex TO (Pitman, 1961; Downing, 1962). Between 1852 and 1860, Fonotypy, devised by Isaac Pitman and A J Ellis, was used successfully in ten schools at Waltham, Massachusetts. This was followed by a larger experiment in St. Louis in 1866 and 1886. The same technique of introducing a systematic alphabet first was also used successfully by a headmistress, Miss McCullum, in an infant's school in Scotland in 1914. This was followed by other studies between 1915 and 1924. Unfortunately no objective comparisons were made with control groups of children learning to read in TO, nor were there standardized reading tests to measure the reading ages.
Downing (1967) was the first in the UK to use an experimental design and statistical techniques to evaluate the difference between the speed of learning to read and write English in young children, in a predictable invariant phonically based alphabet in Simplified Spelling (SS) in contrast to TO. Downing also used the i.t.a. for the first time. It was developed by James Pitman from Isaac Pitman's design and was originally called the Augmented Roman Alphabet because it had 43 letters, one for each sound, instead of 26. All the letters of the TO alphabet were used except x. The long vowels were indicated by attaching an e immediately after each of the five short vowel. The letters of the digraphs CH, SH, TH in the and think, and WH were likewise joined together. There were two forms of Z, for fizz and houses, and other specially designed letters for the digraphs OU in ought, OO in book and moon, OU/OW in bough and cow and OI/OY in boil and toy. Most of the children learnt to read and write long stories quickly and transferred successfully to TO between 6 and 7 years without apparently noticing the change in the orthography. The difference was still maintained at 9 years, the i.t.a. children being superior in punctuation, grammar, spelling and comprehension (Downing and Latham, 1969). Downing also later found fewer children with disabilities in reading and writing in the secondary schools among those who had started in i.t.a. compared with those reading TO from the beginning (Downing, 1970).
Since Threadgall had such good results in remedial teaching using the i.t.a. in secondary schools, it is proposed to repeat his method of teaching remedial children in the first year of a secondary school and the top two years of two primary schools using some form of SS, but not i.t.a., owing to the problems associated with the extra letters. Instead it is proposed to achieve a predictable and invariable orthography from the 25 letters in the TO alphabet with the possible addition of diacritical marks or symbols available on any typing or printing machine.
Rather than just choosing a suitable orthography according to adult's criteria and personal preference, the present study was made to discover which of two SS orthographies was read most successfully by children and preferred by them.
Two members of the Simplified Spelling Society, Atkinson and Footer, designed two
different forms of simplified spelling (SS), which they consider might be easier for
slow readers to learn initially and which minimize the need for 'unlearning' when
they transfer back to TO.
An investigation into how easily school-children can read simplified
Atkinson (1995) devised 'Equal-Plus' (EP) which is based on the sequences of competences through which children are known to pass in learning to read and spell. It exploits the regularities which already exist in TO, so minimizing the need for unlearning. In stressed syllables the five short vowels are retained, but when followed by an equals sign as marker, as in ma=d 'made', they represent long vowels. The alternative sound for U as in put is shown by underlining (U), while the OO spelling of this sound is also underlined, as in look. The following representations are all retained in their TO form: AR, OR, AU and AW; ER, UR and IR; OU and OW; OI and OY; AIR and ARE (as in bare); EAR and EER; and additionally WAR and AL (as in ball). If words have vowel sounds which correspond to the ones above, but have different TO spellings, these spellings are changed to accord with the predominant patterns, eg, more to mor, caught to caut, worm to werm, and bear to bair. Unstressed syllables are specially marked. Syllabic L, M, N and R are represented as +L, +N, +M, +R, eg, Lund+n 'London'. The sound of SH opening an unstressed syllable is written TI, SI, SSI, CI as in menti+n, etc. The schwa vowels are represented by the same letters which are used in their TO spellings, eg, A in about, unless they are covered by the +L, +M, +N, +R convention. The ending -TURE is underlined, as in picture.
Footer (1996) devised a variant of a scheme called New Spelling 90 (Fennelly, 1991). Like Atkinson, Footer retained the five short vowels, but used E after a vowel to denote its long value, thus maed 'made'. Other stressed vowel sounds were regularized, thus AU in both haunt, sau 'saw'; EU in prefeur 'prefer', feurst 'first', feur 'fur'; OU in out, hou 'how'; AA in taart 'tart'; OI in oil, boi 'boy'; AER in air; EER in heer 'here', deer 'dear'. All silent letters are omitted and doubled consonants simplified. Syllabic N, M, L, R are marked by a preceding asterisk: *N, *M, *L, *R. The TI- in mention, SI- in pension and the SSI- in mission all become SH, thus naesh*n 'nation'. In addition, C is dropped from CK, thus pik 'pick'; and S sounds are differentiated into S and Z, thus az 'as'.
The greatest difference between the two forms of simplified spelling is the use of the '=' sign as a marker for the long vowel sounds in EP and the more familiar extra E as a marker in NS. Furthermore, Atkinson attempts to retain as much of TO as possible (eg, TI in action) in order to reduce the unlearning though it increases initial learning, while Footer lays more stress on the need for predictable, invariant grapheme-phoneme correspondences, which should increase the speed of initial learning, although there may be more problems in unlearning.
Essentially, this is an exploratory study to discover how children react to a change in orthography, how quickly they adapt, how it affects their competence and in what way. It was assumed that the children's ability in the new orthographies would give some indication as to which was the easiest to learn. It was also intended through a brief questionnaire to discover how aware they were of the anomalies of English spelling and which of the two orthographies they would prefer.
Subjects The children came from two inner city schools. There were 25
10-year-olds and 34 11-year-olds. There was a problem about timing of the testing,
owing to the schools' commitment to the National Curriculum, so the tests were given
at the end of the summer term.
Material. A number of reading tests were given. There was a comprehension test in TO, the Group Reading Test (Young, 1989), which is a short sentence completion test of 45 items, of which 15 at the beginning involve underlining the name of a picture from four given words, a task which all could do. Total time taken was about 15 minutes. It was chosen because there were two parallel tests by Young with a similar layout and total raw score of 45, Spar test A and B (1976), which could be transcribed into NS and EP respectively. Neither of the standardizations had enough raw scores to provide an above average score for the 10- to 11-year-olds, but it was anticipated that not many children would need them. Then, a word recognition test, the Graded Word Reading Test (Schonell & Schonell, 1950), was used in its TO form and also transcribed into NS and EP. A brief outline of the essentials of each code was distributed with the Spar A and B. Pencils were used for underlining.
(a) The GRT comprehension test in TO was administered first to all the class.
(b) Two or three days later an introductory talk on the development of English spelling was given for 5 minutes, followed by a discussion as to how English spelling could be made easier to learn. The code for NS or EP was given out and discussed for about 5 minutes, and then the comprehension test, Spar test A or B, was distributed. The alternative test was then administered the following week. The order of giving the tests Spar A and B was alternated in the groups.
(c) Afterwards, in an individual interview, half the children read the word recognition test (GWRT) in TO, then either the test in NS or EP. The other half of the children began with the EP or NS version and followed it with the TO version.
(d) In an individual interview, between the two GWRT tests, the children were asked to give their opinions about the difficulties of TO and which out of NS or EP they would prefer.
Results.The 10-year-olds had a mean chronological age of 10 years 6 months. Their mean comprehension reading age on the GRT in TO was 10.2+ years. Their comprehension age on the Spar Tests A in NS and B in EP at 8.7 years were both significantly lower, but there was no difference between the results in NS and EP. Their mean word recognition age on the GWRT in TO was 11.0 years, 11.2 in NS and 10.9 in EP. There were no significant differences between any of their mean scores, for the children tended to gain the same score on one orthography as on another.
The 11-year-olds had a mean chronological age of 11 years 3 months. Their mean reading comprehension age on the GRT in TO was 9.9 years. Their mean comprehension ages on the Spar Tests A NS and B EP were both 8.7 years, so were statistically significantly lower than in TO and the same as each other. Their mean word recognition reading age on the GWRT was 10.4 years in TO, 10.8 years in NS and 10.0 years in EP, so there was no statistically significant difference between them. There was a significant correlation between their scores on the test in TO and NS, and TO and EP, showing again that individual children tended to score as well in one orthography as another.
Discussion.There was no significant difference between the children's scores in comprehension on the Spar Test A in NS and the Spar Test B in EP, but they were both significantly lower than in TO. On the other hand, there was no significant difference between children's scores in word recognition in TO, NS or EP. When they were asked which helped them most with a long vowel, an E or an = sign, the majority preferred an E (see Study 2). As there were other differences between the two forms of simplified spelling, it was decided to replace the equal sign with a dash, and then repeat the questionnaire with a group of 9-year-old children.
Subjects. The 29 9-year-old children had a mean age of 9 yrs 8
Material. The reading tests were as for the older children, except that those previously transcribed into Equal Plus were now transcribed into Dash Plus (DP), using a dash instead of an equal sign after a long vowel.
Procedure and treatment of results. The same procedure and treatment of results was followed with the 9-year-olds as with the older children.
Results.The 9-year-olds had a mean comprehension age of 10.2+ yearson the GRT in TO. The mean age levels on the Spar Tests A NS and B DP were significantly lower at 8.8 and 8.9 years respectively, but there was no significant difference between the NS and DP mean scores. The mean scores on the GWRT word recognition test were 10.8 years in TO, 10.7 years in NS and 10.6 years in DP, so there was no significant difference either between the NS and DP scores, or between them and the scores in TO. However, although the mean scores were the same, they were obtained differently. There was a greater scatter from the first word failed to the last success on NS and DP tests than in TO. It seemed that more children did not fully understand the NS and DP codes, but if they did, then some of them had nearly all the words correct.
Discussion.The 9-year-olds' mean word recognition age on the GWRT was a year above their mean chronological age, while the standard deviation was the usual 16. This suggests the class as a whole was progressing well in their reading. However the pattern of results was the same as for the other age groups.
Thus, they scored significantly lower on the parallel comprehension tests, Spar A in NS and Spar B in DP, than in TO, though as with the older groups there was no significant difference between them in NS and DP. As in the other groups, the children read the word recognition test equally well in TO, NS and DP, and there was a high correlation between scores in TO and NS, and TO and DP.
General Discussion of Study 1.The children understood why English orthography should be discussed and several of them were able to give instances of its inconsistency in the preliminary class discussion. They did not really make use of the coding keys given out when they answered the comprehension tests and reading the word recognition test. It seemed rather that they remembered enough about the representation of the vowels and then just used what was familiar in the consonants. There was no indication in the results or in the children's remarks or behaviour that there was any negative transfer of training between NS, EP or DP, when they changed from one orthography to another.
There was no difference between the children's comprehension scores in NS and EP, or NS and DP. Nor was there any difference between children's word recognition in TO and either NS, EP or DP.
An unexpected finding was that the children's mean scores on the comprehension in NS, EP and DP were lower than in TO in all three age groups, whereas there was no difference between the means in word recognition in TO, NS, EP and DP. This is the opposite of what might have been expected, for children with a specific learning difficulty, who cannot read all the words in a passage, often manage to get a higher score on a comprehension test than a word recognition test, because they are able to use their general reasoning ability, whereas the word recognition test requires a more specific ability. Thus the change in orthography might have had a greater inhibitory effect in comprehension than in word recognition.
Some of the medium and good readers read considerably better in either NS, EP or DP than TO, producing an increased spread in the upper distribution of scores, which Downing had also found in i.t.a. Probably they were now at a stage when they could use good sequential word attack skills on any regular orthography if they knew the code. However, most of the children retarded in reading could not make so much use of the regular relationship between phoneme and grapheme in NS or EP, possibly because they had no experience of it; for them most of English traditional orthography is completely irregular.
The subjects were the two older age groups of Study 1, the 25 10-year-olds and the
34 11-year-olds, plus 14 children who had taken the word recognition test
(GWRT) in TO and either in NS or EP, but were omitted from the calculations for
Study 1 because they had missed one or both of the comprehension tests. They
were now combined to make one large heterogeneous group of 73 children (many
had English as a second language [ESL] or had specific learning difficulties
[SLD], particularly the 11-year-olds). The mean chronological age was 10 yrs 11
mnths and the mean word recognition age was less, at 10.6 yrs. The reading ages
varied between 5.8 yrs and 14.3 yrs.
A questionnaire to find the difficulties children had in reading TO and their
preferred SS script: New Spelling, Equal Plus (EP) or Dash Plus (DP)
Material and procedure. A brief verbal questionnaire was given individually between administering two forms of the word recognition (GWRT) test, as described in Study 1. It was designed to discover what difficulties children experienced in reading and which of the two scripts, NS or EP, they preferred. The questions were:
1 Do you find reading easy or difficult?
2 How could you make words easier to read?
3 Which do you find helps you most with the long vowel sounds, putting an E after them, or an equal sign, '='?
Results.The children varied in their readiness to answer the questions, but these were always completed within three minutes.
It soon became apparent that the answers to Question 1 were not informative, because children often gave the answer which they thought was expected or wished was true, such as that they found reading easy, when their scores were low and they obviously found it difficult. These tended to be boys, whereas a good reader, a girl, said "Sometimes I don't understand the words. Have not seen them before. I think them very difficult".
In answer to the open ended Question 2, most of the children could not think of any way to make words easier to read, except by omitting silent letters, by which they really meant consonants.
Question 3 was simpler, involving choosing one of two methods of indicating a long vowel. Some two thirds of children (48) chose the NS script, where the long vowel sound is indicated by an extra e following the vowel, and one third (25) preferred the EP script, where the '=' follows the vowel.
Of the children preferring NS, three could give no reason for preferring e; 18 said 'e more easier' or the equivalent; 13 said they were 'more used to it' or had seen it before; 4 of them identified e as a letter, and '=' as having to do with maths; 5 made adverse comments about the '=' sign, such as 'it confuses me'; 5 chose e, but gave irrelevant reasons.
Of the children preferring '=', 7 could not say why; 9 said it was easier; 4 gave adverse comments about e; 5 chose '=', but gave irrelevant reasons.
Subjects The 29 9-year-olds were better readers for they had a mean
chronological age of 9 yrs 8 mnths, but a higher mean word recognition age of 10.8
yrs. However, they also had a wide word recognition range from 5.5 yrs to 13.8 yrs.
Material and procedure. As two thirds of the 10- and 11-year-old children disliked the '=' sign, the reading tests were reprinted in Dash Plus instead for the 9-year-olds. The tests were given in the same order as before and under the same conditions. The questions were given as above, except that Question 3 involved DP instead of EP ("which do you find helps you most wth the long vowel sounds, putting an E after it or a dash?")
Results.These younger children, who as a class had a higher average reading age than their elders, were more realistic in their assessment of reading being easy or difficult. Good readers were more cautious saying reading was "sometimes easy ... mostly easy ... sort of easy ... depends on what the words are". Some good and some average readers said reading was "most easy ... medium easy ... bit difficult". Weaker readers tended to say "sometimes easy, sometimes hard ... quite difficult, if I have never heard of it". There was no difference between boys' and girls' comments
In response to Question 2, they had more suggestions than their elders. The most frequent was to omit silent letters, but they complained that often words did not sound as they were spelt, that letters did not always have the same sound, that the way it sounds should be the way it is spelled, that some letters could be taken out and others put in, that there were different ways of spelling long words, that there were unnecessary extra letters, such as in ck. Many complained about having long words and thought that these should be shortened or not used.
When asked to choose between following a long vowel with e or '-', 15 chose e and 14 '-'. Their reasons showed that they had not always understood the functions of either e or '-' as a marker. They tended to explain choosing e by reasons for not choosing the dash, while those who chose the dash gave positive reasons for the choice. Reasons given for e were: "spelled like they're sounded", "more used to it" and "looks much nicer" and against the dash were: "dash looks silly", "doesn't sound anything", "wouldn't know what they meant", "teacher doesn't like dashes" and "Dash ... some people do it. My mum does".
The reasons given for the dash were: "dash easy. Just draw a line", "like it's solving a puzzle", "easier to do instead of e", "easier to remember than writing letters", "because you know that dash makes it sound longer", "easier, if you can't spell a word properly - do not have to put wrong letter, just a line", "cause it would be easier to remember". The few derogatory remarks about e were: "e sounds even longer", and "e might get muddled up" mentioned twice.
Conclusions.When the equal sign was replaced by a dash, there was no significant difference between the numbers of children preferring the E to its non-alphabetic alternative. This suggests that the equal sign should be discontinued and that the dash would make a good substitute.
However, NS is also more completely alphabetic than EP or DP, which should make it easier to learn initially. DP like EP has retained more of the TO advanced letter clusters, which may make it more difficult to read now than NS, but easier to transfer back to TO. Only teaching children in these scripts and assessing their ability in TO before and after their tuition will reveal which script is the more suitable.
General Discussion of Study 2.The introduction to the simplified spelling schemes was hurried. It was noted that children did not consult the explanatory handouts. They seemed to rely mainly on the consonants in the words with a few clues from the vowels. It became obvious that it was preferable to administer a brief verbal questionnaire rather than to conduct an open-ended discussion with each child. The first question would need to be general and undemanding, such as how they experienced reading themselves; a second question would elicit suggestions as to how the orthography could be made easier; a third question would ask how they would prefer a long vowel to be indicated, that is, with a following E or an '=' sign. The responses were taken down verbatim.
The verbally administered questionnaire began with two general questions to encourage the children to think about the process itself, rather than the content. To the first question, the younger group, who were also relatively better readers, were able to respond objectively about how difficult they found reading, while many of the older, weaker readers, who already felt defensive about their reading, often gave wish-fulfilment types of responses. To the second question, children in the younger group displayed their expertise in the relationship between phonemes and graphemes by being able to give several suggestions as to how TO could be made easier, whereas the older group could only recommend the dropping of silent letters.
Since NS, EP and DP have other features beside e and '-' that differ, it would be useful to test them out individually on children to discover their opinions, since it is children that are going to use them, not adults. Ultimately, though, the concern is not with children's preferences, but with what can be learnt most quickly with minimal negative transfer of training when the children move on to TO. The purpose of simplified spelling in this context is to enable children to read material up to their age level, freely, with confidence and enthusiasm. At the same time they do ultimately have to transfer back to TO, where their performance is the real test of the effectiveness of the orthography.
NS is designed for easy initial learning, and EP for easy transfer to TO. However, it is not known how much detail children do transfer: when transferring from i.t.a, all teachers remarked that the children appeared not to notice the change. This suggests that they take in less detail than adults might suppose. Thus the features of EP intended to facilitate transfer, such as the TI in na=tion, might be unnecessary.
It is envisaged that children using the simplified orthography in a normal classroom situation would have a reading age below their chronological age. These children may have a specific specific learning difficulty. Stanley and Hall (1973) found that such children notice less detail in spelling than do better readers. This weakness may be an advantage when facing an orthography with features these children will need to discard when they transfer to TO. It is therefore possible, as most of them depend excessively on a phonetic approach to reading and spelling, that it is better that the orthography be phonetically predictable and as simple as possible, rather than that it should anticipate letter combinations they will face in TO.
Moreover, children in Downing's original experiment, and subsequently when it was used in infant schools, were given no systematic help with the irregularities of TO. However, Threadgall (1994) always gave remedial teaching in spelling to his 11-year-olds when they transferred otherwise successfully from i.t.a. to TO. This enabled them to learn the rules which would help them with English orthography.
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Acknowledgments.I am deeply indebted to the two primary schools which made this study possible: to the headmistresses for their willingness to allow new ideas for improving their pupils' literacy skills to be explored, to the teachers for making the studies logistically possible, and to the children for their enthusiastic participation. I am also indebted to several members of the Simplified Spelling Society: to Nick Atkinson, who created the Equal Plus orthography and Ron Footer, who modified New Spelling 90; to the then Secretary, the late Bob Brown, and the Editor-in-Chief, Chris Upward, for their critical reading of the manuscript and useful suggestions; and finally to John Bryant for his technical assistance.
Reports on Studies 3 & 4 will appear in the next issue of JSSS (J22).
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