[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J21, 1997/1 p1]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles, Pamflet 15, Cut Spelling and Papers by Chris Upward.]


Christopher Upward.

JSSS 21 = 97/1.

Readers will notice that 1996/97 represents a 'leap-year' in the JSSS series. Following accumulated slippage through the 1990s, we are now catching up with the calendar by giving the date 1997/1 to the issue after 1996/1. There has, however, only been the usual 6-month interval between issues, and the consecutive numbering 20...21 shows that there has been no gap.

Phonics implies spelling reform.

It is beginning to look as though the nadir of literacy teaching in the English-speaking world is now passing, along with the view that the written language has nothing to do with the sound of words. Parts of the educational establishment in Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA are now recognizing the centrality of phonics for effective literacy. Despite the waywardness of English spelling, learners need to grasp that at some level (even if only historically) the letters used in spelling do reflect pronunciation.

In the UK, this sea-change was manifested on 27 February 1997 at a conference held in London by the Literacy Task Force, to which the SSS had previously submitted its views (see p27 of this issue). The Task Force presented its report A Reading Revolution: how we can teach every child to read well, and invited feedback from some 300 delegates, including SSS representatives. The report proposes that by the year 2006 all English children should achieve Level 4 of the reading component in the National Curriculum, as against only 57% who managed it in 1996; but there should be an interim target of 80% by the year 2000-2001. These targets are to be achieved by adopting "internationally proven best practice" in teaching (especially phonics). The SSS will wish the Task Force every success with its ambitious programme.

It may indeed make substantial progress if it can tackle what it sees as the "three fundamental problems": low expectations, inconsistent performance, and social disadvantage. Sadly, though, it is hardly likely to hit its ultimate target of 100% literacy, since it fails to address the most fundamental problem of all: the unpredictable spellings that confuse learners from the moment they confront written English. In its view of "internationally proven best practice", the Task Force likewise misses a key point by referring only to English-speaking countries. It is non-English-speaking countries which offer the real models of best practice. For they modernize their spellings to meet the needs of learners.

That England, or English, might do the same appears at present to be discounted by the Task Force on grounds of political difficulty. The SSS still has a lot of persuading to do. A new buzzword for the latest literacy drives in the USA (eg, in Baltimore) is that illiteracy is to be "relentlessly" combated, and the same spirit inspires the English Task Force. "Relentlessness" must also be the hallmark of the SSS's campaigning. Another buzzword is "zero tolerance" of illiteracy. Let there also be zero tolerance of confusing spellings.

Thanks partly to the Internet, the SSS is now in a better position than ever before to help co-ordinate members' approaches to the literacy authorities in different countries. By reporting such interventions and the responses received from those authorities, JSSS may enable members around the world to assemble the most effective arguments and the most relevant international evidence in support of their case.

Features of this issue.

Leading this issue (and with a sequel scheduled for JSSS J22 1997/2) is Thorstad's outline of her studies of how readily children, many experiencing difficulties with TO, react to regularized spelling systems. This original research, building on the i.t.a. experience, produces some fascinating and encouraging findings, and will hopefully inspire spelling reformers in the future also to test out their proposals on actual users far more rigorously than has usually been contemplated in the past.

If Thorstad's work implies English spelling may be reformed by teaching learners simplified systems, the analysis of styleguides on pp13-20 explores a different scenario: the possibility that publishers' attempts to create spelling standards for their own purposes could produce improvements in TO. The findings here are less encouraging, emphasizing rather the depths of inconsistency by which TO is in everyday practice beset. A minimum prerequisite for reform from this direction, it would appear, is that today's professional practitioners should be obliged to take a course in elementary alphabetic logic.

Examples of spelling reform in other languages provide the reform movement with copious ammunition. This issue contains items on spelling reform in Danish, Portuguese, and German, the latter of great topical interest, as the first reform of written German for a century is currently underway. How it was planned, how official approval was obtained in several countries simultaneously, and how it is now being systematically implemented all merit close study.

In English we are still at the stage of tentative campaigning and educating. Samples of this process (see also remarks on the Literacy Task Force above) may be found on pages 27-32. Two new features in this issue are a spelling advice column (p33) and a readers' letters section (pp35-36): it is hoped these will flourish in future issues - so keep your contributions coming!

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