[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J21, 1997-1 pp27-29]

Lobbying Literacy Policy Makers.

In 1996 the Simplified Spelling Society conducted the following correspondence with educationists likely to influence British literacy policy in future years.
[See further correspondence in J22 and other articles about lobbying.]

To Michael Barber

Professor Michael Barber
Literacy Task Force
Deans' Office, Institute of Education

18 June 1996

Dear Professor Barber

The Simplified Spelling Society warmly welcomes the establishment of the Literacy Task Force, chaired by yourself, and in particular the call (TES, 7 June 1996, p160) for a strategic view of literacy problems. That is what our Society has always offered in the nearly 90 years of its existence.

We understand why you call for concise practical approaches, which we can also suggest (see footnote*), but without a strategic view, practical approaches risk adding to present confusion. Helpful though the many programmes like 'Reading Recovery' and now the 'Literacy Centres' and 'First Steps' may be, they are no more than palliatives, which for lack of a strategic view ultimately disappoint the hopes they raise.

We attach great importance to the name Literacy Task Force. We hope it means that literacy will be recognized as an interacting complex of skills based on a single writing system. To highlight reading, as is commonly done, is rather like insisting on subtraction as the key arithmetical skill. Literacy has two sides, reading and writing, which should reinforce each other in the learning process. By contrast, spelling (often wrongly quoted as a third literacy skill) is an ambiguous term, for which many languages have no exact equivalent. The role of spelling is widely misunderstood in the English-speaking world today.

Phonics is part of the strategic view, as it goes to the heart of how alphabetic literacy works, and we are encouraged that Gillian Shephard and David Blunkett are committed to it. However, to persuade people of the need for phonics, it must be presented it in its full strategic context. Phonics is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the highest literacy standards.

The enclosed sheet, Six Axioms on English Spelling, provides what we consider to be the essential strategic view. These axioms represent the necessary historical and psychological context for understanding the problem of literacy in English today.

We also enclose a copy of the Cut Spelling Handbook, which analyses the problem in depth. Though the particular solution it offers may be too radical for short-term consideration, it maps a path whose initial steps could be relatively uncontroversial, if prepared by a campaign of public education. Paradoxically, it is the most highly educated, and most influential, who most need educating. In our experience, the mass of people who have difficulty with literacy often implicitly understand the key problem [1] of written English today.

If the Literacy Task Force develops a truly strategic view, it could not only lead English-speaking countries toward higher literacy standards, but vastly enhance world access to English as a medium of global communication. The experience of our membership around the world suggests that non-native speakers literate in other languages often understand the literacy problems of English better than native speakers do, and need less persuading of the need for change.

These issues beg many questions, both practical and theoretical, which we urge the Literacy Task Force to pursue. The Simplified Spelling Society, with its wide-ranging expertise, will be glad to help in any way it can.

Yours sincerely

For the Committee of the Simplified Spelling Society.

[1] The problem is epitomized by two words, though it pervades the whole language. The Basic Skills Agency found that 2/3 of people misspell accommodation, and well over 1/3 misspell receive. Such misspellings show people intuitively trying to apply phonic principles, but being frustrated by archaic spelling conventions. French recevoir and Spanish acomodación pose few difficulties, and it is absurd that English did not long ago simplify its own forms along the same lines. One short-term measure (from countless possibilities) which the Literacy Task Force might consider would be to recommend British children are in future taught acomodation and receve. But without a strategic view, isolated changes of that kind would appear merely unmotivated drops in the ocean.

Reply 24 June 1996

Thank you very much for your helpful letter in response to my TES Last Word article about the Literacy Task Force. The views you express are extremely interesting and I shall ensure that they are drawn to the attention of my colleagues when the Literacy Task Force meets.

If we are to succeed in transforming standards of literacy over the years ahead, a substantial constructive input from members of the profession will be essential.

Best wishes and thanks again.
Yours sincerely

Professor Michael Barber
Dean of New Initiatives

Subsequent correspondence with Professor Barber will appear in
JSSS 22 1997/2.

To David Reynolds

Professor David Reynolds
Department of Education
University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

23 September 1996

Dear Professor Reynolds

We welcome the publication of Worlds Apart as a valuable contribution to our understanding of disparities in educational standards between countries.

We are now writing to stress the importance of an additional (and, regrettably, further complicating) dimension to such comparative studies. Partly no doubt because of its concentration on standards in mathematics and science, Worlds Apart alludes to this dimension only peripherally (p11, the IEA study of written composition in different languages).

We would first comment briefly on the role of language in the context of mathematics and science. The mainly Greek-derived terminology of these subjects in English may well represent a barrier to learners which does not occur in some other languages. For instance, while terms like polygon, nitrogen are abstruse to English learners, their German equivalents (Vieleck = many corner/angle, Stickstoff = suffocating stuff) are transparent to learners in that language. Furthermore, the spelling of Greek-derived words in English is uniquely confusing (contrast English psychology, Spanish sicología). It may be worth considering how abstruse or transparent the basic terminology of various subjects is in the languages of countries being compared, and whether standards may be thereby affected.

The main focus of our Society is the spelling of English, but we have for over twenty years taken an interest in the effect of different writing systems on literacy standards. The evidence suggests that the present spelling of English is a significant obstacle to high standards of literacy, compared with most other alphabetic writing systems. High standards of literacy are of course prerequisite for high standards in nearly every subject. The rather low rank achieved by many English-speaking countries (not just England) in various of the Worlds Apart tables is at least consistent with the possibility of difficulties inherent in the process of literacy acquisition in English as it is conventionally written today.

We hope that future comparative studies will wish to take account of findings to that effect published by members of our Society, eg, the late Professor John Downing, Dr Gwenllian Thorstad, Dr Valerie Yule and Christopher Upward. We will be happy to supply bibliographical references and/or copies of the publications concerned.

International comparison is only one facet of our Society's work. We are more directly concerned with the internal evidence of damage done to educational standards by the lack of a coherent writing system for English, and much of our energy is devoted to devising proposals for its improvement. At least the following languages have, for educational reasons, modernized their writing systems during this century (some of them more than once): Chinese, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Irish, Japanese, Malay/Indonesian, Malyalam, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish. [See Journal topics.] English neglects this essential task to the inevitable detriment of its educational standards.

The non-English-speaking world is generally more aware of the absurdities and difficulties of English spelling than are the English-speaking countries, to whom our orthography all too often appears just as a fact of life. But as research into educational standards has intensified in recent years, and with it our awareness of the poor standards achieved by English-speaking countries, so we believe that in due course the need to confront the key underlying problem of the English writing system will become inescapable.

It is the Simplified Spelling Society's mission to try to hasten such a confrontation. If we can provide any relevant input to research on comparative international standards, we should be glad to give whatever assistance we can.

For your further information, we enclose some leaflets about aspects of our work.

Yours sincerely

For the Committee of the Simplified Spelling Society

Reply 1 October 1996

Thank you so much for sending me material on your society, and for your views on Worlds Apart. I thoroughly agree that the complexity of spelling in the English language may well be a significant barrier for children's acquiring other skills of literacy, and have myself become very interested in this area through my current role as a member of David Blunkett's Literacy Commission which is investigating this whole area with a view towards generating policies for an incoming Labour government. I would be very grateful if you could send me the bibliographical references that you mentioned, and would be even more grateful for copies of the various publications concerned. I will ensure that the Commission hears of your work, and hopefully has a chance to look at some of the material, at its next meeting in mid-October.

Thank you very much for writing to me.

David Reynolds
Professor of Education

To Nicholas Tate

Dr Nicholas Tate
Chief Executive
School Curriculum and Assessment Authority

15 July 1996

Dear Dr Tate

We would ... like to comment on a report in the TES (14.6.96, p3) that you are calling for British schoolchildren not to be exposed to American spellings in computer software, on the grounds that our culture should be defended from American influence. We would urge a more discriminating approach: by all means let undesirable aspects of American culture be resisted, but let us embrace those, such as American spellings, from which we can benefit.

We have prepared an analysis [2] of Anglo-American spelling differences and their implications for the UK, and enclose a copy for SCAA's consideration. We hope SCAA will reconsider its view of American spellings and make positive recommendations for the future..

We would be glad to know SCAA's response to these ideas.

Yours sincerely

For the Committee of the Simplified Spelling Society

[2] Reprinted with minor amendments on pp30-32.

Reply 25 July 1996

Thank you for your letter of 15 July and the accompanying ... article.


Thank you ... for the analysis of Anglo-American spelling differences which you sent in response to my reported remarks in the TES of 14 June. I enclose a copy of the full text of my speech on that occasion for your interest.
[3] You will see that I mentioned Anglo-American spelling differences in the context of my broader concern about the social and cultural impact of the new technologies upon children's language usage and reading habits.

The Simplified Spelling Society's paper presents a thorough and detailed analysis of Anglo-American spelling differences. I have passed the paper on to the English officers here who will consider it as part of their ongoing work of monitoring and reviewing the curriculum and assessment arrangements for English.

Thank you for your continued interest in this matter.

Yours sincerely

Nicholas Tate


Conference organised by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, London 1-2 July 1996

(excerpt from speech by SCAA Chief Executive Dr Nicholas Tate)

§15. ... I indicated my worries that the expansion in the use of educational software may well lead to pupils being required to use large quantities of US-originated materials which fail to recognize this country's cultural distinctiveness.

§16. Apart from one or two predictable responses suggesting that it is perfectly acceptable, indeed a good thing, to compound our national inability to spell by using US spellings, as well as do sums in cents, dimes and dollars rather than in pounds and pence, I got a lot of support for what I said.

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