[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J22, 1997/2 p33,34]
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Lobbying Literacy Policy Makers

Correspondence with Michael Barber (cont.)

JSSS J21 1997-1 carried several items of correspondence between the SSS and various authorities with responsibility for literacy standards in the UK. We here print our continuing correspondence with Professor Barber.

From Professor Michael Barber
Institute of Education
University of London
10 March 1997

Reply to The Simplified Spelling Society

Thank you very much indeed for your letter of 13th February 1997. I'm glad you were able to come to our conference and that we had an opportunity to talk there.

I notice in your most recent letter you suggest my response to you was positive and you seem to imply that this in some way suggests an endorsement of your approach. I hope the session at the conference made clear to you my views. The Task Force has, since June (1996), given a great deal of consideration to these issues, as you will have seen from our report. The report is a definitive statement of our views at this stage. I really must make it absolutely clear that the Literacy Task Force does not see its role including recommending changes in the spelling of English.

Altering the English language itself can hardly be considered a matter for government, particularly now that English is a global language.

While your working campaign is an interesting one, I would not encourage you to hold out any hopes of pursuing your objectives through the Literacy Task Force.

With best wishes
Yours sincerely

Professor Michael Barber
Dean of New Initiatives

From The Simplified Spelling Society
22 April 1997

Reply to Professor Michael Barber

Thank you very much for your letter of 10 March.

We would first like to say how impressive we found the Task Force conference, and how starkly the purposeful practicality of its report contrasts with the ineffectual bulk of the Bullock Report A Language for Life of 20+ years ago. We wish the Task Force every success with its ambitious programme.

Phase One and Phase Two.
Your letter seemed to imply that the Task Force report discussed our ideas, but we could find no reference to them. Nevertheless, we understand that at this stage the Task Force does not wish to complicate its agenda with proposals for simplifying spelling.

For the longer term, we note that Phase Two of the Task Force strategy (2001-2006) is not yet mapped out and is expected to build on evaluation of Phase One. We predict that, if the evidence is sought, that evaluation will show the depressing effects on literacy standards of our present spelling more clearly than they appear today, when they are disguised by problems of teaching method and organization. We would urge that, in preparing for Phase Two, the Literacy Strategy Group should take explicit account of evidence for such effects. We hope we shall then be able to offer some relevant input.

Meanwhile, there are a few comments we would like to make now.

Evidence from non-English-speaking countries - and from English.
We welcome the attention the Task Force has paid to research evidence for good practice across the English-speaking world, but we would urge that in future evidence be taken also from countries with more regular spelling systems, as was done in recent studies comparing English with Italian and German. Not only standards, but also the length of time spent acquiring literacy skills in different languages should be examined, for there is evidence that higher standards may be achieved in much less time with regular spellings.

Perhaps the most cogent evidence for the benefits of regular spelling comes from English itself. Its role in facilitating early reading has been convincingly demonstrated (eg, by Cataldo & Ellis 1990), and Treiman (1993) has shown that the speed at which spellings are learned is strongly related to their phonographic regularity. There is also the work done in the 1960s by John Downing at the London Institute on the effectiveness of the Initial Teaching Alphabet. We believe there are important lessons to be drawn from that historic experiment.

Language change, spelling reform & the role of government.
As for simplified spelling, there are two points in your letter we would comment on. One is that spelling reform must not be confused with changing the language itself, since it merely changes certain conventions for how the language is written. English spelling is so problematic precisely because it lags centuries behind changes in the language.

As for the role of government, none of the many languages we know of that have reformed their spelling this century has done so without at least government sanction. Admittedly, the role of English as a world language creates special circumstances, but these do not rule out modernizing its spelling, indeed they could even facilitate it (for one possibility, see our submission to SCAA below). Spanish co-ordinates its reforms worldwide, and so could English.

Ways and means.
In our view, we first have to ask whether the simplification of English spelling offers significant benefits, and we urge bodies concerned with literacy in future seriously to consider that question. If the answer is 'yes', we have then to consider ways and means of bringing simplification about. The Simplified Spelling Society will be glad to discuss the merits of a range of approaches: the current reform of German suggests one possibility, while the decimalization of currencies and metrication of weights and measures in various Commonwealth countries in the 1970s offer further models. Above all, though, we must not assume simplification is impossible before asking if it is desirable.

For your interest, we enclose two recent issues of our Society's Journal. Issue 1997/1 contains our 1996 correspondence on p27. We hope that the Task Force may wish to take account of our recent submission to SCAA on pp30-32.

We shall continue to make the case for spelling reform to relevant bodies in the English-speaking world, and hope to have further communication with the Literacy Task Force or its successor organizations in years to come. Meanwhile we wish the Task Force the greatest possible success in achieving its immediate goals.

Yours sincerely

For the Committee of the Simplified Spelling Society.

From Professor Michael Barber
29 April 1997

Reply to The Simplified Spelling Society

Thank you for your letter of 22 April 1997. I am glad you found the Task Force conference and report impressive and ambitious. We very much hope that, as our proposals are implemented, we will bring positive change in standards of literacy for all children and young people.

In the meantime, I shall draw your other comments to the attention of the Task Force for their consideration, along with the many other consultation responses.

Best wishes
Professor Michael Barber
Dean of New Initiatives

Note: Following the British parliamentary elections on 1 May 1997, Professor Barber was appointed to the Department for Education and Employment to head a new Standards and Effectiveness Unit. Here he will be responsible for the schools improvement programme, target setting, home-school contracts, homework, dealing with school failure, disseminating best practice, and improving literacy.