[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J25, 1998/2 p2]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles, Pamflet 15, Cut Spelling and Papers by Chris Upward.]


Chris Upward.

Realms of research.

Only in recent decades has the multidisciplinary nature of English spelling studies begun to be fully appreciated. Etymology has always played a part, in the 16th century especially the Latin and Greek legacy, by the 19th also the origins and evolution of the Germanic substrate, and at the end of the 20th comparisons with contemporary languages; the work done in this field enables us to categorize and explain the many variegated spelling patterns of English. Phonetics was another early contributor, revealing, by contrast with etymology, the basic simplicity and unity of English phonology; by the 19th century this knowledge was feeding into initial literacy schemes using regularized spelling systems and to this day it gives us a vision of how uncomplicated the written representation of English can, in principle, be. The discipline of psychology has come into its own in the 20th century, with the concept of skill acquisition and debates over whether the visual or auditory aspect of literacy is the more fundamental in learners' minds. All these scholarly and scientific fields have been represented with distinction among the SSS's six Presidents from its foundation in 1908 up to the millennium.

As the 21st century approaches new fields are opening up for exploration, which have more to do with the implementation of reform than with the nature of English spelling itself. One is the potential of the electronic revolution for helping to simplify English spelling; Ed Rondthaler's American Literacy Council early grasped the power of computers to assist in remedial literacy teaching; Alan Mole's automatic spelling converter BTRSPL has shown how fast and how easily text published in today's conventional spelling can be recreated using a reformed orthography; email is proving an unprecedented vehicle for trying out and debating the merits of reformed spellings; and the WorldWideWeb is enabling the SSS to present its ideas to an infinitely larger public than ever before. As yet, though, we are very far from exploiting the medium to the full.

Another new field might be broadly termed 'consumer research' to find out how people react to simplified spellings, using the results to fine-tune our simplification proposals either to meet public preferences or to best suit their needs and abilities. Research of this kind has been carried out by Valerie Yule, Gwen Thorstad and John Thorstad, but a great deal more needs to be undertaken, testing both reading and writing, both children and adults, both native and non-native speakers. There is considerable scope for university researchers to do valuable work here.

Features of this issue.

Burke Shipley continues his account of the Chicago Tribune's forty-year use of its own fluctuating selection of simplified spellings. In this second part he describes the reactions of its staff and readers, and of other publications. Readers' reactions were evidently fairly muted, though some teachers made the point that learners found it confusing to read one spelling in the Tribune and a different spelling everywhere else. This objection, we may feel, was the predictable result of the Tribune's go-it-alone innovations: by definition, its idiosyncratic new spellings could not represent a standard usable in the classroom. Such unco-ordinated initiatives are doomed to fail.

Colin Davies' years of first-hand experience with Finnish lend charm and authenticity to his account of its exceptionally regular, yet to English eyes extraordinarily exotic-seeming writing system. The total predictability of its spellings naturally minimizes the challenges of literacy acquisition, though a pure form of dyslexia is recognized. How has Finnish come to be blessed with such a system? We note the following factors: it is of relatively recent origin (16th century), but has been steadily improved over the succeeding centuries; it has only one digraph (though plenty of doubled letters); and, by borrowing very few words from other languages (not even 'telephone'!), it has avoided the problem of whether, or how, to adapt the spellings of other languages.

Patrick Groff's article comes most opportunely, coinciding with the current debate in the UK as to whether 'analytic' (letters-to-speech, ie, reading first) or 'synthetic' (speech-to-letters, ie, spelling first) methods of literacy teaching are more effective. He surveys the research evidence from recent decades, and concludes that the 'synthetic' approach is in all probability more effective, though conclusive experimental evidence is lacking either way.

Jennifer Chew compares the results of two studies of teenagers' changing levels of spelling accuracy through the 1980s and 1990s. Both studies show a decline, but subtle differences between them are analyzed and explanations proposed, and factors than can influence levels of accuracy are deduced. The decline in standards is shown to correlate with the neglect of phonics teaching in the years of the teenagers' early schooling. The conclusion reached is that systematic phonics teaching in the first stages of literacy acquisition should suffice largely to overcome the difficulties of English spelling, making spelling reform unnecessary. Readers convinced of the need for reform will be stimulated to rehearse the counter-arguments.

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