[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J25, 1999/1 pp33,34]
[Also on this page: Letters from members. Literature received.]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles by Allan Campbell.]

Lobbying Literacy Authorities.

We here publish recent SSS correspondence (slightly shortened) with literacy authorities in New Zealand. Earlier correspondence with UK authorities appeared in JSSS 21 1997/1 pp27-32; JSSS 22 1997/2 pp33-34; JSSS 24 1998/2 pp33-34.

Hon Wyatt Creech
Minister of Education
Parliament House, Wellington
October 21 1998

Dear Mr Creech

The Government's initiative to support the early acquisition of literacy ... by setting up a Literacy Taskforce is commendable, but if it is really serious about literacy improvement, it will have to do more.

The basic tool of reading and writing - spelling - is rusty, out-of-date, and most inefficient. Until something is done to modernize that tool, the problem of illiteracy is only being tinkered with. //...//

Ours is an alphabetical language, but the way we have to memorize words by shape ... gives us little advantage over ideographic languages such as Chinese.

The basis of an alphabetical language is that symbol and sound support each other. When this happens, as in many other European languages, learning to read and write is much simpler. In many European countries, phonics is used in the first year or two to teach reading. After that there is little formal teaching of spelling, but children can read and write much more easily, and can decipher unfamiliar words. [See page I have appended.] [1]

English's 44 sounds (phonemes) are represented so irregularly by about 600 spellings that children ... can't be sure of how a word sounds until they hear it; they can't be sure of its spelling until they see it.

English spelling is stuck in a time-warp. Until we modernize (as German, for instance, is being modernized at present) we will continue to have literacy problems, despite the best efforts of parents, teachers, communities, and governments.

At the moment, the literacy levels of all English-speaking countries rank near the bottom when compared with other developed ... nations. In a competitive world, this is not good for us.

I would suggest that the Government take a further initiative and consult with other governments, the United Nations (English is a global language), and various interested organizations on ways to systematically and slowly improve our orthography. We do not need to waste so much energy, money, and class time struggling to have our children master a user-unfriendly orthography that ... sours many of them off study altogether.

Yours sincerely
Allan Campbell, Simplified Spelling Society

[1] This reprinted letters in the Guardian from Prague and Wales telling how much better the writers' children coped with the regularly spelt local language than with English.

Ministry of Education
National Office, Private Box 1666
27 November 1998

Dear Mr Campbell

Your letter of 21 October 1998 to the Minister of Education, Hon Wyatt Creech, concerning the recently announced literacy and numeracy initiative, has been referred to me for reply.

Achievement of the goal will depend not only on the work of good teachers but will also require commitment from parents and communities.

Part of the strategy involves setting up a Literacy Taskforce of experts and practitioners to identify effective practice, and what extra help and resources teachers need to improve reading literacy and written language standards, particularly in underachieving groups.

The Taskforce will advise on how the goal should be defined, and how progress towards ensuring all children attain the required skills in reading and writing should be measured. //...//

Your proposal for a complete overhaul of English spelling is radical and interesting but, at least in the short term, we will be obliged to work with the current system.

I will forward a copy of your letter to the task force on literacy for the information of members.

Thank you for taking the time to share your views with us on this important topic.

Yours sincerely
Frances Kelly
Senior Manager, Learning and Evaluation Policy

Convener, Literacy Taskforce
Department of Education
Private Bag 1666

February 1, 1999

Dear Sir/Madam

On behalf of the Society, of which I am New Zealand spokesperson, I wish to make the following submission to your deliberations.

I note your terms of reference include the following:
Identifying and providing information on effective initiatives to improve reading literacy and written language.
I believe my submission falls into this category.

The Society's belief is that, while there are many causes of illiteracy - social and home conditions, teaching ability, lack of resources, among them - a major one for English speakers is the orthography of the language. It is the tool of literacy, but is dysfunctional.

In 1998 survey results released in the United States and England both showed about 20 percent of the population effectively illiterate - 40-44 million in the US, 8 million in Britain.[2] Workbase, the New Zealand National Centre for Workplace Literacy and Language, claimed almost half of staff in this nation's manufacturing, construction, and agricultural industries were unable to deal with written demands at work. [3]

Because English orthography has not kept pace with pronunciation changes over the past three or four centuries, it has become very erratic: the match between symbols and sounds has broken down. Even opponents of change acknowledge this.

As those of you who are teachers will know, this weak correlation is a major hurdle for young children to overcome when learning to read and write, and puts a premium on memorizing, rather than on decoding. Compare our experiences of having spelling as a taught subject thruout our primary school years (in my case it was also into my high school years) when most children in some other languages learn the connection between letters and sounds in the first few years and after that decode reading words by themselves and write new words unassisted. Finnish and Italian are two in which I have been told this happens.

The Secretary of our Society, Masha Bell, a Lithuanian living in England, learned to write and read her own language after a couple of afternoons with her grandmother instructing her on the alphabet. A year or two later she was able to learn to read and write Russian and German almost as easily. When she came to learn English, she struck trouble. The tried and proven decoding method no longer worked. (I enclose a copy of three newspaper letters with more anecdotal evidence of this kind.)

We could eventually have the tried and proven method in English, too. But for it to happen we need change. And for change to happen we need to start. "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." It will not happen all at once. In other languages it has taken time. At present German, already better served by its spelling than we are by ours, is changing only about 185 words. //...//

If we are to contemplate change in our spelling, two points need to be borne in mind:

1. English is a global language, and any improvements in its spelling must be taken in concert with other nations using the language.

2. Change must be slow, so that both users of the old and users of the new can understand each other. Old and new must remain compatible.

Bearing these ... points in mind I ask the Taskforce to consider making two recommendations that, if acted on, could ease the road to literacy for future generations:

1. Long-term: That the Taskforce ask the Government to approach other nations where English is a major language, and international agencies using English (eg, UN, aviation, science), and urge that they meet and begin working towards modernizing English orthography in a way that is acceptable to users of the many varieties of the language.

2. Short-term: That the Taskforce, as a very small - but practical - gesture towards easing the difficulties children have at present with spelling, ask the Education Department to advise schools that what are known as American spellings are acceptable in children's written work. Children see these spellings around them, they are part of global English, and to have to add them to the 'no-nos' that abound in spelling is a further unwanted burden.

I appreciate that the Taskforce has many matters to consider in its search for ways to improve ... literacy. Taking an initiative, even a small one, to modernize the very tool of literacy is, I contend, a fairly basic matter to take into consideration.

Thank you.

Yours sincerely
Allan Campbell
for Simplified Spelling Society

[2] National Institute of Literacy study (USA); Basic Skills Agency survey (UK).

[3] Literacy Skills and the New Zealand Workforce

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 25, 1999/1 pp35-36]


Letters are welcomed on any matters raised by items appearing in JSSS, or on any observations or experiences relating to spelling that readers may wish to report.

Why foreigners spell better.

I open with anticipation every issue of the JSSS and am rewarded with well-written, informative and interesting articles, including the ones with which I disagree. A comment on two articles in journal No.24.

In his 'The Spelling Standards of Undergraduates' Bernard Lamb makes a good point in stressing that some spelling errors can create confusion and even have lethal consequences in the medical field. Nevertheless, I felt that he made a fetish of correct spelling and showed a lack of understanding of pedagogical principles.

As an English teacher, my experience is that students whose brains aren't wired to retain the illogical spellings of English are not helped significantly by threats, by seeing misspelled words circled in red, by exposure to word etymologies, by drilling complicated rules with numerous exceptions or by being told to consult a dictionary. Such techniques are of limited value to those whose memories don't easily record and access illogical visual sequences. It is extremely difficult for those with good memories for written language to understand the difficulty of English spelling for those who may well have a high intelligence in other areas.

Lamb also laments the poor performance of British students in comparison with foreign students. I suspect there is something operating here other than the quality of education in the respective countries.

Having myself studied seven foreign languages, I find that my spelling in all of them is much better than in my mother tongue. Granted, all of them had much better sound/symbol correspondence than English. However, I found it much easier to remember unpredictable ambiguities in the foreign languages than in my native tongue. I attribute this to my having learned the written symbol of the foreign languages before or at the same time as I learned the pronunciation of the words, whereas I learned English orally first. I have less trouble remembering the peculiarities of the foreign words than do many native speakers of those languages, not because I am a good speller, but rather because I learned the languages visually (as well as orally) at a time when I already knew how to read and write. I suspect that a similar phenomenon is involved in the better spelling of Lamb's foreign students.

I do applaud Lamb for one thing: lowering the grades in genetics only for errors which resulted in wrong meanings.

Incidently, I cud read the articl in Cut Spelng rapidly and with ese. Th only word over wich I stumbld was ho; howevr, th secnd time it ocurd, I no longr found it a problm.

Carol Barrera Guatemala, Central America

[See Journal and Newsletter articles by John Gledhill.]

Profit from spelling reform.

It has been suggested that radical changes might annoy publishers. Especially of children's books.

I think any publisher with an eye to profit would leap at the chance of a new market, provided that there was growing demand for books in revised spelling. After all, it would mean that everybody would want to replace large sections of their books.

The nearest analogy I can think of (tho it's not exact) was the move from vinyl LPs to CDs. When they first came out, CDs were only available for best sellers. Then the mass market grew. CDs became more normal and gradually overtook vinyl LPs. Then CDs became the only medium (ignoring tape) for decent recordings. Then (and this is where the analogy is probably strongest) the CD publishers realized the simply enormous market for reissuing their back catalogue and archive recordings in the new digital medium. As more and more users stopped using their record players and used only CD players, the demand for reissued 'old' recordings burgeoned. And millions of £ and $ have been made in profit on recordings that the copyright holders thought were obsolete.

Surely that's similar to what would happen to books. If new spelling became accepted, the new books would be in new spelling, the best sellers would be reissued in new spelling, then the back-catalogue would gradually be covered. And people, as they got used to the new spelling, would replace their cherished old copies by smart new easy-to-read editions; just as many of us have both old (tatty, scratchy, but much loved) LP versions and new (shiny, clear) digital CDs of exactly the same recording.

It's taken about 10 years for a reasonable coverage of 'back catalogue' minority CDs to be readily available. I'd expect the same sort of changeover period for minority-interest back-catalogue books too. What publisher is going to turn their nose up at such an opportunity to make money from stuff that was thought past it?

John Gledhill Coventry, UK

See Journal and Newsletter articles by Allan Campbell.

Decimalize spelling?

In 1967 when we changed from imperial to decimal money, I was a primary school teacher.

One day for interest I compared the discarded maths texts with the new ones. As far as I could make out in my unscientific look at the matter, we were deleting from two years' texts lessons devoted to teaching the complications of working with £sd. The time for these lessons was spread over a term one year, a half term the following year, about 20 weeks all told. At an hour a day, five hours a week, that's 100 hours' less teaching needed. Under the new system it was just part of ordinary maths.

Think of the time being spent teaching spelling (my class had it in our last year at high school!) that could be devoted to other work, eg, mastering computer skills. In my time it was 15min a day = 1hr 15min a week = 50hr a year. For how many years?

Allan Campbell Christchurch, New Zealand

See Journal and Newsletter articles by Cornell Kimball.

Double consonants valued.

I agree with the point Zé do Rock makes (letter to JSSS J24 1998/2) about keeping double consonants after short stressed vowels. He's not alone in finding such double consonants beneficial rather than burdensome; I have found that many people prefer double consonants to show the previous vowel is a short stressed one. I heartily agree with Zé's statement that "the fact that TO shos wen a vowl is short in jermanic words, but fails to sho it in latn words shudnt be an excuse not to sho it at al anymor."

Perhaps a matter to consider is that reform thus far has met much resistance, and today we're trying to 'win the public over' to this whole idea as much as anything else. Again, much of the feeling that I get from non-reformers is in favor of having double consonants to indicate a previous short stressed vowel, and maybe our using of double consonants in these cases might make a difference in gaining wider acceptance for English spelling reform.

Cornell Kimball Los Angeles, California, USA

See Journal articles by John J Reilly.

Collapse of 'Soviet' TO?

I suspect that we may be rong to asoom that reform wil werk in a linear fation (that is, that the paiss at wich nu spelings ar axepted wil stay the saim thruout the reform pereod).

Bak in the '70s, I uesd tu scandalyz peepl with tu predictions:

(1) The Soviet sistem wos not going tu last meny decaids longer, and

(2) it woodd not end graduely, but woodd disintegrait fairly quicly wunss the prosess started.

(Neether of thees ideas wos orijinl witth me, and at abbout the same tym I maid uther predictions abbout the ryzing ov Atlantiss and uther maters that need not detain uss.) The baisis for the tu prognosticaitions wos that the prymary ttheoreticl suport for the USSR had alwais been that history wos on its syd. Wunss that faitth wos shaiken, wether by a flairup ov the nationalitees problem, or an attempt to introdooss moderat market reforms, or even by the overthro ov a singl Tthird Werld comuenist rejeem, that then the USSR woodd hav notthing going for it but its actuel economic performanss, wich wos prity dizml.

Now TO, I suggest, is lyk the Soviet Union in 1980. Wyl it has its unatractiv feetuers, it seems tu be heer tu stay, and so we myt wel think that the best we can hoap for is a fue incrementl chainjes. The reality may wel be utherwyz. TO rests on a failuer ov the imajinaition ov the peepl hu ues it. Wen wunss the informaition gets out that our Georgian speling sistem is not a law ov naituer, the problem may not be tu much rezistenss to nu spelings, but tu much tolleranss for unsistematic wuns.

Tu put it annuther way, wunss U get it intu peepls heds that speling is reformabl, a fairly radicl nu sistem coodd be universaly axeptibl, if not universely emploid, witthin a very fue yeers.

John J Reilly Jersey City, New Jersey, USA

Teachers' needs.

I teach in a semi-rural primary school in Australia, and received this note from a 9-year-old aboriginal boy who is otherwise illiterate.

"Dear Pitu hiu is u pichu." (=Dear Peter, Here is a picture.) My name is Peter and the drawing was attached.

I suggested spelling reform to some of the teachers, and they agreed fervently that it was necessary, but cannot do anything till the central education authority ( (ruling with an iron hand here in Australia) gives its assent. It will not do so until the mass of the parents clamour for it. They themselves continue to be formed by traditional spelling and, having undergone that purgatory, do not really care about the next generation having a tough time.

I think the only way is to introduce reforms oneself and hope they will be taken up. I think Cut Spelng is the way to go, but wd eventully like to use lots more abbreviatns, ending up like unpointd Hebrew.

Peter Gilet, Busselton, Western Australia

[See Journal and Newsletter articles by Steve Bett.]

Phonetic naming.

I think that everyone should be required to learn a phonemic script so they could attach a phonemic spelling of their name

This could start in primary school and by the time that most people entered college they would be bilingual (or whatever the word is for being proficient in two writing systems).

Most teachers would appreciate the addition of such a pronunciation guide.

Steve Bett /sti:v bet/ Orange, Texas, USA

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J25, 1999/1 p36]

JSSS 25 1999/1: Literature Received.

In the past 6 months JSSS has received the following publications:

1. Basic Skills Agency (1998) Adult Literacy in Britain (Summary of key findings) by Siobhán Carey, Sampson Low, Jacqui Hansbro, 12pp.

2 Basic Skills Agency (1997) It doesn't get any Better: the impact of poor basic skills on the lives of 37 year olds, 28pp, summary of the main findings of a report by John Bynner and Samantha Parsons.

3. Basic Skills Agency (1998) Use it or lose it? the impact of time out of work on literacy and numeracy skills, by John Bynner and Samantha Parsons, 16pp.

4. English, the Journal of the English Association, Spring 1999.

5. English Association Newsletter, No.159 Autumn/Winter 1998, Spring 1999.

6. English Today, No.57, January 1999; No.58, April 1999.

7. QUEST, the Journal of the Queen's English Society, No.70, November 1998; No.71, March 1999.

8. Reading, April 1999, Vol.33, No.1, from UK Reading Association.

9. Rechtschreibung, newsletter of the Bund für vereinfachte rechtschreibung (Federation for simplified spelling), Zürich, No.176, November 1998; No.177, February 1999.

10. from Mr H T Bryer of Oak Harbour, Ohio, USA, a bound copy of four 1917-18 issues of the SSS's first journal, The Pyoneer ov simplifyd speling, Vol.6, No.1 (March 1917), No.2 (Joon), No.3 (September).No.4 (February 1918).

11. Sprachreport, from the Institut für deutsche Sprache, Mannheim, Germany, 4/1998, 1/1999.

Back to the top.