[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J26, 1999/2 pp32-34]
See Journal, Newsletter articles, Pamflet 15 and Cut Spelling by Chris Upward.

Wat can welsh teach english?

Christopher Upward

Chris Upward discusses issus arising from David Reynolds, Wynford Bellin & Ruth ab Ieuan (June 1998) A Competitive Edge: Why Welsh Medium Schools Perform Better/Mantais Gystadleuol: Pam fod Ysgolion Cyfrwng Cyraeg yn Perfformio'n Well, Cardiff: Institute of Welsh Affairs, 28pp in english, 28pp in welsh ISBN 1 871726 39 5, £10. Th articl is ritn in Cut Spelng.

0. Abstract.

Aftr pointng up som striking difrnces between th regulr welsh and iregulr english riting systms (§1), this paper describes a report on th superir educationl standrds acheved by welsh medium secndry scools compared with ther english medium countrparts (§2). Th report ascribes th gap in standrds to th mor favorabl ethos and motivation of th welsh medium scools; but this paper asks wethr it may in fact be du to hyr litracy levls in primary scools (§3). In §4 exampls ar givn of th lernng advantajs gaind from mor regulr spelng in othr languajs and, over nearly 150 years, in english too (i.t.a., etc), and th posbl nurosyclojicl reasns for this. Th final section (§5) sujests futur reserch to test th hypothesis that hyr educationl standrds result from th mor regulr spelng systm of welsh.

1. Th welsh riting systm.

Th format of this pamflet, A Competitive Edge, demnstrates its bilingul credentials: it has two front covrs, one in english and one in welsh, but no bak covr. Wichevr end one starts, english or welsh, one works thru th text to paje 28, wich is a centr-paje spred wher th one languaj faces th othr upside down.

Altho ritn welsh may strike th uninitiated as unpronouncebl, its systm of sound-symbl and symbl-sound corespondnces is in fact quite regulr and far esir to mastr than that of english. Th distinctiv apearnce of th spelng is du in part to its hevy use of W as a vowl, as in cwricwlwm for english 'curriculum'. Th welsh alfabet itself difrs from th english in not using th letrs J, K, Q, V, X or Z, but givng sevrl digrafs ther own slots in th alfabetic sequence, most famusly perhaps FF and LL. It also uses ocasionl diacritics, in particulr th circumflex accent to sho long vowl valus. Its distinctivness is in part also du to its histry: despite 1,500 years of cohabitation with english on th main iland of Britn, th vocablry and spelng of welsh sho surprisingly litl english influence, as can be seen from a comparisn of th english and welsh versions of th reports title undr th main hedng abov.

Som indication of th simplicity and regularity of ritn welsh is seen in th spelng (shoing a numbr of Cut Spelling featurs) of th few english loanwords found in th welsh half of th pamflet, ie, posibl (apearng in th mutated form bosibl), busnes, coleg 'college', economi, grwp 'group', natur, polisi, sampl, stori, tabl. Som words of greek and/or latn derivation ar spelt as in english: data, drama, ethos, normal, person, sector, system; wile othr words ar intrestngly, but quite regulrly, difrnt from ther english cognates: actif, ffigur, ffocws 'focus', lefel 'level', proffesiwn 'profession', tancer 'tanker'. A hevily disgised loanword is Saesneg 'english', with its eco of scots Sassenach and ultmat sorce in saxn. Beside these words ar sevrl of latn orijn much altrd in such forms as disgyblaeth 'disiplin' and pobl 'peple' (mutated to bobl) from latn populus; such words orijnated in th centuris of roman ocupation befor th anglo-saxn arival in Britn in 5th-6th centuris, wen th ancestrs of th welsh formd th nativ british population.

2. Th Competitiv Ej.

Th report here undr revew is wel ritn and atractivly produced, with only two orthograficl errs noticed by th revewr in its english half. It has six chaptrs, hos titles outline th content clearly:

1. The Controversy about Welsh Medium Education,
2. The Growth of Welsh Medium Education,
3 The Effectiveness of Welsh Medium Education: using school inspection reports,
4. The Effectiveness of Welsh Medium Education: the intakes to the schools,
5. Some Social Outcomes in the Two Systems,
6. Some Informed Speculations on what makes the Welsh medium schools more effective.

Th story told is of a revival of th welsh languaj in education, th first welsh languaj scool being foundd in 1939 and furthr scools foundd especialy thru th 1960-80s. Behind this developmnt lay a drive and determnation on th part of parents and educationists to surmount obstacls and establish a ful infrastructur ranjing from nursry scools to scoolbooks and teachr-trainng institutions. Th scools soon aquired a good reputation (betr than that of paralel english-languaj scools), wich has persistd to th presnt day. Th aim of th reserch was to establish wethr that reputation was deservd, and if so, to ask aftr its cause.

Th reserchrs lookd at publishd examnation results and inspectrs reports on 44 scools in South Wales. They found (p15) that th "Welsh medium sector is clearly rated as more effective in every area studied by the inspectors", is "significantly better in the teaching of English, as well as Welsh", and in the teaching of modern languages. To ensure that these results wer not distortd by welsh scools taking in mor children of hyly motivated parents or english scools receving mor socialy disadvantajd children, th reserchrs carrid out a rigrus comparativ analysis of two welsh medium and two english medium secndry (comprehensiv) scools in th same rejon of South Wales. Wen al variabls had been alowd for, th welsh scools wer stil found to perform betr by evry one th many criteria aplyd.

In Chaptr 6, th report sujests a host of posbl reasns for th superir performnce of welsh scools, al of them intanjbl factrs to do with th beneficial ethos of th welsh medium scools and th hyr motivation of ther parents, teachrs and children. Th lead authr, David Reynolds, is a major playr in th presnt program to rase educationl standrds in England (especialy in mathmatics), and, in keepng with such concerns, th preface states: "It is argued that some of these factors may be transferable to th non Welsh medium sector." Howevr, th advantajs of th welsh medium scools ar shown to be in many ways specific to th social climat asociated with th welsh languaj, and th reports Policy Recommendations (p3) express som pesmism: "Many of the reasons for the success of the Welsh medium sector may be difficult to emulate," altho "Somehow the English medium sector ... needs to generate greater effectiveness."

3. Th factr of primary scool litracy.

Th reports Policy Recommendations end with a clarion cal: "...We regard it as extraordinary that a sector of apparent effectiveness should remain both unresearched and ... unrecognised at the level of public policy. ... Our view is that, if they are understood and their methods spread, Welsh medium schools have within them the capacity to effect a renaissance of educational provision in Wales generally." To wich we myt ad th question: "Wy only in Wales?"

Th causes of th gretr efectivness of welsh medium schools wer identifyd, as we saw, in such factrs as ethos and motivation, wich may not be redily replicbl elswher. Yet we may sujest a furthr, mor concrete factr wich is not examnd in th report and wich, givn th politicl wil, cud indeed be replicated. This factr, we shal here begin to speculate, may be first noticed in th primary baseline from wich th secndry scools develop ther own standrds. Primary education in jenrl is only mentiond in pasng in th report, altho curent policy in England is based on th premis (Barber, 1998) that childrens levl of litracy at aje 11 is th best predictr of ther performnce in al subjects at aje 16. (One wud like to no mor about th implications of this claim, ie, wethr it amounts to mor than th banal, tho of corse importnt, obsrvation that children ho do wel at aje 11 tend to do wel at 16 too).

With regard to th welsh situation, let us trace this causality in reverse. If children educated in welsh ar performng betr at aje 16 than ther english-educated countrparts, it seems likely that ther levl of litracy at aje 11 was also betr. If that can be establishd, then we need to pursu th reasns bak to erlir stajes in th educationl process and ask wethr th crucial factr myt lie in th gretr lernr-frendliness of th welsh riting systm than of th english. If this wer so, it wud help to explain th superir performnce of welsh-medium lernrs at evry levl and in evry subject (including english, for wich se belo).

4. Th i.t.a., Sistr John and th nurosycolojy of alfabetic litracy.

It has been repeatdly noted that regulr riting systms alow litracy skils to be aquired fastr, mor efectivly and with betr motivation than dos th iregulr riting systm of english. This has of late been shown by comparativ studis of litracy standrds between english and othr, mor regulrly spelt languajs, thus Thorstad (1991) between italian and english, and Upward (1992a) between jermn and english. But in erlir times ther has been ampl evidnce relating directly to english, wen regulrized riting systms, culmnating in th initial teaching alphabet (i.t.a.) in th 1960s-80s, wer used to teach initial litracy skils. Th experience of these systms over 150 years from th mid-19th to th late 20th century in both th UK and th USA is outlined in Upward, 1992b. Al showd th reverse efect of th presnt iregulr spelng of english, wich is seen constntly to trip lernrs and many adlt users up in ther atemts to read and rite: a trap-fre riting systm ofrs an imense boost to fluency by th simpl expedient of not tripng users up and therby avoidng th 'cognitiv confusion' (Vernon, 1957) jenrated by th hyly iregulr english spelng systm. Furthrmor, wen lernrs transferd aftr som six months from th i.t.a. to traditionl english spelng, th solid foundation in basic litracy tecniqes showd up in long term benefits to ther litracy standrds years later. This efect was explaind by Downing (1987) by th transferability of skils once proprly mastrd. That cud be wy welsh medium scools acheved betr results even in english: hyr litracy skils gaind in welsh wer then transferd to english.

Yet th benefits of a simpl, regulr riting systm may go beyond enhancing fluency in readng and riting and therby performnce in evry scool subject. Th posbility of profoundr, aditionl gains was first hintd at in Sistr Johns experimnt, carrid out in an infnts scool in Livrpool in th 1960s. As reportd by Downing (1967), her experimnt showd children ho had aquired ther first litracy skils via th regulr i.t.a. significntly outperformng in certn non-literacy skils (patrn machng and recognition) children ho had lernt via th iregulr traditionl english orthografy. Wat this implys is that, if children ar traind in th systmatic, exact obsrvation and lojicl thinkng that litracy in a regulr riting systm entails, they ar able to transfer these skils to othr activitis. In othr words, th benefits to ther intlectul groth went beyond just th aquisition of litracy skils.

Intriging tho that conclusion may hav seemd in th 1960s, it is not until th 1990s that it can be seen to fit into a brodr undrstandng of how th brain develops, as described by th modrn sience of nurosycolojy. This tels us (Rose, 1992) how th lernng process works by repeatd sense impressions (eg, regulr spelngs) bildng up nural pathways in th brain, wich, if they ar suficiently reinforced, com to constitute clear memris suseptbl of recal. Th powr to recal wat has been lernt in terms of th predictbl sound-symbl corespondnces of a regulr riting systm thus becoms far strongr than th powr to recal th vagaris of an iregulr systm like traditionl english. From this we may surmise that efectiv memry pathways that hav been laid down in th corse of regulr litracy aquisition contribute to th wider developmnt of th brain that can then be aplyd to othr intlectul tasks. In this way, mastrng a regulr riting systm in th erly stajes of scoolng provides a firmr foundation for a childs subsequent education than dos havng to resl with an iregulr riting systm. Diane McGuinness (1997) depicts this as improved econmy of brain chemistry wen a skil reachs th levl of autmaticity.

5. Futur reserch into anglo-welsh litracy?

Th reports preface and policy recmendations state that ther is an urjnt need for furthr reserch into th fenomnn of hyr achevemnt in welsh-medium secndry scools. Th argumnt presentd in §3 & 4 abov sujests that reserch shud be undrtaken to test th hypothesis that th lernr-frendlir riting systm of welsh is th precondition for those hyr standrds. Th folloing questions sujest themselvs:

1 Ar th hyr standrds acheved by welsh medium secndry scools bilt on hyr standrds acheved by welsh medium primary scools?
2 If so, in wat year of primary education can those hyr standrds be first identifyd?
3 Can such hyr standrds be linkd with hyr litracy levls acheved in th first years of primary education?
4 If so, how dos litracy teachng and aquisition in welsh difr from equivlnt procedurs in english?

If, as th hypothesis proposes, th regularity of th welsh riting systm wer shown to be th ke to th advantajs of welsh medium education (contributing perhaps even to th ethos of th scools and motivation of teachrs, pupils and parents), th question of transferability to english medium scools wud apear in a new lyt. For as long as th superir ethos and motivation ar ascribed to a vage spirit of welsh nationl enthusiasm, they may indeed not lend themselvs to esy transfer to english medium environmnts - as th report itself half fears. But if they ar found to emnate from qualitis of th welsh riting systm that cud be aplyd to english, then th conundrm is inherently solvbl: reform english spelng, and th desired efects shud arise in english too, as indeed they always hav don wen initial litracy skils hav been taut thru regulrized spelng systms such as th i.t.a.

Al this may extend th hypothesis too far for th taste of som of todays reserchrs in th field, but it has th merit of being falsifybl acordng to th best sientific methodolojy. Howevr, quite apart from providing a testbed for that particulr hypothesis, anglo-welsh bilingulism ofrs an invalubl resorce for reserchng th sycolojy of litracy in othr ways too. As th report points out, so far it has remaind stranjely unexplord, but we may hope that th reports findngs represent a first step toward a propr apreciation of th welsh dimension of th british litracy sene. And if subsequent reserch on th contrastng efects of two such difrnt riting systms co-existng on th same iland is publishd, it may wel prove grist to th mil of english spelng reform.


Barber, Michael, Head of Standards & Effectiveness Unit, Department for Education & Employment, London, stated at confrnce on 19 june 1998.

Downing, John (1967) Evaluating the Initial Teaching Alphabet, London: Cassell, p233-34.

- (1987) 'The Transfer of Skills in Language Functions' in Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J5 1987/2, pp5-12, §4.3. reprinted in J28 2000/2 pp2-10

McGuinness, Diane (1997) Why Children Can't Read and what we can do about it, London: Penguin, pp172-173.

Rose, Steven (1992) The Making of Memory: from molecules to mind, London: Bantam Press.

Thorstad, Gwenllian (1991) 'The effect of orthography on the acquisition of literacy skills' in British Journal of Psychology, 82: 527-37.

Upward, Christopher (1992a) 'Is traditionl english spelng mor dificlt than jermn?' in Journal of Research in Reading, 15(2): 82-94.

- (1992b) 'Teaching Literacy First, Traditional English Orthography Second' in eds. Sterling, Chris M & Robson, Cliff Psychology, Spelling and Education, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd, p21-25.

Vernon, Magdalene (1957) Backwardness in Reading, Cambridge University Press.

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