[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J27, 2000/1 pp30-33]
[See articles, Cut Spelling and Pamflet, Leaflets by Chris Upward.]

Revlations of a Cross-Linguistic Perspectiv.

Christopher Upward.

Chris Upward revews eds. Margaret Harris & Giyoo Hatano (1999) Learning to Read and Write. A Cross-Linguistic Perspective, Cambridge University Press: Studies in Cognitive & Perceptual Development, ISBN 0-521-62184-4, 252pp. Th revew is ritn in Cut Spelng (Upward, 1996).

0. Contnts of th book.

Altho th conclusions reachd in this book ar not new, th concrete exampls and analyses it contains provide a welth of new material that suports th case for english spelng to be simplifyd. Chaptrs covr th processes of litracy aquisition in sevrl languajs using th roman alfabet, and in two wich use othr alfabets; furthr chaptrs deal with chinese and japnese wich use non-alfabetic systms, wile othrs again considr th represntation of morfemes distinctly from fonemes, th role of fonlojicl awareness, and th consequences for litracy aquisition in english of litracy previusly aquired using predictbl (malay) or unpredictbl (chinese) scripts. Repeatdly these chaptrs demnstrate th benefits to lernrs of a predictbl orthografy and th disadvantajs of english.

1. Predictbility of othr riting systms.

1.1 Italian.

This chaptr, tho somwat obscured by jargn, tels how th ke featurs of italian orthografy wer establishd in 1612, tho many smal refinemnts wer introduced since. Most letrs always stand for th same sound, and most sounds ar always representd by th same letr. Th main complications ar that, befor E and I, th consnnt sounds /k/ and /g/ require a folloing H (cf,Chianti, ghetto), and befor A, O, U an I is insertd to palatize a preceding C or G (cf, ciao, Giovanni). It is therfor unsurprising that, of th few errs made in italian, most involv consnnts in both readng and riting; errs of consnnt-dublng wer most comn. Litracy aquisition is furthr asistd by th simplicity of italian fonolojy (only 7 vowl sounds versus som 20 in english). Sylabl structurs ar also simplr, with fewr consnnt clustrs than in english (one study showd th great advantaj this gave to italian prescool children). Lernrs ar found to mastr this systm to a hy levl of acuracy within months, tho mor sloly for riting than for readng. Dyslexia is rare.

Th chaptr ofrs no direct comparison between italian and english; for this we hav to go to Thorstad (1991), ho shos how imensely mor dificlt litracy is in english.

1.2 Jermn.

Symbl-sound corespondnces in jermn ar normly predictbl, but a complication in th sound-symbl direction is that long vowls may hav thre alternativ spelngs: Aal 'eel', Ahle 'awl', and Tal 'vally' al hav th same long vowl sound spelt as AA, AH or just A.

Th chaptr reports reserch in wich english- and jermn-speakng children wer testd in readng simpl real words (eg, hand) and non-words of paralel structur (eg, nand). In evry test th jermn children performd far betr, in fact aftr one year they outperformd english children with four years of scoolng in both acuracy and speed of readng. Yet th english tests containd no iregulr spelngs, and th childrens poor performnce therfor sujests they had not been taut fonic atak stratejies.

1.3 Greek.

For readrs greek orthografy is as predictbl as italian or jermn, but, as in jermn, ther ar alternativ spelngs for certn vowls. Like italian, greek fonolojy is simpl, with only five vowl sounds, tho sevn letrs and sevrl digrafs can be used to spel them (/e/ can be spelt eithr ε or αι, /o/ eithr ο or ω, and /i/ eithr ι, η, υ, ει, οι, or υι). Somtimes th corect spelng depends on gramaticl context (nouns end in ο, verbs in ω, tho they sound th same), wich takes longr to mastr than simpl sound-symbl corespondnces. A few words hav exeptionl spelngs that require special lernng. As one wud expect, th reserch reportd in this chaptr shos that lernrs quikly becom fluent readrs, mastrng th basic code within weeks, but acurat spelng takes longr, even as long as thre years for th alternativ vowl spelngs.

1.4 Brazilian portugese.

This chaptr discusses sevrl complications of Brazilian portugese spelng. Unstressd final O is pronounced /u/ and unstressd final E /i/, wich leads to erly mispelng and misreadng, with misreadng corectd befor mispelng, and th O for /u/ mastrd befor th E for /i/. Anothr complication, comn to othr romance languajs and english, is that C and G ar palatized befor /e, i/; to prevent this hapnng, /k/ and /g/ hav to be ritn QU, GU. Th letr R is also subject to certn conditions, for both pronunciation and dublng. Verbs can end in -IU, wich is pronounced th same as final -IO and -IL in nouns. Th corect aplication of these distinctions takes som time to mastr, but they cause few lastng problms.

1.5 Hebrew.

Hebrew has its own semitic alfabet ritn from ryt to left, th letrs, as in arabic, indicating chiefly consnnts. For lernrs, vowls are shown by marks ('points') mostly belo th consnnt letrs, but adult riting normly laks these, leving som 25% of words ambiguus. Pointd script alows unambiguus readng, but corect spelng is hardr as sevrl sounds can be spelt with mor than one letr. Also dificlt for beginrs ar th simlr squarish shape of many letrs, so that words lak th visul distinctivness of th ragged upr and loer 'coastlines' of asendrs and desendrs caractristic of loer case roman script; aditionly, numbrs ar ritn left to ryt, as in th roman alfabet, wich lernrs also hav to lern.

Thanks to th symbl-sound predictbility of hebrew, readng is mastrd rapidly, with performnce in th pointd script aftr one year machng that in english aftr five years. Riting is mor dificlt, as most words contain at least one letr for wich an alternativ letr wud represent th same sound, and acuracy in th first two years of lernng lags behind even that in english.

1.6 Scandnavian languajs.

Danish, finish, norwejan and swedish hav difrng levls of litracy reflectng difrng levls of sound-symbl predictbility in those languajs. Finish, with th hyest litracy standrds, has th most transparent orthografy (finish regulrly tops tables of world litracy); swedish, with litracy standrds also very hy, has a few areas of multipl sound-symbl corespondnce; wile norwejan has mor markd discrepncies of dialect, and danish, with th loest litracy standrds, is nown for th diverjnce of its pronunciation from letr values ('undr-articulation').

This chaptr also emfasizes th efect of litracy culturs on standrds. Finland and Sweden hav for centuries had hy expectations of litracy for th hole population. It is also noted that a transparent orthografy is no garantee of hy standrds of litracy - contrast Spain and Venezuela wich both use transparent spanish, and Singapor acheves hyer standrds in english (tho it is not th home languaj of most children) than is acheved in som nativ english-speakng cuntries.

1.7 Chinese.

In mainland China and Taiwan lernrs first mastr a fonic systm of represntation (on th mainland pinyin, wich uses th roman alfabet and in Taiwan th non-roman Zhu-Yin-Fu-Hao script) befor taklng th chinese caractrs; but this is not so in Hong-Kong (at least befor Hong-Kong returnd to China in 1997) or Singapor, altho pinyin wud natrly also be a good basis for startng english ther. These fonic scripts ar a great help to children in lernng th caractrs. Anothr factr investigated was th role of th fonetic component in many compound caractrs, wich ar likewise ofn found helpful for decoding unfamilir words. Howevr, these fonetic components ar not used systmaticly - they ar even mor unpredictbl than english spelng. Errs then arise especialy wen th fonetic components do not predictbly represent a words pronunciation. Overal, memrizing th thousnds of caractrs needd for functionl litracy is a major task, and makes hevy demands of childrens visuo-perceptul abilities.

Contry to wat westrn observrs ofn asume, speech sounds play a significnt part in skild readng and riting in chinese. Furthrmor, th unpredictbility of english spelng represents a point of simlarity with chinese in th burdn it places on th visul memry of users.

1.8 Japnese.

Th japnese riting systm uses two sylabries (kana) alongside chinese caractrs (kanji). Th chaptr concentrates on th lernng process for th hiragana sylabry wich children face first. Since children becom aware of sylabls befor fonemes, it is not surprising that most children lern most of th 71 hiragana letrs befor startng scool. Less clear is wethr, as is somtimes implyd in this chaptr, th children lern these letrs spontaneusly, or wethr they receve direct help from mothrs, kindrgartn, litracy games, or othr sorces. As far as hiragana is concernd, th first year of forml scoolng only needs to ensure that a few furthr sutlties ar mastrd, and a start can then be made on th task of memrizing th complexities of nearly 2,000 kanji wich ar th target by th end of fultime scoolng

2. Anglofone asumtions.

2.1 Fonics out of favor - and bak in.

Both because of comparisns made with litracy aquisition in english and because of british input to som of th foren languaj studies, parts of th book reflect vews of litracy widespred in th UK (and othr english-speakng cuntries) in th mid-1990s. These may be traced bak to th 1970s and 80s, wen Goodman (1982) and othrs advocated concepts of litracy wich larjly ignord th sound values of letrs (eg, readng as 'a psycholinguistic guessing game'). Such ideas downgraded th teachr as a sorce of alfabetic nolej for th lernr and led to such non-fonic lernng methods as 'whole language', 'real books' and 'look-and-say'.

In keepng with such vews, som sections of th book describe litracy as 'developng', 'evolvng' or 'emerjng', as tho it wer an autonmus, natrl process like th fysicl groth of th child. Simlrly, we read (p51) that 'phonemic awareness ... develops as children learn to read', rathr than being taut to enable children to read. Litracy is not presentd as being mastrd by th thre stajes of skil-aquisition (cognition, practis, autmaticity [Downing, 1987]) undr th gidance of a teachr traind in th most efectiv procedurs for its achevemnt. Yet sevrl chaptrs note, almost as with surprise, how in othr languajs just such an aproach is th norm, and that instruction in fonics takes place at th outset.

In this respect th book apears to hav been overtaken by events. By th 1990s reports wer surfacing of declining litracy standrds in th UK (Turner, 1990; Massey & Elliott, 1996), and th alarm therby caused led to th introduction of th National Literacy Strategy from 1997. This succeedd in reversing th decline: fonics was made mandatry, and litracy standrds startd to rise again. Th book contains no hint of this.

2.2 Logografy and onset/rime.

Befor 1997 british reserch into litracy aquisition (th position in America was rathr difrnt), tho not going to th extremes of Goodman and Smith, at least reflectd ther rejection of fonics. Th presnt book featurs two authrs (Uta Frith, Usha Goswami) hos work thru th 1980-90s seemd to asume a non-fonic aproach.

Frith proposed thre stajes of litracy aquisition, logografic, alfabetic and orthografic. This perspectiv was taken up by many reserchrs and is mentiond in sevrl chaptrs of th book (not only in th chaptr wich Frith co-authrs). Th proposed initial, 'logografic' staje envisajs lernrs first recognizing words as holes (a 'look-and-say' tecniqe), insted of being taut th sound values of letrs. Th secnd, 'alfabetic' staje then has lernrs deducing letr values from ther experience of text, wile th third, 'orthografic' staje represents ful litracy. Yet if fonics is th initial teachng method sanctiond by th UK Nationl Literacy Strategy (wich Friths reserch from 1994-97 predates), th 'alfabetic' staje surely coms first, and ther is no reasn to regard a 'logografic' staje as an esential prelimnry (al th mor so wen othr languajs, as made clear in this book, do not do so).

Goswamis analyses wer also influential thru much of th 1980s-90s. Her concern has been with th developmnt of childrens fonlojicl awareness, noting that prescool children may be aware of sylabls, but not yet of fonemes, wich coms with litracy. She proposed an intrmediat staje of fonlojicl awareness, between sylabls and fonemes, termd 'onset-and-rime'. This is seen wen th child, alredy aware of beak as a sylabl, next becoms aware of th 'rime' analojy with peak, leak, etc, with ther difrng 'onsets' P, L, etc. Yet her chaptr describes how th 'rime' staje does not arise in greek or othr transparent riting systms, and as with Friths 'logografic' staje, it is not clear that th 'onset/rime' concept is relevnt to fonics-based litracy aquisition. Fonics wud anlyz a word like beak by its initial consnnt B, its medial vowl digraf EA, and its final consnnt K, so enabling lernrs to decode bean, beat as wel as peak, leak, etc. We find that Goswamis aproach has also been overtaken by th National Literacy Strategy, as her concluding paragraf states that 'there is a ... debate [in England] about whether ... methods, which avoid phonics, are more useful than a decoding approach based on teaching children grapheme-phoneme correspondences.' And her chaptr is synd 1996, tho th book apeard thre years later.

2.3 Deep and shallo.

Anothr recurng 'anglofone asumtion' is implyd by th term deep referng to fonemicly unpredictbl riting systms such as english, french and chinese, and shallo referng to riting systms hos letrs jenrly represent speech sounds, such as finish, italian and jermn. This deep/shallo polarity has long been used by linguists loth to admit that english spelng is alfabeticly defectiv, but it is hard not to asociate deep with profundity and shallo with superficiality, ie, to escape th valu jujmnt that deep is betr then shallo. Yet wen so-cald deep riting systms ar so much hardr than alejd shallo systms, we must surely conclude that, if litracy is our overiding criterion, esir systms ar superir to dificlt systms. Deep and shallo ar therfor inapropriat terms, and indeed som chaptrs in th book (eg, Goswamis) use non-transparent and transparent insted.

3 Lesns from othr languajs.

3.1 Fonics taken for grantd.

If substantial parts of th book ar permeated by such asumtions, th studies it presents of othr languajs shed a very difrnt lyt on th matr. Th jermn chaptr implicitly rejects those asumtions wen it says (p34): 'The main limitation of psychological research on reading development and dyslexia is its focus on english orthography'. This limitation is blamed on th unpredictbility of english spelng, wich compromises fonics as th natrl basis for alfabetic litracy.

Th chaptr does not ask wethr fonics myt nevrthless also be basic to litracy aquisition in english, even tho th markedly inferir performnce of english children in readng fonicly regulr nonwords is atributed to ther weakr fonemic awareness. We must therfor wondr wethr english children taut fonics via th National Literacy Strategy since 1997 wud perform betr than th cohort reportd on, ho wer testd befor 1997. Myt th english tests now be re-administrd to find this out?

Not only in jermn is fonics taken for grantd as th basis for litracy. Othr chaptrs say as much for greek, malay, th scandnavian languajs and spanish (and in italian, tho th italian chaptr does not say as much). And comparativ tests reportd from those languajs, again reveal serius undrperformnce by english children, catastroficly so in Goswamis chaptr, wher th most proficient performd worse (Tables 8.2, 8.3) than th weakst french, greek and spanish children.

Furthrmor, sevrl othr languajs explicitly rejectd (as jermn did implicitly) th 'logografic' and/or 'onset/ rime' concepts as relevnt to litracy aquisition (brazilian portugese on p72, th scandnavian languajs on p167, malay on p200). Such a consensus must surely cast furthr dout on th validity of these concepts in english.

3.2 Dificlties in othr languajs.

Altho othr languajs in varying degrees lak th acute alfabetic unpredictbility of english, som stil face dificlties in litracy aquisition. Th book reports most intrestngly on th difrnt teachng and lernng methods used in non-alfabetic languajs like chinese and japnese, hos caractrs demand feats of visuo-spatial memrization wich those ho hav been alfabeticly educated find hard to imajn. Multilingual Singapor ofrs a remarkbl pedagojicl testbed, since its children hav to becom litrat in two languajs from regulr malay, iregulr english and non-alfabetic chinese, and it seems that singaporean educators hav yet to discovr th best methods especialy for chinese lernng english. Then it seems that, despite a quite straitforwrd alfabetic systm, Brazils teachrs may not hav yet developd optml teachng methods. Danish too has problms, resultng from th 'undr-articulation' of its letrs. Not much is said about french, and one wud like to no mor about litracy aquisition in that uniqe alfabetic systm.

3.3 Spelng reform.

For al th admitd dificlties of english, th book has litl to sujest by way of remedy. It does not comit itself to systmatic fonic trainng (as in th National Literacy Strategy), tho th benefits ar repeatdly noted in othr languajs. And th idea that som of th dificlties cud be removed is not even hintd at, just as ther is no mention of th fact that nearly al th othr languajs hav modrnized ther riting systms in th 20th century.

3.4 Downing and th i.t.a. experience.

Anothr omission is any refrnce to John Downing (Presidnt of th SSS from 1972 until his deth in 1987), altho his Comparative Reading (1973), a colection of papers on litracy aquisition in som dozn languajs, cud hav anticipated th title of th presnt book. Downings 3-staje concept (outlined in §2.1 abov) of litracy aquired as a skil acords betr both with a fonic basis for th lernng process and with th findngs of nurosycolojy (synaptic lernng, not mentiond in th book eithr) than do th anglofone asumtions described abov. But abov al, if th purpos of th book is to draw lesns for english from othr experiences of litracy aquisition, th Initial Teaching Alphabet experimnt of th 1960s, wich Downing directd and evaluated, provides a welth of evidnce from much nearr home. This riting systm, desynd for abslute beginrs, and othrs like it going bak to th mid-19th century (New Spelling [SSS 1942], Isaac Pitmans Fonotypy [see Pitman Sir J, 1969]), demnstrated that wen lernrs ar taut using a predictbl orthografy, th dificlties they hav always faced with conventionl, iregulr english spelngs just do not arise.

4. Conclusion.

Ther is much mor of intrest in th book wich for lak of space cannot be discussd here. Its great valu lies in th massiv, fresh evidnce it provides for th advantajs of a predictbl riting systm for th esy aquisition of litracy skils. Howevr, th book also has considrbl limitations wen it coms to aplying that evidnce to english. Th Introduction tels us, as tho this wer a new discovry, that 'it has become clear that many of th difficulties that confront children who are learning to read and write English, are less evident, or even non-existent, in other populations.' Yet on wat lesns this myt sujest for english th book says litl. Th fact that much of its reserch material predates th National Literacy Strategy makes its silence on th need for fonics almost defnng. A glimr of hope for futur reserch is therfor worth hylytng: th jermn chaptr ends (p48) with th cal for investigators to serch for 'educational means of alleviating and circumventing th problem.' Let them begin by aknolejng that behind th advantajs of othr languajs lies a histry of spelng reform; and let them then examn how such reform myt best ese th burdn of english as th leadng languaj of todays world.


Downing J (1967) Evaluating the Initial Teaching Alphabet. London: Cassell.

ed. Downing J (1973) Comparative Reading: Cross-National Studies of Behavior and Processes in Reading and Writing, New York: The Macmillan Company.

Downing, J (1987) The Transfer of Skills in Language Functions. Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J5, 1987/2, pp5-12, reprinted in J28 2002/2, pp3-11.

Goodman, K (1982) Language & Literacy, Volume 1: Process, Theory, Research, Volume 2, Reading, Language & the Classroom Teacher, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Massey, A L & Elliott, G L (1996) Aspects of Writing in 16+ English Examinations between 1980 & 1994. University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate.

Pitman, Sir J & St John J (1969) Alphabets & Reading, London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd, pp79-87.

Simplified Spelling Society (1942) Pamphlet No.7 The Best Method of Teaching Children to Read and Write - Reports of Experiments Conducted in Sixteen Schools (orijnly 1924).

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

Turner, M (1990) Sponsored Reading Failure, Warlingham: IPSET Education Unit, Warlingham Park School..

Upward, C (1996, 2nd ed.) Cut Spelling: a handbook to the simplification of written English by omission of redundant letters, Birmingham, UK: Simplified Spelling Society.

[Further notes, not included in the printed journal.]

Distinguishng morfemes in english, greek.

Th chaptr by Bryant, Nunes and Aidinis shos th stajes by wich children com to mastr special morfemic spelngs in difrnt languajs, with experimnts reportd in english and greek. An intrestng findng is th thre stajes that lernrs typicly pass thru in distinguishng, for instnce, th final /t/ spelt T in mist and -ED in missed. First they tend to spel both fonemicly as mist; secnd, wen they ar becomng familir with th -ED past tense morfeme but dont yet undrstand wen to use it, they may overjenrlize and spel both words missed; and in th third staje they hav com to undrstand th function of -ED, and make th distinction between mist and missed.

Howevr, th overal conclusion, that brytr, oldr children to mastr these distinctions soonst, can only be described as banal. A ke question that is not askd concerns th role of th teachr: did teachrs try to asist childrens lernng of these points or not? And, most importntly, if not, cud they hav don so efectivly if they had had apropriat methods availbl?

Th latr question, it myt be sujestd, is wat futur reserch shud concentrate on.


Som of th undrlying asumtions of this chaptr deserv comnt. Th rapid aquisition of litracy skils in greek is aknolejd, but is subjectd to a series of experimnts to elucidate th fenomnn. Th role of fonics teachng and of th larjly regulr script is ocasionly mentiond, but for much of th chaptr litracy aquisition is presentd as an autonmus process, with litracy 'developng' rathr than being taut. Likewise, children 'rapidly develop an alphabetic strategy for reading ... after only a few weeks of reading instruction' - but this achevemnt is described as 'precocious' (p63) rathr than norml.

One experimnt reveals to us 'the importance of letter knowledge in learning to read an alphabetic script.' Reserch is referd to (p64) shoing that 'French children's accuracy in spelling ... can be improved by specific training' (so we se that teachng can serv a purpos aftr al). Thus th basic sycolojy of th alfabet, wich is suficient to explain th esy aquisition of litracy in greek, is here obscured by concepts and experimnts such as hav been devised in recent decades to investigate th mystries of litracy aquisition in english but wich apear irelevnt in a mor regulrly spelt languaj such as greek. ... Th fact that ritn greek was releved of its enormusly complex systm of diacritics by th 'monotonic' reform of 1982 (Mackridge, 1985), and that furthr simplifications ar now undr discussion, is not mentiond.

Brazilian portugese. Th conclusion reachd from these findngs is that 'some rules are easier to acquire than others, independent of social class and teaching method.' (p79) Yet p80 reports an experimnt in wich apropriat teachng is found to help children mastr th R-rule - results wich ar described as 'quite interesting'. Most scools, it is implyd, dont teach th abov spelng complications, but leve children to mastr them over time as best they can.

portugese (or spanish).even here th role of teachrs is sidelined: children 'discovr' th alfabetic principl rathr than being taut it, litracy skils 'develop' rathr than being practisd and mastrd.

p82 'Children's decoding development might be th outcome of particular methods of instruction'.

Som subjects were taught by a 'whole word' aproach, othrs by fonics.

p85 'After Brazilian children reach th alphabetic stage, both in reading and writing' - therby implyng ther is a pre-alfabetic staje in readng and riting.

p86 - end of 1st para., puzlmnt that passiv, interpretativ skil of readng shud be mastrd befor th activ, selectiv skil of riting.

Yet how these complications ar taut is not explaind, ther mastry being described in terms of 'developmnt'.

p87 teachng mentiond ryt at th end.

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