[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J28, 2000/2 pp27-32]

Lobbying in New Zealand

Allan Campbell

Allan Campbell, of Christchurch, New Zealand, is a retired proof-reader, part-time journalist, teacher, and educational bookseller. His interest in spelling change began in his teens. Before hearing of the SSS he lobbied - with minimal success - newspapers and advertisers to change -ISE suffixes to -IZE. In 1996 he and Cornell Kimball revived the SSS newsletter, which he now edits. In 1997-98 he was an SSS committee member.

1. First Contacts.

I have been lobbying New Zealand ministers of education and opposition education spokespeople since late 1998 (see JSSS 25, pp33-34). When the Labour-Alliance coalition government came into office a year later I sent a three-page letter, with some enclosures of newspaper articles, to Trevor Mallard, the new minister of education, and his three associates, as well as to Ian Ewen-Street, newly-elected and the Greens education spokesman, to whom I had not previously written.

After recounting reports and statistics on illiteracy I asked that the new government grab the initiative by inviting other English-language nations and international organizations using English to a conference to look at getting something under way. I said that could be a long-term aim. Short term, and as a gesture to the concept of change, it could agree to allowing 'American spellings' in schools.

At the same time (and unknown to me), the New Zealand Association for the Teaching of English (NZATE) (mainly high-school teachers) was itself looking at allowing 'American spellings'. When this was reported, the NZ Qualifications Authority, the statutory body overseeing educational standards, said it would monitor their decision; and the NZ Reading Association, mainly primary teachers, said it would also look at the proposal at its AGM. Phil Coogan, NZATE president, replied to a letter I sent him and in which I included a copy of the JSSS 21 article 'American spelling in British schools?' (pp30-32): 'Many thanks for sending me the article on simplified spelling which was most useful. If you are willing, I would be grateful if you would keep me informed about other material which might be useful in advancing this issue.'

[In 2000 he asked the Society for an article for the November issue of NZATE's journal, English in Aotearoa, which Chris Upward has provided.]

2. Parliamentary Select Committee.

Then the parliamentary select committee on education and science announced at the start of March 2000 it would be looking at the teaching of reading, among other matters. This was in response to a request by a member of the committee, Donna Awatere Huata, of the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers (ACT), who, I later discovered, had visited the US and seen Governor George W Bush's 'accountability' system in Texas, where principals of schools can be sacked if their school does not reach the expected standard in literacy.

In previous correspondence with me, while she was in the Opposition, Dr Liz Gordon, now chair of the select committee (tho not of the subcommittee holding the inquiry), had expressed guarded support for the idea of change, but did not seem to think it was possible.

On behalf of the Society, and after consulting with the committee, I made a submission to this inquiry, again asking that the Government call an international conference of English-speaking nations and major international bodies to look at the issue of reviewing our spelling (see §5 below for text of Submission).

Tom Shanks (an SSS member from Oamaru, 250km south of Christchurch), new member Chrissy Parker, and I spoke to the subcommittee conducting the inquiry, in Christchurch on 18 August 2000. The hearing was shortened from the scheduled half hour as the committee was running late. They gave us an attentive hearing, and asked us to send them material showing how literacy acquisition was easier in languages with an easier spelling system. This I have done (see References at end for details).

Tom belongs to the same branch of the Labour Party as the minister of agriculture, and has been taking the opportunity to apprise him of our concerns, and has supplied him with a copy of the submission. I live just two blocks from one of the associate ministers of education, our local MP, and have had an informal discussion with her on the subject of spelling.

3. Follow-up communications.

After we had spoken to the committee on the Society's submission, I sent copies to a number of bodies I had had previous contact with. The replies included:
The National President has asked me to thank you for forwarding a copy of the Simplified Spelling Society's submission to the parliamentary select committee on Education and Science inquiry into reading.

I found the information tracking spelling issues raised through the media and government committees very useful.

I would be interested in the society's views of children using technological aids such as hand-held spellcheckers.

Thank you for keeping NZEI Te Riu Roa informed.

National Secretary
[I replied to this request:
Basically, we are in favor of anything that eases children's ability to master literacy learning. However, we believe technological devices, such as the hand-held spellcheckers you mention, are dealing with symptoms only, and do not address an underlying problem, a problem that does not occur to anywhere near the same extent in languages with a transparent and predictable spelling system.]
Many thanks for sending me that lucid, compelling submission. I'll forward it on to the NZATE council. What chance of having it taken seriously? Best wishes

Phil Coogan, Director: English Online
Thank you for sending me a copy of your submission to the Select Committee on Reading. I have read it with interest... but fear your recommendation is hugely ambitious.

Best wishes
Libby Limbrick
I also sent a copy of the submission, along with two articles by Ken Spencer, to Mike Robson, managing director of Independent Newspapers Ltd, which has 10 dailies, the two Sunday newspapers, and a string of suburbans. I suggested that as newspapers would be the big beneficiaries if our campaign was successful, the company, and the Newspaper Proprietors Assn, might look at giving us moral support in any way they saw fit. Mr Robson replied:
Thank you for your letter of September 1 and I found your comments about Simplified Spelling most interesting.

I do not believe Independent Newspapers Limited would be interested in any formal endorsement but if you wished to contact our individual editors I am sure they would treat your submissions on their merits as a news story.

Yours sincerely
Mike Robson

4. Replies from politicians.

Some quotes from politicians' letters in reply to mine:
12 November 1998 (while in opposition): I certainly agree that change in spelling is desirable but it is a very long term project.

31 January 2000: I note that I currently have two pieces of correspondence about spelling: yours and one from another concerned person who is adamant that I must prevent any official sanctioning of American spelling. As I develop and refine the approaches the Government will take in tackling problems associated with literacy at all age levels, I will bear in mind the points you have made.
27 January 2000: You have raised some very valid concerns, and I agree we need to take a serious look at the factors contributing to our relatively low levels of literacy (including spelling, grammar, and of course reading habits). For instance, I am sure that television has a huge impact on literacy, and the pronunciation of words, as does advertising and the tendency to recreate words for the sake of branding. Perhaps you should contact the clerk for the education and science select committee at Parliament and ask about making a presentation to the committee about your concerns.
[This was written before the reading inquiry was announced.]
3 November 1998 (while in Opposition): I have been puzzling about what to do with your letter. It is not the first time that I have considered this issue. The major barrier to the simplification of the language is, of course, the dual axes that uphold English as such a key world language: Britain, of course, and the US.

Over time I suspect things can be done, although getting agreement would be difficult.

Can you imagine the cries from the purists? I know a couple of them - usually university types but not specializing in linguistics. This issue will not make it into our policy, Allan, although it is worth thinking about for a range of reasons - including the increasing gap between English-speaking countries.

1 April 1999: I suppose I can be classified as an incrementalist when it comes to language and language change, particularly because I can't see any other method, outside Big Brother kinds of tactics, can work to bring about change.

I have no objection to loosening the ties on language, so long as we don't confuse 'wider' with 'wrong'. For example, I am amenable nowadays to abolishing apostrophes because about one out of every two I see misused.

I'd like to learn more about what you think can be achieved by your short-term aim, which is to allow American spellings. At face value it might be thought that this would simply increase confusion. American spelling is a bit simpler than UK spelling, but only at the margins. I don't think any really difficult spelling is corrected in the US context. The majority of words that are not spelt as they sound are left totally untouched. So at present I am not convinced by the tactic, although I feel sure that your long-term aim will one day be met. I'd like to hear more.
11 December 1998: Thank you for your letter regarding concerns over reading and writing skills of future New Zealanders. Thank you for the useful comments on spelling as a tool for reading and writing. Donna appreciates your support and understanding of the current situation. She is happy to note your advice.

5. Submission to Select Committee.

Allan Campbell
New Zealand Representative, SSS
48 Orari street
Bexley, Christchurch 8007

Ms Clare Sullivan

Education and Science Select Committee Secretariat
Parliament House
April 2000

Submission to Select Committee on Education and Science

[This submission follows the following spelling conventions: The best of current worldwide dictionary recognized forms; F for PH (where pronounced /f/); -OUGH adjustment]

The Society will present arguments showing the need for a vast improvement in the way English is spelt if the teaching of reading is to attain optimum levels of literacy; and asks the committee to be visionary and become the initiator of moves that will lead to a worldwide review of English spelling.

'Here is the News . . .'

Late 1997. In a review for the International Adult Literacy Survey of OECD nations, the New Zealand Ministry of Education (1997) finds 40% of employed people and 75% of unemployed are below the minimum level of literacy competence for everyday life and work. Workbase, the National Centre for Workplace Literacy and Language (1998), after working with the Ministry to make further data available from the survey, a year later says that this confirms the need for literacy (and numeracy) in the workplace. Findings from the survey prove literacy can no longer be just a third world issue, says Workbase's executive director.

April 1998. The US National Institute of Literacy study (1998) suggests about 40 to 44 million Americans struggle with literacy. At about the same time in Britain, a survey by the Basic Skills Agency (1997), a government-funded body, finds almost eight million people are so poor at reading and writing they cannot cope with the demands of modern life.

March 26, 1999. The Times (London). A preliminary report (final report OECD 2000) on the comparative percentages of adults at the lowest literacy level in nations or groups with European languages compiles this list: Poland 44%, Ireland 24, Britain 23, United States 22, Swiss German 19, New Zealand 20, Australia 17, Belgium 17, Canada 17, Swiss French 17, Germany 12, The Netherlands 10, Sweden 7. Six of the lowest nine are English-speaking.

August 10, 1999. ABC (Australia) Four Corners program. Dr David Kemp, Federal Minister for Education, expresses serious concern about literacy teaching and the illiteracy problem, including how to reach the most demoralized and most deprived.

October 1999. The Education Sub-committee of the House of Commons initiates an inquiry into early years education, partly to find why British children are behind their continental counterparts in literacy. [The Simplified Spelling Society [2000] is among those making a submission to this inquiry.]

November 12, 1999. TES Scotland (Times Educational Supplement, Scottish edition). A report on a survey in the Scottish Executive's Assessment of Achievement Programme carried out on mid and senior primary pupils and second-year secondary pupils reveals a poor grasp of even the most elementary skills in language. Attainment in writing causes particular concern.

February 17-18, 2000. At a National Forum of ALNARC (Adult Literacy and Numeracy Australian Research Consortium), it is reported that 62% of adult literacy students fail, and that 68% of youth workers fail to gain their own certificates. Most students drop out after the first or second session.

March 22, 2000. Radio New Zealand Checkpoint program. Mark Irwin (Employers and Manufacturers Association), commenting on the Government's new apprenticeship proposals, says a main problem with providing jobs for young people is their poor standards of literacy and numeracy. They often cannot read or understand written instructions relating to the work.

March 28, 2000. The New York Times. Once again mooring a traditionally Democratic issue to the agenda of his Republican presidential campaign, Gov George W Bush of Texas today proposed a five-year, §5 billion program to address what he termed a national literacy crisis among children.


1. Failure to reach goals in teaching children to read and write is not just a New Zealand problem. An unacceptable level of illiteracy is a common complaint among English-speaking peoples. It is an 'English disease'. Periodically, there are outcries from governments, parents, educationists, business people, that 'something must be done'. A commission/ taskforce/committee is set up to examine the matter and find ways of achieving better literacy levels. The focus is often short-term, and emfasizes teaching. Current classroom methods are usually seen as the culprit, and new ways are called for, with perhaps new teaching tools.

2. Sometimes the findings are accepted and put into practice. Fonics, so long the standard method (and still the standard with most other alfabetical languages), is found to be wanting. Irregular English spellings mean the choice of words in basic fonic readers has to be limited, resulting in stilted stories. 'Look and say' and 'whole language' in some jurisdictions, including New Zealand, supplants fonics teaching. But here we are again, still not achieving what we want.

3. In England the Government has now come down heavily in favor of fonics teaching, and has decreed a classroom 'Literacy Hour', resulting in some improvement in reading, tho not in writing. But the time requirement has cut into that allocated to other subjects ('curriculum overload'), when a knowledge-based economy is demanding the opposite.

4. This repetitious fiddling with teaching methods, training, and resources, will, in the Society's view, not solve the problem if the basic tool of literacy - spelling - is left in its parlous, antiquated, illogical state. It has not been reviewed in about 250 years, not since Dr Samuel Johnson published his dictionary. But even then his chosen spellings (from many alternatives) often were not consistent or fonemic, as he was keen not to obscure the origins of English words. Many of the word sounds represented have changed. Our spelling is now well past its use-by date. Other matters - measures, currency, education, defense, the courts, even voting systems - are occasionally, sometimes often, sometimes regularly, reviewed. Why not spelling?

5. In making this submission, the Society wishes to state very clearly it believes teachers, with the tools at their disposal, generally do a great job in teaching literacy. That the majority of New Zealand children can read and write as well as they do despite our difficult spelling is a tribute to the work of many parents and most teachers. That learners don't do better is not the teachers' fault.

6. Teachers face increasing numbers of children with poor language skills, children who don't read as much at home as used to be the case, and transient children who face special problems with literacy. Difficulties met by children at a crucial stage can make learning to read and write a bore and a chore. Those who do not have a good visual memory are particularly likely just to give up in the face of burdens such as those above. We suggest it is much more likely that unmotivated, reading-deprived children will break out of the cycle if they find that reading is a logical exercise they can manage. It is much less likely if reading repeatedly plays tricks on them.

7. That there may be better ways of teaching is not to doubt the ability of teachers. There are always better ways in fields of human endeavor.


8. In the past, inquiries such as this in all English-speaking countries have focused on improving teaching, rather than making learning easier. Easier learning lowers the need for exceptional teaching ability, ingenious teaching methods, expensive teaching aids, and much remedial work. A subject that is easy to learn can be picked up with far less teaching.

9. That the level of literacy achievement is not as high as desirable is, in the Society's view, beyond the control of teachers and the educational system generally if nothing is done to upgrade the fundamental tool of literacy in an alfabetical language - spelling - so that it works with learners rather than against them. We can develop and fine tune new teaching methods and resources, but if we don't repair and sharpen the broken tool we are using, we will keep on revisiting the problem.

10. Make the spelling logical and predictable - eg, bred (to eat), ded, dred, hed, led (metal), red (past tense, read), sed, sted, tred to match bed, bled, fed, fled, shed, wed - and we make learning to read and write so much easier and more likely to be achieved.

11. Leave it warped - eg (long E): tree, tea, key, quay, me, chief, receive, people, ski, police, debris - and we leave booby-traps to snare and land mines to maim the learner.

12. Recognizing and spelling the long E are two of the major confusions confronting a learner, whether a schoolchild or a foreigner wanting to master English as their world language. Others include doubling of consonants (wholly, holly, holy, holiday), heterografs - same sound, different spellings - (maid/made; their/there; pair/pear/pare; site/sight/cite), heterofones - same spelling, different sounds - (lead - to guide, metal; read - present, past tenses; sow - to plant seed, a female pig), silent letters (write, right, wright, island, through), silent (or magic) E (save/have, give, but recipe).

13. For young minds trying to make sense of the world as a whole, and not just reading and spelling, such contradictions are baffling. There are often no sensible explanations that teachers can provide for them. It comes down to having to suspend logic and to just memorize.

14. Some Society members have closely examined the spelling of 4664 common English words and found only 2110 that children can be taught to spell by the fonic method - the method which is sufficient to teach them in most other European languages. For the accurate spelling of at least the other 2554, one has to learn more than fonics, be this to decorate all Vs with an E, irrespective of pronunciation - give, drive, live, have, shave - or to watch for such traps as through, break, yacht.

15. Children cannot decode such words by simply using their fonic knowledge. They have to guess substantial parts of them by intelligently using fonics and clues from context. For large numbers of English words, learning to read by just sounding out letters and joining them into words, as happens in most European languages - and Maori - is simply impossible. This aspect of English spelling makes learning to read English more difficult. It results in our having to devise complex teaching strategies and methods which many other languages find unnecessary.

16. The report of the Government Literacy Taskforce (of practitioners) in March 1999 made a number of recommendations on teaching, but virtually ignored spelling. However, the Literacy Experts Group (of academics), set up to support the taskforce with theoretical input, encouraged the development of fonological awareness, but did not go as far as to suggest anything be done to review and repair spelling. Which is understandable, because even if they had the vision, and thought it a good idea, they would probably have seen it as outside their domain.

17. Unless we do have the vision and move outside the square to look at the bigger picture, we are doomed to keep on searching for better ways to teach reading and writing, while failing to deal with a core learning problem.

18. This is our opportunity to break out and lead the way.

19. As a language with an alfabetical writing system, English uses an assortment of letter symbols representing sounds to form written word shapes or 'pictures', in contrast to logografic languages, which use shapes that are not necessarily related to sounds. The combinations of letter symbols - spelling - should enable us to decode the words we see in front of us, and encode words we wish to write.

20. While English has many strong points in its favor as a language suitable for use for international communication, it is acknowledged as one of the worst languages for spelling. An amalgam of words from many disparate tongues with differing patterns, it has not done anything deliberately to integrate new words in a systematic way. For instance, some retain their spelling but change their pronunciation - champagne - while some retain both - depot. This has been going on for centuries, and the confusion is manifest. About half of English words have a fonetically illogical component.

21. If the spelling were consistent, if a given combination of letters could be confidently relied on in decoding (reading), and if a given sound could be confidently encoded in writing, much of the difficulty teachers face in reading and writing instruction would disappear. We would not need high degrees of teaching ability and smart equipment to aid literacy learning. We would not have the same need for remedial work. Much class time would be saved, to be used for other teaching.

Making a start.

22. The Society acknowledges that the huge problem our spelling poses cannot be fixed overnight. It is so complex that almost everyone looking at it with a view to solving it comes up with a different 'answer'. A solution will need much compromise. It will need insight from professionals - linguists, teachers, publishers, lexicografers, writers, marketers. It will also need down-to-earth, streetwise input from laypeople.

23. It will need international co-operation. English's world status is at once a blessing and a difficulty. It allows us to communicate with more nations and peoples than does any other.

24. Because we have developed differing national and provincial dialects, a purely fonetic response is not possible. However, some sounds (mostly consonants) can be faithfully represented for all accents. Most sounds can be accurately represented for most accents in most words. But there will be exceptions. Despite this restriction, there is a wide field where improvement is possible.

25. Other languages review and modernize their spellings from time to time (German has just done so). Tho English's greater international status adds difficulties to this process, overcoming them should not be beyond our capabilities.

26. In languages with almost fully systematic spellings, eg, Finnish, Italian, and Czech, children are taught to read by fonics in the first year or so, and because of the regularity of the spellings, they have little need for further tuition. They often then teach themselves. A study by Gwenllian Thorstad, a Society member, in 1991 found seven-year-old Italian children outperforming 11-year-old British children in comparable reading and spelling tests. As long as we anglofones continue to resist spelling change we will find ourselves continuing to tinker with symptoms rather than causes of illiteracy. We will remain near the bottom of the developed nations' literacy league despite our continuing to invest more time, effort, and money into the teaching of reading and writing.

27. People often concede that 'well, yes, our spelling is a bit weird and something should be done about it', but no one says 'let's start'.

28. If it doesn't start, it doesn't happen.

29. Now is the time to start.

30. Any benefits for New Zealand in changing on its own would be offset by complications to our written communication with the rest of the English-speaking world. But New Zealand has often led the world in social change. It would not be out of character for us again to show the way. We can invite other English-speaking nations, encourage them, and lead them into committing to change. A change that would reduce enormously the problems that we currently have with the teaching of reading and writing. Future generations will thank us.


31. The Society therefore asks this committee to recommend to the Government that it initiate a world-wide review of English spelling by inviting other nations and international organizations using English as their principal language, and possibly some nations which use it as their second and international language, to meet to begin a process of regularizing its spelling.

32. At this stage we do not suggest how change may be designed and implemented. That would be for whatever body the proposed international conference might set up and charge with the task. If asked, the Society would be only too pleased to help this body in any way it could.


Basic Skills Agency, London (1997) It doesn't get any better: the impact of poor basic skills on the lives of 37 year olds.

Ministry of Education, Wellington (1997) Adult Literacy in New Zealand: Results from the International Adult Literacy Survey.

OECD, Paris (2000) Literacy in the Age of Information, Final Report.

Simplified Spelling Society (2000) Submission to the Education Sub-Committee's Inquiry into Early Years Education. Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society 27-2000/1, pp24-30.

US National Institute for Literacy, Washington DC (1998) The State of Literacy in America: Estimates at the local, state, and national levels.

Workbase, The National Centre for Workplace Literacy and Language, Auckland (November 1998) Literacy Skills and the New Zealand Workforce.

The material subsequently submitted to the New Zealand sub-committee (see §2 above) consisted of the following:

Landerl, Karin, Wimmer, Heinz & Frith, (1997) The impact of orthographic consistency on dyslexia: a German-English comparison. Cognition 1997: 63, pp 315-34).

Oney & Goldman (1984) Decoding and comprehension skills in Turkish and English: effects of the regularity of grapheme-phoneme correspondences. Journal of Educational Psychology (1984: 76, 4, pp 557-68).

Paulesu, McCrory, et al. (2000) A cultural effect on brain function. Nature Neuroscience, January 2000, pp91-96) (researching the demands different orthographies make on the brain). [See J29 dyslexia.]

Spencer, Ken (1999) Why English casts a spell. The Guardian, March 23.

- (2000) Most illiterate English children would succeed in other languages. Simpl Speling, July 2000.

Thorstad, Gwenllian (1991) The effect of orthography on the acquisition of literacy skills. British Journal of Psychology (1991, 2, pp 527-37). [See J13 Italian.]

Upward, Christopher (2000) Revelations of a cross-linguistic perspective; review of 'Harris and Hatano: Learning to read and write: A cross-linguistic perspective' (1999, Cambridge University Press). Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society 27-2000/1, pp30-33.

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