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English Spelling and Comparative Literacy.

Does the English writing system handicap learners more than more transparent writing systems?

Valerie Yule, Ph.D.

English spelling is so preposterously unsystematic that some sort of reform is undoubtedly necessary in the interest of the whole world. J.R. Firth [1937, p.48]

Does the nature of English spelling handicap lerners of literacy more than other writing systems trouble their novices? The obvious answer to me, from observation and experience, is yes.

However, no evidence will convince those who do not wish to believe that English spelling, or television violence, or cigarettes are harmful. The factors are always multiple and complex, and it is hard to get an objective measure of direct relationships. Do nine-year-olds answer multiple-choice questions about a text better if their native language has a regular or irregular spelling? Findings may not be answering the most important questions.

Christopher Upward (1995) has reviewed significant reserch that attempted to compare reading and spelling achievements with different writing systems, including English spelling. He points out the problems of large-scale comparisons, when direct matching on all relevant points is practicaly imposibl and certainly not afordable.

Here I would like to briefly add to his revew, and emphasise some important points about the reserch and its aplication. Recent corroboration in findings of recent cross-lingual reserch by Philip Seymour and others has been receiving media publicity, which these erly studies described here have not. This is an encouraging development, for open discussion of the demonstrated problems set by English spelling, to lead into the next step - what can be done about it.

Previous reserch and experiment up to 1991 were revewed in the writer's doctoral thesis (Yule 1991, especially pp 23-28 and 140-168) and details need not be repeated here. Again, as Upward also reported, small studies add up to convincing evidence, while large-scale attempts at comparisons come up with blurred generalisations.

Experiments over the last 150 years have showed that English-speaking children could lern to read more easily in reformed spellings than in TO (traditional orthografy). These include the successful SSS experiments with Nue Spellings in 16 schools in the 1920s (see, for example, Pitman & St. John 1969), the large-scale Initial Teaching Alphabet project (see for example, Thackray 1980, Mazurkiewicz, 1967, 1975) and the equally large-scale but barely reported Writing to Read program of J. H. Martin (see for example, Murphy, 1984, and small-circulation reports such as the Fort Worth, Texas, project report of 1986, that found that his initial lerning spelling was the more successful feature of the program rather than the IBM electronic paraphernalia that supported it.

All these experimental programs found that children were initiated into independent reading more quickly with improved spellings than with traditional English orthography, but since most books and their world outside the classroom were still entirely TO, the initial advantage became harder to sustain, except for Martin's scheme, which involved imediate transition to the spelling that was all around.

In international comparative reserch until recently, large-scale comparisons of the value of different writing systems have been unavoidably fudged by the complexities of differential ability, motivation and opportunity. These studies include Gray's UNESCO survey of the teaching of reading and writing in 1956, and the intensive studies of Stevenson et al on the achievements and reading disabilities of Chinese, Japanese and English children (1982, 1984, 1985).

However, when on the spot, it is easy to see and to demonstrate in comparisons of small groups and individuals that lerners do better with a consistent rather than an inconsistent writing system - see, e.g. Fishman (1968: 750-1) on bilingual children, Cossu et al's 1988 comparison of Sardinian and American children taught by similar teaching methods, Oney & Goldman's findings (1984) on comprehension and decoding skills of Turkish and American children, and observations of Niugini students who find Tok Pisin easier than English, and of Australian aboriginals who could write in Pitjitjitjinjara within six months, while English-speaking aboriginals tend to have dificulty lerning to read in English.

Some important points need to be made clear.

• Anybody can lern anything, however dificult, if they have the ability, motivation and opportunity. Motivation is, of the three, probably the most important. For example, Makita's claim (1968) that Japanese have 99% literacy is probably only a mild exaggeration; even tho the Japanese writing system seems one of the strangest in the world, with its mixture of five very different scripts and three principles for them, its general lack of relationship to the spoken language, and often problematic comunication of precise meaning. Singapore students lern to read in English with equally strong motivation and disciplin, also in the expectation that education will bring them rewards. Finnish educational enthusiasm helps to put Finnish children at the top of the league, despite the problems set them by very long words with some difficult foneme discriminations.

On the other hand, Indonesia and Brazil, with simple and consistent alfabetic writing systems, have had stagnating literacy rates (Hull, 1981, Carraher 1987) through disillusioned expectations about education and often poor drill-style teaching.

Australian adults with reading problems are hampered by attitudes of rejection about literacy and discouragement about their own abilities, so that government literacy campains, spending up to $54 milion in one year in a country of 18 million people, have put most emphasis in trying to persuade these diffidents that it would be to their advantage to be able to read instructions and write letters - not even touching on the value and delights of this door to education in its fuller sense.

• The people to focus on, who would most benefit from an improved writing system, are those who lack advantages of ability, motivation and opportunity, rather than those who will lern regardless. Our next-door private school confidently expects that all its five-year-olds will be successful in their phonics program, and be reading independently in present English spelling by the end of their first year; twenty kilometres away, many children leave after their last year unable to read or barely able. (The succeeders might indeed be better and faster readers still with a reformed spelling, but that is yet to be proven. But I have tested remedial readers with improved spellings and a high proportion respond well.)

• Lerning to read well must always require some personal effort by the lerner. Even lerning to speak, which comes naturally, requires years of sustained effort by young children. Just watch them. For less advantaged lerners, the fewer tacks on the track the better.

• With a simple writing system, every motivated child and adult could teach themselves to read at home, using video/CD interactive with animated computer-graphics and little or no other help. For the first time we have tecnology that can link the spoken and written language directly and continuously for instruction. When this innovation is taken seriously, it will be regarded as one of the most far-reaching inventions of the 20th century. Chris Jolly's phonics video series (Jolly Learning Ltd) and some other video series with handbooks take young children through the lerning process. The fully developd technique when used with improved English spelling would require only a two-hour video plus practice with reading books. (Yule, 1995.)

• The direction for reserch. An obvious place to look for definitive confirmation or rejection of whether English spelling is a handicap or not is the USA. One of the reasons for the support for the English Language Amendment to protect the English language has been the perceived threat from below, as Chicano immigrants from south of the border find it easier to be literat in Spanish than in English, even when they are bilingual, now that they are losing their earlier feelings that they must assimilate to English-language demands to avoid remaining an exploited minority. (See Porter, 1990) However, reserch evidence on comparisons of Spanish and English lerners in America was extremely difficult to find during my pre-1991 investigation, although clues were there, e.g. Carroll & Chall,1985, Christian, 1982, and Goyen's studies of Spanish schooling, 1989.

The International Reading Association is strong, and has its base in America. Here is an area of reserch for its members which should be receiving urgent attention. The Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society should surely be looking out for it.

In the meantime, we could be moving on to practical mass testing of modified English spellings through such simple and flexible means as subtitling on television and film.


Carraher, T. (1987) Illiteracy in a literate society: Understanding reading failure in Brazil. In D. Wagner, (Ed.) The future of literacy in a changing world. Oxford: Pergamon.

Carroll, J. B. and Chall, J. S. (1975) Toward a literate society. NY: McGraw-Hill.

Christian, C. (1982) Reading in Spanish as a mode of language maintenance. In J. Fishman & G. D. Keller (Eds.) Bilingual education for Hispanic students in the United States. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Cossu, G., Shankweiler, D., Liberman, I., Tola, G., & Katz, L. (1988) Awareness of phonological segmentation and reading ability in Italian children. Applied Psycholinguistics 9 :1-16.

Fishman, Joshua. (Ed.) (1968) Readings in the sociology of language. The Hague: Mouton.

Goyen, Judith. (1989) Reading methods in Spain: the effect of a regular orthography. Reading Teacher. 42. 6: 370-3.

Gray, W. S. (1956) The teaching of reading and writing. an international survey. Paris: UNESCO.

Hull, T. H. (1981) Buta Huruf Baru The new illiteracy in Indonesia. Unpublished paper. Australian National University.

Makita, K. (1968) The rarity of reading disability in Japanese children. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. 38: 599-614.

Mazurkiewicz, A. J. (1967) Fourth year results of study with i.t.a. Spelling Progress Bulletin. 7. 4.: 2-6.

Mazurkiewicz, A. J. (1975) Comparative attitudes and achievements of the 1963 i.t.a. and TO-taught students in the Tenth and Eleventh Grades. Reading World .14: 425-51.

Murphy, R. T. (1984) (Educational Testing Service, Princeton, NJ) Personal communication.

Oney, B. & Goldman, S. (1984) Decoding and comprehension skills in Turkish and English: effects of regularity of grapheme-phoneme correspondence. Journal of Educational Psychology 76: 557-568.

Pitman, Sir James and St.John, John. (1969) Alphabets and Reading. London: Pitman.

Porter, Rosalie. (1990) Forked Tongue - the Politics of Bilingual Education, NY: Basic Books.

Seymour, Philip H.K. (2001) How do children learn to read? Is English more difficult than other languages? presented at the British Festival of Science, Glasgow, Sep.

Stevenson, H. W., Stigler, J. W., Lucker, G. W., Lee, S-Y, Hsu, Ch-Ch & Kitamara, S. (1982) Reading disabilities: the case of Chinese, Japanese and English. Child Development. 53: 1164-1181.

Stevenson, H. W. (1984) Orthography and reading disabilities. Journal of Reading Disabilities 17 : 296-301.

Thackray, D. V. (1980) Readiness to read with i.t.a. and t.o. London: Chapman.

Upward, C. (1995) Orthography vs. Litracy: Findings of th IEA. JSSS. 1995/2 J19 : 5-8.

Yule, V. (1991) Orthography and Reading: Spelling and Society. Unpublished doctoral thesis, Monash University.

Yule, V. (1995) 'Teach yourself to read at home by video,' problems and promises. JSSS. 1995/1 J18 : 11-18.

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