[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1987/2, pp28,29 later designated Journal 5.]
[See Journal, Newsletter, Anthology SPB articles and Personal View 10 by Valerie Yule.]

Andrew W Ellis Reading, Writing and Dyslexia.

Review by Valerie Yule.

Andrew W Ellis Reading Writing and Dyslexia: A Cognitive Analysis, London: Lawrence Erlbaurn Associates, 1984, 147 pp.

This book for a non-specialist audience is a clear and readable account of the subject which will interest those of the general public who are interested in spelling, as well as the students for whom it is primarily designed. Andrew Ellis is one of the foremost British psychologists working in the area of normality and pathology in cognitive functions. I would be critical of only two aspects. One of these is the model of how children naturally learn to read; and the other is the temptation of laboratory researchers to assume that when 'dyslexic' children show the same difficulties in reading or spelling as adults who have brain disorders, it means that similar processes of reading or spelling or writing are affected.

How is the book useful for those of us who would like to see an English spelling that suited human abilities and needs better than what we have now?

There are two pages about spelling reformers, mostly about those who made matters worse from medieval times to the eighteenth century - but this should help conservatives to realize that changes are made by human intervention. The only modern development mentioned is that of resolving the spelling problem by trends in 'spelling pronunciation' - if you can't change the spelling, change the way you speak to match it.

The first chapter is a clear, brief account of the development of writing systems and of English spelling in particular, with an explanation of 'levels of representation' in present-day spelling. This includes the way that units of meaning, 'morphemes', form the roots of English words - so that for example the endings of cats and dogs show a common plural inflexion rather than showing the difference in sound (cats and dogz). However, Ellis takes on trust, as most people have done, Chomsky's influential theories about how useful ('optimum') English spelling is in showing how words are related even at the cost of loss of sound-symbol relationships. As Ellis does refer at another point to Downing and Leong's remarkably thorough work The Psychology of Reading (1982) [1], it is surprising that he ignores their critique of Chomsky, in which they summarise the barrage of evidence against Chomsky's claims about how clever English spelling really is, underneath.

The first chapter ends very quotably:

"The irregularities, inconsistencies, and multiple levels of correspondence in English spelling undoubtedly create problems for the learner. English spelling has been described as adapted to suit the needs of the already skilled reader and speller, and there is certainly an element of truth in that generalization. However, while being a nuisance for the learner, the vagaries of English spelling constitute a rich vein of material for the psychologists to exploit, which is one reason why we have devoted some time to analyzing them." (p.9)
The first comment on this is that it is time psychologists started to do something about removing these "problems for the learner", not just commenting on them or treating the learners as the problems. The second comment is that there is need for evidence, not assumption, about how efficiently English spelling really does suit the needs of adult readers and writers. And the third comment is that here we have yet another argument for English spelling - that it gives psychologists something to investigate. Indeed it does.

Chapters that follow discuss research on the question of how much we really "read by ear or by eye", and concludes that familiar words can be recognized without having to be phonically analysed or 'heard' in the mind, The third chapter is more technical, including complicated diagrams, on the question of what elements are seen in reading and what elements are assembled in decoding new words.

Chapter 4 describes very clearly the complex issues involved in understanding the 'acquired dyslexias' which can result from injury to the language-dominant hemisphere of the brain -which is the left side in most people. The fact that different patients may show such varied forms of problems with reading and writing (at least seven different types have been described) is used to support the idea that many separate cognitive components must be orchestrated to enable normal people to be literate. It is not a completely straightforward matter of matching sound and symbol - particularly for English.

Much (far too much) psychological research on reading has been done with single words, because that is the easiest to study in laboratories. It is very difficult to design rigorous experiments using normal reading, because so many different variables are involved, many of them quite out of the psychologists' control. So when Ellis moves from research on the reading of isolated words into discussing normal reading of connected prose, Chapter 5 is really a collection of a few approaches to its study, rather than the comprehensive account that must eventually be built up, and possibly will be in the next few years. The difficult question that is set is: how direct is the reader's route to comprehension? Can you read 'directly for meaning' - and if so, how is it done? (And, we ask ourselves, how might the design of spelling assist this, if it is possible?)

Chapter 6 is on how we spell when we write. The answers here seem to be clearer - but they are based on experiments with present English spelling and observations of English-speaking patients. They may give clues about an improved spelling - but it is also possible that with an improved spelling we might not need such complex reading and writing processes after all.

Chapter 7 shows a psychologist dipping a foot into an area unknown to him, and again taking someone else's theories on trust. This time it is about how children learn to read and write. Ellis cites, uncritically, "a sequence of stages which seems to capture quite well the way in which many children in present-day Britain and America learn to read" described by Marsch, Friedman, Welch and Desberg (1981) [2].

If this sequence is true, then it is a major reason why many children in present-day Britain and America don't learn to read.

According to this account, the four stages of learning to read are:

1. Children are taught to recognize a small set of words by sight, without any clues. Sometimes they will try to use context to guess a word, often wrongly.

2. Within the first year of learning to read, the child increases her/his set of words that can be recognized on sight, and guesses other words incorrectly if they look at all like the words they know (e.g. house for horse), at first because they share initial letters, but later through other letters as well.

3. By about the age of seven, the child starts to be taught or to see for itself, how to decode words by sounding out the letters or letter groups. Now children can start trying to read new words without having to be told what they are, and next time around can recognize them visually too.

4. Stage 4, adult-type skilled reading, is reached "somewhere between the ages of eight and ten", as children have enough experience to be able to use analogy with known spelling patterns of other words to help decode new words.

There are several reasons why there will be illiteracy problems if children are set to learn to read like this.

1. Imagine you were set to learn something other people thought you should learn, and at the end of a year you still couldn't understand more than a few words. And it was three years before you could use your learning to do anything interesting at all. Even a six year medical course is not like that. Unless you live with adults who are obviously keen and enjoying the result of being able to read, wouldn't you give up, as a child, if so much of the first years at school was spent being allowed and even forced to guess and make mistakes, or be continually spoon-fed with each new word? In most other languages learners can start to make sense of what they are doing as soon as they have learnt the letters. It may take them some years to become proficient, but at least, like ice-skaters, they are 'on the ice'.

2. There is research to show that most really proficient adult readers have read more than a quarter of a million words before they are aged eight. That would be out of the question for all children learning the way described above.

And in fact, although teachers of classes may believe their pupils are learning like that anyone who really observes what an individual child is doing when she/he is succeeding in learnng to read will notice that the child is picking out specific features to help her/him recognize a 'whole word' in the first place. It might be a milk-stain on the flash card. For a lucky child it is identification of a letter or letters, right from the start. That child is lucky, because she/he is starting with a strategy that will work, not one that will have to be discarded after many disappointing failures.

3. The final point that may be made is: what an argument for spelling-reform this should be - that because of our present English spelling, respectable people should accept that young children be taught to learn to read by such a disgracefully inefficient and stressful sequence of stages. It is time that learners were given a reading system that was a more approachable and 'user-friendly' task to learn-to get to grips with in weeks rather than years. Then the next three years can be spent in learning by reading as well as becoming proficient through practice in the new skill.

When Ellis moves back into fields more familiar to him, he is able to discuss and compare a variety of the controversial research findings in the field of dyslexia and acquired dyslexia. They help us to realize that the ideal writing system for readers and writers must take into account more than just sound-symbol relationships. Even the spelling mistakes cited show that even a perfectly phonemic spelling would not prevent people making errors in it-although at present we have the problem that many people make mistakes with 'regular' words simply because they have no means of knowing whether they are regular or not, and so guess on, since guessing is their usual strategy.

This is the book if you would like a good, clear and short introduction into what psychologists are doing and thinking about questions of how we read and write. If you want to study the subject in more depth, but still written intelligibly, go to Downing and Leong (1982), and if you would like to know more about writing systems themselves, including non-Roman alphabets, and hear a lively conservative discussing spelling-reform, I recommend Geoffrey Sampson's recent book Writing Systems (1985). [3]


[1] Downing, J & Leong C K Psychology of Reading, New York: Macmillan, 1982.

[2] Marsh G, Friedman M, Welch V & Desberg P A Cognitive-developmental theory of reading acquisition, in G E Mackinnon & T G Waller (Eds.) "Reading Research: Advances in Theory and Practice, New York: Academic Press, 1981.

[3] Sampson G Writing Systems, London: Hutchinson, 1985.

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