[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1987/3 p8-12 later designated J6.]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles, Pamflet 15 and Cut Spelling by Chris Upward.]

The Kingman Committee.


In 1986 the Secretary of State for Education and Science, Kenneth Baker, set up a Committee of Inquiry into English Language Teaching, chaired by Sir John Kingman, Vice-Chancellor of Bristol University, which is to report by the end of 1987. Its terms of reference are:

1. To recommend a model of the English language, whether spoken or written, which would:
     (1) serve as a basis of how teachers are trained to understand how the English language works;
     (2) inform professional discussion of all aspects of English teaching.

2. To recommend the principles which should guide teachers on how far and in what ways the model should be made explicit to pupils, to make them conscious of how language is used in a range of contexts.

3. To recommend what, in general terms, pupils need to know about how the English language works and in consequence what they should have been taught, and be expected to understand, on this score, at age 7, 11 and 16.

Despite scepticism among educationists about the terms of reference and the expertise of the committee, the Society nevertheless decided it should take this opportunity to state the case for spelling reform. It accordingly submitted the following document to the Committee, which in its reply said that it would only be able to take oral evidence from a small number of organisations and that the Society would not be among them. Further written evidence was however invited, and readers who wish to make suggestions for this purpose are asked to let the Editor know.

Submission to the
from the
May 1987

1. The submission.

The Simplified Spelling Society wishes to make the following submission to the Committee of Inquiry into English Language Teaching. The submission has been compiled by the Editor of the Society's Journal, in consultation with its Chairman and other officers:

Editor Christopher Upward, Senior Lecturer, Department of Modern Languages, Aston University.
Chairman Christopher Jolly, marketing consultant.

2. The background of public and political opinion.

We think it necessary to preface our submission by describing how the Society's views relate to generally held perceptions of English spelling.

2.1 Variety of perceptions of traditional orthography (t.o.)
Views of t.o. span a wide spectrum, from despair at inability to master it at one extreme, to veneration of its unique richness at the other. Between these extremes we encounter: irritation at how troublesome t.o. is to teach, to learn and to use; impatience that its violation should be so stigmatized; resignation to its waywardness as a fact of life; rejection of the notion that the letters represent the sounds of words; painstaking analysis of the educational difficulties t.o. causes; attempts to make best use of such patterns and regularities as t.o. possesses; unquestioning acceptance of t.o. as a tool of daily world-wide communication; pride in the status that fluent, accurate command of t.o. gives above those who lack that command; affection for the eccentricities to t.o.; appreciation of t.o. as a vehicle for the continuity of literary culture; scholarly delight in the wealth of historical associations conjured up by the etymology of t.o. In short, t.o. is all things to all people; but above all how it is perceived by the schoolchild is very different from how it is perceived by the well-educated adult manipulating it with supreme but unconscious skill; and how it is perceived by the more scientifically and less classically educated younger generation is very different from how it is perceived by the older generation. How it is perceived by the Simplified Spelling Society has been implicit in the Society's name for the almost 80 years of its existence.

2.2 Recent authoritative statements.
In addition to the cross-currents of public opinion just described, the Society notes recent statements from more authoritative quarters which might have been in a position to consider the merits of reforming t.o. Thus the Bullock report [l] said:

"Various solutions have been suggested to the problems presented by the irregular system of spelling in English, the most radical of which is its actual reform... The views of the Committee differ on the question... and this difference of opinion is probably a fair reflection of the range and intensity of the views held by teachers and the public at large. However, the majority of us remain unconvinced by the case for national reform... We consider the issues involved too complex and the implications too far-reaching to enable us to stretch our brief to the extent of giving the subject the detailed study it needs. In the circumstances we do not feel able to make a recommendation on it."
And in the debate on The English Language in the House of Lords on 4 March 1987, Baroness Hooper for the Government said: [2]

"Many noble Lords have argued - and I doubt if anyone would disagree with them - that improvement in the standards of communication in English would be a great benefit. The question is how that improvement can be attained. Some believe that what is required is reform of spelling... so that English can be more easily learned, whether by children or foreigners. We have heard many suggestions as to the types of reform that might be adopted. Gaining agreement to reform and bringing it about - not just in this country but in the whole of the English-speaking world - would be a formidable task. Changes in language and language-use of course take place all the time in a living language but they do so naturally and gradually. I am not convinced that attempts to regulate or direct that process would achieve the desired results. Indeed, I am inclined to think that English would not be as universally spoken as it is if it were not that it is already so much more simple and flexible than many other languages. Even if it were possible to wave a wand and reform or simplify English spelling or grammar across the world, would that be desirable? The richness and variety of the English language are matters of which we are rightly proud, and many people would be sorry to see them lost even in the interests of greater simplicity. The Government are therefore concentrating their efforts not on trying to change the English language but on trying to improve the way that it is taught..."

3. Purpose of the Simplified Spelling Society's submission.

The Society believes that, for all the caution expressed by the Bullock report and by Baroness Hooper, it has a duty to place those views in a fuller perspective for the present Committee of Inquiry, and to advance some new ideas on the subject. The Society would like to encourage their further exploration, and hopes that they may provide a stimulus for the improved teaching of English, in keeping with the Committee's terms of reference.

4. Spelling Reform in perspective.

We would first wish to qualify Baroness Hooper's remark that "changes in language and language-use take place all the time in a living language but they do so naturally and gradually. I am not convinced that attempts to regulate or direct that process would achieve the desired results." We would point out that these observations apply to grammar and pronunciation, but they do not apply to the writing system, which changes not "naturally", but by conscious decision. The decisions that gave rise to t.o. were made chiefly by printers in the seventeenth century, when universal literacy and economic efficiency were not the major criteria they are today. Many such decisions were influenced by the typographical requirements of a technology in its infancy, and conflict with modern perceptions of consistency, pronunciation, etymology, and educational and technological need. The last major decisions of this kind occurred some two hundred years ago with the abandonment of <∫> as an alternative form of <s>, and with Noah Webster's improvements in America, few of which have been systematically adopted in the United Kingdom (program is a rare, but partial example). Since then only isolated changes of detail have been made, often without regard for consistency: thus <ph> has become <f> in fantasy, freefone, but not in phantom, telephone; and the single <l> in fulness is creeping in by analogy with fulsome, despite its base form which remains full. The experience of English shows [3] that a rational, efficient writing system does not necessarily develop "naturally" if the crucial decisions are left to individuals; and the experience of most other languages shows [4] that more efficient writing systems can be introduced if carefully planned by bodies selected for their expertise and wisdom, and equipped with realistic and rational criteria. Since the early 1970's the United Kingdom has by dint of careful planning at official level (after a century of deliberation) modernized its currency and to some extent its system of weights and measures, to the great educational and economic benefit of our society. After over four centuries of deliberation on spelling, a similar attack needs to be made on the much more intricate, entrenched and far-flung problems of our writing system. The Society believes it can demonstrate that, given the will and given a realistic appreciation of what is feasible and what is not, such an attack could be made. The penalty for failing to grasp the nettle is that the spoken language will diverge ever further from its written form, and present problems of illiteracy and waste will grow steadily worse. Sooner or later, like all human systems, written English will have to be modernized, and the burden of its present obsolescence is already so great that a first step would be better taken now than in some future century.

5. Implications for the Committee of Inquiry.

The Committee's terms of reference do not explicitly include examination of this question, whose ramifications go beyond education as such, as well as beyond the United Kingdom. Yet since those terms of reference cover the written as well as the spoken language, they cannot properly exclude spelling: no "model" of the written language can ignore the very system by which the language is written down. Defining the model however means applying rational standards, and any attempt to apply such standards to t.o. is immediately lost in a maze of inconsistencies - as five minutes' study of the cover of the Society's Journal (enclosed) will show. If teachers are to be "trained to understand how the English language works", then they must understand the intricacies of the maze of its spelling. Furthermore they must understand these intricacies not so much for their own edification, as for a very practical reason that is central to their work as teachers: in order to teach their pupils to negotiate the maze themselves. The maze, or at least its main features, must "be made explicit to pupils" if the pupils are to achieve functional literacy. But it is on this rock that the whole preceding line of argument founders, since from time immemorial English spelling has proved just too complex for very large numbers of pupils to master. In the 1960's the i.t.a. experiments [5] showed it conclusively, and even the Bullock report was prepared to admit (§6.20) that "the complexity of English spelling patterns does appear to retard progress". In short, unless some steps are taken to rationalize the writing system itself, training the teachers to understand what it is implied they have failed to understand hitherto will scarcely help them to make the essential techniques of literacy "explicit to pupils" more effectively than in the past.

6. Some misconceptions about English spelling.

Yet this simple truth, namely that the traditional writing system is as much an educational obstacle as the traditional currency and weights and measures formerly were, is not widely grasped. An underlying, but largely unconscious reason for this may well be despair that English spelling can be treated rationally. We would pick out two manifestations of this tendency. The first is the influence of the Chomskys, and most famously Noam Chomsky's description of English spelling as "optimal, [6] which despite effective refutations [7] is still widely accepted. The second is the adoption of look-and-say methods of teaching beginners to read, which we see as an irrational and defeatist response to an irrational and intractable orthography: because t.o. is so resistant to phonic analysis, many educationists resort to even less precise techniques such as gestalt recognition as an alternative. If English spelling were consistently phonographic, the idea that such a method (which might seem appropriate for Chinese, though we doubt even that [8] could be superior to the phonic method would scarcely have gained credence, any more than mathematicians would advocate guesswork as a substitute for calculation.

7. More promising approaches to teaching English spelling.

Until the mid-1980's, the most successful new development in teaching children to read and write in English appears to have been the Initial Teaching Alphabet (i.t.a.), designed by the Society's former President, the late Sir James Pitman [9] on the basis of the Society's earlier phonographic spelling system New Spelling. [10]. Although the Bullock report (§7.29) was judiciously non-committal on the subject, the study [5] conducted by the Society's present President, Professor John Downing, into the results of first teaching by the i.t.a. predictably showed that children learn a more consistent spelling system faster and more effectively than t.o. The world-wide use of the i.t.a. (in the U.S.A., Canada and Australia as well as in the United Kingdom) shows that spelling-reform need not be just "national", as the Bullock report put it, but can be (indeed, in the Society's view, should be) international. Underlying the greater educational effectiveness of the i.t.a. is the "cognitive confusion" engendered by t.o., an idea first put forward by Professor Magdelene Vernon; indeed research has suggested that t.o. is not merely in itself difficult for beginners to master, but prejudices children's long-term intellectual development more generally. [11] The great disadvantage of i.t.a., which perhaps more than any other factor prevented its universal and permanent acceptance, is that it augmented the conventional roman alphabet with a significant number of unfamiliar extra symbols. It is to overcome this disadvantage that John Henry Martin [12] and Edward Rondthaler [13] in the U.S.A. have now developed new systems of reformed spelling for initial teaching purposes: apart from Martin's macrons for the five 'long' vowels, they confine themselves to our conventional roman alphabet. The work is being sponsored by I.B.M., and Martin's scheme is already being used in schools by over 300,000 children. The Society would urge the Committee to examine these developments carefully, with a view to recommending such a scheme in the United Kingdom.

8. A non-disruptive spelling reform for schools.

The above spelling systems radically transform t.o. for the limited purpose of teaching the first stages of literacy; they are not designed to reform written English as used in the adult world. The Society recognizes that it is unrealistic to advocate any reform that would entail an overnight upheaval of English spelling, since that would be a recipe for chaos. As Baroness Hooper said, change must be gradual. The Society's view of a realistic reform strategy is that small, relatively uncontroversial and inconspicuous changes should be first introduced to the youngest schoolchildren. It would be possible, for instance, for the Committee to recommend that in future pupils should learn such forms as (in descending order of frequency, down to 400 occurrences per million words): hav, ar, wer, wil, mor, som, befor, wel, peple, stil, thru, com, corse, smal, evry, yung, somthing, askd, giv, hed, scool, eys. Another possibility would be to teach American spellings, most of which are more economical and consistent than their British equivalents: thus mold, molt, ax, adz, worshiped, woolen, wagon, labor, esthetic, maneuver, catalog, program, plow, draft, sulfur, milage, mustache, analyze, check (for cheque); but the adoption of American forms would have less impact on the teaching of beginners than would the simplification of the very common words. Such simplification, entailing little more than the omission of redundant letters, not merely increases the regularity of sound-symbol correspondence, and so makes learning easier, but by shortening words it also makes the physical task of writing less laborious and time-consuming; and, most importantly, children would still be able to read t.o. without extra tuition, since the t.o. forms would merely differ by an additional letter or two. These simplified spellings (unlike the i.t.a. forms) would be the normal forms to be used by the next generation for the rest of their lives, and since they would also save adults time and publishers money, there would be a strong incentive to their rapid adoption outside the educational system, and indeed world-wide. Such changes are conceived as part of a broader reform-strategy known as Cut Spelling, which is outlined in the enclosed explanatory leaflet. But it should finally be pointed out that, unlike a reform that substituted letters in words, reform by the omission of redundant letters would scarcely detract from the richness of the language as feared by many opponents of reform, indeed in many words it would restore historical spellings which were distorted by the early printers.

9. What should teachers and pupils know about t.o.?

Whether or not the Committee feels able to recommend such improvements to the English writing system, its terms of reference require it to recommend what teachers and pupils should know about that writing system. In our view, what they should know ought to increase understanding of the need and potential for the spelling-reform which eventually will have to be introduced (in other words, we think the Committee should actively foster a climate of opinion favourable to future reform). We would suggest that the following items should be borne in mind:

1) We believe that it should be part of the intellectual and cultural equipment of all teachers of reading and writing to know something about how t.o. evolved (D G Scragg's brief A history of English spelling [3] provides an excellent and vivid outline, and at least the 80-odd pages dealing with post-Norman conquest developments should be prescribed reading). At present there is almost total public ignorance on the subject; indeed we would say that this ignorance has been largely responsible for the general unwillingness to contemplate systematic improvements to the writing system in the last two centuries. Most people have no more understanding of the writing system they use (however skilfully) than they understand the chemical composition of the air they breathe. But it is no more possible to combat orthographic pollution without understanding the orthography than to combat air-pollution without understanding the chemistry; orthographic pollution may be less lethal, but it represents a quite unnecessary burden to a literate society, and by quite simple steps (pace Bullock) it could easily be reduced.

2) Teachers involved in teaching beginners to read and rite should understand something of the morphological and phonemic structure of English, and the patterns for its written representation. They would not of course directly pass on such theoretical or analytical insights to their youngest pupils, but the ability of teachers to point out recurrent patterns would help all learners grapple with inconsistencies.

3) This basic knowledge would help primary school teachers to put across the grammatical concepts it was thought their pupils should learn, and give pupils a basis of 'language-awareness' which would be useful to them later in foreign-language study.

4) Possibly at primary, but particularly at secondary level, knowledge of common roots (especially Latin and Ancient Greek) would help expand pupils' vocabulary both in English and in other languages. Such knowledge would also help understanding of such spelling difficulties as why innocent has two <n>s, but inoculate does not, and erratic two <r>s but erotic only one. (However a much better solution to that difficulty would be to simplify all such troubled consonants in English, as Spanish generally does - acomodación - and other languages spasmodically do - une adresse, eine Adresse.)

5) It may also be pointed out that since the decline of traditional grammar-teaching in English there has been a lack of understanding between English and foreign-language teachers. Greater linguistic understanding on the part of English teachers would both help overcome that lack of understanding, and help English-language teachers to appreciate the learning problems of non-native speakers.

10. Conclusion: an opportunity for the Committee.

A reform of English spelling in the interests of literacy and to make the written language a less cumbersome, more efficient medium of communication would be of world-wide benefit. The English-speaking countries stand to gain particularly, not only from the consequent educational improvements at home, but from the increased ability of other countries to use the English language. (In economic terms one would even expect long-term benefits for British trade to arise from the improved ability of non-English-speakers to communicate in English.) The United Kingdom, as the home of the English language, enjoys a unique authority which it could use to initiate such a development. The Simplified Spelling Society believes it has a practical proposal to offer which could be implemented either on a very modest experimental scale initially, or far more sweepingly, to much greater effect. Baroness Hooper accepted that languages change gradually, and we propose that schools should gradually teach children not to write those letters in t.o. whose only present effect is to distort the alphabetic consistency of English Spelling and clutter it with unnecessary characters. The gradualness of such a reform would be such that only after a whole generation had passed would everyone use the new forms - an essential reassurance for those who fear the imposition of strange spellings. We would urge the Committee to take up this question, as similar bodies have done this century for Dutch, French, German, Greek, Spanish and other languages, and make a historic mark for the progress of English by recommending a rigorous examination of the practicality of the Society's suggestions.

11. Enclosures.

We enclose the following documents as background information:
     6 copies of a leaflet on Cut Spelling.
     2 copies of a leaflet on the Society's forthcoming conference.
     2 copies each of the Society's Journal, 1987 No. 1 and No. 2.
More copies of these documents can be supplied on request.

12. Request for a meeting with the Committee.

The Society hopes that the Committee will wish to explore the ideas put forward in this submission by meeting representatives of the Society, both because these ideas have merely been outlined here and can be further elucidated in discussion, and because the Society would value the opportunity to learn directly of the Committee's response to the questions raised.


[1] Department of Education and Science, A LANGUAGE FOR LJFE, Report of the Committee of Inquiry approved by the Secretary of State for Education and Science under the Chairmanship of Sir Alan Bullock F.BA., London: H.M.S.O., 1975, §6.21.

[2] Hansard, HOUSE OF LORDS, Official Report, Vol.485 No.50, 4.3.1987, London: H.M.S.O., pp.683-84.

[3] D G Scragg, A history of English spelling, Manchester University Press, 1974.

[4] C Upward, 'Cut Speling - a Linguistic Universl?' in Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, ISSN 0950-9585, J5 1987/2, pp.17-25, §2.

[5] John Downing, Evaluating the Initial Teaching Alphabet, London: Cassell, 1967.

[6] Noam Chomsky & Maurice Halle, The Sound Pattern of English, New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

[7] John Downing & Che Kan Leong, Psychology of Reading, New York: Macmillan, 1982, p.67 ff.

[8] Geoffrey Sampson, Writing Systems, London: Hutchinson, 1985.

[9] Sir James Pitman & John St John, Alphabets & Reading, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd., 1969.

[10] Walter Ripman & William Archer, New Spelling, London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd., 1948, 6th edition revised by Daniel Jones & Harold Orton.

[11] John Downing, 'The Transfer of Skill in Language Functions' in Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J5 1987/2, pp.5-12, §4.3, reprinted in J28 2000/2 pp.3-11.

[12] John Henry Martin & Ardy Friedberg, Writing to Read, New York: Warner Books Inc., 1986, reviewed in Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J4 1987/1, p.26.

[13] Edward Rondthaler, Dictionary of American Spelling, New York: The American Language Academy, 1986, reviewed in Simplified Spelling Society Newsletter, ISSN 0268-5655, J3 Summer 1986, p.15-16.

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