[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1987/3 p7 later designated J6]
[See SSS International Conferences 1 to 5.]
Also on this page: UKRA conference 1987.

The Fifth International Conference of the Simplified Spelling Society.

A Report in Brief. Christopher Upward.

The Simplified Spelling Society held its Fifth International Conference at Aston University's James Gracie Conference Centre in Birmingham 24-26 July 1987. Conference papers will appear in the Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society in 1988, J7, J8, J9.


The Society picked a rare fine weekend in a grey summer to hold its 1987 conference in the agreeable James Gracie Conference Centre, with its trim lawns, mature trees, and comfortable part-modem, part-victorian-mansion buildings. Excellent food and friendly, helpful staff complemented the surroundings and provided a pleasantly relaxed environment conducive to the fruitful exchange of ideas and experience.


The conference theme Spelling for Efficiency itself implies certain concept of the purpose of spelling: spelling for use. In other words, spelling less as an abstract system of sound-symbol correspondence, than as a system that people have to learn and then make use of for the highly practical purpose of communication, whether as receivers or as transmitters of messages. The need to consider the spelling of English, of all languages, in this perspective, arises from its international function: not merely is it used by hundreds of millions of native speakers with very different accents (which itself rules out any straightforward sound-symbol correspondence), but it is also learnt by even more non-native speakers for communication around the world, and their needs are scarcely less important. The benefits of a regular system have been shown from the experience with teaching orthographies like i.t.a. and Writing to Read and in other languages (Hungarian, for instance). But how to get from the present fragmented mosaic of English spelling to a lucidly and logically patterned system is the problem that has defeated spelling-reformers in the past. It is not only teachers and linguists who today have an interest in and a vital contribution to make to the question, but publishers, printers, lexicographers, psychologists and business people who have perhaps the most rigorous concept of efficiency of all. The conference theme was intended as a focus for these many facets of the question.


And if the facets of the question were varied, so were the participants, even though their numbers were small. They ranged from young researchers in computational linguistics and experimental psychology to established professionals with many decades' experience in typography, printing, publishing, lexicography, editing (among whom the dynamic veteran New York typographer Ed Rondthaler must be mentioned by name); they included speakers of many languages of eastern, western and northern Europe and beyond to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent-not to mention speakers of English of the American, English, Indian and Scots varieties; there were teachers of English to native-speaking children, to teenage backward readers, to adult illiterates, to foreign learners, and to other teachers; there were information scientists, translators, administrators and historians versed in the techniques of paleography. By no means all arrived convinced of the case for simplifying English spelling, but more left convinced than arrived.


The papers and other contributions reflected this deliberate diversity. Dr Tom McArthur launched the proceedings after dinner on the Friday evening by linking the minutiae of letters to the whole history of civilisation, showing how technological advances in their use had transformed mankind's view of itself. On the Saturday Drs Fletcher and Upton demonstrated the haphazard evolution of our present spellings as manifested in the writing of Oxford dons 350 years ago. Dr Adam Brown drew on experience and research of foreign learners to consider the effect different mother tongues had on the ability to master English spelling. David Stark considered the relation between phonemes in different accents and ways of overcoming the limited potential of the alphabet to represent their variations. Ronald Threadgall gave a rousing account of the rewards of teaching literacy by the Initial Teaching Alphabet. Patrick Hanks described a non-alphabetic hazard of English spelling, namely the aggravation caused in publishing by the uncertainty over the use of the hyphen in English. Professor Knowles' polyglot analysis of the different spelling habits of the related languages of eastern Europe highlighted the fundamental issue of whether spelling should respect basic roots of words or reflect their variations. John Kerr gave an insight into the laboratory of experimental psychology and its findings on reading speed. Chris Jolly presented the unexpectedly favourable responses he had obtained in a marketing survey of attitudes towards spelling reform. Chris Upward described some uncertainties of Cut Spelling, which participants then discussed in a workshop session. Professor Nyikos demonstrated a technique for raising public awareness of the inconsistency of English spelling by alliterative saturation bombardment. And finally Professor Gregersen warned against the pitfalls of an inadequately thought-out series of staged reforms, with examples taken particularly from the Norwegian experience.


The conference ended with a discussion of the Society's future strategy. Ongoing work on the revision of 'New Spelling' as a complete reform scheme and the development of Cut Spelling as a first stage was to continue toward publication, while contacts with other organisations, particularly in the literacy field, were to be furthered.

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1987/3 p13 later designated J6.]
[Alun Bye: see Journals, Newsletters, Bulletin.]

UKRA Conference 1987.

Alun Bye, Treasurer of the Simplified Spelling Society, Consultant Teacher for children with specific learning difficulties and UKRA branch chairman for Northamptonshire, attended the 1987 conference of the United Kingdom Reading Association, held at Cramond College, Edinburgh from 27-31 July 1987, and here reports on significant aspects of its programme.
One of life's aphorisms must be that conference accommodation is generally rather basic in order to keep costs down. As I grow into middle age, while still appreciating the academic content and the opportunity to meet teachers and lecturers from all over the world, I look forward less each year to the prospect of shared ablutions, uncomfortable beds, noisy corridors and mediocre food. At Cramond this year the President Christine Anderson was magnificent, the food was wonderful and in great abundance, but the beds were so hard and narrow it had more in common with a rigorous retreat at a medieval monastery than a 20th century hall of residence.

The academic and professional content seemed more of a mixed bag than usual, and one might be forgiven for getting a faint suspicion that opinions were occasionally polarising between the traditionalists and the trendies, or the direct instructionists and the storyists. Storyism, as it was called, has nothing to do with a Conservative approach to education, but is a way of teaching children to read using so-called 'real books'. A 'real book' is, to a storyist, any kind of book chosen by the children for its interest and enjoyment, so long as it does not constitute part of a conventional reading scheme, such as Ladybird, Janet and John, Reading 360, etc. So reading schemes, many of which contain some excellent stories, are out of fashion, and storybooks or 'real books' are in. Storyism is thus yet another unproven bandwagon upon which a significant proportion of teachers and Local Education Authorities have clambered, apparently oblivious to its circular destination. Any claim that the 'real books' approach is any more effective than conventional reading schemes is based on very flimsy evidence, and is stoutly contested by no less a scholar than Dr Roger Beard of Leeds University. It was reassuring to hear his calm, steady voice of reason clarifying and informing this often emotional debate.

Little serious attention was devoted to spelling this year, with just a few notable exceptions. Such a one was a well-attended demonstration by Dr David Moseley of Newcastle University, whose ACE (Aurally Coded English) Spelling Dictionary (which he presented in embryonic form at the 1985 SSS Conference in Southampton) was greeted with fascinated enthusiasm. At another session Anne Robinson spoke on children's invented spelling, explaining how children generate their own rule-bound spelling system with such universal consistency throughout the English-speaking world that their attempts can be categorized into certain developmental stages. The natural logic of children's invented spelling is a phenomenon which I think the SSS has paid too little heed to in the past. However, now with growing interest in the developmental stages of spelling acquisition, we really should try to inform ourselves fully of the process, and examine the ways in which we might improve our quest towards an acceptable system of spelling reform. It might help us to resolve something of the apparent stalemate between Nue Speling (no child would ever naturally spell new that way - more likely niw or nyuw) and Cut Spelling (children who in their wordsworthian wisdom prefer gow and gowing to go and going may find some cuts too economical).

Fergus McBride offered a valiant lecture entitled What! Phonics? What Phonics? which brought to mind many a discussion at SSS conferences. It was a pity there were not more people to hear him, but unfortunately this probably reflects the current lack of popularity of this sort of reductionist approach to literacy, as opposed to, the shiny new storyism - not so new in the USA, apparently, where it was tried, tested and discarded in favour of a more structured system some 10 to 15 years ago.

Other noteworthy presentations included that of Jessie Reid and Joan Low (Link Up Reading Scheme). Jessie received an Honorary Life Membership award for her long years of service to teaching literacy. The Sue Palmer and Peter Brinton duo were dynamic in their call for a return to the basics and to bring back grammar, making it meaningful and fun to learn. Ms Palmer is a supporter of the notion of spelling reform, but confided to me she was not enamoured of Cut Spelling. Katharine Perera was impeccable as ever in considering what we can learn from listening to children reading aloud, and Joy Leich (NELP) enthralled an appreciative audience with her descriptions of the reading and spelling difficulties of e.g. West Indian children whose dialect would tend to lead them to spell cat as kyat, and stairs as styars or stiars.

The plenary session speakers were somewhat monochrome in their devotion to psycholinguistic theories, creative self-expression in children, storyism, and not a little airy-fairyism. Professor Ian Michael (London University Institute of Education) told us that historically a rules-based approach to spelling was unsatisfactory. "A thoughtful minority of teachers did not approve..." he said. Nigel Hall wondered whether animals could read and write, and quoted Dylan Thomas to prove they could. Keith Gardner (Nottingham University) defined teaching paradoxically as "making children aware of what they already know", and Professor Margaret Clarke (Birmingham University) confirmed that children are creative, but asserted that one's spelling is only important if it is so bad one cannot read it oneself. Which only goes to prove, I suppose, the truth of the old adage: "If Profs. and Dons were pros and cons, we'd have no need of thinkers."

There was some mention of élitism in the air, variously as it related to children, teachers, and not least to certain members of the national council. Thankfully, élitism is not an issue within the SSS. Perhaps we are too small an Organisation for such fragmentary controversy to arise. For this blessing, and that of consistently good, well-informed speakers, and superior accommodation facilities, perhaps the SSS should be grateful for small conferences.

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