[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1988/2, p21-23 later designated J8]
[Chris Upward: see Journals, Newsletters, Leaflets, Media, Pamflet 15, Book, Papers
and about Kingman & Cox Reports.]

Points of Debate: Commenting on Kingman.

Chris Upward.

In the autumn of 1986 the Secretary of State for Education and Science, the Rt. Hon. Kenneth Baker, MP, set up a Committee of Inquiry into English Language Teaching, chaired by Sir John Kingman, Vice-Chancellor of Bristol University. In the Society's 1987 No.3 Journal (pp.8-12) we printed the Committee's terms of reference, along with the Society's submission to it. The Committee's Report was published in March 1988 (obtainable from HMSO bookshops for £4.50) and the Society was invited to submit comments, which we now print below together with the accompanying letter.

Accompanying Letter.

HMI Mr Peter Gannon
Secretary to the Committee of Inquiry in English Language Teaching
Department of Education and Science

Dear Mr Gannon

We were glad to receive the Report of the Committee of inquiry into the Teaching of English Language and would like to comment on the aspect with which we as a Society are chiefly concerned.

We are pleased to see that the Report reflects some of the recommendations made in our submission. However we find that it overstates the regularity of English spelling and ignores the serious concomitant educational problems. What the Report says may apply to a language like Spanish, but it is inadequate for English, which is recognised as having the most irregular writing system of all languages that use the Roman alphabet. While we agree that teachers should be aware of and exploit such regularities as do occur in English, we think it essential for them also to be aware of the irregularities. It is above all important to understand that it is neither the stupidity and laziness of pupils nor the incompetence of teachers that are to blame for poor spelling in English. Poor spelling is the inevitable result of the antiquated, unplanned writing system we now have.

We attach a paper giving more detailed comments of the Report's statements on spelling, which we hope can be taken into account in future deliberations. We would add that we are informed by representatives of the i.t.a. Federation and the British Dyslexia Association that they generally share our view of the inadequacy of the Report's treatment of English spelling.

Since we also hope we may be able to make some useful contributions to the English Working Group for the National Curriculum, we would be glad to receive a copy of the relevant Press Notice which gives details of it and any other information that we may require for that purpose.

Yours sincerely,

For the Simplified Spelling Society
Christopher Jolly, Chairman
Christopher Upward, Journal Editor

Detailed Comments from the Simplified Spelling Society on the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Teaching of Language

On pp.55-56 the Report recommends attainment targets for spelling at age 7 as follows: "1. Understand main correspondences between letters and speech-sounds, 5. Spell common words correctly, Understand that spelling obeys rules." This view of English spelling as essentially regular pervades the whole Report, but unfortunately it reflects neither the systemic nor the psychological realities of the writing system.

The systemic realities are as follows: there is no agreement on how many speech-sounds the English language should be described as possessing; over 10% of the letters used in English spelling have no corresponding speech-sound or are arbitrarily superfluous to its representation (e.g. <b> in debt, < c, m> in accommodate); not all English speech-sounds have a recognised spelling correspondence (/ʒ/ does not); most vowels and some consonants have numerous unpredictably competing spelling correspondences (one listing gives over 600 spellings for 38 speech-sounds, but even larger numbers have been claimed); not only the letters but also many graphemic combinations (e.g. <ough>) have to be mastered; and overall the system is characterised by a high degree of irregularity that affects common words especially (e.g. one, two, who).

To tell 7 year olds that spelling obeys rules and at the same time to expect them to spell common words correctly is psychologically far too sophisticated an approach for that age group, indeed perhaps for any age group. How are 7 year olds to reconcile the spellings of common words with the notion that spelling is governed by rules? The i.t.a. experience shows that it is perfectly possible, indeed psychologically highly beneficial, to teach beginners to write by spelling rules. But this cannot be combined with teaching 'correct' spellings, as the term is conventionally understood.

The truth is that the system is antiquated and not designed in accordance with rules that learners can readily grasp. There is only one spelling rule applicable to alphabetic orthographies: it is that there should be predictable correspondences between letters and sounds; but in the infinitely rich tapestry that is the English writing system, that basic rule is only sporadically apparent.

The Report's implication that English spelling can be mastered simply by learning rules is at variance with centuries of experience and with a proper analysis of how the system operates. While sets of spelling patterns can be helpful, they frequently contradict each other (as the Report's own examples demonstrate) and are rarely reliable, so that ultimately a very large number of spellings have to be learnt individually. Even Margaret Donaldson's warning on p.67 of the Report that it "will inevitably take a child some time to learn all the sets of correspondences" misses the point. Even if the child learns the 600 or so correspondences, that will be of little help in spelling real words. The result is that very large numbers of children never achieve an acceptable level of competence and even university graduates are mostly prone to quite frequent errors. Quite simply, the system is unsuitable for the aim of universal literacy.

An important reason why the Report does not face up to this problem is that it never defines orthographic "regularity". As a result it becomes involved in the kind of confusion exemplified on p.34, §5, where it is stated that the pupil Ann's "spelling errors show that she has begun to comprehend the patterns of English spelling". The context suggests that the author of this statement was unaware of the profound truth it contains: when Ann writes gardon, she is showing she knows that this pattern is perfectly possible in English (e.g. pardon), but that there is no rule saying that in this word it is inappropriate, so that unless she has learnt the individual spelling, she has to make a random guess. Just how inadequate such patterns are as a guide to English spelling we shall now show by closer analysis of some of the Report's more detailed statements on spelling.

On p.20, §7 calls for "A systematic appreciation of the writing system of English" as "an informed basis for considering such matters as: ... how much regularity there is in English spelling: sound-spelling relations in English (e.g. hop/hope, rat/rate, sit/site)...". But while appreciation of such patterns as hop/hope is very important, it has to be seen alongside the use of <o> in such forms as come, gone, soap, toes, go, holy, yolk, gross, patrol where the pattern does not apply. Furthermore, teachers at least should be aware that the spelling pattern of hope is psychologically problematic, especially for beginners, because although English is normally written from left to right, the reader here has to register the extreme right-hand letter before the pronunciation of the main vowel two letters to its left can be determined; in other words the reader has to operate simultaneously from left to right and from right to left. This pattern is a source of real difficulty for beginners, and has widespread disruptive effects elsewhere in the writing system that cause publishers and printers inconvenience and expense.

P.20, §7, also points to "word-pattern spellings in English (e.g. electric, electricity, electrician, where the spelling of the stem electric remains the same, though c is pronounced differently in each word)". However in terms of regular sound-symbol correspondence these patterns are instances of irregularity, not regularity, and if pupils are taught, as the Report recommends, the "main correspondences between letters and speech-sounds", their first instinct should be to write perhaps electrik, electrisity, electrishn. And if it does occur to pupils to apply the word-pattern technique, they also have to know of the pitfalls: that in many cases the technique breaks down (technical, technician are no guide to technique, speech is no guide to speak, comparative is no guide to comparison etc), and indeed that <c> in general is a particularly volatile letter, with word-patterns failing to operate in such cases as mouse/mice, defence/defensive, advice/advise, mechanic/mechanism, and with even subtler distinctions necessary between practice/practise. Furthermore, the word-pattern of electric, electricity is merely one possible alternative to sound-symbol correspondence for determining the spelling of electrician (and its logic might even be taken too far if it led to electrify being spelt electricy). Pupils can also resort to the technique of matching the sound in different words, in which case there is a choice of for instance electricean, electrician, electricion, electrishion, electrission, electrisian, electrition. Worse still, there are many cases where even a combination of word-pattern and sound-pattern techniques breaks down: face/facial, race/racial are no guide to space/spatial, palace/palatial. In short pupils have no way of knowing which technique, if any, can be used.

The word-pattern electric, electricity, electrician not merely exemplifies an irregularity. It also offers an object lesson in language change, showing how a writing system becomes more irregular over time unless it is periodically modernised. (And here we regret that more attention was not paid in the Report to the historical development of English spelling, since it is here rather than in "rules" that the secrets of the system are to be explained.) Thus formerly the pronunciation of the second <c> in electric was distinguished from that in electricity by an additional <k>, giving electrick; but under American influence the <k> dropped out of use in the nineteenth century. And originally the <c> in the ending <-ician> would have had the same value as it has in electricity, but in the course of time most post-accentual <ci> sequences have been assimilated into the palatalised pronunciation we most commonly hear today (as in special, but only partially or sometimes not at all in speciality).

But that is not the end of the complications inherent in this particular group of words. The consonant patterns exemplified in electric, electricity, electrician are merely a small section of a much longer string of ambiguous, overlapping sound-symbol correspondences in English, stretching from <q> at one extreme, through <k, c, s> in the middle, and arriving at <z> at the other extreme, but including an even larger variety of di- and trigraphs such as <qu, ch, sh, cz, sch> etc. as well. Considering just <c> here, we note a few of its different functions in cat, cell, cello, musician, child, acquire, and there is a similar bewildering variety of ways in which the sound of the second <c> in electrician can be spelt: <c, ce, ch, chs, ci, s, sc, sch, sh, si, ss, su, ti> and, in conjunction with the sound /k/, by <x>.

All this, and much much more, we currently expect learners to master. It is inevitably a time-consuming, frustrating process crowned with limited success. Many of the difficulties could in fact be quite simply removed, but until such time as they are, it is important that teachers at least have a sound appreciation of the system as it now is.

Overemphasis on rules on the other hand will encourage a shallow, simplistic approach that does not begin to take account of the real complexity of the system.

We will now briefly explain why we think some of the Report's other references to spelling are similarly inadequate.

On p.20 the Report says "the way grammatical words in English tend to have shorter spelling patterns than full lexical words which sound the same (but/butt, by/bye, in/inn, no/know, nor/gnaw, not/knot, so/sew, to/two, etc.)". Such an observation is no more useful than to remark that insects are smaller than mammals; and there are exceptions: with the pairs some/sum, whether/wether for instance the grammatical word is the longer of the two. Whether this 'rule' is of any help to the learner must be very doubtful, since the difference between grammatical and lexical words is by no means always clear. Furthermore there is an earlier and simpler explanation for these spelling patterns which a child could more readily apply: commoner words are usually shorter.

P.20, §8 refers to "the regular patterning of word forms in English (so that one recognises that tsetse is a relatively recent borrowing from another language since it does not fit into the regular patterns)". Presumably it is the spelling of tsetse that is here being alluded to; but in that case, as we have already seen, the idea of the regular patterning of English word forms does beg some fundamental questions. However if it is here being suggested that common spelling patterns acquired from other languages are worth studying, then, priorities permitting, we would agree.

P.20, §8: "the way in which regular plurals and past tenses are formed in English, and the patterning among the so-called irregular forms (e.g. drink/drank/drunk... )". Again, it is not clear whether it is the written or spoken forms that are being referred to here, but it should be pointed out that the spellings of the "irregular" drink/drank/drunk are entirely regular, whereas the rules for spelling the "regular" <-ed> past tense forms are unnecessarily complex, or even uncertain (what is the past tense of to benefit or to bias?), (and a source of frequent error.

- "regular patterns of spelling ... among derived words which contain the same stem (e.g. declaim-declamation)". This pattern directly conflicts with the word-pattern 'rule', which would require the spelling declaimation. Again, how can children learn which rule to apply? Misspellings such as pronounciation are a common result of this confusion.

P.20: "the ways in which compound words are formed in English (e.g. sunrise, birth control, window-cleaner) and the conventions applying to writing them as one word or two, and whether or not to use a hyphen". This is perhaps the area in which fewest conventions exist, to the great chagrin of publishers and lexicographers. Usage also changes, so that the form to day then became to-day and except among the oldest writers is now normally today.

P.30, Fig.4: "Children gradually acquire the forms of language... Whereas some aspects of acquisition are fairly rapid (most children have acquired a full range of vowels and consonants by the time they are 6 or 7), other aspects develop much later (for example, control of spelling patterns and conventions of punctuation)". We would stress that this statement relates to learning English spelling, and not to more regular writing systems which are quickly acquired. We would also question the analogy between learning English spelling and learning speech-sounds: the latter will be fully achieved in all normal cases, whereas the former will only be imperfectly mastered in most cases. Mastery of English spelling is not part of the natural process of maturation, but depends on a great deal of conscious learning and a good memory, and in all too many cases fails to produce "control".

P.37, §13: "Through the use of word-processors pupils ... will begin to talk about the appropriate... spelling." We wonder what the evidence for this expectation is. When a spelling corrector is available, word-processors discourage concern for correct spelling, just as the use of calculators discourages proficiency in mental arithmetic. For other reasons too we would expect computers if anything to accelerate the abandonment of traditional spelling: they encourage the use of abbreviations, acronyms, neologisms and more regular American spellings (they have not however yet resolved the question of how to spell disc/disk).

P.52, p.55: We think it is only realistic that correct English spelling should be an attainment target for both age 16 and age 11, but we think that if the Report had considered why failure at age 11 is taken for granted, some of its basic assumptions would have had to be called into question.

We recognise that the Committee was hardly likely to consider our preferred solution to the problem (simplifying spellings) as falling within its remit. However, we were surprised that the Committee's Report did not even acknowledge that a problem exists, suggesting instead that regularity is a useful feature of the English spelling system. We therefore felt it necessary to write and correct some of the misconceptions that appeared to underlie this view. If the Report is to serve as an effective foundation for the work of the English Working Group for the National Curriculum with regard to spelling, it must recognise the difficulties that children and teachers face in real life. We therefore hope that our comments will be communicated to the Working Group.

Finally, to put our comments in a fuller context, we will close with an analogy: an unnecessary educational burden was removed by the reform of the British currency and Imperial weights and measures; a much greater burden could be lifted by judiciously simplifying English spelling. We urge the Working Party to reflect on this and take appropriate advice.

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