[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1988/3 pp.23-26 later designated J9]
[See other correspondence with UK and NZ Governments.]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles, Pamflet 15, Cut Spelling and Papers by Chris Upward.]

Submission to the National Curriculum English Working Group
from the Simplified Spelling Society July 1988.

Chris Upward.

1. This submission.

In May 1987 the Simplified Spelling Society submitted a paper on English spelling to the Committee of Inquiry into the Teaching of English Language, and followed it with some comments on the Committee's Report early in June 1988. Now that these comments have been passed on for consideration by the English Working Group, the Society feels that they require to be further developed if they are to be positively useful. Essentially, our comments on the Kingman Report pointed out that it offered an inadequate view of English spelling; but we did not then back up our criticisms with any constructive suggestions. This we now think it incumbent on us to do.

This submission has been compiled by the Editor of the Society's Journal, in consultation with its Chairman and other committee members...

2. The Kingman Report on learning to spell English.

Despite our criticisms of the Report, we are in full agreement with the basic approach to the learning of spelling it puts forward. This approach is founded upon a correct understanding of the way in which alphabetic writing systems operate, and it is epitomised in the following phrases from the Report:

p.7"the alphabet, how it relates to the pronunciation of consonants and vowels"
"the spelling-patterns of English
and how much regularity there is in English spelling"
"the way in which regular plurals and past tenses
are formed in Standard English"
"regular patterns of spelling"
"the relationships between sounds and spelling patterns"
"all languages are rule-governed systems"
"spell correctly"
"understand main correspondences between letters and speech-sounds"
"understand that spelling obeys rules"

The experience of many other languages and of the Initial Teaching Alphabet and similar regular spelling systems for English shows that when spelling is taught by these principles, literacy skills are acquired quickly, reliably and with high motivation. It should be the aim for standard English spelling to be taught by methods which embody these principles too.

3. The irregularity of English spelling.

However, as our comments on the Report made clear, whatever rules and regularities the English spelling system may contain, it is the irregularities that are its most significant feature. In fact the Report's own examples of spelling patterns illustrate this very point most appositely, in that they are mutually contradictory and conflict with the "main correspondences between letters and speech-sounds". Besides recommending principles for teaching spelling, the Report should have considered why it has always proved impossible to apply them effectively to English spelling as we now know it. (The endless sterile debate between the advocates of phonic versus whole-word teaching methods is merely another facet of the same problem.) The present system of spelling is a major obstacle to the acquisition of literacy-skills in English worldwide, and any practical policy for improving proficiency in written English must address this problem.

4. Spelling rules: the example of <-ed>.

Although the Report lists several spelling patterns and repeatedly refers to rules, it does not actually give any examples of rules. It must be understood that not only are the present patterns of English spelling contradictory (which means that learners cannot be sure which pattern to follow), but its present rules are not suitable for teaching. We will now demonstrate this in respect of one of the Report's own recommendations, namely that pupils should understand "the way regular ... past-tenses are formed in Standard English." The following is a quotation from the Oxford University Press's Hart's Rules, which is perhaps the most authoritative source for the writing conventions of British English, and it deals with one aspect of "regular" past-tense formation, namely the doubling of consonants:
Words of one syllable
Those ending with one consonant preceded by one vowel (not counting the u in qu) double that consonant on adding -ed unless it is h, w, x or y. [1] Monosyllabic words not ending with one consonant preceded by one vowel generally do not double the final consonant.

[1] But note bused (in the sense 'transported by bus').

Words of more than one syllable
Those that end with one consonant preceded by one vowel double the consonant on adding -ed, if the last syllable is stressed (but not if the last consonant is w, x, or y). But words of this class not stressed on the last syllable do not double the last consonant on adding -ed, unless the consonant is l. In words ending in l the last consonant [2] is generally doubled whether stressed on the last syllable or not. Exceptions: appealed, paralleled, travailed.

[2] Exceptions are worshipped and words ending in l.
There are a several important observations to be made about this rule:

1. It deals with only one aspect of regular past-tense formation in written English; there are further complications, for instance when the base-form of verbs ends in <e> or <y>.

2. Much (but not all) of this rule applies also to the addition of some other suffixes - but not of all suffixes.

3. Little that children can be taught about the alphabet and sound-symbol correspondences will help them in mastering this rule, whose quite unnecessary complexity should have no place in modern education or in a modem writing system. In fact nearly all regular past tenses in English can be far better represented in writing if simple morphophonemic rules or rules of sound-symbol correspondence are applied, indeed the addition of <-d> to the base form of the verb could in practice be sufficient in nearly all cases. But such regularity cannot be achieved without some simplification of the spellings themselves.

4. Hardly any users have a confident mastery of this rule as it stands. Hart's Rules is itself guilty of inconsistency in describing appealed, travailed as exceptions - they are almost certainly not (or if they are exceptions, then other words like revealed, prevailed are so too), though the wording of the rule is unclear on this point. Similarly the Kingman Report fails to observe the rule in its use of the form focussing: by and large <-ing> endings follow the same rule as <-ed> endings, and focusing would therefore seem to be the required form.

5. 'American' spelling uses a slightly simplified version of the rule that also accords rather better with sound-symbol correspondence. Whereas according to the rule as stated above travelled, compelled have the appearance of rhyming, the American forms traveled, compelled reflect the different pronunciations.

5. English spelling: an evaluation.

Enough has been said, we believe, to show why trying to teach the present spelling rules in schools has always been such a stultifying and frustrating task. We must next ask why English has these rules and whether they are necessary. Sometimes the reason for them is that scholars in past centuries believed that the etymology of words required a particular spelling (these scholars were not infrequently misinformed about the derivation of words, however); and sometimes the rules are systemically interconnected, so the one arbitrary rule is required to prevent confusion with another; but however they may be explained, the present rules do not constitute a global, rational scheme for the written representation of English. (As the Kingman Report implies, such a scheme can only be based on the basic alphabetic principle of consistent sound-symbol correspondence.) More than anything else the present rules are the haphazard product of an unplanned consensus of printers which emerged in the 17th century and which in many cases preferred an esoteric, irregular form to a previously existing simple, regular one (as when debt was preferred to det or ache to ake).

In practice the resulting spellings naturally have an extremely harmful effect on education wherever the English language is taught, and widespread functional illiteracy is the inevitable consequence. Not merely that, but all learners waste incalculable time and effort in attempting to master English spelling, their success is in the vast majority of cases less than it should be, and educational motivation suffers severely. The adverse effects are of course not confined to 'English' as a school subject, but hinder efficient performance in almost all school subjects. In science they obstruct pupils' grasp of specialist terminology; and in foreign languages two-way confusion occurs when pupils encounter randomly different (but often more rational) spellings for the 'same' words in foreign languages: compare English abbreviation, French abréviation; English independent, French indépendent; English accommodation, Spanish acomodación; English build, German bilden; English when, German wenn. Nor are the adverse effects limited to education: the whole process of producing text in English, a key economic and social activity, is a far more cumbersome, erratic, time-consuming and hence expensive task than it need be.

6. A concept for improvement.

The Kingman Report stressed that pupils should learn how language changes in the course of time. While changes in pronunciation and grammar of language occur spontaneously and are scarcely susceptible to social decision, the writing of languages changes by deliberate, planned intervention. However, unlike almost all other languages, English has neglected to modernise its written forms to any significant degree for some 300 years; the biggest change in that period has been the replacement of <ʃ> by <s> nearly 200 years ago (on the initiative of publishers) while almost all other changes, such as shew becoming show, have only affected isolated words.

The Simplified Spelling Society has developed a fund of ideas on planned spelling change which are ripe for public discussion. The Society does not believe there can be anything like a panacea for the whole problem, and it is conscious of severe practical constraints on the steps that can be taken. Nevertheless, it does appear that within these constraints very substantial improvements can quite straightforwardly be made to the written form of English, to the immediate benefit of British education and the longer-term benefit of alphabetic communication in English worldwide.

The basic concept is very simple. As time passes, the ideas, information and systems taught to children in schools have to be updated to keep pace with the developing state of knowledge and the needs of society. We no longer oblige children to calculate in many of the old imperial weights and measures, nor in the pre-decimal currency (certainly not in rods, roods, poles, perches, chains, furlongs, nor in farthings, shillings and guineas, and scarcely in pints, quarts, gallons, or inches, feet, yards, or ounces, pounds, stones, tons); the educational, practical and economic benefits of teaching children to operate in the rational, predictable metric and decimal systems are self-evidently enormous. Our writing system is just another system of notation like these, only inherently far more complex, and because it has been allowed to become so antiquated, it is also far more difficult to master and use. Our present understanding of the English language, writing systems in general, and the psychology of literacy-skills, has advanced centuries beyond the time when the Present English spelling system took shape. We do not teach children human biology in terms of the four humours, or chemistry in terms of the philosopher's stone; but we still teach English spelling in terms no less antiquated. It is a matter of educational responsibility and priority to stop teaching ancient rules and patterns which have no logical or linguistic justification, and which we know work to the psychological and educational detriment of our children.

7. A range of options.

This paper is not the place to present detailed proposals, but at least some concrete possibilities must be outlined to show the kind of spelling improvements that can be considered. Underlying them all are the principles recommended in the Kingman Report, namely that English spelling should be taught (as it cannot effectively be today) by means of manageable rules, regularities, patterns and sound-symbol correspondences. Our proposed options are not intended as rigid categories with a fixed content to each, but are merely suggestive of some general approaches. They are listed roughly in order of disturbance to the familiar system and of benefit to be expected, i.e. the first option is the least disturbing and the least beneficial, and the last option is the most disturbing and yet (so some would argue) the most beneficial. It will be apparent that the options listed overlap at many points.


Adopt most American spellings.

 Where these differ from the present British forms, they are mostly more regular, more economical, and reflect sound-symbol correspondences better. One example: children should no longer be taught to write words like favour as though they rhymed with devour, but in the American style as favor, so that they parallel words like terror (which in 1755 Dr Johnson still wrote as terrour). Such a reform would also overcome a major present inconvenience in world English, which requires different spellings to be learnt according to geography.


Simplify the most common irregular spellings.

 Beginners are particularly confused by the aberrant spelling of many very common words. Thus are is spelt as though it rhymes with bare and not with bar, were is spelt as though it rhymes with here rather than with her, and have is spelt as though it rhymes with cave rather than with lav. The spelling of about 60 of the 200 most common words in the language could easily be simplified, along the lines of ar, wer, hav, to parallel regularly spelt words containing the same sounds.


Regularise the spelling patterns that cause most difficulty.

 A study of spelling mistakes shows that a very large number of errors are caused by letters that are redundant in terms of sound-symbol correspondence (in fact more than 10% of all letters used). These letters fall into three main categories: 1) many are silent letters like the <s> in island; 2) many are vowel letters with final <l, m, n, r>, as in principle, principal, petrel, petrol; madam, tandem, random, carborundum; rotten, cotton, assistant, consistent; centre, enter, doctor, harbour, murmur, injure, martyr; 3) many are doubled consonants, as in accommodate. Removing these redundant letters does not greatly alter the appearance of words, but it improves the regularity, sound-symbol correspondence, speed of writing and general economy of the system. This approach can incidentally also reduce the present complex rule for past-tense formation to one of the utmost simplicity.


Regularise the spelling of selected sounds.

 Although the spelling of vowels in English is generally much more problematic than that of consonants, changing their letters is often difficult: firstly because there may be no agreement as to the sound that should be represented (thus there is no agreement as to whether your is a homophone of ewer or of yore); and secondly because changing vowel-letters often changes the appearance of words quite radically, even making them unrecognisable (if children were taught wunce, for example, they would be unable to read once). A few of the most troublesome consonant spellings on the other hand can be regularised with much less difficulty: for instance, the sound of <f> could regularly be written <f> instead of <gh, ph> (cof, tuf, fotograf); the sound of <j> could regularly be written <j> instead of <g, dg, dj> (jem, brij, ajust); the sound of <k> could regularly be written <k> instead of <c, ch, ck, cq, q, qu> (kat, kemist, lok, akuire, kuestion, moskito).

These four options are listed merely to illustrate some possibilities; selections and combinations from amongst them will suggest further alternatives; and of course radically different spelling changes are also conceivable, though in our view far less easy to implement.

8. Psychological, practical and political factors.

To the public at large the suggestion of any kind of spelling reform will appear a novel and daring suggestion, though to judge from a preliminary survey by the Society's Chairman ( ... published ... in the 1988/2 issue of the Society's Journal it would be well received by many people. Nevertheless, a spelling reform would need to be accompanied by various reassurances, for instance that
The reform would need to be designed so that adult users (above all, teachers and certain text-producers) could be cheaply, quickly and effectively trained in its use. It would be important to ensure compatibility between the old and new spellings, so that no problems arose from their concurrent use. The international dimension would also have to be taken into account: under no circumstances could Britain embark on spelling changes that would not be self-evidently beneficial to the rest of the world too, so providing an incentive for international adoption of the reform.

The political dimension is probably the most sensitive. Normally, spelling reforms have the official support of ministries of education, but when this has been called for in Britain in the past (e.g. 1923, 1933, 1953), it has not been forthcoming. (And perhaps wisely so, as the kind of spelling reform proposed earlier this century for English now appears unrealistically radical and lacking in a practical sense of how it would be implemented.) Since then the experience of the Initial Teaching Alphabet has shown that government support is not necessarily a prerequisite for spelling developments; furthermore the pedagogic success of the i.t.a., the substantial research it gave rise to, and the lessons of its recent decline all provide a much sounder foundation for future reform proposals.

The situation today is in many pertinent respects very different from that of the first half of this century. English is a world language, the level of relevant linguistic and psychological understanding is of an altogether higher order, literacy in English is more important than ever before, and educational demands are constantly rising. Furthermore criteria of economic efficiency today have new pre-eminence, value for money is as important in education as in business, the present spelling system of English is demonstrably wasteful of human and non-human resources, and the present British government has shown itself capable of radical initiatives embodying these criteria in education as elsewhere.

The time for reform is perhaps riper today than it has ever been in this country. The opportunity should be pursued.

9. A recommendation.

We urge the English Working Group for the National Curriculum seriously to consider the ideas contained in this submission and in the Simplified Spelling Society's two previous submissions. The plan for a National Curriculum is giving a positive and original thrust to education policy in this country and offers a rare opportunity for radical ideas to be considered. While we fully realise that in the time allowed for the Working Group to report it cannot do justice to such far-reaching proposals as we are making, we nevertheless hope that their importance will be recognised, and a recommendation made for them to be further explored in a more substantial manner than we as a Society can attempt solely from our own resources. (We note, incidentally, the recommendation in the Kingman Report Ep.66, §151 that a National Language Project be set up; perhaps our ideas might be suitable for consideration in this context.)

The Working Group has a historic opportunity to help written English to take a step, however small, towards its centuries-overdue modernisation, and we hope it will at least show a positive interest in the possibility. We very much look forward to receiving its response, and would be glad to provide further information in writing or attend in person for discussion of the Society's ideas.

Back to the top.