OUP survey and SSS member responses.

The Daily Telegraph. Wednesday, September 4, 2002. page 7.
Children are wizard at 'tabloid spelling' by Sally Pook

Today's children are a generation of "tabloid spellers", not hesitating when asked to write the name David Beckham but at a loss when it comes to Jane Austen or William Shakespeare.

According to a survey by Oxford University Press of more than 400 children aged 10 to 12, understanding words associated with popular culture - such as "metatarsal", the small bone in the foot that Beckham broke before the World Cup, or spelling "Hogwarts", the wizard school in the Harry Potter books - often present few problems.

However, children struggle with common, everyday words such as "favourite" or "parliament".

Vineeta Gupta, the senior editor of Oxford Children's Dictionaries, said: "We were surprised at how many children had managed to spell even quite difficult words correctly if they had a connection with popular culture that caught their imagination.

"Nearly 15 per cent, for example, could spell metatarsal - a word almost unheard of before Beckham's fitness problems - but only 11 percent managed millennium.

And while it wasn't surprising that only 10 per cent could spell mystique, a whopping 37 per cent assumed that it could only mean the girl band Mis-teeq, which they did spell correctly."

OUP said the poll might fuel concern about the influence of "trash culture", but added that the findings were positive in that they showed what children could do when they were interested.

"Battle Droid", for example, a word that originates from the Star Wars films, was spell correctly by two-thirds of the children. Words associated with football, such as "squad" and "defender", did equally well.

But only eight per cent knew how to spell the name of Jane Austen. And Shakespeare - although having several historical variations - was believed by some children to be two words.

Ms Gupta said: "We expected results to reflect current sessions, but were surprised at how the spelling of common everyday words suffered in comparison."

Nick Seaton, the chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said the survey showed that the government's national literacy strategy was not working as it should.

"Popular culture is having much more influence on young people and the teaching they are getting in primary schools, and this clearly needs to be remedied," he said. "Children are not getting the knowledge that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives."

Spelling quiz. Per cent spelt correctly

Hogwarts85David Beckham80 Squad78
Defender77Battle droid 66 Theatre62
Favourite58Eighth 56 Application55
Shakespeare32Parliament28 Edinburgh 24
Metatarsal15Playwright 13 Millennium 11
Mystique10Jane Austen 8Personnel 7

Christchurch Press, New Zealand

[September 13]
Sir - Normally we can be good at what interests us, or is easy.

Because the words interested them, children in the Oxford University Press's survey (September 5) surprised by spelling hogwarts and metatarsal, both partly logical and easy to memorize. Not many memorized playwright or mystique. Logic was of little help.

Potential contestants in next year's US National Spelling Bee are now memorizing words such as kittel, aition, and giaour. Only some will remember them, even tho all want to.

Memory is an inefficient way to learn spelling. Learning each word individually takes time, with no guarantee that it can be recalled when needed.

Logic is a much better method. Learn the basics, and unknown words can be tackled confidently, without having to be committed to memory.

Unfortunately, in English it doesn't work well. When we upgrade our spelling, it will.


[September 17]
Sir - When will the Simplified Spelling Society realise that it is not the spelling of words that is wrong or doesn't work, it is that over time the pronunciation has changed.

When the English language was first being written down 1000 years ago, the words were spelt as they sounded (as advocated by the Simplified Spelling Society).

A knight was a "Kaa-nig-hit", plough rhymed with stuff, as rough still does. Even by Shakespeare's time words were spelled according to the pronunciation of the writer.

Just eemajieen threein ti reeed ae bik reeteen bein staarlieeen.


[September 19]
[In a few words] Ken Clark (September 17) is concerned that spelling reformers don't understand that English spelling and pronunciation have drifted apart over the last 1000 years. We knew that. We also believe that it would be easier to respell 'knight' as, say, 'nyt' than to repronounce it as 'cniht', which then meant youth.

- IAN HUNTER, SSS member.

[September 19]
Sir - Of course the Simplified Spelling Society realizes that our spelling reflects original pronunciation. Is Ken Clark advocating we change pronunciation to match spelling? Good luck to him!

It is easier to change spelling. Among the languages that have done so in the past century are Afrikaans, Albanian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, German (recently), Greek, Hebrew, Irish, Malay/Indonesian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, Vietnamese.

English last did so when Samuel Johnson published his dictionary in 1755, and Noah Webster published his in 1828.

The proliferation of English pronunciations (some caused by dysfunctional spelling) now precludes an orthografy fully reflecting pronunciation. However, spelling can be made regular.

Not only does this make sense, it also makes learning to read and write easier. We anguish over literacy levels, and spend a lot on educational resources to improve them. Regular spelling will help in that.


[September 20]
The trend towards simplified spelling seems to be another symptom of the laziness inherent in modern society. But those of us who can still be bothered to make an effort should take heart in the belief that the same people must eventually become so lazy that they will no longer bother to breed and, sooner or later, be responsible for their own extinction.


[September 25]
[In a few words] I presume that Brent Higgison, not being one of us "lazy" spelling buffs but an admirer of the old ways, wrote his letter with a quill pen, sealed the envelope with wax, jumped on his horse and rode post haste to the office of The Press to deliver it. Or did he use a computer, typewriter, or ball pen? Old ways aren't always best.


[September 30]
Sir - As my horse stands ready for another mad dash, I would like to respond to Allan Campbell (September 25).

I switched to an electronic typewriter several years ago, then only because quill pens were becoming so hard to find.

I am all for progress, but simplified spelling seems to suggest that the development of the language might, some day soon, draw to a grinding halt. Is this a matter of drastically shortening the length of the marathon so that even the most lethargic of us has a chance of winning?

If that is the case, it is not difficult to imagine that we might end up perusing each edition of The Press while huddled together in a cave.


[October 2]
[In a few words] Brent Higgison can relax, as the language and spelling develop on slightly different paths. But English-speaking children develop their reading and writing skills at a much slower rate compared to many non-English-speaking countries. The only lethargy I see is in the continuation of such an inefficient spelling ssystem.


[October 3]
[In a few words] I am not advocating changing pronunciation to match spelling, only to point out that a living language is always changing and evolving, so any rules are going to be outdated very quickly. When it comes to a spooible respell of knight as "nyt" - is tat "y" a shote "i" as in Egypt, or an "i" as in by, or an "e" as in lonely, or a "y" as in your. Possible pronunciations of this nyt are nit, net, and nyet.


[October 3]
Sir - There are good reasons to simplify English, but I suspect reform would kill it as a written language.

For all its sins, English is a rapaciously acquisitive repository of history, in both spelling and grammar. If we were allowed to write it as we spoke it, in no time at all the residents of Cardiff, Calcutta, Kingston, Cleveland, Kowloon, or Kaukapakapa would no longer be able to write to each other. Heaven knows, they have enough problems conversing.

Without the anchor of the past, and with no central authority like the Acadamie Francaise, simplified English would quickly disintegrate. Truth is, I doubt they've much chance of altering anything. The language has too much momentum, too many diverse influences.

Of course, the simplified English supporters' wish may come true as the cellphone texting generation grows up, and txt bcoms th norml mod.


[October 5]
Sir - Ian Orchard (October 3) is concernd that simplified spelling of English would lead to chaos as residents of Cardiff, Calcutta, etc, would all adopt mutually unintelligible spelling systems.

Writing phonetically would indeed produce international chaos, as a glance at differences in Internationl Phonetic Association coding of New Zealand and British dictionaries would attest.

But there are many non-phonetic spelling proposals which are much simpler that traditional spelling, yet are at least as "accent deaf".

Internashnli, lerning to reed and ryt iz a multi milyn dolr industri, and thaer is lots of room for saevings.

- IAN HUNTER, SSS member.

[October 15]
Sir - Thanks to Ian Hunter (October 5) for his letter on simplified spelling. I now know I am completely against the whole concept.

When I got to his last paragraph (written "simply") I had to slow down to half the speed I had been reading at before, in order to decipher it. It was like reading a five-year-old's writing.

It did not make the paragraph much quicker to write. The word "savings" (spelt "saevings") actually had more letters in it than usual. "Read" was spelt "reed" - no shorter, no easier to learn, and no distinction from the plant "reed". The same goes for "there" (spelt "thaer"), "of" ("ov"), and "industry" ("industri"). And "internashnli" needs no further comment.

So called "simplified spelling" would create enormous confusion for many years, with no really obvious benefits at the end of the process. We hav a system that works, why bother changing it?


[October 17]
Sir - Samuel Dennis (October 15) found that a short example of a coherent simplified spelling was hard to read after probably less than a minute's practice. Hardly surprising.

However, he did correctly observe that it was like "a five-year-old's writing". And therein lies the rub.

Five-year-olds try to write consistently, because they don't know the myriad exceptions. And it is so much easier for learners to master a consistent spelling system.

Thoughtful readers could imagine the worldwide benefits if we could reduce the cost of teaching kids to write by, say, 20 per cent, and improve literacy by 20 per cent.

For how many centuries did our ancestors say about Roman numerals : "It works, so why bother changing it"?

- IAN HUNTER, SSS member.

[October 17]
[In a few words] Samuel Dennis (October 15) judges spelling reform from one system out of hundreds. What about the front-page example (October 5) where cars were selling for "lo bux"? Spelling is changing, and I would prefer organised change to these individual schemes. The Simplified Spelling Society is aware that both learners and users need spelling that is accessible rather than alienating.