Personal View 13 - The self-expression medium for Society members
[See also Masha Bell's leaflet, journal and newsletter articles .]
TYPES AND MAGNITUDE OF ENGLISH SPELLING PROBLEMS AND THEIR SIGNIFICANCE FOR REFORM
by Masha Bell.
The Author.Masha Bell, aged 56, is a retired teacher of English, German, Russian and French. German was her first language, but from 7-15 she was educated in Lithuanian and Russian, two languages with very regular spelling systems.
When she first came across English spelling at the age of 14 she found its unpredictability infuriating. That first impression has remained with her ever since. None of the other spelling systems which she learned was as unpredictable.
Before becoming a teacher in England Masha studied Philosophy and Psychology. She is married to a teacher of Economics. This combination may explain why she has been keen to find good evidence for the need to reform English spelling and the benefits which it would bring.
She regards reform as problem solving which has to be based on an analysis of costs and benefits.
Questions Which Reformers Need To Address.
- 1. Which changes would bring the greatest benefits to learners?
- Which ones would have a significant impact in reducing learning and teaching time?
- Which ones would immediately make learning to spell English substantially
- 2. How many changes can realistically be tackled by a single reform?
- One of the major factors in any spelling reform has to be ease of
implementation. With the enormous resistance to spelling reform in many sections
of the English-speaking world, proposals for reforming English spelling probably
need to be particularly user friendly.
The workload of teachers in the US and the UK already seems to be exceptionally heavy. Since primary teachers are bound to be at the front line of implementation it would not be helpful to burden them with cumbersome or hard-to-comprehend reform proposals.
- 3. Which spelling difficulties should be tackled first?
- The Society held a ballot in 1999 which revealed that most members did not
believe that spelling reform could address all English spelling problems. Only 11
members out of the 61 who voted believed in the possibility of a comprehensive,
single-stage reform. The rest deemed it more likely that only a proportion of
problems would be tackled at one time, just as has been the case in all other
countries that have reformed their spelling systems during the last two centuries.
(Only Turkey where reform was brought about by dictatorial decree in 1929 had a more
It seems highly unlikely that any reduction in English spelling irregularity will ever be achieved if the basic conventions of English spelling are not treated as sacrosanct. To practised readers and spellers of English any change is going to be visually disturbing at first. Getting them to accept wider application of current rules will be hard enough. Expecting them to approve meddling with any regular features of the system itself is probably unrealistic. Bringing about reductions in irregularity, while respecting well-established English spelling conventions, is probably the best that any would-be reformers can ever hope for.
Most spelling systems have imperfections. The magic 'e' convention and the convention of doubling a consonant after a short stressed vowel in multi-syllable words (e.g. late - latter, cope - copper, cute - cutter) are fairly clumsy aspects of English spelling, but if used more predictably they would still be quite manageable. Primary teachers have repeatedly assured me that having more than one spelling for sounds in identical positions is the main difficulty, not the magic 'e' itself. Learning to spell 'lane', 'late' or 'paste' would be a piece of cake if these were not contradicted by 'rain', 'eight' and 'waist'.
The system has only one serious deficiency. The short OO-sound has no clearly identifiable pattern of its own. It is spelt as in 'foot, put, would', but the letters used for spelling it are also used for spelling different sounds (loot, but, mould). It needs to be pointed out, however, that the sound occurs in just 36 common words.
It would be possible to make the spelling of the short OO-sound more predictable by simply expanding the use of the most dominant pattern for it, the OO-pattern. This would not be an ideal solution, since current unpredictability in reading would remain (good - mood), but in some accents the short and long OO-sound are both short anyway.
Existing English spelling conventions provide adequate spelling solutions for 42 of the 43 English phonemes. The 26 letters of the Roman alphabet can cater for all English spelling needs. English spelling could therefore easily be made more regular without introducing new characters or new spelling rules, or anything as outlandish as the Shavian alphabet. The two most fundamental reform question remain:
1. Which problems should reform tackle?As soon as I became aware that English has far more spelling problems than a single reform could possibly tackle, I became inclined to look for a numerical answer to the second question. Which 5 - 7 individual changes can make the greatest number of words with divergent spelling more regular?
2. How many problems should it try to remedy?
I see the main priority as one of reducing the great number of words with irregular spellings by means of as few proposals for change as possible (or as few instructions as possible). I know from studying psychology that humans can remember 3 instructions easily, 5 quite well, 7 far less so and anything beyond that tends to defeat them. So which 5 - 7 spelling problems are the most costly in times and effort? Which ones require most teaching and learning?
My research.Astonishingly, there have been few attempts to get an accurate measure of the learning task which the mastery of English spelling necessitates. A team led by P.R. Hanna at Stanford University in the 1960s calculated that around 50% of all English words have unpredictable spellings. This result was recently confirmed by E. Carney in the UK from an analysis of 25,000 words. His Survey of English Spelling was published in 1997. My own investigations confirmed that around half of all English words have some spelling irregularity.
Presenting the results as percentages or ratios is, however, insufficient to give a clear picture of the learning burden while there exists no agreed corpus of common English vocabulary. The only way that teachers, parents and learners can really understand what needs to be learned is by seeing the lists of words with irregular spellings which students have to memorise.
Books which supposedly 'explain' the English spelling system tend to list the most common ways of spelling particular sounds. They give, for example, the 7 most usual ways of spelling the EE-sound, with a few examples of each, but without a comprehensive list of words which have to be learned. Such books on spelling almost invariably advise learners to start a notebook for writing down 'difficult' words which need special attention. I found none which provided a comprehensive list of common English words with irregular spellings and so decided to compile one myself.
My first difficulty was finding a satisfactory list of most common English words. I found several collections aimed at younger children, but each slightly different; and I found little overlap between adult vocabulary collections and those for children. I ended up building my own collection by comparing several children's dictionaries and a couple of adult vocabulary listings. I omitted word forms which can be derived in a regular way, e.g. I listed 'work' but not 'worked, working, works' as well, but I tried to include all unpredictable derivatives like 'painter, worker, sailor, visitor'. My final corpus contains 6856 words.
I then identified the basic spelling patterns for individual phonemes and all the words with spellings which diverge from each. I ended up with a list of 3456 words out of 6856 which have at least one element of unpredictability in them. The findings are summarised by phoneme on pages 10 and 11. Those 3456 words all require the memorising of something in addition to phonics for their spelling. Often this is just one surplus letter (friend, doubt, active, account). Others spell a sound with letters that are not commonly used for it in English (central, system, said, some, pretty, great). A few hundred break the basic English consonant doubling rule, by not doubling a consonant after a short stressed vowel (lily, model, body); 418 words out of the 3456 have more than one unpredictable element in them (appeal - pp, ea - could be apeel; pheasant - ph, ea, s, ant - could be 'fezzent')
The 3456 words which I identified are the minimum which any reasonably competent speller has to master. They represent the learning burden which an average English-speaking school leaver would be expected to have learned. Highly educated and literate spellers will have learned many more. One can safely round that figure up and say that for reasonable adult spelling proficiency a student of English needs to learn at least 3500 words with some element of spelling unpredictability in them. This figure does not include any specialist or technical vocabulary, just the ordinary range of English vocabulary. By the age of 16 an English-speaking learner will have filled at least 7 little note books, each containing 500 words with exceptional or difficult spellings. Many of them will need special attention because of one recurring spelling problem - consonant doubling.
Consonant Doubling.CONSONANT DOUBLING is the most difficult aspect of English spelling. The highest single category of errors committed by students in examinations or spelling tests is caused by uncertainty about consonant doubling, either omitting them or inserting them where none is required. When to double or not to double consonants requires more learning than any other aspect of English spelling, and is never completely mastered by most people. The question, One ... or two? makes even well-educated adults reach for the dictionary more often than any other spelling uncertainty. I would therefore like to suggest that tackling this problem, even if not solving it entirely, should be a very high priority for reform.
The basic idea is simple enough. Consonant doubling and the magic -e / open vowel concept are devices which were invented to mark vowel length. Children are taught that they must double the final consonant of a short word when adding the suffixes -ing, -ed, -en, -er, -y or -ish [sin - sinning, sinned, sinner; fat - fatten, fatter, fatty, fattish] to keep the preceding stressed vowel short, or to ensure that it does not become long, [dine - dinner, diner; late - latter, later].
The main problem for spellers is the lack of consistency. The 'late - latter' idea would be simple enough. Doubling letters on that principle would not be a problem if the principle was not contradicted by hundreds of words which don't follow it, e.g.:
The rule for 'stressed, short vowels closed by a doubled consonant' and 'long, open vowels' becomes impossible to grasp while such contradictions exist:
Learner Difficulties.The difficulties which learners experience with consonant doubling derive from 6 sources:
1. Doublings which make no phonic sense - ('account',
'apply'). These mostly indicate now defunct Latin prefixes, e.g. adplicare.
(160 words listed on page 5)
2. Words which should have a doubled consonant according to
the basic rule of doubling a consonant after a short, stressed vowel in longer words
(in order to keep it short), but which fail to double, e.g. 'coral, habit,
lily' (271 words listed on page 6).
3. Words which have unpredictable short, stressed vowels and
undoubled consonants after them, e.g. 'any, chrysalis, enamel' [should really be
'enny, crissalis, inammel] and those which should really have a different doubled
consonant, e.g. 'chisel' [chizzel], 'desolate' [dezzolate] - if they obeyed basic
spelling and doubling rules. There are also 19 words with unpredictable medial 'CC'
instead of the usual 'CK' - [e.g. occupy] (128 words)
4. Unpredictably and gratuitously doubled medial
-LL- and final -LL, -SS, -FF and -ZZ. These are just as often
spelled singly or with other letters instead. The doublings can also serve different
a) Shall (1) - call (12) - crawl (7);
gallery (17) - galaxy (23); poll (5) - doll (2) -
pole (8); (75 words)
b) gas (1) - ass* (3) - pass *(4);
fuss (3) - bus (4), [*In UK English 'ass' has a short sound and 'pass'
a long one.] mattress (9) - menace / novice (17) - axis
(21) - premise(6) (68 words)
c) stiff (5)- if (1); chef (1); puff (5)-
tough (5); off, scoff (2) - of (1) - cough (2);
staff. ouzz (3) - quiz (2) - as (4) (31 words) with
doubles, 102 without - a total of 174 contradictions]
5. The convention of usually not doubling a 'V' and always
decorating a final 'V' with an 'e' leaves 54 words with unmarked short, stressed
vowels (e.g. 'liver, shiver, hover) and undermines understanding of the whole
concept of 'open long vowels' and 'short, stressed vowels marked by doubled
consonants' (cf. din - dine - dinner / give - drive - driven).
6) 238 short words double their final consonants on
predictable patterns but only in 17 words does this serve a useful purpose. Most
serve no useful purpose:
a) back (62); catch (23) ['tch' instead of 'chch']
b) bell (13), bill (18) [final L is doubled
consistently after 'e' and 'i']
c) useless, neatness, tigress (6) [the suffixes
-less and -ness, and some feminine nouns]
d) battle (81) [words ending in -le double a preceding single
consonant, if the preceding vowel is short and the 'e' of the '-le' ending is silent
- hence: able, gabble, angle. If the final surplus '-e' were cut, the doubling would
not be needed either: e.g. 'apl, batl, rufl, gagl' would serve just as well as do
spellings like 'stamp, ink' or 'milk'].
e) bristle (11) ['-stle' is more common than '-ssle', but
there are 5 exceptions / alternatives as well: mussel, muscle, hassle, tassel,
f) The only useful category is -dge [bridge] (17) ['-dge' instead of '-gege'].This helps to distinguish words with a short vowel from those with a long one, e.g. 'age, cage - badge, cadge'.
The other final consonant doublings above are gratuitous and distracting. They merely make it more difficult for learners to understand what the real purpose of consonant doubling in English is supposed to serve, i.e. keeping a stressed vowel in a multi-syllable word short, e.g. latter. We do not double b, d, g, m, n, p or t at the end of short words (grab, bad, bag, rum, run, shop, shot). 'Bac, cach, bel, bil, useles, neatnes, tigres ..' would all be pronounced exactly as they are now if they did not have their final consonants doubled.
The 6 sources of consonant doubling problems can be summed up as follows:
1. 160 words which have surplus doubled consonants;
2. 271 which have missing ones;
3. 128 which have missing doubled letters and other unpredictable elements in them;
4. 72 words with idiosyncratically doubled, selected
102 other words which fail to double them, for the same sound in an identical position;
5. 54 words with a single V between a short, stressed vowel and another vowel;
6. 221 words with predictably but pointlessly doubled
1008 words do not follow the consonant doubling principle.
These contradict nearly
1000 words which obey the principle.
I have identified 447 words which obey the basic doubling rule consistently (e.g. batter, better, bitter).
Another 500 - 550 words can be formed systematically from 233 one-syllable words by adding the suffixes -ing, -ed, -er, -en, -y or -ish fat - fatten, fatter, fatty, fattish] (e.g. beg - begging, begged, beggar; flat - flatten, fat - fatty, fattish).
These figures explain why very few English speakers have any idea what purpose consonant doubling is supposed to serve.A rule that applies only half the time is not really a rule at all.
In UK English confusion about consonant doubling is increased further by doublings which deliberately break the rule of not doubling before suffixes when the preceding vowel is not stressed. The normal pattern with longer words is as: abandon - abandoning, permit - permitting. It should therefore also be 'format - formating, travel - traveling', instead of 'formatting' and 'travelling'. Those doublings break the normal rule of doubling a consonant after a short, stressed vowel only.
Contradictions in prefixes and suffixes like 'almost - all right', 'farewell - welcome', 'fulfil - refill' add to the confusion. Instead of doubling or not doubling a consonant by adherence to a consistent rule, learners simply have to remember which words have doubled consonants and which don't.
The simplest way to cure the problem would be to eliminate all surplus doubled letters and to introduce systematic doubling in words which clearly fail to do so. If at least the most common words followed English phonic patterns, children would have a better chance of grasping them when they first learn to read and write. There is, however, generally quite strong resistance to making words longer.
Cutting surplus doubled letters from the 160 words listed below is probably the best place to start reducing the problem. Removing them would already help to make the basic principle easier to understand.
160 words with redundant doubled consonants.
*Some words have additional irregularities.
Words with missing doubled letters are listed below. Much as I favour making them all conform to the doubling principle, I think this needs public discussion and some testing of public opinion. Perhaps just making all 2-syllable words conform to the doubling rule would be a good start?
The 271 words in the table below do not mark a short stressed vowel with a doubled consonant, as one would expect.
According to the basic English consonant doubling rule this is needed in order to keep a stressed vowel in a multi-syllable word short. Roughly 1000 common English words follow this rule, (e.g. cabbage, terror, different, horrid, suffer). The spellings below prevent learners grasping the principle of consonant doubling as much as the needlessly doubled ones on the previous page.
* The asterisk marks words with variable stress.
All the consonants after a short, stressed vowel (which should really be doubled) are picked out in bold.
Another 19 words would have their short, stressed vowels marked by -ck- or -dg-, if the 'packet, rocket' and 'fidget, ledger, midget' patterns were used consistently.
Abolishing consonant doubling at the end of the 224 short words which do this gratuitously would also help, but probably not quite so much. Young children find words with final -ck difficult to master (e.g. block, black, stick). They also get confused by the contradiction with 'music, fantastic, terrific'. They would learn shorter spellings like 'bloc, blac, stic' more easily. 'Music' and 'traffic' also had a redundant -k; not so long ago. They used to be spelled 'musick' and 'traffick'. They have been brought into line with 'comic, fantastic'. 'Black, block, brick' could easily be aligned with them too.
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Forward to part 2.