[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Winter 1979 pp1-3]
Also on this page: Proceedings.
[Helen Bonnema Bisgard: see Journal, Anthology, Bulletins.]
Report on the SSS Conference of 1979 by Helen Bonnema Bisgard, Ed.D.The first half of this report was printed in our Fall issue. The rest delayed by lack of space.
The Conference was held at the new campus of Nene College, Northampton, situated among large trees in open fields with a distant view. The meeting started on Friday evening and continued all day and evening on Saturday and Sunday, on Monday morning and early afternoon recessing each day for morning coffee, afternoon tea, and a long lunch. Lively discussions were continued during the meal times with remarkable intensity and even at night at the student resident building where accomodations were conducive to group conversations.
One of the conferees was heard to comment rather ruefully that his family thinks these meetings of "alphabeteers" are futile. Nothing is ever accomplished. Someone else laughingly retorted that we do succeed in having a very good time. We are "birds of a feather flocking together' from distant lands to chirp about Eutopia. We are having just as much enjoyment as those people who spend hours with their bridge club or on bowling team perfecting their scores, or with their scientific society searching for artifacts in archeological diggings. Moreover, if our deliberations result in preparing the public to accept a change which will be of inestimable benefit to millions of school children, we shall have accomplished greater good than any of our hobby engrossed friends.
This does not imply that nothing demonstrable will result from the conference. A post-program meeting of the SSS members held July 31 considered action on the implementation suggestions which had been made, and will be discussed further in the Annual General Meeting held on Oct. 27th. These discussions and any action will be reported in the official journal, The Pioneer, and later in an issue of Spelling Progress Bulletin. By Spring we may have some more interesting news to report, which is at the present not finalized.
[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Winter 1979 pp2,3]
[Valerie Yule: see Book, Journals, Newsletters, Media, Personal View 10, Anthology, Bulletins, Web links.]
Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Reading and Spelling, by Valerie Yule*held at Nene College, Northampton, Eng. July 27-30, 1979; sponsored by the Simplified Spelling Society *Old Aberdeen, Scotland.
Several new and significant developments are well in evidence in the papers presented at the 2nd International Conference on Improving Spelling organised by the Simplified Spelling Society. There are, predictably, trenchant criticisms of present English spelling and its social consequences, and the presentation of schemes that would be easier to learn. There is also serious investigation of the meny and sometimes conflicting requirements of an optimum spelling system. It must be easier for children and foreigners to learn than our present spelling. It must also be acceptable to the present literate generation as an improvement, and easy for them to read and write; it must solve problems of modern technology in translating speech and print;, it must maintain the readability of present spelling into the future; and the transition must meet the essential requirement of costing very little but saving billions of pounds and dollars.
Most of the past arguments pro and con spelling reform has been at an armchair level, pundit agenst pundit, quote agenst quote, assumption agenst assumption. Meny reformers have concentrated on devising splendid new spelling systems incorporating accurate sound-symbol correspondences, hoping that these could take over society from a base of universal schooling or government decree. Such systems have not been adopted even to a limited extent.
The Conference papers, however, show a new desire for facts. All claims and assumptions about fluent reading as well as about learning, must be justified by experimental investigation in the marketplace and in the classroom, where the most elegant studies may be confounded. The emphasis is that the abilities and needs of the people who must use spelling as a tool are more important than the ideal neatness of schemes or arguments.
The papers covered three areas: the nature of present spelling and spellers, the necessity and feasibility of improvement in English spelling, and practical methods of investigating and implementing changes.
Following Prof. John Downing's introductory lead on the crucial significance of factors affecting human motivation for change, examples of this practical type of investigation are presented by linguists, educators, psychologists, and a sociologist. The study of spelling is seen as a complex behavioral science, not as an abstract or natural science.
Dr. Donald Scragg, the linguist historian, points out how much can be learnt from the history of English spelling, so that improvement can follow natural trends, e.g., in simplification and in the extension of principles by analogy. Dr. Robert Baker, linguist, criticises spelling reform proposals whose systems conform to the sophisticated linguistic intuition of experts, whereas it is non-experts who must use spelling systems, and he uses the terms 'democratic spelling', and the 'psychological reality' that spelling rules must have. Dr. Baker, with linguist Dr. Philip Smith, psychologist David Moseley, sociologist Prof. Abraham Citron, and psychologists Dr. John Beech and Valerie Yule, describe their experiments and observations on how children and adults understand spelling and the nature and bases of popular spelling mistakes, with their implications for the nature of reform that would be both efficient and practicable. Experiments on 'the sort of spelling you would like to have' now go beyond the sometimes misleading technique of simple questionnaire. It was suggested, inter alia, that dictionaries that fail to accept some almost universal spelling 'mistakes' are in fact not fulfilling their descriptive function of accurate reflection of the status quo.
Dr. Smith and others consider the issue that optimum spelling may not be merely phonemic, but should take into account morphemics lexical, syntactic, semantic, and other actors, and describe some of their own relevant research. The conference emphasis in discussion was that the significance of all factors must be empirically demonstrated, and then they might be applied to achieve a more efficient spelling than we have at present, since English spelling is only spasmodically consistent in eny of these areas.
As Dr. Axel Wijk points out, the really important anomalous spellings for learners are in the 400,500 of the commonest words. It was suggested in discussion that each of these would could be subject to investigation as to whether eny of these non-phonemic grounds exist to justify their continuance as phonemically irregular spellings.
The 'regularity' or predictability of spelling to enable learners to read and write is investigated by educator Fergus McBride, who says that 'books on phonics have to be red to be believed,' and reveals how meny Scottish teachers teach spelling rules which the Scottish Council for Research in Education has condemned as inadequate. He examines the limitations of present spelling 'rules' for learners and for computers.
The advantages of consistent spelling for modern technological application are described by Dr. Helen Bonnema Bisgard, and recent applications of phonemic-spelling strategies in sound-spelling machines, film-dubbing and simplified shorthands were discussed. Altho quite simple computers can play chess, attempts to program the most sophisticated computers with sufficient rules for present English spelling have never achieved more than 50% accuracy, and big business is now resorting to the expedient of building English dictionaries into their machines - and so, perhaps building another vested interest agenst spelling reform. Meanwhile medical research lags in building similar dictionaries into human learners, so the usual 3 to 8 year program of rote learning is still required for all non-machines who do not have good visual memories.
A pragmatic approach also characterises discussions of arguments and evidence regarding spelling reform.
Prof. Abraham Citron describes the continuing problem of functional illiteracy and dislike of reading in English-speaking countries despite 9-10 years of expensive universal education and the multi-billion-dollar decade of the U.S. Right-to-Read Program, (and Hugh Jamieson, who sent a videotape as his representative, comments that the 30 best spellers out of 10,000 in a recent contest could not score better than 14 words correct out of every 15 - so what of the rest of the population?). Citron emphasises the detrimental effect of the hidden curriculum upon children of the authoritarian imposition of an irrational and inconsistent spelling that does not obey its own 'rules.' Vic Paulsen suggests, not entirely fancifully, that English spelling was not 'orthography,' correct. writing, but 'pathography,' a collective aberration that could be prosecuted under the laws agenst unfair monopolies, environmental pollution and sex discrimination.
Remedial specialist Alun Bye demonstrates some of the ingenious expedients used to help learners attend to and remember the letters in words since reason cannot be relied on to help them, such as 'wordles' that visibly show their meaning (e.g. detonate-exploding) and reading words backward for memorable effects (murder-red rum), a sad commentary on the expedients to which some teachers must go to enable some pupils to learn to spell 'difficult' words.
In contrast, Prof. John Downing summarises the over-whelming evidence that i.t.a. teaching proves that sound-spelling consistency makes initial learning easier and reduces failures. However Downing regrets the initial decision to use the script of i.t.a. since it was never designed as a stepping stone to spelling reform and is unsuitable for such extension.
Dr. Derek Thackray complements Prof. Downing's summary with the findings of his own research which shows that learning to read in i.t.a. requires less maturity of 'reading rediness skills' than present spelling, and so makes it easier and safer for children to start learning earlier, with all the advantages of early-reading experience.
Mrs. Elsie Oakensen discusses the feasibility of spelling reform, and outlines the classical arguments for and agenst improving the conventional writing system.
It is a significant comment on English spelling that so meny foreigners, contrasting it with the efficiency of their native spelling systems, try to invent better systems for English. English people learning foreign languages take it for granted that they can pick up the principles of say Italian or German spelling in an hour or so; foreigners get a nasty shock when they find that learning English spelling takes meny years. Consequently it is no surprise that three of the Conference members presenting their ideas about English spelling are not native speakers. Mr. S. Bakowski, formerly from Poland, and Dr. W. Gassner, from Germany both emphasise the impossibility of extending one's spoken English thru trying to read present English spelling and they put forward their ideas about how international and immigrant learning of the English language could be facilitated by clearer sound-symbol correspondence.
Dr. Axel Wijk of Sweden has always recognised the issue of reconciling the needs of learners and present users of English spelling. The Conference, saddened by Dr. Wijk's recent deth, greatly appreciated the presence of Mrs. Pia Wijk to read the last paper he had prepared for it.
Dr. Wijk has attempted to 'clean up' English spelling by regularising its major inconsistencies to accord with its major consistencies, thus leaving up to 90% of present spelling intact and making the learning of spelling a matter of learning rules. The transition to present spelling is to be made later, by learning the exceptions to the rules. The books he has devised to reach his 'Regularized Inglish' initial learning scheme were on display at this conference.
Two psychologists also attempted to tackle the question of 'transitional' spellings that children could learn easily and also the present literate generation adapt to easily. John Beech and Valerie Yule present similar attempts to find the minimum number of rules that would achieve maximum similarity to present spelling, with 65-80% of words in running text remaining unchanged. Yule puts forward a two-way approach to a transitional spelling - the techniques by which adult readers can reach it by modifying present spelling, and how children could reach it by modifying a simple phonemic initial learning system. The two speakers stressed the tenor of the Conference - that it is time for experimental research to turn from the morbid fascination of what's wrong with children who cannot spell, to what are the critical features of English spelling that can be changed to create the best effect with minimal disruption. The research on spelling which has produced so little in the way of 'cure' for bad spellers and poor readers could all be re-analysed with a human engineering approach aimed at making the spelling fit the people rather than vice versa.
George O'Halloran, in his experience with phonetic alphabets in The Gambia, found that pupils were able to read with ease the Kiriyo dialect when it was written in a script similar to our T.O. but when it was printed in fully phonetic script, it was difficult to read. This convinced him that an orthography should work according to the nature of its own orthography. A practical trial in the field or in the classroom is essential to testing the theories of the new orthography.
Both psychologists take a broad-band 'diaphonic' approach for the representation of speech sounds, as simpler to learn and making possible a standard international English spelling. Research is called for as to how symbols are used as conventions to represent sounds. Mr. Sinclair Eustace presents a scheme that has the single aim of representing eny dialect very precisely, and its demonstration of the need for a highly trained ear to use it shows that an accurate phonetic spelling and a generally usable spelling may not be the same thing. The moral of Prof. Betts' paper on the Graphic R in present spelling is, in fact that one spelling can hold together a wide variety of sounds with more practical convenience than inconvenience. The implications of Dr. Katherine Betts' discussion of definitions of the schwa are that it can provide controversy for linguists for years to come. The hearer might infer that while they continue to research on language, the use of the schwa in eny spelling reform might be better determined by research on people.
There are indeed, meny pointers that meny objections that have been put up agenst spelling improvement may be only bogeys after all - e.g., dialects, homophones, and the reliance of fluent readers on linguistic clues optimally provided by present spelling.
The Conference has not concluded with formal resolutions but with practical possibilities for future action:
- the encouragement of research and observation that rigorously tests out all armchair claims about requirements or advantages of eny spelling for English, and the support of bodies such as the Phonemic Spelling Council, whose work is described by Dr. Bisgard.
- evaluation of the use of initial teaching spellings. While it is proven that improving sound-symbol correspondence makes it easier to learn to read and write, what types of improvement would be optimum for all purposes?
- implementing John Downing's recommendation to follow the lines of positive motivation for spelling change, e.g. facilitating the trend toward practical, organic social change, the continual thrust of technology and commerce towards efficiency and economy, and the computerised printing techniques that can now cope with spelling change in the media.
- 'taking spelling to the people,' with recommendations such as the use of Lindgren's SR-1 in daily life, as a step causing less disturbance in the appearance of running print than the average newspaper's misprints. To stimulate popular interest and support, an annual Spelling Improvement Day is suggested - originally the idea of the former Australian Minister for Helth (sic), Dr. Everingham - with the date of Sept. 30 proposed, to make school involvement possible. Valerie Yule's paper gives ideas for possible activities on that day, as well as other publicity-oriented ways to promote active spelling reform. Vic Paulsen's recommendation for 'biliterate' publications, material for schools and public use written in both present spelling and an improved version, as in multilingual notices, could be a good means of introducing alternate orthographies as well as testing their viability. Paulsen was very active in planning and getting publicity for the Conference both in the U.S.A. and with the B.B.C.
The Third International Conference to be sponsored by the Simplified Spelling Society is planned for 1981, possibly in Scotland, on the theme 'Progress in Spelling Improvement.' Dr. Abraham Tauber's book on 'The History of Spelling Reform in the United States,' coming out late in 1979 or Spring of 1980, may by that time need another chapter.
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