[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Spring 1980 pp8-9]
[John Downing: see Journals, Newsletters, Anthology, Bulletins.]

Research on Spelling Reform,

by John Downing, Ph.D.*

*Victoria Univ, B.C., Canada.
*A talk presented at the 2nd International Conference on Reading and Spelling by the Simplified Spelling Society at Nene College, July 1979.

Psychological research can help spelling reformers in three ways. Firstly, there is a substantial body of scientific research evidence that supports the view that a Simplified spelling of English would bring very great benefits to children's education in the English-speaking world. Secondly, research shows that simplification would improve the effectiveness of students learning English as their second language. Thirdly, the psychological study of human motives for changing spelling conventions or preserving them provides guidelines for spelling reformers' strategies.

1. English-speaking children's education.

Debates in the British Parliament led the Minister of Education to give her support to a scientific experiment to test the effects of simplifying English spelling. The experiment was conducted by England's two foremost educational research organizations: the National Foundation for Educational Research and the University of London Institute of Education. The experiment was conducted in a large number of state schools in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The experimental classes used a simplified spelling of English and their progress was compared with control classes using the traditional orthography of English. Both groups of schools used the same reading books and teaching methods. The two groups of children were matched in intelligence, social class, and several other variables. The only difference between the two sets of classes was the way in which their reading materials were printed - the experimental group's in simplified spelling, the control group's in conventional spelling ' This research was probably the largest and best controlled scientific experiment ever conducted in British education. It was also one of the longest. The same children were studied for five years. The detailed description of the experiment was published in one of my books (Downing, 1967).

The results of the experiment were quite unequivocal. The children using the simplified spelling made much more rapid progress in learning to read, write and spell. The incidence of failure in reading, writing and spelling in the experimental group was less than half of that of the control group.

The conclusion from this large scale scientific research is inescapable. The traditional spelling of English is a very serious cause of failure in the development of literacy skills. More than one half of the children who are failing in their school work today would be saved from this disaster if English spelling were simplified. (For detailed statistics see Downing, 1967, 1969, 1977; and Downing and Latham, 1969).

2. English as a second language.

Several scientific studies have been made of the effects of simplifying English spelling on students learning English as a second language. For example, Abiri's (1969) subjects were 1000 Yoruba-speaking children in Nigeria. The half of these students who learned English in simplified spelling were significantly superior to the half that learned with the conventional spelling. Several studies in Britain and America with non-English speaking minorities have confirmed the conclusion that the traditional spelling of English is a serious handicap in the teaching of English as a second language. (For a detailed review, see Downing, 1979).

3. Strategies for spelling reform.

A psychological analysis of the spelling behaviour of English speakers over the past ten centuries reveals the causes of changes and stabilities in English orthography.

There is a strong desire for stability among producers of books. The desire is based on the belief that readers prefer to find a word always spelled the same way. The first period of stability was in the West Saxon standard for old English in the reign of King Edgar (959-975). It was a period of economic prosperity and peace. Books were in demand and the masters of the scribes maintained strict conformity to the phonemic spelling of English of that time. This stability fell into ruin when English ceased to be the language of power, following the Norman invasion. Then, about, 1430, English revived through its use in the Chancery. This revival was accompanied by revisions to make English more phonemic. But it was far from stable. It was Mulcaster in 1582 who argued for the level of stability of English spelling that we know today. He proposed that words which already had a stable spelling should continue to be spelled that way. But words that were spelled in a variety of ways should be given a fixed spelling. The most phonemic spelling among the alternatives should be chosen. However, Mulcaster accepted non-phonemic spellings that were reasonable analogies with other stable spellings, and he also considered that homophones should not be homographs. Cooke's spelling primer of 1596 brought about the stability of English spelling that Mulcaster sought. By 1700 stabilization was complete, and it only remained for Dr. Johnson's dictionary to record what the printers and publishers had already accomplished.

The important psychological point here is that there is a strong motive for stability of spelling in periods of peace and prosperity when books are in demand. But note that the basic motive is economical. Publishers and printers want stability of spelling because they want to sell their books to readers who prefer such stable spellings. As we shall see below, if other economic factors becomes stronger than the desire for stability of spelling, then stability will be sacrificed.

Therefore, let us consider what has caused changes to occur in the history of English spelling. Seven motives for change can be traced:

(1) Immediate financial gain.

 In the Middle Ages, lawyers' clerks were paid for their writing by the inch. As a result, words were given longer spellings and the clerks got paid more.

(2) Aesthetics (a) tidiness.

 Alternative spellings were used for the same word in order to achieve a near right-hand margin on the page (for example, pity, pittie, etc., according to the amount of space to be filled).

(3) Aesthetics (b) fashion.

 For example, the letter z has always been unpopular. Hence, the sound /z/ is often spelled with s, for instance.

(4) Etymology.

 Spelling words to show their linguistic origin has long been a motive for modifying English spelling. But it was especially prevalent during the Renaisance. Unfortunately it led to so many etymological errors that modern English spelling is an unreliable guide to the origins of English words. Nevertheless, etymology remains an important argument against spelling reform, despite its invalidity.

(5) Visual morphemes.

 A number of English spellings are deliberately non-phonemic. For example, ed for past tense and s for plural have been consciously introduced as being more useful than phonemic spellings in these grammatical contexts. The avoidance of homographs for homophones also was a deliberate decision by Mulcaster, for example, rite, right, write, wright. Also some other interesting visual morphemes seem to have developed through unconscious motivation. For example, when Caxton had the monopoly of printing in England, he changed many g spellings into gh. "Girl", "goose", "goat", "ghost", and "ghastly" were all spelled with g before Caxton. Caxton spelled them all with gh. As more competing printing presses were introduced, the gh's reverted to g's - but a few words kept Caxton's gh, for example, ghost, ghastly, ghoul, ghetto. They all seem to have some connection with the emotion of fear.

(6) Domination through language.

 The year 1066 marked the beginning of the ruination of the stable English spelling of the Saxons. The scribes' customers became less and less interested in written English and more and more interested in written French. English spelling consequently was neglected and many errors crept in that have been preserved to the present day. From the truly conservative point of view, today's spellings of monk and cinder are errors. The original spellings were munk and sinder. The domination of French over English during the Norman period produced another curious anomaly in English spelling. As the Norman rule became settled, many educated people in England became not only bilingual but also biliterate. Therefore, there was no reason to change French spellings into English spellings when a French word became adopted into English, the biliterate could read the French words in an English text. Thus, unlike most other languages, it became traditional in English to preserve the foreign spellings of words adopted into English.

(7) Simplification.

 Throughout the past one thousand years of English spelling, there have been recurring demands for its simplification. The most frequent change that has been demanded is a return to a more phonemic representation. Also changes that have actually occurred have often been phonemic.

These are the chief motives that have inspired changes and preservations in English spelling during the long history of its development.. Despite the rather lengthy period of stability that English orthography has experienced till lately, we should never overlook these dynamics. English spelling has changed frequently in the past and the same forces for change are all around us still today. Two currents of change are clearly discernible.

Firstly, Harry Lindgren's S.R.1. proposals are becoming increasingly popular and have found favour among teachers of English in Australia. Here, we see the age old demand for a return to the simple phonemic spelling of the Saxon English of a thousand years ago.

The second wind of change that is blowing up may become gale force. That most powerful motive of all is stirring again - the economic one. Graham Greene has proposed a page in the Times of London for the Guinness Book of Records for its huge number of spelling errors. Why so many errors? Why is stability of spelling collapsing? Because the stability of conventional English spelling is becoming economically unfeasible. Money is being saved by computerized typesetting and reduction in proof-reading. Thus the desire for stability of spelling is being set aside to save money.

Spelling reformers can use this knowledge of human motives for change and stability in spelling to plan strategies for bringing about that simplification of English spelling that scientific research has shown to be necessary for improving English language teaching.


Abiri, J.O.O. (1969), "Using w.i.t.a. and standard orthography in teaching English reading in Nigeria." Reading Teacher, 30, 137-140.

Downing, J. (1967), Evaluating the Initial Teaching Alphabet. London: Cassell.

Downing, J. (1969), "New experimental evidence of the effectiveness of i.t.a. in preventing disabilities of reading and spelling." Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 5, 547-555.

Downing, J. (1977), "The probability of reading failure in i.t.a. and t.o." Reading, 11 (3), 3-12.

Downing, J. (1979), "Results of teaching reading in i.t.a. to children with cognitive deficits." Reading World, 18, 290-299.

Downing, J., and Latham, W. (1969), "A follow-up of children in the first i.t.a. experiment." British Journal of Educational Psychology, 39, 303-305.


Preserving traditional orthography is only essential to prevent poor people from getting a good education and taking away good jobs from us well-educated people who think we are so superior to the masses of people. N.W.T.

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