[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Spring 1982 pp2-4]
[Valerie Yule: see Book, Journals, Newsletters, Media, Personal View 10, Anthology, Bulletins, Web links.]
[See conference program by theme, by authors alphabetically.]

Proceedings of the Third International Conference

of the Simplified Spelling Society in Edinburgh, July 31-Aug. 3, 1981, by Valerie Yule.*

*Old Aberdeen, Scotland.


The outcome of the conference has been three major developments in the direction for reform of English spelling: in theory, context, and implementation.

The emfasis has shifted from 'armchair argument' to multidisciplinary research that regards spelling as an aspect of communications technology, amenable to human engineering that considers the needs and abilities of its users.

The immediate consequence, from the research presented at the conference, is to query the almost universal assumption of earlier reform proposals, that one-to-one sound-symbol correspondence is the perfectly simple ideal solution. The i.t.a. (Initial Teaching Alfabet) and other experiments have proven that a consistent fonemic spelling is easier to learn than present spelling, but there are obvious disadvantages in problems of regional dialect, homofones, clumsy polysyllables and discontinuity with present spelling; and research presented by Seymour, Perin and Snowling showed the sort of disabilities it could still present for children with learning problems.

A different direction was pointed out by the congruent research and theory presented at the conference from the different stands of cognitive psychology, linguistics and electronic communication, and the almost unanimous resolution of those attending the final plenary session reads:
"In the long run we should aim at a perfectly consistent system of writing based on the general principle of foneme-grafeme correspondence; nevertheless due attention and research must be applied to the need to preserve uniform grafic representation of some morfemes and the written differentiation of some homofones, in the interests of semantic encoding strategies for learners, more rapid visual reading by skilled users, more economical writing & greater access to the English language internationally."
That is, the basic principle of alfabetic spelling is sound-symbol correspondence, but for better efficiency it needs to be modified in consistent ways to carry meaning concisely and clearly. It would be premature to give examples, but there is good hope that research-based solutions could be well advanced within three years, especially if funding can be found.

Such a spelling should look far more like present English spelling 'cleaned up' with a space-age appearance than the present image of reformed spelling looking like funny dialect in a novel.

Conference topics were:
The pragmatic keynote of the conference was set from the beginning by the message sent by the patron of the Simplified Spelling Society, the Duke of Edinburgh. He had asked for a briefing about his message, but in the event disregarded it and wrote his own, which was characteristically to the point, criticising lack of progress in simplifying spelling due to the disagreement among the different reformers and wishing the conference the best of luck in having some achievements to its credit.

Cognitive psychology.

Dr. Uta Frith presented recent cognitive research on the operations, strategies and processes in spelling function and how they can fail, and showed there are conflicting needs of readers and writers, learners and users, so that a spelling designed solely to be easy to learn may not be the most efficient to use. She thought a future solution for incompatible needs might be a computer-translater that translated 'spell as you like' into 'reading that's easiest,' but one might comment that it might be possible to produce a spelling system that was accomodated to the different purposes, rather than to one only.

Dr. Philip Seymour's paper amplified Dr. Frith's introduction. He described the three ways by which we can read words: direct visual word recognition, indirect recognition via semantic decoding, and through 'sounding out.' His studies with dyslexics showed their difficulties in using fonemic processing ('sounding out') which seen related to general difficulties in analysis and sequencing found in problems with mapping time and arrays also. He concluded that greater foneme-grafeme consistence would not help these dyslexics if it eliminated other sources of structure that they can use as well.

Teaching and learning English spelling, and its difficulties.

Miss Barbara Smith presented a practical study of children's spelling in six schools and work with teachers to improve spelling instruction. She showed the different spelling strategies used by pupils who spell well or are still at the dependent level or still fumbling, and showed how what appears as 'lack of fonic knowledge' may actually be a major linguistic problem of auditory perception, and discussed problems of long-term and short-term memory, and transfer of spelling learning to actual practice. Weak spellers also have problems of omissions and sequencing, and remediation was described.

Dr. Maggie Snowling discussed the research showing that poor readers have more trouble with fonetic spelling rules than do good readers, and have more problems in spelling with longer words and more complex consonant clusters. (Again, spelling reform must consider more than foneme-grafeme correspondence if it is to really help the learning disabled.)

Dr. Dolores Perin showed the strategies by which good readers are better able than poor readers to use foneme-grafeme correspondences, but poor readers can often spell nonsense words better than they can spell real words, since they do not have to worry about lexical access to non-fonemic variations (that is, consistency would help them).

Two contributors to this section of the conference were unable to come. Dr. Barbara Dodd was prevented by illness from presenting her research on spelling problems of children with phonological disorders who, unlike normal children, had no advantage in spelling when words had regular foneme-grafeme correspondence. Dr. David Moseley's car breakdown prevented him from bringing his video and microprocessing equipment to demonstrate the effective methods he is developing for children who have been failing to learn to teach themselves basic spelling. (These techniques would make learning with a consistent spelling extremely easy and interesting.)

Spelling in other languages and international aspects of English spelling.

Mr. Stuart Campbell's discussion of the principles of Esperanto spelling is worth observing as an example of a 'planned' spelling with an approach emfasising Indo-European grafic agreement, maximum simplicity and consistency, and designed so that the common people could use it without difficulty. Campbell drew moral lessons about English from what happens if one tries (as he did) to transliterate Hamlet's soliloquoy into as close to Esperanto spelling as possible. (It would be worth checking some of the claims of modern theorists about the advantages for readers of the redundancy in present English spelling, by using as subjects English-speaking, Esperanto enthusiasts who are skilled in both languages.)

Dr. Henry Niedzielski described experiments in Francofone Burundi in teaching English, including spelling, via French, or directly through the Kirundi language, with results favouring the latter. (At a reading conference earlier in the same week, Dr. Niedzielski had presented a proposal for teaching one language (French) beginning with meaningful text using maximum common vocabulary and sentence structure and gradually introducing differences from a native language-English; illustrating one advantage of international morfemes that could be further exploited.) Dr. Iraset Paez-Urdaneta gave a history of Spanish orthografic change, a description of the Bello reforms in Spanish America, and of an experiment in Venezuela showing social class differences in attitudes toward spelling reform. He drew from his survey conclusions about the requirements for successful spelling reform, particularly the social and political aspects.

Dr. Jesús Mosterín of the Univ. of Barcelona emfasised the international need for English spelling reform, and summarised its goals as improving international communication, making reading and writing easier to learn, increasing the linguistic awareness of speaker, making learning of foreign languages easier, diminishing the burden of polyglot communities, offering a uniform and consistent system of transcription from other writing systems, allowing unified representation of nouns in cartografy, and permitting the design of universal word-processing machines. It should be made, he considered, in accordance with principles valid for all languages, such as the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Spelling for electronic communication.

Mr. Colin Brooks of the Univ. of Southampton demonstrated how television etc. can be accompanied by simultaneous transcription of speech for the benefit of the def. A computer transcribes Palantype or Pitman Shorthand, using a hundred or so 'rules' that take fonetic context into account to improve performance, into a script ideally like English spelling. The pros and cons of 'algorithmic' spelling were discussed. (Clearly this task would be relatively easy with a consistent English orthografy.)

Dr. Edward Rondthaler, of Photo-Lettering, Inc. New York, sent as a display a computerised dictionary demonstrating how modern techniques made simple the task of printers to transliterate to or from a reformed English spelling and present English spelling - abolishing a nightmare that objectors to spelling reform have profesied eny change would bring to the printed media. Change could be gradual or absolute.

Development of improvements in spelling.

Dr. Neville Brown, of the Foundation for the Education of the Under-achieving and Dyslexic, discussed the significance of semantic considerations in English spelling reform, and the importance of developing direct linguistic encoding strategies for efficient reading and writing.

Dr. Walter Gassner of Australia described possible approaches to reconcile conflicting principles for a spelling reform, with particular emfasis on questions of pronunciation, including location of stress.

Prof. V. A. Vassilyev of Moscow sent in absentia the monograf by himself and Prof. A. C. Gimson presenting a fully developed fonemic spelling.

Valerie Yule took up the implications of research and theory that were presented at the conference to present an illustration of what a 'morfo-fonemic' spelling could be like, and proposed the sort of research that would be required to develop and evaluate the most efficient modern English spelling.

Mr. Chris Jolly, marketing manager, extended the discussion of spelling to other orthografic considerations, and presented research on the commercial confusion that is caused by alfanumeric symbols that can be confused by visual or auditory similarity, as part of a discussion of commercial aspects of orthografic reform.

Mr. George O'Halloran, formerly of the Gambia, sent in absentia a paper containing an overview of orthografies of other languages, including new planned orthografies of this century for non-literate African tongues. From discussing approaches to spelling in English (fonetic, fonemic, diafonic, shorthand, dialectic), Arabic without vowels, Mandinka and Mende syllabaries, Blissymbolics, the Japanese use of Chinese ideografs and the possibility of Eurowords with Eurospelling, he concluded that it is possible that the English expect too much definition of detail in their script, and it may be enough for most purposes that our writing signs should just stimulate the memory into the correct response with internationally recognizable word-shapes.

Experimental investigation of spelling reform.

It is to be hoped that. this is the new growth area, to achieve practical results.

Dr. Robert Baker of the Univ. of Southampton asked literate adults to respell English words in ways they considered more rational and then asked them to explain the reasons for the changes they had made. The findings show popular opinion about what is important in spelling English, which is necessary information in designing and bringing in reform.

Dr. John Beech of the New Univ. of Ulster described an experiment in which adults learnt to read text in two proposed spelling systems, one on the single principle of sound-symbol correspondence (World English Spelling) that changed 67% of present spelling, and one that modified fonemic spelling with consistent principles to change only 30% of English spelling (designed by Beech). After reading 6000 words of text in Beech's Regular Spelling, adults were reading at their normal speed, but even after 8500 words of text in World English Spelling, subjects were only reading at 62% of normal reading speed. Both groups suffered no reduction in comprehension levels. Literate adults could therefore cope with a change to a more regular English spelling quite quickly - for these university students it was only a few hours - thus disproving the claims that it would be impossible. (Motivation would remain the key factor.)

Implementation of change in English spelling.

Prof. John Downing of Victoria Univ., Vancouver, President of the Simplified Spelling Society, sent in absentia his advice that printers and publishers were the key people to be involved in spelling reform, as the media were more significant than education for its introduction.

Prof. Ayb Citron, formerly of Wayne St. Univ. and now Director of the U.S. campaign 'Better Education Thru Simplified Spelling,' made an expose of the socially divisive purposes and results of complex elite spelling systems, substantiating the remark of the famous sociologist Thorstein Veblen (1899) that English spelling is a classic example of conspicuous consumption. Citron thinks that the time for simplified spelling has now come, because of economic needs for literacy, and that four institutional structures of power and prestige to support it are the business-industrial complex which seeks to maximise profits, the Department of Defence requiring literate recruits, the world of scientists,and the movement of democracy struggling to redistribute power and give more dignity to the common man. Citron outlines how all four can be involved in the movement for spelling reform, which goes so far beyond mere tinkering with the spelling of words in what it could achieve.

Mr. Harvie Barnard, a member of the editorial board of Spelling Progress Bulletin, sent in absentia his paper on how alternative spellings could be a practical means of transition from present spelling to a reformed orthografy, and four principles were recommended to commence with, which fit closely with other recommendations that are currently made by reformers.

From these papers, it is clear that it is now recognized that English spelling is a world problem. More people now speak English as a second language than as their first, and this majority is increasing dramatically annually. Thirty percent of the conference attenders were concerned with English as a second language in overseas countries, and the unanimous resolution of the plenary session was that "Because of the international importance of English in commerce and science, eny future spelling reform should take into account the international aspects and implications of the proposed changes."

Attendance at the conference and presentation of a paper implied no necessary commitment to reform or involvement in the plenary session, and some of those who are doing valuable research on the nacre of spelling and spellers are still conservative in attitude. However, the majority of those who stayed on at the plenary session recommended implementation of spelling reform from two directions: official and popular:

1. Working to provide a research basis for an official commission on spelling reform with international links, to give the subject the study that has been recommended by the U.K. Bullock Report on Reading (A Language for Life, 1975) which could give only eleven of its 609 pages to the subject of spelling.

2. Popular change by the existing route of 'permissible alternatives' in spelling to gradually remove the easily remediable and obvious difficulties in English spelling. The plenary session recommended:
a) Public use of the letter f for ph in line with most international usage, and as is becoming familiar to the British public through multilingual notices and EEC labelling.

b) Use of the letter e for the short e sound as in bet so that, for example, insted, sed, frend, gess, plesure would be used to replace instead, said, friend, guess, pleasure. This is 'Spelling Reform 1' advocated by Lindgren in Australia, and alredy in use in a variety of magazines and books published by different Australian publishers.
The Simplified Spelling Society thanks all participants in this noteworthy conference. It would be glad to receive reports of research relevant to English spelling reform, and of changes in spelling through public usage.

Yours gratefully, Valerie Yule, conference organizer.

Back to the top.