Letters and articles: Masha Bell, SSS member.

Letter: Education section, Independent, Thursday 12 September, 2002.

Why phonics is phony

Conor Ryan (Education, 5 Sept.) is right about two things.

Learning to read at primary school is extremely important, because without it no pupil can derive much from secondary education. Enabling the bottom 25% of the ability range to do so remains a huge challenge.

These problems have bedevilled the whole English-speaking world for decades, despite umpteen changes in teaching methods. Now phonics is about to join the ranks of approaches that briefly raised expectations but failed to make much of a difference in the long run. This will be true of the synthetic as well as the analytic variety.

Phonics was doomed to yield disappointing results, because half of all English words contain one or more non-phonic elements in them. Or as John Hart wrote in 1551, the problem stems from 'the vices and faultes of our writing, which cause it to be tedious, and long in learning; and learned hard, and evil to read'.

What makes English 'evil to read' is using identical letters, or letter strings, to represent different sounds: 'the - he, go - do, friend - fiend, eight - height, treat - threat, are - care, move - over - oven, count - country - groups, cough - rough - through - although - bought, miners / minerals, later - lateral, menu - emu.

Quite a few identically looking whole words have to be read differently in different contexts:

read, lead, live, bass, minute, house, use, deliberate, graduate, second, etc.

English spelling is even more 'tedious, and long in learning' because of the need to memorise hundreds of unpredictable spellings, particularly for vowels. English has no standard phonic method for spelling many of its vowel sounds. The medial EE-sound can be spelt as in 'steep, leap, people, period, piece' or 'police'. The short E as in 'bed, head, said, friend' or 'leopard'.

The final OO-sound as in 'to - two - too - true - blew - through - flu. And so on and on.

Because English has at least 3500 common words which contain some element of spelling unpredictability, even bright children need many years of intensive practice to become proficient spellers and slower learners become completely overwhelmed by the task.

Poor reading standards first began to attract serious attention in the late 1940s. Since then, many studies and surveys have reported that approximately 25% of English speakers, right across the world, are 'functionally illiterate' on leaving school. Our spelling system guarantees this failure rate. It has so far defeated all attempts to reduce it, including the current Literacy Strategy.

For a couple of years the Strategy made a difference. But research carried out by Professors Tymms and Fitz-Gibbon at the University of Durham, suggests that improvements as measured by government tests are indeed illusory. They have been administering a literacy test to 122 schools since 1997 - but one that schools do not specifically teach to or revise for. As measured by this test, there has been no real change in reading or vocabulary scores between 1997 and 2002.

For as long as our writing system continues to apply phonic principles very loosely, learning to read and write English will remain 'long' and 'tedious' and around 20 - 25% of learners will continue to leave school with little to show for the time they spent there. Not even J.K. Rowling has made much difference to this.

For the foreseeable future, our police and courts are likely to remain very busy, our prisons overcrowded and our insurance premiums high. We shall continue to pay heavily for our crazy spelling system.

Masha Bell

Times Educational Supplement 15 November 2002.
'Friday' Opinion p7. Talkback: you speak, we listen

Let's spell it out: the literacy drive isn't working

The Government's literacy strategy is failing to reduce educational underachievement. English results in the national tests for 11-year-olds blossomed between 1998 and 1999, but have remained stuck for the past three years. When the current generation of Year 6 pupils are tested as adults, around 25 per cent of them will again be found to be functionally illiterate.

English speakers worldwide share a determination not to address the irregularities of English spelling. But they haven't always avoided the problem. In the first half of the 20th century, there was greater understanding of what makes learning to read and write English difficult, and what should be done about it.

In 1953, the House of Commons passed a Spelling Reform Act. In 1963-64, London University's Institute of Education and the National Foundation for Educational Research launched a survey to investigate whether English spelling impeded the acquisition of literacy, and what could be done about it.

It found: a simpler spelling system allows children to learn to read and write far more quickly; those who cannot cope with traditional spelling can make good progress when using more phonemic spellings; a more regular system for spelling improves pupils' motivation, producing a more positive attitude to learning and greater enjoyment of it.

The research project used the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA). Teachers who took part in the study were so amazed to see even their slowest pupils learning to read and write so much better that they wanted to carry on using it. They believed that once children had grasped the alphabetic principle with ITA, they would be able to switch to normal English spelling and continue improving. Thus ITA was adopted in Anglophone schools across the world.

The brightest children switched from ITA to traditional spelling easily, but lower ability children could not cope, and after a decade the ITA strategy was regarded a failure. Unfortunately, its prolonged use obliterated the findings of the 1963-64 research and the clearly established need to simplify spelling.

The literacy strategy is failing because it is also being defeated by the irregularities of English spelling, just as ITA was. The currently favoured phonics approach shields children from the harsher realities of English spelling for as long as possible. They meet only the absolute minimum of unpredictably spelt words for the first few years, so nearly all of them make good progress. For roughly a quarter of learners, progress slows down, comes to a standstill, or regresses, when they are confronted with increasing numbers of the 3,500 common English words that are only partially phonic (for example, although) or completely unphonic (for example, quay). These children do not manage to progress beyond the reading level appropriate for nine-year-olds; in spelling, they don't even reach that.

Why don't we finally take note of the results of the 1963-64 research and make English more learner-friendly? Children spend two to three years learning English phonics (for example, but, bed, sister) and then another 10 learning to disobey them (for example, country, said, system). That is why we have to spend millions of pounds and a lot of energy, year after year, on measures to improve literacy rates.

Spelling simplification could make our children's lives less frustrating - and save money. It requires allowing children to continue using most of the phonic rules which are taught in their first three years at school.

Masha Bell is a retired secondary teacher of modern languages and English

Times Educational Supplement December 13 2002
Primary Forum p.17

Educational failure has been written into the script

The headline "Absence of phonic irritation aids the playful Finns" (November 22) was spot on. "Phonic irritation" is the reason why English-speaking countries have the "long tail of underachievement".

There is a clear correlation between inconsistent spelling systems and functional illiteracy. Finland is well known for its easy spelling code and exceptionally high rates of literacy.

The link between spelling systems and literacy rates is also confirmed by a closer look at Denmark and Sweden.

These children educate their children in very similar ways: allowing infants to learn mainly through play and delaying formal schooling until seven. Yet many Danish pupils leave school unable to read, while in Sweden this problem is far less common.

Danish and Swedish are similar languages - but they have very different spelling systems. Danish spelling is highly unpredictable, like Swedish used to be before it was made more learner-friendly. This explains why nearly all Swedish pupils learn to read and write with little effort, while many Danish ones struggle.

English spellings have changed a great deal over the past 500 years. But unfortunately, the chief purpose of the changes was to make English look more like Latin or to make English spellings conform to Latin spelling rules.

Young children would find learning to read and write much easier if we still spelt many words as Shakespeare did, e.g. hee, mee, shee, wee.

The English language survived centuries of Norman rule predominantly in the mouths of peasants. It continued to be despised by the higher orders and the educated élite long after it became the official language of Parliament and the courts from 1430 onwards. Scholars continued to debate and to write in Latin until the middle of the 17th-century.

They felt that only by making this uncouth mongrel language of Shakespeare conform to Latin could it be made an acceptable for intellectual use. What fools learned folk sometimes be.

Masha Bell
Masha Bell is a prematurely retired teacher of the English and modern languages.

Letter in The Independent, December 20 2002.

Sir: The Education Secretary's plans for bringing foreign languages into primary schools seem laudable (report, 19 December). But what will have to make room for them on the curriculum? The literacy and numeracy hours have already squeezed creative subjects and sport down to the barest minimum.

There is one major difference between us and the rest of Europe - very few other countries have a spelling system which is quite so child-unfriendly as ours. Italian pupils, for example, have to cope with no more than 350 un-phonically spelt words in all, while ours are confronted with a minimum of 3500 before the age of 16. This ensures that our children have to spend an inordinate amount of time on just learning to read and write their own language.

If Charles Clarke finally complied with what the House of Commons voted for in 1953 and began to implement simplification of our most non-alphabetic spellings, there would be more time for foreign languages in our schools too.

Scholars, with misplaced reverence for Latin, were most responsible for creating our present spelling chaos. The peasants in whose mouths and hands the English language was preserved during the three centuries when the upper classes spoke only French or Latin had more respect for alphabetic principles.

Yours sincerely
Masha Bell
The writer is a retired teacher of English and modern languages