[See Journal and Newsletter and SPB articles, Keynote speech and Press Release by Chris Jolly.]

BBC radio 4, Saturday 13 Mar 2004 8:50 am.

Interviewer John Humphreys.

"Thou whoreson zed! Thou unnecessary letter!" So said King Lear. Was Shakespeare right? Do our words have too many letters? "Yes they do", says the educational book publisher Chris Jolly [See links]. He wants us to change spellings to make them easier. He's with me; Tony Fox of Leeds University is in our York studio. Really, Mr Jolly?

CJ. Yes, it isn't so much we've got too many letters. It is that we use them so irregularly in our words. And the result is that we make teaching reading very much more difficult than it needs to be.

JH. For instance? What letters? Give us some words where you would lose letters.

CJ. I would recommend that we remove some of the letters that turn words into being tricky words. An example would be the 'i' in 'friend' or the 'u' in 'guess', so that these words then become easier for children to learn.

JH. But they will learn. I mean, as you know, you produce books that teach them.

CJ. They will learn, but they take much longer and more of them fail. About a quarter of all children have difficulty in learning to read.

JH. Isn't that partly our problem then that we don't teach them well enough?

CJ. You can improve it a lot with good teaching, but we still have a basic problem that makes it more difficult. And it leads to a lot of adults being illiterate.

JH. Ah, well that is a terribly serious point, Dr Fox, isn't it?

TF. Yes, in a way, yes. Obviously the case has some merit for simplifying or improving English spellings. But I have some reservations, some technical reservations about the whole thing. There is a false assumption underlying most attempts at spelling reform. And that is, that the role of spelling and writing is to indicate the way you pronounce the words. And that isn't really true. The point about writing is that it should identify words for us. We know how to pronounce the words; we don't need to be told that.

JH. We could still identify 'friend' if it was spelt 'f-r-e-n-d' and if 'guest' was spelt 'g-e-s-t', that would be fine, wouldn't it?

TF. Yes, but let me give you an example of what I mean. Let's take the word 'right'. You say 'which word 'right'?

JH. Yes, 'r-i-g-h-t, w-r-i-t-e, r-i-t-e, w-r-i-g-h-t.'

YF. If you were to remove all the so-called unnecessary letters from that, they would all look the same wouldn't they; they would all be spelt in the same way. And it might be difficult then to distinguish them.

JH. Chris Jolly, good point?

CJ. I think that's fair. There is a case for keeping words like that separate in their spelling. The case for going back to a structure and relying on that has a problem in that it is inconsistent. Dr Fox would probably say that we should have a 'p' in a word like 'receipt' because it is in 'reception'. The difficulty with that is that a word like 'deceit' doesn't have a 'p' as in 'deception'. So we choose one or t'other, and I say we should have it follow more closely how we say it.

TF. Well that's true enough, but let me give you some more examples of this sort of thing. Take the word 'damn', 'd-a-m-n'. Obviously, I have to spell it out in letters, to tell you which word I mean. That word 'damn' makes a difficulty with the 'n', because it is unnecessary; it is not pronounced. But then we have related words; the words fit into a family, so we have 'damnation' and 'damnable' in which the 'n' is pronounced. If you take the 'n' from 'damn', you destroy the link between 'damn', 'damnation' and 'damnable.

JH. Not as easy as it seems, Chris Jolly?

CJ. I think the link will always be there. And linguists like Dr Fox will always be able to remind us and keep us aware of it and keep the historical records. I think for a child learning to read, though, that's the very point, that they can read a word like 'damnation', but then, when it comes to the word 'damn' we make it extra difficult for them. We should remove that 'n', because otherwise they will be trying to say it 'dam-n'.

JH. A very quick thought on that Dr Fox?

TF. Well, should we really be making our spelling system depend on the abilities of five-year-old children to learn?

JH. Well, there we are, we are going to leave that one hanging in the air, I'm afraid. We didn't have very much time, but fascinating. We'll get lots of response, I dare say. Thanks to you, very much indeed, Chris Jolly and Tony Fox.

PRESS RELEASE: Jolly Learning March 2004.

Take out the tricky letter.

Help children learn to read, by making spelling easier, says publisher.

Educational publisher Chris Jolly is calling on grown-ups to accept spellings that will make it easier for children to learn to read. Much of the problem, he says, is unnecessary extra letters. An example is a word like 'have'. With the 'e' at the end it looks like it rhymes with 'gave' making it harder to read. If it was just written as 'hav' a child could work it out from the sounds. With the extra 'tricky e' it has to be remembered specially.

There are lots of words with a 'tricky letters' that should be taken out, he says. He gives these examples - along with the proposed spelling without the tricky letter:

friend → frend (as in trend)
catch → cach (as in such)
guest → gest (as in vest)
lamb → lam (as in ham)
were → wer (as in her)
your → yor (as in for)
shone → shon (as in don)
wrist → rist (as in list)
knife → nife (as in life)
young → yung (as in sung)
tread → tred (as in red)

"With a quarter of 11 year olds unable to read properly it is time adults helped by making spelling easier," he said.

English spelling can be a minefield to a young child. This way we take out some of the mines.

Chris Jolly publishes the Jolly Phonics programme which is now used in 54% of primary schools to teach reading. In the Jolly Readers that come with this programme these tricky letters are made lighter, to show the child they should not be sounded when reading a word.

Teachers agree with him. Sheila Johnson says "Children find the words written in this way much easier to read." However Chris Jolly is not suggesting that children should learn to spell without the tricky letters. Instead he suggests grown-ups should try it - and give themselves shorter words to write, as well as helping future generations with their reading.

But are these spellings part of our history that show where words come from? Professor Don Scragg of Manchester University, [SSS Vice President] says:

"These spellings represent our linguistic history only sporadically and erratically, e.g. 'catch' and 'guest' replaced medieval spellings 'cach' and 'gest'."
And is spelling something that is part of the structure of language, that should not be changed? Professor John Wells, professor of phonetics and linguistics at University College London, [SSS President] says:

"English remains English even if written in shorthand, transcribed into phonetic symbols, or transmitted electronically. Tidying up some of the confusing aspects of traditional spelling would not harm the language in any way. On the contrary, it would work to the advantage of all users of English."
No one knows better how difficult it is to change English spelling than Jack Bovill, Chairman of the Simplified Spelling Society.
"We have been encouraging change for a long time but adult English speakers are very resistant, unlike children. Change has been effected in other languages and it should be possible in the English language. Now there is a better understanding of how this hampers our children, it is much more likely we can see change slowly take place by design rather than by default, as when 'shew' changed to 'show' and 'musick' changed to 'music'."
Christopher Jolly, Managing Director, Jolly Learning Ltd. [See links.]

Back to the top.