Also on this page: two revews of Valerie Yule's book, The Book of Spells and Misspells.

7 October 2005. Times Educational Supplement. Excerpts.

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Have you ever started to write a word on the board only to discover that the letters just won't seem to arrange themselves in the right order? Or found yourself surreptitiously consulting a dictionary under your desk? Well, if you're prone to the odd spelling lapse, at least you're in good company. Wordsworth once wrote of "eughtrees" (yew trees), and was guilty of such schoolboy errors as "pennyless" and "untill", while quite a number of "peculearitys" (as he would spell it) can be found in the writing of WB Yeats. Being hopeless at spelling may be no barrier to producing great literature, but there is still a stigma attached to it. We can get away with making the occasional grammatical error, or mispronouncing a word, but spelling is often seen as the benchmark of literacy, and those who are bad at it are perceived as poorly educated, or less intelligent. But, given the complexity of the English spelling system and the fact that very few of us are letter perfect, should it be such a big deal?

'Spelling is compelling'.

Or so says the motto for Hard Spell, last November's BBC version of the US-style spelling "bee" (competition), which saw children struggle with such orthographic horrors as "haemorrhage" and "chihuahua". The show, and ITV's The Great British Spelling Test broadcast the month before, are examples of recent attempts by the media to make spelling "sexy". They followed the success of the documentary feature film Spellbound, which tracked a group of American schoolchildren as they competed in their national spelling bee. There's been an upsurge of interest in the publishing world too, spearheaded by a book that explores the eccentricity of English spelling: Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary; or Why Can't Anybody Spell? by Vivian Cook, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Newcastle.

So why can't we spell?

The answer to Professor Cook's question probably lies in the fact that the English language has 44 sounds, but more than 1,000 ways of spelling them. A 2001 Dundee University study of primary schoolchildren in 15 European countries found that it took an average of 2.5 years for children working in English to master basic literacy skills whereas those in most other countries had achieved this within a year of starting school. Dyslexia is also more common in Britain than in countries with more straightforward spelling systems.

Despite frequent claims that spelling standards are declining, there's little hard evidence to support this. However, it's clear that many people are leaving school and university with a less than secure grasp. When a University of Ulster study asked 1,000 people to identify spelling errors in a piece of writing, no one in the 15 to 21 age group spotted them all. And a survey of 1,000 job applications to a PR company found that 90 per cent contained errors on the first page, many involving spelling. Some of the most common mistakes are: not knowing when to double the consonant as in "beginning", using the wrong vowel such as writing "seperate" instead of "separate", and confusion of homophones such as "their", "there" and "they're".

A potted history.

English has a long and complicated history and many seemingly illogical spellings can be traced back to the influence of other languages, notably Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse and Norman French. For example, the "qu" spelling for the "kw" sound has its origins in French. Before the arrival of the Normans, "queen" was spelt "cwen" in keeping with the generally more phonetic spelling patterns of Old English. Also, some pronunciations have changed while the spelling has stayed the same; in the 17th century the silent "k" in "knight" was sounded.

Until the 15th century, everyone spelled words as they liked, often in ways that reflected their regional accent. Incredibly, the Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English records 500 spellings of the word "through" from this time. It was obvious that something had to be done to ease written communication, and a slow process of standardisation began, headed by the scribes of the Chancery office who produced the official paperwork of the kingdom. However, their decisions were not always logical. Some reformers were keen to make the etymology of the words apparent, so "debt" and "doubt" had the "b" inserted in an attempt to emphasise their Latin origins. This resulted in a lot of silent letters and inconsistencies, not least because the reformers were sometimes mistaken about the provenance of words.

The introduction of Caxton's printing press in 1476 speeded up standardisation, but many early printers were either from the Netherlands or had learned their trade there, and so added some Dutch spelling patterns to the hotchpotch. The process culminated in Dr Samuel Johnson's dictionary in 1755 and, since then, changes in English spelling have been minimal.

Is reform an option?

A number of other European countries have successfully made changes to their spelling systems and, in the US, Noah Webster introduced a range of what he considered to be more logical spellings in his 1828 dictionary. So why can't we do the same in Britain? Spelling reform has had some high-profile supporters, notably George Bernard Shaw, who made provision in his will for the funding of a competition to devise a simplified version of English spelling, although nothing came of it.

Today a reformer called Richard Wade is campaigning for the widespread adoption of what he calls "freespeling", whereby writers are at liberty to adapt spellings of difficult words so they are more phonetically based. According to his website (see resources), his aim is not an immediate overhaul of the system, but a continuation of the gradual evolution of spelling. Supporters are encouraged to "freespel" a few words on each page in informal correspondence. To avoid appearing illiterate, they place an "f" at the beginning, along with a footnote explaining the concept. He hopes that new, simplified spellings will eventually become standard or be allowed to exist with equal status alongside traditional spellings.

However, as Dr John Gledhill, membership secretary of the Simplified Spelling Society, points out, not only is there opposition to reform on the grounds of tradition, there are also practical difficulties. "Given that English is a global language with a huge variety in the way words are pronounced, it's impossible to develop a fully phonetic system that would reflect this," he says.

"Our society has existed for a century and no one has yet come up with a truly workable solution. At the moment our main focus is to publicise the need for reform. For many children, learning to spell is a laborious exercise that takes up time that could be better spent on other things. We need to start by getting rid of some of the dead wood of spelling, the silent letters and irregularities, so that we can see a way forward."

However, as Professor Cook points out in the introduction to his book, opponents would argue that the purpose of spelling is not just to reflect the sound of words, but also to provide a link to meaning and show their relationship to other words. We see an "ed" ending as a symbol representing the past tense, regardless of the variations in pronunciation. If you were to take the word "sign" and remove the silent g, changing the spelling to "sine" in keeping with a more commonly seen pattern, it would lose its connection with related words such as signal and signature. Those against reform also point out that English spelling is about 80 per cent regular and many problems can be overcome by proper teaching of rules and conventions.

[Valerie Yule: see Journals, Newsletters, Media, Personal View, Anthology, Bulletins, Web links.]

12 September 2005. Monash Journal, Australia.

Spells trouble: Valerie Yule says the English language itself is to blame for poor spellers.

Spelling out the simpler way to go.

Spelling problems could be cleared up for all time if we followed one simple rule, according to author Valerie Yule.

In her book The Book of Spells and Misspells, Dr Yule says 'spelling demons' in the English language result from too many letters we don't need. She suggests an international English spelling that would drop the silent 'i' from friend, so it would be spelt frend, or replace bomb with bom.

The streamlined spelling rules would help all people who use English, including those adopting it as a second language, she said.

Dr Yule, a researcher and literacy teacher, hopes her book will also give people a laugh about spelling. "It's the spelling that has something silly about it, not the speller."

The confounding exceptions to spelling rules were made by scholars to make reading exclusive rather than a general pleasure, she said.

A good speller herself, Dr Yule said said it was a shock to find other people couldn't spell and to see what a handicap it was. When visiting Korea, she also got a surprise to see how quickly children learned to spell their native language compared to Australians. A third of the Australian syllabus was devoted to spelling in Victorian times, which is a fair bit of time ago. "Now we just try to avoid spelling."

The Book of Spells & Misspells is available at ABC shops, and Dymocks.
Cameron Lucadou-Wells.

1 September 2005. Eastbourne Herald.

Bookshelf with Carol Davies.

THE BOOK OF SPELLS & MISSPELLS. Valerie Yule. Book Guild £8.95.

School examination results have been in the headlines recently. Some question whether the A-level standard is as high as it was in the past, but whatever we feel on the subject there is not getting away from the fact that literacy is important for those who want to make their mark in the world. Most funny books about spelling laugh at people who cannot spell. This book laughs at the spelling. there are so many inconsistencies in the English language. It reveals that primary teachers at an in-service course on spelling averaged only 14.8 correct. Some 30 psychologists at an international conference on dyslexia fared worse. The only word they could all spell was psychology. The author writes, 'Today the English language belongs to the world, not just to the English. It cannot be owned by the small elite who sorrow over those who cannot spell accommodation or broccoli.'

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