Best quotes of 2005.

1 Dec 2005. Independent review of the teaching of early reading interim report. Jim Rose. Department for Education and Skills: The Standards Site. "27. It is generally accepted that English is harder to learn than many other languages, because the relationship between sounds and letters is more complex than in languages such as Finnish, Greek or German."

28-29 Sep 2005. OECD-CERI Learning sciences and brain research.
Conclusion includes: "Countries with deep orthographies might possibly begin to consider the political and societal feasibility of implementing orthographic reforms."

4 May 2006. Christian Science Monitor.

The buzz about spelling bees by Ruth Walker.

A New Zealand group called "Spell 4 Literacy" has been picketing spelling bees and otherwise campaigning for orthographical reform on the grounds that English spelling is a hindrance to literacy. (I can't help noticing, though, that their top guy is named Allan Campbell, and suspecting that he probably does not pronounce that "p.")

An outfit called the Simplified Spelling Society has likewise demonstrated at the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee with signs reading "Enuf is enuf" and "I'm thru with through." The society also maintains on its website extensive listings of languages where orthographical reform was been successfully carried out, including a report on the recent changes in German spelling, which include, as it happens, "Spagetti," without that troublesome "h."

Mar. 2006. Press Release: Spell 4 Literacy.

Quirky spelling blocks many from becoming literate.

The Christchurch and Auckland regional finals of the New Zealand Plunket Spelling Bee (respectivly, this Thursday, March 16, and following Thursday, March 23) are to be picketed by Spell 4 Literacy, a New Zealand group advocating spelling change.

"We want to draw attention to the fact that, altho many children, such as bee participants, hav the ability and persistence to master much of our quirky spelling and become competent readers and writers, there ar others who, thru no fault of their own, ar not so fortunat," said Allan Campbell, a spokesman for the group.

"If we want our literacy standards to match those achieved by some non-English European languages, we need to make our spelling an easy tool to master, and not an irritant and hurdle to overcome."

Spell 4 Literacy congratulated those who wer competent enuf to participate in the bee, but their good fortune should not hide the fact that English spelling was a huge and unnecessary hurdle for many. "Unnecessary because other languages hav shown that updating spelling can make it a logical, easy-to-manage tool that eases, not hinders, literacy learning," Campbell said.

The bee, open to year nine students, has four regional finals, in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, and Auckland, befor a national final in Wellington on April 1. Competitors and their schools compete for numerous prizes. The national winner will go to Washington, DC, to participate in the Scripps National Spelling Bee final, where the winner's major prize is $US12,000.

Spell 4 Literacy is also calling for the parliamentary Education and Science Select Committee to hold an inquiry into ways of upgrading spelling so it helps the acquisition of literacy.

[See Spell 4 Literacy.]

20 Jan 2006. Times Educational Supplement.

The language logic forgot.

Before readers have formed a notion of the patterns of English they encounter baffling spelling anomalies. So why isn't this problem tackled, asks John Bald.

The irregular, hybrid nature of English spelling is probably the longest-standing cause of strife in education. Its effect appears to be international - studies of reading around the world show a consistently higher proportion of weak readers in English than in other languages.

The real problem with irregularity in English is that it hits hardest in the early stages of learning to read. While analysis of the language shows irregularity running at 15 to 25 per cent of all words, the proportion of irregular words children meet in reception and infant classes is higher. If we define irregularity as letters not representing the sounds they indicate most frequently, the Department for Education and Skills' list of 45 high frequency words for the reception year has 14 irregular words, and there are 45 irregular words in the high frequency list for Year 2. This very high rate - 28.5 per cent - comes when children's knowledge of regular patterns is not yet established and is a major obstacle to learning to read, but no one has yet tackled it.

In his interim review of early reading, published last month, Jim Rose argues that irregularity makes systematic teaching of phonics "even more crucial, because children are highly unlikely to work out this relationship [between sounds and letters] for themselves". He also points out that the national curriculum treats phonics "as essential subject content, and not as a method of teaching". This does not tackle the issue of what the child should do when the alphabetic code does not work as we expect.

To take a simple example, the logic that enables us to read the word "can" does not help us at all with the middle section of "could". There is a logic to the spelling - to find a completely illogical word, such as Shaw's famous "ghoti" spelling for fish, you have to make it up (gh as in laugh; o as in women; ti as in motion). But English is governed by a fuzzy logic. Often letters work in combinations that have to be interpreted, or they are derived from different codes, such as Old English, French or German, that a child can't be expected to understand.

It is much more regular in consonants than vowels, which are more often affected by the switch of a word from one language to another, and by changes in pronunciation or usage over time that are not fully reflected in spelling.

The latter is a particular problem in the high frequency words for Year 2, only one of which, "people" is clearly from French (peuple). It results in anomalies such as the spelling of the first personal pronoun as I, with just one letter, while the spelling of the second personal pronoun, which could equally well be spelled with the letter u, requires three.

Attempts at spelling reform have not worked, and are unlikely to, if only because English is so strongly established internationally that no one has the authority to reform it. Even Webster's modest changes two centuries ago have not been accepted everywhere, on no other grounds than that they are American. The lateral thinking of the Initial Teaching Alphabet, which tried to impose stricter logic by inventing new letters, ran into a completely new set of problems, and has almost, but not quite, disappeared.

So, if we are stuck with fuzzy logic, how do we present this to children so that they can understand it? The answer is to explain that the writing system is logical some of the time, but not always. This can and should be done in a way that children can understand in terms of their own experience. Do children behave well all the time or some of the time? Are the adults they knew always in a good mood or just usually? If we were more than 1,000 years old, as English is, wouldn't we have a few wrinkles?

These ideas help us avoid pretending to children that the language is more logical and regular than it is, and bring it into line with the rest of what they know of life. It then becomes possible to teach the regular and recurring patterns in language, and to use them in word-building, without straining against the illusion that they always work, or getting frustrated when they don't. And then more of our children will be able to experience the benefits of English spelling and grammar, with its freedom from inflections, gender agreements, and funny hat-shaped accents that show where letters used to be 350 years ago.

John Bald is a literacy and languages consultant.

13/01/2006 Times Educational Supplement. [Extracts.]

Phonic hell. So that's why we can't spell.

One woman is campaigning for English to switch to a more logical simplified spelling system, which correlates to phonemes, to make it easier for children to learn to read. Demeter Lowrison reports.

If you are reading this, then the system worked for you. But what should be done to make reading easier for the three-out-of-ten seven-year-olds who fail the national curriculum reading test and the one-in-five who have still not mastered it by the age of eleven?

Masha Bell believes that the biggest obstacles to the reading progress of pupils in key stage 1 are a mere 230 words that contain graphemes with several possible pronunciations, such as in 'read, learn' and 'wear'. Mrs Bell first learned English at 14 when she left the Soviet Union to live in Germany. She was already fluent in Lithuanian, Russian and German.

She went on to become a secondary teacher in Dorset, teaching English and modern foreign languages. But she noticed that few of even her brightest pupils could write fluently at the age of 11. Her children, who later studied at Cambridge university, took longer to become literate than she had done in Lithuanian, German or Russian.

After leaving teaching, Mrs Bell went to work for the Simplified Spelling Society. This enabled her to discuss the way our words are written with English speakers throughout the world. Her own experiences and research forced her to conclude that inconsistency of spelling is the main reason English is so difficult to master. She undertook a four-year comprehensive analysis of the spelling system and its vagaries. The result is her book, Understanding English Spelling.

"Pupils in this country start their school lives with a disadvantage, and that is the orthography of the English language," she says. "The spelling is unpredictable and illogical and it is time we seriously considered reforming the way some words are spelt. We try to teach phonics, but the truth is many words have to be learned by sight and memory because phonetic rules don't apply."

However, educationists have mixed views on her theory. Dr Ros Fisher, senior lecturer in education at Exeter university, says: "It has to be said that spelling does not change at the same rate as the spoken word. But it is not the whole story.

"Countries such as Finland, Greece and Spain do better at the initial stages, where there is a straight correlation between letters and phonemes, but when children get beyond the decoding stage, things even out. In English, we have 26 letters and 44 phonemes, of course."

Sandra Potestà, of the Regional Language Network for Yorkshire and the Humber, which works with schools and communities to promote language learning, has some sympathy with Mrs Bell's beliefs. She says: "It is quite obvious that simplification of spelling would help enormously with reading. It certainly worked in Germany. Germany, Austria, Switzerland and other countries with German speaking inhabitants officially adopted spelling reform in 1998.

"As a linguist, I know that English is a difficult language to teach and to learn. This type of modification would make it much simpler, particularly for people learning English as a second language."

She argues that simplification would be particularly useful because it would help learners get off to a good start with the language. "It is nonsense to say it would be too difficult to organise this - Germany, Austria and Switzerland managed it," she says.


Masha Bell has chosen a list of 25 words that she believes are particularly unhelpful in the teaching of basic phonics.
If they were amended, she argues, we could turn far more children into successful and enthusiastic readers and writers.

She says that if anyone points out that respelling "read" as "red" and "great" as "grate' conflates the heterographs"read/red" and "great/grate', they should remember that all heterographs are "an artificially created, totally unnecessary difficulty".

(You can visit bars, eat many bars of chocolate, bar one, be called to the bar, be put behind bars.).

On the other hand, the 101 words in English such as read, lead, row, bass and minute cause much reading trouble and, in Mrs Bell's view, we should be clamouring for them to be got rid of if we want children to learn better.


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