Memorandum from the Simplified Spelling
Society (EY 18)
1. We submit evidence on how the difficulties
of English spelling hinder children's acquisition of literacy
and the development of logical thinking, and explain why English
spelling makes it inevitable that UK children have to start school
several years earlier than their continental counterparts.
2. We do so by reference to the 45 words
of List One (Annex C)
as recommended for "sight recognition" in the guidelines
for the Literacy Hour"essential high frequency words
which pupils will need, even to tackle very simple texts".
Children will also need these words to write very simple sentences,
although this aspect of List One is not clearly stated.
3. Our other main reference points are six
of the Early Learning Goals for Language and Literacy as just
set out by the QCA:
hear and say initial and final sounds
in words, and short vowel sounds within words;
link sounds to letters, naming and
sounding the letters of the alphabet;
read a range of familiar and common
words and simple sentences independently;
attempt writing for various purposes,
using features of different forms such as lists, stories and instructions;
write their own names and other things
such as labels and captions and begin to form simple sentences,
sometimes using punctuation;
use their phonic knowledge to write
simple regular words and make phonetically plausible attempts
at more complex words.
4. English spelling makes it very difficult
for young children to acquire "phonic knowledge" and
"to make phonetically plausible attempts at more complex
words" because large numbers of even the simplest essential
high frequency words have phonetically implausible spellings.
5. English has a far greater numbers of
such words than virtually all other European languages. (Annex
6. In the introduction to List One it is
stated "Some of these words have irregular or difficult spellings
and . . . they are hard to predict from the surrounding text.
Teachers should teach pupils to recognise the words in context
when reading, particularly during shared text work with the whole
class, but the words will also need to be reinforced through other
practice and exploration activities so that they can be easily
read out of context as well."
7. This is very sound advice. It is misleading
only in the implication that this kind of teaching and learning
to read and write is something exceptional, something that is
required only with a small number of peculiar words. It is not
the case that just "some" English words lack "phonetically
plausible" spellings. Over half of all English words have
phonetically implausible elements in them.
8. We examined 4,671 common English words for
spelling predictability and found 2,569 words with some element
of unpredictability in them. We explain the reading and spelling
problems that are caused by this unpredictability with reference
to the two biggest problem areas: the doubling of consonants in
Annex A and the EE-sound in Annex B. They alone comprise a total
of 1,161 words which require learning which goes beyond phonics.
9. In other European languages children
do not encounter anything even approaching this much irregularity.
A comparison of the vocabulary of List One translated into different
languages shows this very clearly. German, Spanish and Italian
translations of List One yield 63, 61 and 79 words respectively
(because these languages have several genders for nouns and changing
endings on verbs and nouns). However, among these basic words
German has seven, Spanish just five and Italian only four words
that demand slightly more than the grasp of simple phonics for
their reading or spelling, ie no more than 8 per cent. (Annex
10. In English 23 of the 45 words on List
One have phonetically unpredictable elements in them for either
reading or spelling. Once again just over half of all words turn
out to be spelt unpredictably on closer examination. Some spellings
are contradicted by other words on the List itself, for others
children will encounter common alternatives very soon afterwards
as can be seen below (List One Words are in capital letters, with
problematic spellings underlined and contradictory graphemes in
THE - HE, ME, SHE,
WE - SEE - sea, tea; gem
gentle - GET, WENT - SAID,
THEY - AWAY, DAY, PLAY; ARE
car, far, care;
mess, kiss - YES - THIS - IS
- buzz, think, thump;
food, boot LOOK - COME,
- MUM, UP; OF - have;
blue, flew, through YOU - TO
- NO GO GOING - slow, blow;
DOG - WAS;
MY - tie, high; ALL
- always, author, awful, awesome.
11. One cannot learn to read the 23 underlined
words above by simply learning the sounds which are reproduced
by individual letters or regular combinations of themthe
phonic method which is used in nearly all other European countries.
In English simple linking of sounds to letters is possible only
to a very limited degree, and with vowels never completely reliably,
as a closer look at the remaining 22 words of List One reveals.
12. Even the eight words on List One which
at first seem phonically perfectly sound,
a, am, and, at, dad;in, it;on
have their spellings contradicted in some other
very common and frequently used words:
any, many, banana, ask;kind, mind;women,
13. This lack of logic makes it far more
difficult to acquire phonic knowledge in English than in languages
with phonemic spelling systems, where identical letters, or regular
combinations of them, can be relied on to produce identical sounds
in nearly all words. Reading schemes for young learners can try
to avoid unpredictable spellings, but it is impossible to write
even the simplest of children's stories that includes only phonetically
sound spellings, because unpredictable spellings abound at every
14. One cannot use the phonic method to
teach children to read words in which identical letter combinations
are pronounced in very different ways:
head, read, clear, great, lead, bread;over,
mover, oven;pour, our, tower lower;even, ever;liver,
driver, driven;height, weight;tough, through, though.
15. Children cannot read such words by simply
using their phonic knowledge. They have to learn to guess substantial
parts of them intelligently using phonics and clues from context.
For vast numbers of English words, learning to read by just sounding
out letters and joining them into words, as happens in most European
languages, is simply impossible.
16. This aspect of English spelling makes
learning to read English far more difficult than other languages.
This needs to be taken into account when comparing educational
provision in the UK with practices in other countries where literacy
acquisition is a much easier learning task.
17. This is also the main reason why the
Basic Skills Agency (BSA) has repeatedly reported in the past
decade that about a third of English adults are functionally illiterate,
irrespective of whether they left school recently or several decades
ago. Sir Claus Moser reported in March 1999 that seven million
British adults are incapable of finding a plumber in the Yellow
Pages. Large-scale surveys in the US have produced similar results.
18. For children who do not speak English
at home, or those who hear only a very limited vocabulary at home,
this is particularly difficult, because such children do not know
what the words they meet on a page are supposed to sound like.
For example, it is impossible to "read" the different
sounds of "ou" in the words "pour, our, tough,
through, bought" in the normal sense of "reading",
that of applying previously acquired phonic knowledge. One has
to know already which different sounds those two letters are meant
to represent in those five words in order to be able to read them.
19. Apart from having only limited application,
basic English phonics are also much harder to teach. One can initially
teach children to read another 14 words on List One easily enough:
I, like, big;dog, for;cat, can;away,
play, day;the, went;up, mum.
But when it comes to applying the phonic knowledge
acquired from learning them to the reading of other words, teachers
have to be able to provide numerous explanations and qualifications:
(a) The letter I is unusual in that it sounds
like its name when used on its own, not like it does in short
words (bit, fit); whereas the letter A generally sounds as it
does inside short words, even when it is used on its own (a cat,
(b) The I-sound is often spelt with a "magic
e" as in "like", but at the end of words it is
usually spelt "y" (my, fly, sky); or -ie (die, tie);
but it has several other spellings as well: buy, bye; sign, kind;
(c) The letter G spells the final sound of
"big" and "dog", but at the beginning of words
it can spell the J sound as well. This is mostly before the letters
E and I, but not always. You have to be careful with the pronunciation
of G at the beginning of words (get, give, gently, ginger). At
the end of words -ge (page, age, sage) and -dge (which you find
after a short vowel sound in a short wordbridge, fridge)
make a soft G sound.
(d) The OR sound has four other common spellings:
more, door, oar, four.
(e) The k-sound is mostly spelt c (cat, cot),
but before I or E it is spelt K (kite, like), and at the end of
short words it is usually spelt ck (stick) and if the letter before
it is not a vowel it is also spelt k (dark/pink), but there are
also quite a few exceptional spellings (arc, school, chorus, chemistry).
(f) At the end of words the long A-sound
is usually spelt as -ay. ("They", "grey" and
"whey" are exceptions).
(g) The TH combination spells two slightly
different sounds (think, that).
(h) The e-sound of "the", "get"
and "went" is very often spelt "ea" instead
(bread, head, read), but quite differently as well (any, bury,
said, leopard, friend).
(i) The U-sound of "mum" is frequently
also spelt as in "come, some, oven, none" but in other
ways too (country, couple, blood, flood).
20. Such qualifications and limitations
mean that in English children cannot easily derive general principles
of reading by just learning to read a few words, as is the case
with more regularly spelt languages. This difference also requires
that teachers have to be aware of all the above contradictions
to enable them to teach English reading effectively, particularly
when teaching reading to the many children who do not pick it
up easily. This means that English literacy teachers need far
more specialised training than with easier languages, where virtually
any literate adult can teach children to read quite competently.
21. Although English reading presents much
greater challenges than other languages to both teachers and pupils,
they are easy when compared to the difficulties which stand in
the way of mastering English spelling.
22. In languages with phonemic spelling
systems children can both read and spell virtually any word in
those languages once they have mastered their basic phonics. Italian
children who start school at six have repeatedly been found to
be able to read and spell most words one year later, whereas English
children take 10 years to achieve an adult standard of spelling
(Schonell & Schonell 1950; Vernon 1969, 1977; Thorstad 1991).
C Upward found that UK students of German made more spelling errors
in their written English than when writing German. (Journal of
Reading Research, 1992.)
23. After 15 years of education, university
graduates in the UK generally end up spelling fairly accurately
and confidently, but not without exception, as any form tutor
who has had the duty to check reports of secondary teachers before
they go out to parents can testify.
24. Dr Bernard Lamb, of Imperial College
London and member of the Queen's English Society, who investigated
the practices and opinions of English teachers and reported on
them in 1997 collected many errors which teachers made when writing
25. Prior to that Dr Lamb had been appalled
by the poor spelling standards of his students at Imperial College
and decided to study them more systematically. His findings shocked
the nation when he published his results in 1992. In 1998 even
the spelling standards of quite a few undergraduates at Oxford
University were found to be disappointing by Bernard Richards.
26. When Dr Lamb looked at spelling ability
and communication skills of entrants to industry and commerce
who had not gone on to higher education, he found them worse still
than those of undergraduates (1994). The 1999 national English
tests for 14-year-olds and for 11-year-olds also showed that fewer
than 60 per cent reached the target expected for their age in
27. All the above findings make it very
clear that it takes many years to attain competence in English
spelling; that even well-motivated and intelligent students, have
frequently not reached that goal yet by the age of 18. Many individuals
fail to become accurate spellers even by the time they graduate
28. An international comparison of adult
literacy and numeracy skills in 13 countries, published early
in 1999, leaves no doubt that poor standards of literacy among
adults are almost equally prevalent in all English speaking countries.
The percentages of adults with very low levels of literacy and
numeracy in each country, as published in The Times 26th March
1999, are given below. The first figure is the percentage for
illiteracy and the second for innumeracy.
Ireland 24/25, Britain 23/23, United States 22/21,
New Zealand 20/20, Australia 17/17, Canada 17/17,
Belgium 17/17, Swiss Germans 19/14, Swiss French
The Netherlands 10/10, Germany 12/7, Sweden 7/7.
29. (Economic and historical circumstances
may largely explain the particularly poor Polish results.)
30. We believe that the unpredictability
of English spellings is the main cause of the remarkably similar
illiteracy and innumeracy rates in all English speaking countries.
They all score disappointingly badly, with Australia and Canada
doing slightly better.It must be worth finding out why
adults in these two countries outperformed other English speakers.
31. It is also interesting that in the three
countries with two languages adults performed very similarly (Canada,
Belgium and Switzerland).
32. German speaking Swiss adults have the
disadvantage of speaking a dialect which sounds very different
from the one that German spelling was devised to represent, giving
them a disadvantage over the other two bilingual countries.
33. What strikes us about the three countries
that achieve far better standards of literacy and numeracy than
all the rest is that all three last modernised their spelling
systems this century. When we compared the vocabulary of List
One for spelling unpredictability with its German translation,
we found German to be far easier than English. We know that both
Sweden and the Netherlands have succeeded in making their spellings
easier to learn than they used to be in the past. It is therefore
very likely that Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands attain higher
educational standards quite simply because they have easier and
more logical spelling systems.
34. It is therefore worth examining in detail
what makes English spelling so difficult to master. We have demonstrated
by means of List One that English spellings frequently contradict
each other. When one looks at which words even very young children
manage to spell accurately, and those which both large numbers
of young pupils and older ones fail to get right, one can easily
see what makes English so difficult to spell.
35. Ken Spencer, a lecturer in educational
studies at the University of Hull, was given the opportunity to
administer a 40-word spelling test to all 236 pupils in years
7 to 11 in a nearby primary school which attains average results
in national tests. The test words were taken from SCAA's word
lists for national tests; 20 words were from tests for 7-year-olds
and the other 20 from tests for 11-year-olds.
In the test for 7-year-olds the best to worst
spelt words (with percentages of pupils who got them right given
in brackets) were as follows:
Hat (97), net (91), hand (85), fish (84), flag
(83), house (62), sock (61), boat (55), road (54), morning (41),
holiday (40), spade (39), shout (39), because (35), smile (32),
family (29), wait (27), friends (25), bucket (23), pictures (13).
36. The order from least misspelt to most
often misspelt word was almost identical when the results for
each year group were looked at separately. The same wordspictures,
bucket, friends, wait, familywere giving trouble to all
age groups. The additional four years of practice made a difference:
only five out of 46 in Year 2 spelt "pictures" correctly;
in year 6 this was achieved by 30 pupils out of 40. Each age group
showed some improvement, but the words which were most often misspelt
by each class were identical.
37. Words that make phonic sense and have
predictable spellings are mastered easily by nearly all. Those
that make heavy demands on memory are only learned with repeated
practice, spread over many years, but large numbers of children
never manage to get them right.
38. We have already established that there
are at least 2,500 such difficult words in English out of 4,671
items of common vocabulary. These words represent the minimum
of additional learning which is required for accurate spelling
of ordinary English, after mastering phonics. Children who acquire
literacy in easier languages never have to face this extra burden
in their education.
39. It is difficult not to conclude that
poor spelling standards among young and old in the UK, and all
the other English speaking countries, are due more to the unpredictability
of English spellings than insufficient grasp of phonics or inadequate
teaching. With practice pupils do get better, but perfection is
an almost unattainable goal, except for a small number of individuals
who have an exceptionally good visual memory.
40. It is very easy to see why 15 words
out of the 20 above cause pupils problems: most have at least
some components which are contradicted by different spellings
for identical sounds in other frequently used words; others can
only be spelt accurately with the help of special rules, or by
ignoring rules which are supposed to apply generally but don't
househow, now, pence,
fence; spadepaid, raid, stayed;
becausewas, doors, course; waithate,
late; friendstrend, lend; lendhead, said;
smilestyle, island, while;
sockpark, magic (the logic for the spelling of the
k-sound at the end of words is hard to grasp, and the "ck"
at the end of short words especially so.)
holidayholly, jollyholy ("hollyday"is
how many children spell that word)
morningthe "r" is widely not pronounced and then
there are "bought, taught, awning, mourning" which spell
the same sound differently.)
shout"how now brown cow", "fought",
"route" all make children uncertain about this spelling.
familyThe "i" is rarely pronounced; besides,
the word is not pronounced fay-mi-lee, so according to the rule
for doubling consonants, this should have "mm" in it.
bucket"blood, flood, country".
We pronounce it as "buckit" and that is how children
try to spell itthe spelling of unstressed vowels is a big
picturespick, stick, chair,
chess, farmers (This spelling makes least logical
sense and proves very resistant to learning.)
41. For young minds trying to make sense
of the world as a whole, and not just spelling, such contradictions
are extremely baffling. There are often no sensible explanations
that teachers can provide for them. It comes down to having to
suspend logic and just remembering.
42. Even for children whose parents are
supportive, reassuring and articulate, coming to terms with all
those contradictions is hard enough. For most others this can
easily start to look completely impossible, especially to those
whose parents were defeated by the same challenge.
43. When one looks at how nine-year-olds
performed in trying to spell words deemed more appropriate for
11-year-olds, it becomes even clearer that in English many words
cannot be spelt by applying phonic rules. Children can typically
only spell those English words which have been taught or have
at least seen before.
44. The list of 20 words below shows how
many out of 38 children aged nine (those from two classes, who
were present to take the test on a particular day) spelt them
correctly. The number of successful spellers for each word is
given in brackets:
Still (29), Replace (25), Crept (22), Heard (16),
Honest (11), Notice (10), Silence (10);
Shook (8), Uncoiled (8), Visitors (8), Sneeze
(7), Piece (7), Remained (7);
Beautiful (6), Disturbed (6), Echoed (5), Slipped
(3), Sprawling (2), Stretched (1).
45. Not a single child spelt all words accurately;
only 8/38 spelt more than 10 words correctly; 21/38 spelt no more
than five words correctly.
46. Just as with the words for 7-year-olds,
children spelt words with logical spellings correctly, even when
they had to remember some special rules (stillalways doubling
the final l, replacemagic e; the s sound being spelt mostly
as -ce at the end of words). They misspelt words that have identically
sounding parts of them spelt differently in other common words:
Heardbird, third; Tallestalways,
although, mist, fist; Honeston, bonnet, kissed,
Noticepromise, police; Silencecycle,
sense; Shookput, push;
Visitorsbrothers, painters; Sneezecheese,
please; Piecepeace, fleece;
Remainedcraned, framed; Beautifuldutiful,
mutiny, cute; Slippedkept, slept;
Sprawlingauthor, caught, fought; Echoedthe
"ch" for "k" tripped up nearly every child;
Stretchedthe surplus "t" defeated
nearly every child;
Uncoiled(this was not recognised as a
past tense word and so the "e" was left out)
47. We confidently predict that if one translated
those same 20 words into Italian, Spanish, Swedish, German or
Dutch and tested 38 nine-year-old children in any ordinary primary
school in those countries, they would perform vastly better.
48. When one looks at how children misspell,
one can see how they get tripped up by trying to be logical and
applying previous knowledge. Having to remember which one of several
possible spelling alternatives for a sound applies to a particular
word, instead of being able to apply phonics logically is what
causes them problems. The mistakes included:
Beautiful(buetiful, butiful, butifull);
Crept(creapt); Disturbed(disterbed, distirbed);
Echoed(ecoed, ecowed, echoad, ekoed, eccoed);
Heard(heared, herd, hurd, hered);
Honest(onist, onest, onised, honised);
Notice(notise, notes); Visitors(visiters);
Piece(peace, peice, peass, pice); Remained(remaned,
remaind); Shook(shuck, shouck);
Silence(silance, silense, silince, sielance);
Slipped(slipt, sliped); Sneeze(sneez, snease, snese,
Sprawling(sprorling, sproaling, spraling);
Still(stil); Stretched(streched, streached);
49. The majority of children's misspellings
make it perfectly possible to "read" those words, in
the sense of obtaining the sounds that these words make when spoken.
The children are merely using alternative spellings for the same
sounds which they have encountered in other words. Their misspellings
give us an insight into the constant battle against logic which
has to be fought and won in order to become an accurate speller
50. Research carried out in the early 60's
by Sister John, a nun who taught in Liverpool, suggests that the
experience of trying to become literate in English may impede
not just mastery of spelling but logical thinking itself. She
gave two groups of children aged four and a half a symbol-matching
test. There was no difference in performance between the two groups
at that age. One group was then taught reading and writing with
a common, traditional scheme, the other using the far more logical
Initial Teaching Alphabet. Six months later the symbol-matching
skills of the ITA group showed gains on the same test, while the
children who had been exposed to traditional spelling performed
no better than they had a year earlier (Downing 1969).
51. The ITA experiment in the 60's and 70's
in which hundreds of primary schools in England and Wales took
part proved that English children can learn to read and write
English accurately in far less time than they normally need for
this, when the texts that they are given to read use more logical
spellings and if they themselves are allowed to spell more logically
than is the case in standard English.
52. When in the early 60's poor standards
of literacy were much debated in the USA, the famous scientist
Richard Feynman explained the difficulties that children face
like this: "If the professors of English will complain to
me that the students who come to the universities, after all those
years of study, still cannot spell FRIEND," I say to them
that "something's the matter with the way you spell FRIEND."
53. This is still true today. Countries
that now have spelling systems that are much easier to master
than ours did not simply stumble upon them. They have repeatedly
modernised the systems which they inherited from previous generations.
Italian has been luckier than most in that the sounds of its language
are still closer to the sounds for which the Latin alphabet was
devised and which nearly all other European languages now use,
with various adaptations.
54. The alphabetic principle of using letters
to represent sounds has become so corrupted in English mainly
because English is an amalgamation of several languages. Words
that have been imported from other languages gradually had their
pronunciation adapted to fit in with English pronunciation patterns,
but their spellings were often left unchanged. This has left us
with many spellings that have little connection with the sounds
which they are supposed to represent.
55. Printing brought about the need to standardise
spelling. When Dr Johnson compiled his dictionary which became
the authoritative guide to English spelling after 1755, he often
had to choose between several alternatives that were around at
the time. He mostly chose what to him seemed the most logical
alternative, but he was very keen not to obscure the origins of
English words and so did very little to make English spelling
more consistent or phonemic, in stark contrast to the Grimm brothers
and their dictionary for German and a German grammar. They already
made a serious effort to devise a sensible system for the spelling
of German and not merely record the spellings they found.
56. In the early part of the 18th century
literacy for all was not an objective for society. Writing was
still a privilege of the few. Most of those who were aspiring
towards it would be learning Latin and French alongside English,
and so the spellings of foreign imports would not have been such
a problem to them.
57. Now that we place greater value on learning
living rather than defunct languages, with French no longer the
only living foreign language which children learn and with other
subjects having replaced Latin and Greek on the school curriculum,
most children have to learn English spellings with much less help
from other languages. We also place far greater value on literacy
for all than was the case in the past, partly because of changed
job requirements, but also because true democracy is incompatible
with mass ignorance.
58. We want more children to become well
educated than was the case in the past. But the unpredictability
of English spellings makes it very expensive to achieve high literacy
levels in English.It requires better trained teachers and
children have to spend much more time on the acquisition of literacy
than in other languages.
59. Because high standards of literacy in
English cannot be attained without spending great amounts of time
and effort, many other equally worthwhile subjects get squeezed
for time. The English spelling system also ensures a high failure
rate in literacy acquisition and so requires much more remedial
intervention; most importantly of all, for large numbers of individuals,
far more than in other languages, it is altogether too difficult
to cope with.
60. Making our spelling easier, as many
other countries have repeatedly done, would make it more accessible
to all, save enormous amounts of time and money and thereby allow
expansion of the school curriculum, but is not something that
has ever been done in English in a planned way. English has simply
been allowed to evolve into the difficult spelling mess that we
now have. It need not remain so.
61. It all comes down to a stark choice:
are we happy to continue spending vast sums on remedial action
and waste endless hours of children's lives year after year, forcing
them to learn something which is really quite pointless, or can
we be bold enough to fix the problem by spelling reform so that
this need not be repeated in the future? The latter would not
be that hard or expensive to do.
62. The Literacy Task Force has provided
a sound teaching framework for tackling the difficulties that
our erratic spelling system presents, but without questioning
whether what children are taught is either sensible or necessary.
We recommend that an appropriate body be set up to look into reducing
the amount of irregularity in English spelling and so reduce the
amount of teaching and learning that this necessitates on a permanent
basis, enabling future generations of children to derive more
profit from their time in compulsory education than they do now.
The Simplified Spelling Society
2 Not printed. Back