Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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)[2] 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 C)


  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 B)

  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 bold):

THE - HE, ME, SHE, WE - SEE - sea, tea;  gem gentle - GET, WENT - SAID, friend;
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 them—the 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, move, love.

  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 level.

  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, a hat).

    (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; high, eye.

    (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 word—bridge, 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 to him.

  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 these groups.

  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 from university.

  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.

    Poland 44/39

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 17/13,

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 words—pictures, bucket, friends, wait, family—were 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 always:

    house—how, now, pence, fence; spade—paid, raid, stayed;
    because—was, doors, course; wait—hate, late; friends—trend, lend; lend—head, said;
    smile—style, island, while;
    sock—park, 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.)
    holiday—holly, jolly—holy ("hollyday"—is how many children spell that word)
    morning—the "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.
    family—The "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 it—the spelling of unstressed vowels is a big spelling problem.
    pictures—pick, 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), Tallest (15);

    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 (still—always doubling the final l, replace—magic 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:

    Heard—bird, third; Tallest—always, although, mist, fist; Honest—on, bonnet, kissed,

    Notice—promise, police; Silence—cycle, sense; Shook—put, push;

    Visitors—brothers, painters; Sneeze—cheese, please; Piece—peace, fleece;

    Remained—craned, framed; Beautiful—dutiful, mutiny, cute; Slipped—kept, slept;

    Sprawling—author, caught, fought; Echoed—the "ch" for "k" tripped up nearly every child;

    Stretched—the 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, sneze);

    Sprawling—(sprorling, sproaling, spraling); Still—(stil); Stretched—(streched, streached);

    Tallest—(tallist); Uncoiled—(uncoild, uncoyled, uncoield);

  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 of English.

  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

January 2000

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