Should English spelling be reformed?

The irregularities of English spelling make learning to read and write harder and slower than with other Latin-based writing systems. This was firmly established by a large-scale study which investigated the speed and ease of literacy learning in 13 European countries (Seymour et al in 2003, Brit. Journal of Psychology). This was acknowledged by Sir Jim Rose in his 2006 UK review of ‘The Teaching of Early Reading’ “It is harder to learn to read and write English because the relationship between sounds and letters is more complex than in many other alphabetic languages”.

Yet despite understanding that English literacy problems are due mainly to the irregularities of English spelling, Jim Rose recommended that the best way of raising English reading standards was to use more phonics. A 2005 symposium on the teaching of reading held at the University of Cambridge which had examined the same evidence had concluded in  instead that:  “Countries with deep orthographies might possibly begin to consider the political and societal feasibility of implementing orthographic reforms.”

Suggestions for reforming English spelling have been around since the 16th century, since William Tyndale, living in hiding in Belgium and Germany, had translated the New Testament into English in 1525 and published the first book that nearly every English adult wanted to read. Educators began to notice the difficulties of learning to do so. One of them was the lexicographer John Hart (1501-74). He found it obvious that this was due to  ‘the faultes of our writing, which cause it to be long in learning, and learned hard and evil to read’ . He and several other prominent intellectuals of the time therefore began to call for modernisation of English spelling  (Cheke, Smith, Bullokar, Mulcaster).

But the difficulties of learning to read suited the Church of England which controlled all English education. It abhorred Tyndale’s aim of enabling every ploughboy to read the bible for himself.  It declared him a heretic, and after tracking him down near Brussels had him burned at the stake for his audacity in 1536.

The 47 scholars whom King James appointed to produce the 1611 authorised bible made no attempt to improve English spelling. They changed some of Tyndale’s spellings, to hide the fact they were merely amending his work, rather than producing their own translation. They left English spelling no better than before.

English writing was made slightly less cumbersome during English Civil War  of 1642-8. Because its pamphleteers wanted to cram the maximum of propaganda onto a single page, they made 100s of words shorter. They cut many of the surplus letters which early printers had inserted to make them longer, such as ‘worde → word,  hadde → had, sawe  → saw’.

Samuel Johnson’s definitive dictionary of 1755 then made English spelling worse than ever, by returning many words back to their Latin roots. He was as opposed to making English spelling more regular as the church authorities and said so repeatedly in the long preface to his big opus. He helped to bury the idea of reforming English spelling for the next century.

From around 1850 onwards however, several spelling reform groups formed on both sides of the Atlantic, supported by luminaries like Mark Twain, Lord Tennyson and Charles Darwin. One of the biggest was the Simplified Spelling Society, forerunner of the still surviving English Spelling Society. It was set up in London in 1908, by the Newcastle shipbuilder George Hunter, with generous financial aid from the US steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

The Spelling Society enjoyed considerable success. It was supported by National Union of Teachers and the playwright Gerge Bernard Shaw. In 1952 the House of Commons passed a Spelling Reform Bill. Unsurprisingly, it was not passed by the Lords. But during the next 10 years, it led to the setting up of a year-long study to investigate if English spelling really impeded literacy. The research was carried out in 1963-4, by the London Institute of Education and the National Foundation for Education Research. It compared the progress of 835 pupils taught to read and write with traditional spelling and the same number using the much simpler Initial Teaching Alphabet (or i.t.a.).

The study found that the i.t.a. classes learned better and faster and showed much greater enthusiasm for learning. It made it abundantly clear that spelling reform could make a big difference to learning to read and write English. But by the time the results came out, the political climate in the UK had changed. Helping the disadvantaged had become much less of a priority than it had been after WW2. The spirit of we are all in it together had become replaced by monetarism. The idea of making literacy learning easier, to help predominantly the poorest and weakest, ceased to appeal. It became fashionable to blame poor literacy standards on poor teaching instead.

After publication of the Rose review in 2006, phonics has become the main literacy teaching method, not just in England, but all English-speaking countries. Gradually it is however becoming clear that it too has failed to make a noticeable difference to standards, just like other approaches. There is also growing awareness that Finland and Korea, the two countries which regularly come near the top of international educational league tables, both have exceptionally simple writing systems. So perhaps the idea of modernising English spelling needs revisiting?

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