Magazine article English Drama Media

The Spelling Debate: Following the Articles by Masha Bell and Keith Davidson on Spelling and Phonetics in the Last Issue of EDM, the Two Authors Respond to Each Other's Points

Magazine article English Drama Media

The Spelling Debate: Following the Articles by Masha Bell and Keith Davidson on Spelling and Phonetics in the Last Issue of EDM, the Two Authors Respond to Each Other's Points

Article excerpt

Keith Davidson and I agree that more use of phonics is unlikely to improve literacy standards because too many English words have unphonemic spellings. But that is also the reason why English literacy acquisition is exceptionally slow and costly, because many pupils can only attain it with a great deal of individual help.

English education ministers have already spent millions on it but, according to the latest SATs results, this has still left one in five 11-year-olds performing below government aims. Scotland has therefore decided to spend an extra 65 million [pounds sterling] on its early years education. Without a similar proportional increase, England's results are likely to remain disappointing.

But even greater spending cannot address the problem of English literacy teaching being exceptionally time-consuming and leaving many other subjects short of adequate provision, such as nutrition, sport, the arts and environmental education. And all the additional spending has made little difference to pupils' writing, only reading, standards.

Keith has pointed out several of the many different ways in which English spelling is unphonemic. Some spellings are difficult because they retain 'lexical identity', such as 'dream, dreamt'. But they don't need to. Hundreds don't (sleep--slept, bound--bond, cross--crusades), are more learner-friendly and serve us just as well. So would 'phone' and 'phonics' respelt as 'fone' and 'fonnics', just like the German change from 'Telephon' to 'Telefon' and the English one from 'musick shoppe' to 'music shop' did.

He also seems to think that making English spelling more consistent must inevitably include interference with English 'grammar' too, changing 'phonics' to 'fonnix', not merely 'fonnics'. Spelling reform does not need to tamper with any established practices that don't hinder progress with reading and writing.

Even respelling 'ph' as 'f' is not an urgent matter, because we can teach children that 'ph' always makes that sound. A much more serious obstacle on the road to literacy, and a more pressing candidate for reform, are the tricky spellings which have unreliable pronunciations too, such as 'only, once, woman, women, wonder, wonton', 'great, treat, threat', 'fruit, build, fluid', and 'though, rough, cough, hiccough, plough, through, thorough.'

Keith is right to claim that 'most of us seem to cope well enough'. But it's also true that many don't. And the desire to reduce their numbers has been the main reason for the unrelenting flow of new educational initiatives in the UK over the last two decades. Improvements to English spelling have the potential to stem them too.

Anyone can verify what a difference a few dozen well-chosen spelling changes could make by doing the following. Take any group of children who have spent roughly 20 weeks learning all the essential elements of English phonics (as all Reception classes will be expected to do from September 2007) and test their reading and spelling ability with the following 40 high frequency words:

another, are, be, brother, come, do, don't, door, down, half, have, he, how, laugh, live, love, many, me, now, once, one, people, said, school, she, some, their, there, to, two, want, was, water, we, were, what, where, who, you, your.

Then ask them to read the same words spelt according to basic English spelling rules:

anuther, ar, bee, bruther, cum, doant, doo, dor, doun, haf, hav, hee, hou, laf, liv, luv, menny, mee, nou, wunce, wun , peepl, sed, scool, shee, sum, thair, thare, tu, too, wont, wos, wauter, wee, wer, whot, whair, hoo, u, yor.

They would undoubtedly read the second list faster and more easily. And their spellings of those words would also be much closer to them than the ones they will be expected to learn. If we spelt just those words more sensibly, we could already save schools a lot of trouble and expense and children much pointless frustration. …

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