Opinion: Why spelling reform should be at the top of the literacy agenda…
3 September 2009Add to My Folder
Vikki Rimmer puts spelling reform on the agenda…
The United States, home to the Spelling Bee competition, performed badly in a spelling test set by the UK-based Spelling Society early this year. The same test was used here in the UK last year – and both sets of results were perturbing.
More than half the adult US population had a problem with one or more spellings of ten everyday words. One in three relied on a spell-checker for tasks such as completing job application forms or writing letters. Education level had little impact, with post-graduate and college students also falling short of expectations.
‘Embarrassed’ topped the incorrect list with 62% in the USA and 54% in the UK misspelling it. Adults in the USA consistently performed less well on all the ten words and, in both surveys, men performed less well than women – the only word that men spelled better than women in the USA was ‘liaison’!
Over half of Americans are ‘embarased’ (sic) by spelling.
Chair of the Spelling Society, Jack Bovill said: “Only a quarter of adults asked thought they had a problem with spelling.” The Society aims to raise awareness of the problems caused by English spelling’s irregularity.
Professor Edward Baranowski, of California State University, blames a fossilised spelling system. “We have different spellings for the same sound (especially for vowels), silent letters, missing letters, and a system which reflects how English was spoken in the 13th-15th centuries, not how it is spoken today.”
The French bit the bullet in 2008 when dictionary, Le Petit Robert, introduced 6,000 variant spellings so that what you read you can then pronounce with confidence. Previously, French was the only other major European language other than English not to update its spelling system.
Bovill points to Finland as a model. The country has the most regular, phonetic spelling and simplest grammar of any European language. “It does not take a child much more than 6 months to master the spelling system, once they have cleared the hurdle of learning the alphabet,” says Bovill. In contrast, he adds, “In its written form English is most confusing. What you read, you cannot necessarily pronounce with confidence. The word wrong may start with a w, but don’t let that fool you. The w is silent. Finnish authorities are considering printing all English language text books with the silent letters in a lighter type – so, wrong becomes wrong and knife becomes knife.”
The use of lighter type for silent letters is a tool used by the Jolly Phonics teaching system. Its publisher, Chris Jolly, says; “Teachers tell us that the children understand the faint letters without needing to be told. ‘We don’t have to sound that one,’ they say. While people can be quite worried by spelling changes, they are much less concerned about changes in the look of letters… we have distorted the two ‘oo’ letters to distinguish the ‘oo’ in ‘book’ from the ‘oo’ in ‘moon’, without it causing any comment.”
The Spelling Society is warning that the UK and USA should act now, before English is eclipsed as the European language of choice by a more phonetic language. The Society recently celebrated its 100th birthday. “We hope it won’t take another 100 years of discussion to raise awareness of the problems faced by half the population,” says Bovill.