A lesson from China

After the recent death of Zhou Youguang, the developer of Pinyin, the alphabetic writing system for teaching to read traditional Chinese characters, several obituaries mentioned how he transformed Chinese literacy levels: before China adopted Pinyin in 1958, its illiteracy rate was 85% - now it's merely 5%. Originally designed for the teaching of reading, Pinyin is now also used for typing on electronic devices and gradually replacing traditional Chinese writing altogether.

In Anglophones countries functional illiteracy is only around 18%, but still relatively high among developed countries. Perhaps they too should consider adopting simpler spellings like ‘hed, sed, frend’ for teaching children to read their baffling antique versions to start with? And maybe this could also lead to English spelling gradually being made more learner-friendly?

A 1963-4 UK study compared how fast 835 children learned to read and write English with the more regular spellings of the Initial Teaching Alphabet (called i.t.a.) during their first school year and an equal number using normal spelling. The pupils on i.t.a. learned to read and write much faster, made fewer errors, used a much wider vocabulary and had more positive attitude to learning too. They also needed no parental help with learning to read, just like in Finland or Korea now.

The study was designed to test if spelling reform could speed up English literacy acquisition, after the Commons had passed Mont Follick’s Spelling Reform Bill in 1953. But the results were so impressive, that many schools subsequently decided to adopt i.t.a. for the first school year. - Outside school, books remained in traditional spelling, and after a year, the i.t.a. groups had to switch to it too. They ablest pupils coped with the switch surprisingly well, but most regressed severely.

The switch from very easy learning to a much harder system was rather drastic. I found English spelling shocking on first meeting it at age 14, after first learning Lithuanian and Russian. But this was merely for the gradual, word-by-word learning of a foreign language, not a change affecting all learning.

The i.t.a. study did also not merely use more regularly spelt English. Quite a few of the main patterns were changed as well. The ‘a-e’ of ‘made’ for example, was replaced by a single letter, looking a bit like ‘maed’, and was off-putting to most parents. Using simpler, but normal spellings for helping with learning to read tricky traditional ones, might be a better approach.

For a while I was a voluntary reading assistant for children who got no help with learning to read at home. I decided to note down 5 – 7 words which made them stumble in each of our sessions, like ‘thought, through’, and then put simpler spellings alongside them [thaut, throo], which they invariably learnt to decode very easily. We folded the little lists in half, with the tricky spellings on top, for learning at home, using the pronunciation help only when stuck. Their overall reading quickly improved noticeably. Food for thought. 

Author Profile

Masha  Bell

Masha Bell

Retired teacher of English and modern languages, now literacy researcher and writer

12 stories


Lena Carter Lena Carter @lenabellina 3 months ago
Fascinating stuff. We really need to address the social inequalities caused by illiteracy. Thanks for writing.
John Walker John Walker @johnatsoundswrite 3 months ago
Devised by James Pitman, grandson of Isaac Pitman, the inventor of the famous shorthand system of note-taking, i.t.a. was a complete disaster for many of the pupils who had to learn to use it.
There were two reasons for why it was a vain attempt at transforming the English spelling system and why it was abandoned: firstly, teachers didn't understand how the English alphabet code worked and thus weren't able to help children make the transition to English orthography; and, secondly, i.t.a. was written for one accent of English in a country where accents differ.
Here's why .i.t.a. was a dismal failure: http://literacyblog.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/ita-great-idea-but-dismal-failure.html
Masha  Bell Masha Bell @mashabell 3 months ago
It was indeed a complete disaster, the way it was used - as a means of avoiding any proper improvements to English spelling. The schools that adopted it after the the 1963-4 study (to test if English spelling impedes literacy acquisition) did so in the hope that if children learned the logic of alphabetic writing with the regular i.t.a. spellings for a year, they would cope with normal spelling more easily afterwards. They didn't and the use of i.t.a. was soon stopped again, but it left many people thinking that NO spelling change can make learning to read and write easier.
But it's easy to test if it would. Ask any young child who has had just a few basic phonics lessons, to read:
sed, frend, hed, pritty, bizzy, wimmen or bloo, shoo, floo, throo
and then
said, friend, head, pretty, busy, women, blue, shoe, flew, through,
and see how they do.
U would get even clearer proof, if u asked them to spell those words too.
John Walker John Walker @johnatsoundswrite 3 months ago
I don't agree, Masha. I have taught and still teach young children in Key Stages 1 and 2. Asking them to deal with complexities, such as the ones you mention will indeed be very difficult but most sensible teachers start by teaching phonics from simple CVC words through more complexly structured words (CVCC, CCVC, CCVCC). After teaching that many sounds can be spelled with two, three or even four letters, it is but an easy step to teach the common spellings of the sounds in English, before moving on to polysyllabic words.
After that, dealing with far less frequently encountered spellings, such as the < ie > for /e/ in 'friend' or the less frequently encountered spelling < ai >in the commonly encountered word 'said' is very easy. As for 'blue', 'shoe', 'flew' and 'through', < ue >, < oe > (unusually!), < ew > and < ough > are all spellings of the sound /oo/. If young children are taught that the spellings are symbols for sounds in the language, which they all learn naturally and without explicit instruction, English spelling is a piece of cake to teach, excepting some very infrequently encountered spellings.
There's no reason to change our spelling system at all. As Noam Chomsky himself recognised, it fits the English language very well. The real problem is training teachers to understand how the English orthographic code is structured conceptually, how the spelling system relates to the sounds of the language and which skills are needed to teach it. To the untutored, the English spelling system looks random and chaotic; to the properly trained, taught from sound to print and from simple to more complex, English orthography can be taught explicitly and systematically.
Masha  Bell Masha Bell @mashabell 3 months ago
If teaching children to read and write English was easy, there would not still be so many pupils starting secondary school with poor reading skills, or even university educated people still making spelling mistakes, or endless disagreements among teachers about how best to teach reading and spelling.
Claiming that English spelling is not chaotic and blaming poor literacy standards on bad teaching has become the norm. That's why I took the trouble to establish exactly how regular and irregular English spelling is. I have summarised the results on
http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/the-english-spelling-system.html, they can also be seen on the list of 7,000 most used English words which I analysed
as well as all the exceptions to the main spelling patterns
Chomsky later retracted his statement about English spelling.
John Walker John Walker @johnatsoundswrite 3 months ago
I didn't say that teaching young children how to read and spell is easy. I said that it's easy if teachers are properly trained. Schools of ed in this country, the USA, Canada and Australia are notoriously bad at teaching their students how to teach phonics, which is why we get such consistently poor results.
The problem with your idea about regular and irregular spellings (see one of my most popular posts on this subject: http://literacyblog.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/the-ill-conceived-idea-of-regular-and.html) is that you can't seem to shift your thinking and look at it from the other way around. Writing was invented to represent the sounds in speech. There are forty-four or so sounds in English and there are, give or take, around 175 spellings to cover most words in the language and they include spellings like < ai > for /e/.
If you start from a (contrived) basic or initial code - all the one-to-ones and some consonant digraphs (< ff >, <ll >, < ss >, < zz >, and < sh >, < ch >, etc) and go on to teach the spellings of the vowels and some consonant sounds, arranged according to sound NOT spelling, then it's easy and you get great results: 98% of all children learning to read and spell to a high level of proficiency.
Admittedly, while learning how to speak, for which in an evolutionary sense we are primed, is natural; learning the spelling system takes time but is do-able with practice and plenty of overlearning.
I haven't read Chomsky's disavowal of his previous opinion, which can be found Chomsky, N and Halle, M, (1968), The Sound Patterns of English, New York, Harper and Row. For interested readers, they wrote, that 'English orthography turns out to be rather close to an optimal system for spelling English.' In the light of this statement, Chomsky's shift must be quite a change in direction and if you'd like to cite a reference, I'd be grateful.
I think that Mark Seidenberg's recently published book Reading at the Speed of Sight, especially chapters 4 and 5, would also tend to undermine your arguments.
Masha  Bell Masha Bell @mashabell 3 months ago
Apart from the 1963-4 research with i.t.a., P H Seymour et al established in 2003 that teaching children to read and write English is much more difficult that in 12 other European languages (Brit. J. of Psych.). And have u never wondered why all Anglophone countries should be so incapable of training their student teachers well? Why should they all do it so similarly badly?
I know quite a bit about the whole history of writing, but esp. the English one:
English has 83 main spellings for its 44 sounds and another 112 unpredictable ones http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/the-english-spelling-system.html which I call irregular, or unsystematic.
I think that to most people 'regular' means the same as me, e.g. regarding the 'e' spelling for short /e/ as used in 301 words like 'bed, bend, fend' as regular and the different spellings for it in 63 words like 'head, said, bread' as irregular.
English spelling is learnable, but it is only because of its irregularities that it needs lots of 'practice and overlearning', as u say. I don't rate Seidenberg opinion any more highly than Chomsky's 1968 view. If u bother to take a really close look at English spelling, it is blatantly obvious why it poses reading and spelling problems. The logical spellings which children use when they first start to write (frend, sed, Wensday, bred, hed) also make it abundantly clear that learning to write English would be vastly easier if it was spelt regularly, as do the words they stumble over in learning to read.
I think our exchanges have probably gone on long enough. Perhaps I should consider explaining the worst English spelling irregularities in a series of posts on here? I have done so already on http://improvingenglishspelling.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/worst-irregularities-of-english-spelling.html
But perhaps they would make more sense in small doses that people could quiz me about?
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