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.