Should English spelling be modernised?


In my first story ‘A lesson from China’ I mentioned that the adoption of Pinyin had reduced China’s illiteracy rate from 85% to just 5% and suggested that maybe we should also think about using some simpler spellings, like ‘thaut’ and ‘throo’, alongside their tricky traditional versions, to help with learning to read English. – Ten years ago I had done so when helping struggling readers, and it seemed to work well. But then teachers often think that they’ve come up with the best thing since sliced bread….

I didn’t suggest a reform of English spelling, but it still provoked John Walker to comment, “There’s no reason to change our spelling system at all”. He probably did this, because he may have known that over the past 20 years I have often suggested (in letters to newspapers, articles in magazines, radio and TV interviews, a couple of books, and more recently blogs like improvingenglishspelling.blogs...) that making English spelling more learner-friendly might be a good idea .

Theresa May’s comment in today’s i newspaper that, “We must ensure that all our children and grandchildren can develop the skills which they need” (for the high-paid, high-skilled jobs which her planned industrial strategy is going to create) impels me to mention it again.

The acquisition of most skills depends on becoming literate first, but UK employers have been complaining about the poor literacy standards of many of their new recruits since at least 1921 (to the Newbolt commission) and are doing so still. And all Anglophone countries have been spending increasingly large sums and making teachers work harder to improve their literacy levels, but with only minimal success at best.

I know that millions of students worldwide have managed to learn to read and write English well, but a depressingly high proportion attain only very basic proficiency. Even those that cope, do so only with lots of practice over many years. - In Finland, which has the world’s most regular orthography, nearly all children learn to read 10 times faster than the average time taken by speakers of English, with more time, energy and enthusiasm for learning other things.

Since all other attempts to improve literacy in English-speaking countries over the past century have met with very little success, is it not time to give some thought to making learning to read and write at least a bit easier? – In 1953 the House of Commons approved Mont Follick private members Reform Bill, but without government support it led merely to the 1963-4 study with i.t.a., to establish if English spelling retards literacy acquisition, which it did conclusively.

I am not suggesting drastic changes to whole system. - Just amending the spellings which impede literacy acquisition most. And they are easy to identify, by listening to children when learning to read and noting down the words they keep stumbling over, and also taking a close look at the ones they keep misspelling. The TEACHERS MUST WORK HARDER approach has proved ineffective long enough.

Author Profile

Masha  Bell

Masha Bell

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

22 stories


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