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The trubl with spelling

By Valerie Yule - posted Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Australians constantly bemoan the number of people who cannot read, and few literate people can write without spelling checkers. Learning to read and write in English takes far longer than in other alphabetically written languages and a relatively high proportion of speakers of English never learn to write the language well or at all. The blog Reforming English  gives the facts and figures why spelling needs reform because it is full of traps for learners, and the blog Improving English Spelling lists the 84 main patterns and exceptions of English spelling which entrap them.

However these blogs are unlikely to receive much official attention.The academic spelling scene has been full of conservatives who do not recognize the difficulties so many people have in reading because of the traps in spelling.

On the other hand, spelling reformers seek to mend spelling from the wrong end – to make it closer to the way they speak. The result is we have dozens of different proposed reforms that are close to the way the reformers speak but far from the present spelling that poor learners cannot learn. They cannot learn any of these different 'reformed' spellings either. The teachers of failing learners cannot learn these reformed spellings either, and revolt from the very idea e.g.


Jûrnàl òv ð Speliñ Sòsíèty
j'rnl v d spelq s'sy'ti
jcnul uv Du speliN sOsIuty
Jurnl ov th Speling Sosiiuti
Jeurnl ov th Speling Sosieiti
Jernil uv thu Speling Soessieitee
Joen..l oev d.. Speling S..saiiti
Jœrnal ov the Speling Sosaieti

Other proposed reforms such as the initial teaching alphabet to teach learners initially, involve changes in the script or the alphabet and do not help learners who must end up reading normal spelling.

Teachers seek many types of teaching materials to get failing learners reading – such as Macquarie University's Multilit, currently being studied by Jennifer Buckingham, and there are several dozen commercial programs to teach spelling which cost up to $500 each, but none take the difficulties in spelling as a reason for failure.

Academic scholars investigate spelling endlessly – recent books are by Carney (1994), Sebba (2007) and Horobin (2013) – but they disregard the problems of the educationally disadvantaged. Horobin's book Does Spelling Matter? concludes that there are many reasons why people should learn present spelling, such as its 'richness' and history, but especially because they will incur contempt by their mistakes.

Horobin confines himself to the world of those who master spelling with ease. 'Spelling is the most easily defined and regulated aspect of linguistic usage and therefore the domain with the greatest attention of prescriptivists'. He gives them his attention. Literate people are sensitive to the derision given to those not using standard spellings, as Lord Chesterfield warned his son, 'One false spelling may fix ridicule upon (a gentleman) for the rest of his life'. Misspellings call for ridicule, like Dan Quale's spelling of potatoe, once a legitimate variant.

Errors on a website result in potential huge loss of revenue. People think of 'correct spelling as an index of intelligence, moral fibres and general trustworthiness'. The literate want to keep what they are good at. And so teachers and parents feel that children must learn present spelling to compete in the present world. Professionals have vested interests in remediation and publishing. Spelling has been learned like a religion.


Assumptions against reform are repeated, not examined. Yet they do not stand up to examining.

Horobin discusses non-standard spellings online, brand names, and the young's invented spelling, but sees them as corruptions, not signs of change. Yet David Crystal himself now considers that some spellings could easily be improved (2013).

Most other languages have had reforms, major or minor, but English is considered to have too many difficulties in its way, despite strong support in the Victorian times when almost everything was up for reform.

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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