Articles
How Our Spelling Damages the Mind
English Orthography: a Case of Psychological Child Abuse
Report: Reading in U.S. falls
Third-graders' success
 
How Our Spelling Damages the Mind

By Frederick A[therson] Fernald, Ph.D.

Learning to read the English language is one of the worst mind-stunting processes that has ever formed a part of the education of any people. Its evil influence arises from the partly phonetic, partly lawless character of English spelling. Altho each letter represents some sound oftener than any other, there is hardly a letter in the alphabet that does not represent more than one sound, and hardly a sound in the language that is not represented in several ways, while many words are written with as many silent letters as significant ones. Frequently, there is nothing in a word to indicate in which of these ways its component sounds are represented, nothing in the written group of letters to show which sounds they stand for, and which of them, if any, are silent, so that a learner can never be sure of pronouncing rightly an English word that he has not heard spoken, nor of spelling correctly one that he has never seen written. The spelling of almost every word must be learned by sheer force of memory. In this work the pupil's reasoning powers cannot be utilized, but must be subdued, while his memory is sadly overworked. In the affairs of the child's daily life, the logical following of rules is rewarded; in learning to read, it brings him only bewilderment and discomforture. He is taught that b-o-n-e stands for bohn (not bo-ne), and t-o-n-e for tohn, but also that d-o-n-e stands for dun, that g-o-n-e spells gawn, m-o-v-e spells moov, and b-r-o-n-z-e is bronz. Now when he comes in reading to another similar word, as none, he has no means of telling whether to call it nun, noon, or non; he can only took up at the teacher and wait to be told. The influence of the spelling class quickly drives him to repress any inclination to reason, and he quickly gives himself up to a blind following of authority. Few children learn English spelling without getting the pernicious notion that cramming is better than thinking, and that common sense is a treacherous guide. The child who can take what he is told without asking why, who can repeat a rule without troubling himself about its meaning, gets along best. On the other hand, the child who has difficulty in learning to spell, may have to supress his logical faculties. For while be is constantly trying to spell according to some principle, some rule, and of course, coming to grief. Thus a boy who had long been at the foot of his spelling class, was one day given the word ghost, and, making a desperate attempt at analogy, (with roast), spelled it goast. Thus bringing shouts of laughter from his fellow students, he said, with clenched fist and tearful eyes, "You needn't laugh; you all spell homelier 'n that!" Thus, so much attention is given to spelling that children get false ideas of its importance.

The spelling, or graphic representation, becomes to them the word, while the spoken word is called the pronunciation, and is only thought of as an appendage. They learn to despise the poor speller, a prejudice which is never out-grown, and above all they become so absorbed in the manipulation of words that they have little chance to grasp the significance of the ideas for which the words were intended to stand.

If our notation of numbers were as irregular as our notation of speech, so that the numbers from 40 to 45, for instance, should be written as follows: 40, 741, 420, 43, 414, 225; and if no one could tell at sight whether a number like 7,243,812 contained several figures which were "silent," or had exceptional values, who can doubt that the study of arithmetic, instead of being a valuable discipline, would be mere enervating drudgery? If it were proposed that children should learn a style of writing music which gave different values to the same characters, similarly placed, in different pieces and added a host of "silent" notes, the evils of learning such a system would be plainly seen. Yet many people who have forgotten their own sufferings in the spelling class cannot see that children are so very much perplexed in learning to spell, or perhaps maintain that the struggle involved "is good for them."

"I know," says Max Muller, "there are persons who can defend anything, and who hold that it is due to this very discipline that the English character is what it is; that it retains respect for authority; that it does not require a reason for everything; and that it does not admit that inconceivable is therefore impossible. Even English orthodoxy has been traced back to that hidden source, because a child once accustomed to believe that t-h-o-u-g-h is tho, and that t-h-r-o-u-g-h is thru, would afterwards believe anything. It may be so; still I doubt whether even such objects would justify such means." Lord Lytton said, "A more lying, roundabout, puzzle-headed delusion than that by which we confuse the clear instincts of truth in our accursed system of spelling was never concocted by the father of falsehood. . . How can a system of education flourish that begins by so monstrous a falsehood, which the sense of hearing suffices to contradict?"

Here is a chief cause of the incapacity for thinking which college students bring into the science laboratories. This irrational process, taken up when the child enters school, occupying a large share of his time, and continuing for six or eight years, has a powerful influence in shaping his plastic mind. When at last he is allowed to take up the study of nature, at the wrong end of his school career, what wonder that he sits with folded hands, waiting to be told facts to commit to memory, that he cannot realize what a law or rule is, and does not know to use his reason in deducing the answer to a problem? Rational education will never flourish as it should till a reformation in the teaching of reading and spelling has been accomplished. Furthermore, Mr. J. H. Gladstone, member of the English School Board for London, has computed the number of hours spent by children in learning to read and spell English to be 2,320, while, in gaining an equal knowledge of their native tongue, Italian children spend only 945 hours. The difference amounts to nearly two school years, and shows under what a disadvantage English-speaking children labor. Can anyone believe that 4,923,451, or 13.4% of our population over ten years of age would be illiterate if learning to read were not so formidable task? (These are government statistics of 1885; now it is a little higher due to the influx of foreigners and the apathy of the public). In Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and some German states there are hardly any illiterates. Compare their systems of spelling.

The most striking testimony to the irregularity of our spelling is the adoption by many teachers of a sort of Chinese mode of teaching reading. (Now it is called the whole word method!) The children are not taught that the letters represent constituent sounds of words, but they learn to recognize each group of letters as an arbitrary compound symbol standing for a word. This is more of a dead drag on the memory than even the A-B-C method, and if it could be completely carried out, would be a vastly longer process. The effect on the mind is certainly not good. Minds do have a saturation point.

"But what can be done," will be asked, "shall our children grow up without learning to spell?" No, but the memorizing of these anomalies and contradictions can be, at least, put off till the pupil's minds are in little danger of being perverted by it. Enough of the enormous amount of time spent on this drugery can be saved to make possible the introduction of the study of things into the primary schools, and many of the one hundred millions of dollars which we spend each year for public education can be turned to imparting real knowledge instead of the mere tools of knowledge. These ends may be attained by the use of phonetic spelling as an introduction to the customary spelling. Children can and do learn to read English, spelled phonetically, in a very few lessons, and then learn the traditional spelling so quickly afterward that much less time is required for the whole process than is commonly devoted to memorizing the current spelling alone. Classes taught to read this way, in Massachusetts, so early as 1851, proved the advantage of the method to the satisfaction of that able educator, Dr. Horace Mann, and the method has been successfully employed in many places in this country and in the British Isles. The following extract from a letter written by Mr. Wm. Colbourne, manager of the Dorset Bank, at Sturminster, England, furnishes a special example:

"My little Sidney, who is now a few months more than four years old, will read any phonetic book without the slightest hesitation; the hardest names or the longest words in the Old or New Testament form no obstacle to him. And how long do you think it took me - for I am his teacher to impart to him this power? Why, something less than eight hours! You may believe it or not as you like, but I am confident that not more than that amount of time was spent on him, and that it was in snatches of five minutes at a time, while tea was getting ready. I know you will be inclined to say, 'All that is very well, but what is the use of reading phonetic books? He is still far off, and may be farther, from reading conventional books! But in this you are mistaken. Take another example: His next elder brother, a boy of six years, has had a phonetic education so far. What is the consequence? Why, reading in the first stage was so delightful and easy a thing, for him that he taught himself to read regular spelling, and it would be a difficult matter to find one boy in twenty, of a corresponding age, who could read half so well as he can in any book. Again my oldest boy has written more phonetic shorthand and longhand, perhaps, than any boy of his age (eleven years) in the kingdom; and no one, I dare say, has had less to do with that absurdity of absurdities, the spelling book! He is now at a first rate school in Wiltshire, and in the half-year preceding Christmas he carried off the prize for orthography in a contest for boys, some of them his senior by years!"

Mrs. E. B. Burnz, of New York, says, in regard to her experience in Nashville, soon after the Civil War, "The phonetic teaching in the Fisk School, as elsewhere, proved all cavil that with phonetic books as much could be accomplished in four months in teaching to read, as by a full year by the common method. And, moreover, it showed that there is no difficulty experienced by children in passing from the phonetic to ordinary printed books. After going through the phonetic primer and First and Second Reader, the children passed at once into the Second Reader in common print, and from the phonetic Gospel into the common New Testament." Successful experiments in common schools are on record in sufficient numbers to prove the practicability of the method.

I am not unaware of the efforts being made to replace the current spelling by a phonetic system for all purposes, but that is a matter quite distinct from the subject of this article; and all who believe that the orderly and vigorous development of the mental faculties should be the chief aim in education, whether they favor or oppose the idea of spelling reform, should work together for the spread of the phonetic method of teaching reading.

(Editor's note: Away back in 1885, before even the oldest of our present teachers were born, we have a plea for that very technique in the teaching of reading, in which 24 English primary schools started out this Fall, under the aegis of London University and Sir James Pitman, and others. Even at the time that this article appeared in the Popular Science Monthly [September 1885], the technique was not new, but tried and tested, dating back not only in England but in our own country to as early as 1851. To the time, that is to say, of the early childhood of the great-great-grand-parents of the six year olds who, thruout the length and breadth of our land we are now "readying" for that damage to their minds that this article describes.

Will this new English experiment wake us up? Over there it has the wholehearted backing of the major teaching organizations. What is the attitude of ours? So far it is complete silence! (Probably due to the scepticism in the closed minds of our hierarchy of education).

 
English Orthography: a Case of Psychological Child Abuse

by Abraham F. Citron, Ph.D.*

*Dept. of Educ. Sociology, Wayne State Univ, Detroit, Mi. (1913-2006)
*SR 1 used (Spelling reform, first step), see section V, p.4.

At the portals of education we have laid, not a highway, but a labyrinth.

Brainwashed as we are, we do not perceive our spelling as difficult, irrational, deceptive, inconsistent, clumsy, frustrating and wasteful; but it is and especially so to children.

Our spelling devours hours of study for years, squanders teachers' energy, blocks and frustrates children, renders writing more onerous and reading more difficult, strings out our words and inflates every cost of written communication. Our child-defeating spelling is one of the basic sources of academic discouragement and failure, aiding in the transformation of many children into psychological or physical dropouts.

The large majority of elementary and high school students in this country are either very poor, poor or mediocre spellers; the big majority of adults are no better. Millions of student hours are spent on spelling, millions of dollars are spent in teaching time, yet results are quite poor. Most students dislike spelling, many students abhor it.

Make no mistake about it, spelling is inextricably interactive with reading; our inconsistent spelling contributes greatly to reading difficulties.

Our culture is based on words and on power over words; our instructional system is built almost entirely of words. Every other power and expansion in academics comes through mastery of words. Even the artist, mathematician, musician, athlete finds his or her career stunted without power over words. Our system moves on words, runs on words, exists on and in words. At the narrow base of this immense system are 26 letters which we combine into hundreds of thousands of written words.

Much depends, therefore, on how we combine these letters. Note that we are working with an alphabet not at all designed for the sounds of English, but borrowed from the Romans, who had designed it to express the sounds of Latin. At the outset we are stuck with only 26 letters to express 41 (some say 44) phonemes of spoken English.

A second difficulty which has been gathering on our word system over centuries is that letters have been combined into words according to differing schemes at different times, letters have been stuck on just to justify lines of print, spellings have been borrowed from other languages. We have changed the sound of letters, we have changed the way we pronounced words while the spelling has often congealed on the old form. All this and more has evolved over centuries in haphazard ways.

The result is that we have inherited an orthographic system full of inconsistencies, irrationalities, quirks, exceptions and disorganization. And because, by the time we have become adults, we are accustomed to it, we unthinkingly force this "system" on our children.

We double-cross children in hundreds of ways as they struggle to master our unnecessarily difficult word forms.

We teach children a hard 'c' as in 'cat,' 'can,' 'candy,' and then double-cross them with words such as 'certain,' 'center,' 'cement.' In a word such as 'cease,' the first 's' sound is expressed with a 'c,' the second with an 's '; in 'civic,' two different sounds are expressed with 'c.' Observe what a complicated mess we make with 'necessary.' We teach children to sound 'k' as in 'kick,' 'kid,' 'klan,' and then confront them with 'knee,' 'knob,' 'knife,' etc. Further, if hard 'c' and 'k' are sounded alike, why do we need them both? We teach children 'p' as in 'poor,' 'put,' 'push,' then force them to handle 'photo,' 'phrase,' 'pneumonia,' etc.

We cross up children with our miserable 'ie' and 'ei' combinations as in 'believe' and 'receive'; and the "i before e" rule is little help since the exceptions are nearly as numerous as the examples. With 'craze' and 'haze' we use a 'z', but to express the same sound in 'please' and 'tease' we use an 's.' We cross up the kids by spelling 'lease' with an 's' and then 'fleece,' the same sound, with a 'c.' In both these words, the vowel has the same sound but in one we express it with a double 'e' and in the other with 'ea.'

We force children to drag along outmoded and useless 'ough' forms in words such as 'through,' 'bough,' 'plough,' 'though,' ; and useless 'gh's in a host of words such as 'light,' 'might,' 'bright,' 'night,' etc. Our spelling is literally laced with these inconsistent and meaningless forms outmoded in the long, long ago.

Godfrey Dewey, a lifelong student of our orthographical system, found that for the 41 distinguishable sounds of our spoken language (phonemes), there are 561 spellings currently used. The 26 letters of our alphabet are pronounced in 92 ways. Also we have 132 sets of two letters (digraphs) such as 'th,' 'ch,' 'ie,' 'ea,' etc., and for these we use 260 pronunciations. [1]

What would happen in our educational system with numbers if we told children that a 2 was two except when it had the value of 4 or 7? Or take a more extreme example: what would happen to children if we used red lights for 'stop' only some of the time and green lights for 'stop' some of the time? Such examples highlight the cruciality of consistency in basic education. Yet we throw orthographic inconsistencies at children all the time and wonder why so meny* find our written system difficult. [2]

II. A Small Experiment.
A seven word list was submitted to 621 sixth graders distributed in 9 schools and 20 classes in the metropolitan Detroit area, Nov., Dec., 1974. The words, in traditional and approximately phonemic form, were as follows:

traditional spelling
believe
height
photograph
receive
through
tongue
weigh
approx. phonemic spelling
beleev
hyt
forograf
reseev
thru
tung
wa
In each class the traditional list was analyzed and discussed for seven minutes, then written to dictation; then the phonemic list was analyzed, discussed for seven minutes and written to dictation.

On the traditional list 1481 words were misspelled as agenst* 764 on the phonemic forms. This is an error reduction of 48%. Such a result would occur by chance less than one time in a thousand. The number of perfectly spelled lists jumped from 192 (31%) traditional to 332 (53%) phonemic. The poorest spellers, those who missed 3 or more words on the traditional list, numbered 248 or 39%; but on the phonemic list they were reduced to 109 or only 17%.

There is no question but that there is Hawthorne effect in these results; the students were playing an interesting game. (They were told at the outset that this experiment had nothing to do with their grades in spelling.) Even so, the phonemic forms were new to them, meny were quite familiar with the traditional spellings before the tests, and exposure to the new forms was only seven minutes. They were enabled to do so well so quickly because they were familiar with the sounds of the letters of the alphabet, and, following the sound of the word, they could fit the letters needed. Eny teacher who deals with spelling will report that children often fall back upon "instinctive" spelling, spelling the way a word sounds to them. These sixth graders were excited to find that they could spell "instinctively" and it would be "right."

III. Reliability, Reliability, Reliability.
Children learn most of the things they need to know, without formal training. If we look at the way they learn it "naturally" we see that, given motivation, they learn things most quickly and easily if they can rely on an environmental response, if they can discern a pattern that does not fail them.

Learning to walk is a complex matter, but doubtless one reason it is achievable is that the child can depend on the forces of gravity, distribution of weight and balance, which are constant. The child is rewarded every time balance is maintained and taught by a tumble when balance is lost. The child feels balance being maintained or being lost.

Learning to talk is enormously complex, but agen surely one reason it is achievable is that certain sounds are always associated with certain objects, actions, ideas. The spoken word 'mother,' or 'mamma,' or 'ma' always means a given person in a given role, as does 'pa.' The spoken syllable 'milk' always means milk, 'jump' means jump and so on. The sounds are reliable hence learnable. We have little trouble teaching children to tell time because we are consistent on the differing jobs of the clock hands, and we are consistent on the numbers and their positions on the clock face. Learning always involves perception of a pattern - the simpler and more reliable the pattern, the quicker the learning.

A basic principle of all learning is that children need a perceived reliable and integrated world as a basis for learning. All aspects of socialization, including necessary skills, are much more readily acquired if the child has the confident feeling of being in a reliable, secure and therefore a trusted world. Such a world is integrated in that one aspect of experience builds into or reinforces another. For example, learning to walk builds into learning to run, which builds into participation in (social interaction) children's games requiring running. This means that learning to talk will build into learning to write and read. In an integrated world, writing and reading should be as closely and as naturally as possible linked to speaking.

The principle of reliability does not mean that a child never be surprized or shocked or puzzled or discouraged. It does not require a world of monotony. But it does require a regularity of pattern in the skills crucial to the culture.

IV From the Natural to the Less Natural. (By Making the Less Natural More Natural).
Speech is primordial. Children speak as naturally as they walk and almost as naturally as they breathe.

Speech is so natural that we often fail to note that it is built on abstraction and on symbolization. In speech we endow vocal sounds with meaning, we clothe sounds with life, with human experience. In other words, speech, which appears so natural, really combines the sound apparatus of homo sapiens with a contrived system of symbolization. To make a sound is at one level of the natural; to contrive a system of meanings and assign given meanings to given sounds is a different level of the natural. If this can be done with sound, can we come closer to it in our written symbols?

These sounds, as received by the ear or voiced by the organs of speech, become an intimate part of our being. We do not experience them (usually) as sounds at all but as direct meanings. So much a part of us do they become that we get to feel the syllable 'dog' is inherently doggy and that water could hardly be called anything else. We cleave to our native tongue and dialect and feel that our speech must be the language meant by the universe.

Thus, the world over, all people speak, but only some cultures develop a written language; and in the cultures which do develop written forms, only some of the people learn them. It is necessary to conclude that speech is primordial and on a level of naturalness denied to written forms. Homo sapiens takes to speech like a duck to water but it takes effort and sustained discipline to learn to read. (Some children learn to read unaided or with very little assistance but they are quite exceptional.)

It is true that we have not tried to raise children from infancy using only written language for communication. Were we to do this we might find that written forms too can become very intimate and "natural." But the facts remain that we always find humankind with speech, that written forms arise only in some cultures and only at some points in the development of those cultures, that all people speak but only those specially trained read and write.

We are thus drawn to the idea, often repeated in the study of reading, that the greatest difficulty in leading children from speech to writing and reading is the gap between a natural activity and one more abstract, less natural, more artificial. If this approach is correct, we should hypothesize that the more natural the written forms can be made to be, the more easily children will learn to write and to read. What does "natural" mean in this context? This again is an hypothesis, but I take it to include the following qualities: (a) as close as possible to the forms of speech, (b) as simple as possible, (c) experienced so early (3, 4, 5 years of age) and so often and so normally as to be taken as a part of the natural world of the child, (d) directly related to the sounds of speech, (e) reliable, always related in the same way to the same sounds.

Social scientists often speak of "internalization" of attitudes, values, points of view, roles. By this they mean an individual has made his or her own possession, an aspect of behavior modeled in the social environment. In this way, mention has been made of the magnificent way children make the sounds of native speech their own down to the last intonation. Learning (or socialization) has been remarked to occur when some aspect of the world is emotionally assimilated (internalized) into the self. Freud, Piaget, Rogers, Montessori, Maslow, among many others, have noted an emotional internalization theory of socialization and of learning. That which is learned becomes a part of the self; if we "grasp" or "understand" something, an idea or relationship, it in some way has become a part of us. To learn means a flowing of the psyche into the world and a flowing of an aspect of the world into the self, which is a way of describing experience.

And if the sounds of speech are "natural" because they are so early and so thoroughly absorbed into the self, then we can make the written forms more "natural" by making them early more familiar, more friendly, more supportive, more a natural part of the child's environment. We should make the cultural arrangements to cause children to induct into their hearts with familiarity, friendship and delight the letters of the alphabet. (A child who knows his or her letters as frends, tried and true, as animated pals, as companions - a child who knows their shapes, voices, characters, quirks - a child, in short, who has adopted the 26 friends, is ready to follow them into writing and reading. Such a child feels they are a part of the natural world. "These letters are mine." just as a child develops favoritism for certain numbers, so may feelings of positive or negative valence be developed for letters. A child who feels "Good ole' A" and "Bad ole' Z" is more ready to write and to read than a child who feels next to nothing for the letters. In these cases a non-preferred letter is neither fearsome nor overlooked, but constitutes a doleful and friendly imperfection like the Cowardly Lion.)

Cultural arrangements should be made such as nursery schools with parental involvement, childrens' TV programs, children's product advertizing, toy emphasis, kindergarten and first and second grade emphasis. (Children should be able to experience the alphabetical letters not only pictorially, but with personalities as dolls, puppets, pillows, blocks, cut-outs, cartoon characters, crackers, cookies, cereal nuggets, etc. At an early age, children should be taught to arrange and read block letters making up their names, later to feel and draw and manipulate them in many ways.)

The next step is crucial, for as the letters are used to build words, each letter must remain true to itself, true to its sound. This reliability will enable the children to see and hear and feel how letters are put together to form words. And in "understanding" this they will be more able to assimilate and adopt (take into themselves) the words. [3]

Just as reliability of sound to object is crucial in learning to speak, so the reliability of grapheme (letter) to phoneme (sound) is crucial in learning to write and to read.

In an alphabetical system, a written word is a collection of letters directing a reader (speaker) to produce certain sounds. A written word is exactly like a brief musical score, only the instrument playing the score is not a violin or piano but human breath as formed by vocal chords, palate, cheeks, tongue, teeth and lips. Observe a perfectly spelled word, (our lexicon still has many of them), such as 'tip.' Here the speaker is directed to combine a 'T' a short 'I' sound, and a 'P' sound in that order - three distinct sounds (phonemes) and three letters (graphemes) exactly corresponding to the sounds required. This is the basic plan of an alphabetical system. Over the centuries our orthography has strayed from this basic plan. We need desperately, for the sake of our children in a complex, symbolic, technological culture, to return to it.

Will a child who learns to read by sounding the words aloud or silently be limited to always going from the print to the sound and thence to the meaning? Not at all. (Very few of us, as a matter of course, realize we only hear sounds when we hear speech; we go directly to meaning.) Altho some readers move their lips or imaginatively hear the sound before they can get to meaning, the vast majority of readers learn to go directly from the written symbol to meaning. Many readers, for example, can read much faster than they can speak. [4] With all reading there may be some residual cerebral activity corresponding to speech activity, but if there is, it doesn't slow us up or interfere. Once the words are ours, the phrases begin to hang together and soon, if the notion takes us, we can soar over the printed page, skimming several times faster than speaking.

This means that the phonemic construction of a word, to maximize its naturalness and ease of learning, in no way limits its symbolic function. 'Thru' can mean everything that 'through' can and still be much easier to learn and to use. 'Hed' can signify everything that 'head' can signify; 'litl' is just as small as 'little' and much more sensible; 'n?t' (dots on both ends to signify long 'i') is just as dark as 'night,' etc.

V. Step by Step Reform.
It should be emphasized that with our 26 letters it is impossible to spell many of our words perfectly phonemically. Lack of perfection, however, should not stop us from making the vast improvements which are quite possible. For example, the Australian Teachers Federation has recommended Spelling Reform One (SR-1) which is to spell every word with a short 'e' sound with an 'e'; thus 'bread' becomes 'bred,' 'head' becomes 'bed,' 'friend' becomes 'frend,' 'said' becomes 'sed,' etc. This change affects only 120 out of the most commonly used 25,000 words of our lexicon and thus would be rather easily assimilated. Through a series of such steps, say one every four years for 40 years, we could, while reducing the shock and displacement of change, revolutionize our spelling. A second change, for example, might be to change all 'ph's pronounced as 'f' to 'f'; thus 'telephone' would become 'telefone.' [5] A third change might be to drop all silent consonants such as the 'k' in 'knee,' [6] the 'l' in 'could,' 'would,' 'should"; the 'p' in 'pneumatic,' etc.

VI. Our Present System Constitutes Psychic Child Abuse.
What is being insisted upon here is nothing other than we have all said repeatedly over the years as a basis for the education of children. We have said, "Don't lie to children." The position here put forward is that our orthography is deceptive - it is one lie after another and hence it constitutes, not education, but psychic child abuse. Unnecessarily difficult and confusing word forms which many children fail, are not helping them to "grow"- it is not "educating" them - it is child abuse.

It is no less abuse because the system is administered in the name of knowledge and culture, or because it is enshrined in tradition. It is no less abuse because the forms come down to us wrapped in the prestige of "English literature:' It is no less abuse because the system is standard throughout the land or because we all participate in it, nor because it is curricularized and blessed with the authority of every school board of every state. It is no less abuse because children cannot manage the perspective or the courage to cry out specifically against it. It is abuse because it traps children in needless drudgery and frustration, detracts from their feelings of success and of adequacy, defies and negates their sense of logic, robs many of them of love of written forms, and forces them over a course which many fail.

VII For the children, we should have the courage to change.
Why haven't we long ago shifted to a consistent phonemic spelling which was and is the intent of our alphabetic system? Despite high-sounding "lexical" and etymological rationalizations, the real reason is that we are used to the forms and do not want to undergo the inconvenience of change. As one graduate student put it, "I've learned to operate in one system and I'll be damned if I'll learn another."

But tremendous educational and monetary benefits could be reaped through such a change. Before we opt for costly pie-in-the-sky gimmicks, we should reform our child-defeating spelling. Simplified spelling could be the most fundamental and far-reaching educational innovation since the introduction of the common school.

Notes.
[1] Godfrey Dewey, English Spelling: Roadblock to Reading. Teachers College Press, New York, 1971, p.6.
[2] It is well known that experimental psychologists have induced apathy and behavioral breakdown in rats by training them in behavior leading to reward (food) and then switching the reward to punishment.
[3] E. J. Gibson, A. Pick, H. Osser, M. Hammond, "The Role of Grapheme-Phoneme Correspondence in the Perception of Words." Amer. Jour. of Psychology, 1962, v.75, p.554-570. "The results of this experiment demonstrate that a letter group with a high spelling-to-sound correlation is reproduced more accurately than an equivalent letter group with a low spelling-to-sound correlation. ('Vuns' was reproduced more accurately than 'nsuv,' 'besks' more accurately than 'skseb,' etc.) "Practically, this result suggests strongly that the proper unit for analyzing the process of reading is not the alphabetical letter but the spelling pattern which has an invariant relationship with a phonemic pattern. This may be of great importance for children's learning to read and write." (emphasis mine.)
[4] With the aid of strongly literate family and peer environments, letter cleverness, special interests or strong motivation, most of our children learn to operate at some level of efficiency in our present system. But millions of our children are discouraged and turned away by its difficulty, irrationality and unnaturalness.
[5] Since in an honest orthography, all 'o's would be long, the eventual spelling of 'telephone' would be 'telefon.'
[6] Some silent initial consonants cannot be dropped without other changes in spelling. For example, know, knew, and others such as knot become homographs when the silent initial letter is dropped. In many words with gh, this digraph cannot be dropped unless another way is used to indicate the vowel sound.
 
Report: Reading in U.S. falls

Hillel Italie
Associated Press
Jul. 8, 2004 12:00 AM

The reading of books is on the decline in America, despite Harry Potter and the best efforts of Oprah Winfrey.

A report released today by the National Endowment for the Arts says the number of non-reading adults increased by more than 17 million from 1992 to 2002.

Only 47 percent of American adults read "literature" (poems, plays, narrative fiction) in 2002, a drop of 7 points from a decade earlier. Those reading any book at all in 2002 fell to 57 percent, down from 61 percent.

NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, himself a poet, called the findings shocking and a reason for grave concern.

"We have a lot of functionally literate people who are no longer engaged readers," Gioia told the Associated Press. "This isn't a case of 'Johnny can't read,' but 'Johnny won't read.' "

The likely culprits, according to the report: television, movies and the Internet.

"I think what we're seeing is an enormous cultural shift from print media to electronic media, and the unintended consequences of that shift," Gioia said.

The decline came despite the creation of Oprah's book club in 1996 and the Harry Potter craze that began in the late 1990s among kids and adults alike. Reading fell even as Barnes & Noble boasted that its superstore empire was expanding the book market.

In 1992, 72.6 million adults in the United States did not read a book. By 2002, that figure had increased to 89.9 million, the NEA said.

The NEA study, titled "Reading at Risk," was based on a Census Bureau survey of more than 17,000 adults.

The drop in reading was widespread: among men and women, young and old, Black and White, college graduates and high school dropouts. The numbers were especially poor among adult men, of whom only 38 percent read literature, and Hispanics overall, for whom the percentage was 26.5.

The decline was especially great among the youngest people surveyed, ages 18 to 24. Only 43 percent had read any literature in 2002, down from 53 percent in 1992.

Gioia said the electronic media that are contributing to the problem do offer possible remedies. He praised Winfrey's use of TV to promote literacy and said he wished for a "thousand variants" of the idea.

"There's a communal aspect to reading that has collapsed, and we need to find ways to restore it," Gioia said.

The title "Reading at Risk" is modeled on "A Nation at Risk," a 1983 government study that warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity in elementary and secondary schools" and led to numerous reforms. But Gioia avoided specific proposals in the NEA report.

"I don't believe the NEA should tell the culture what to do," he said. "The reason we are bringing this study out is that we consider it a crisis situation that requires a national conversation."

 
Third-graders' success will decide their school's future

Creighton students make big strides but are still short of goal. Again.

"Used with permission. Permission does not imply endorsement." Karina Bland
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 1, 2007 12:00 AM

Like many third-graders at Creighton Elementary School in Phoenix, 9-year-old Oscar Medina thinks that if he doesn't pass the state's AIMS test, he won't get to go to fourth grade next year.

That's not true, his teacher assures him. What Oscar doesn't realize is that it's not fourth grade but the fate of his school that rests on his and his classmates' scores.

By federal standards, schools are required to make adequate yearly progress or face government intervention. For four years, Creighton hasn't met the standards under the No Child Left Behind law.

If enough of this year's third-graders don't do well on Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, a fifth year without adequate progress calls for restructuring and possible state takeover and a new principal.

Rosemary Agneessens smiles wryly at the thought. It's a stressful job, with long hours.

She pores over spreadsheets of reading scores. Her students, who speak mostly Spanish, do fine in math because it doesn't require they read in English. Agneessens takes off her glasses, rubs her eyes and says, "I just want them to read. Not only for AIMS but because if they don't learn now, they may never catch up."

Almost three years ago, The Arizona Republic began chronicling the efforts of a group of children at Creighton as they began to learn to read.

Many started first grade without even knowing the alphabet. Now, nearing the end of third grade, they have made tremendous progress, with some kids jumping two grade levels in reading this year alone.

Still, the children don't read as well as they should by now. In December, about 25 percent of the 110 third-graders tested as proficient in reading.

Their struggles mirror those of children across Arizona, where 24 percent of fourth-graders are proficient in reading, compared with 31 percent nationally. There are other schools in Creighton's position, most of them in low-income areas.

There is a determined air about Creighton. Students in all other grades are poised to pass AIMS, based on ongoing assessments. Lynne Spiller, the district's director of research and evaluation, thinks the third-graders could possibly pass, just maybe, what with the school's new reading program and additional tutoring.

Testing starts April 9, though the results won't be available until after school lets out in May. Everyone, from district officials and the school board to the state superintendent of public instruction and federal government, will be waiting.

Oscar has been practicing for AIMS, reading to his mother every night at the kitchen table. "I'm ready," he says.

New language, big barrier

On third-grade teacher Emaretta Hines' desk is a copy of How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell. Her students aren't ready to read it for themselves yet, so she's reading it to them.

The majority of her students still are learning English. A few started the school year speaking no English at all. Now they're reading aloud and using sophisticated words in their writing, such as "awesome" and "discovered," copied carefully from a vocabulary list.

Eight-year-old Rosario Portillo has jumped two grade levels in reading, though she is still about a year behind where she should be for her age.

"That's significant growth," says Karen Tankersley, a reading consultant and Arizona State University West professor. If she and other students could show the same kind of growth next year, they would be right where they need to be in reading. Even better, if they went to summer school, they could be on grade level by the time they start fourth grade.

But Rosario and her classmates will take AIMS long before that, and the person scoring her test can't take into account that she moved here from Mexico in first grade.

State education officials expect children to learn English in one year, though most research shows that the English skills needed to perform well academically can take five to seven years to master.

Creighton's inability to make adequate yearly progress rests on its English-learners. The school is a first stop for many immigrants, with student turnover as high as 50 percent.

Creighton third-graders are in one of two programs: English immersion, where subjects are taught entirely in English; or dual-language, where students also receive instruction in Spanish.

In dual-language, Oscar has made up the ground he lost as he struggled to learn English because he gets half of his instruction in Spanish. He has jumped a grade level and a half in reading and now hovers just below grade level.

Arizona law doesn't allow bilingual education. However, schools can offer dual-language classes if students already are proficient in English. It took until third grade for Oscar and many of his classmates to get fluent enough in English to qualify. AIMS is in English.

Still, the strongest predictor of school success is a child's socioeconomic status, says Jeff MacSwan, associate professor of education at Arizona State University in Tempe and author of several reports on Arizona's English-learners.

Children with richer parents fare better in school than poor kids. At Creighton, 90 percent of students qualify for federal reduced-price and free meal programs.

Coupled with the fact that they are learning English, he says, "It does stand to reason that if these kids are working in both languages, they are going to trail behind a bit. A year is not a big deal. They're going to be able to catch up."

But maybe not in time to pass this year's AIMS test.

Getting ready for AIMS

In a sense, third-graders at Creighton, like kids their age across the state, have been preparing for AIMS since the start of the school year. All children take the AIMS test for the first time in third-grade.

They've been pushed to read independently instead of relying on a reading buddy or a teacher as they did in second grade. They'll have to read on their own for AIMS and, by the fourth grade, they're expected to get as much information from textbooks as they do from their teachers.

Their teachers have taught them test-taking strategies, such as highlighting passages to pick out key ideas and what to do when they come across an unfamiliar word.

They use dictionaries now instead of asking their teachers how to spell a word or what it means. (Students can use dictionaries during AIMS.)

Third-graders are forced to grow up as scholars, getting little slack for forgotten homework or misplaced assignments. It's a time of great growth, with kids snapping up new words and concepts.

Oscar pulls his sweatshirt off over his head and tucks his white-collared uniform shirt back into his navy trousers. He and his seatmates are talking about the characters, setting and conflict of the book Dogzilla by Dav Pilkey. They'll likely be asked to do the same on AIMS. The test measures state standards in reading, writing and math.

One recent afternoon, third-graders worked on antonyms and synonyms during a new intervention started this year called "Reading Plus." All Creighton students get an extra 45 minutes of reading instruction, grouped by ability and in small classes.

Last year, the same approach to teaching math resulted in significant gains. Fifty-seven percent of Creighton third-graders passed the math portion of AIMS in 2004-05, up from 18 percent in 2003-04 and even better than the statewide rate of 43 percent.

By teaching in small groups, teachers can target instruction to each child's weakness. Children who catch on quickly can move up, from group to group, as their skills improve.

With their teachers doing everything to prepare them for AIMS and the rigors of fourth grade, Principal Agneessens turned to their parents for help.

In a series of meetings all year, she has met with parents in every grade level to talk about their children's progress.

"We're doing everything we can here at school," she told them in Spanish. If their children are to succeed, they must help them at home.

"This is serious," Agneessens said. "The success of your children depends on what you do at home."

Some parents cried.

Kids are reason to hope

Now Oscar reads to his mother after he finishes his homework. His classmate, Diego Covarrubias, reads to his big sister.

In Hines' class, Rosario and 8-year-old Melissa Viera stay after school to help Hines tidy the room. They like being at school so much, they're reluctant to leave.

Melissa reads aloud, "Where is the circle? The circle is over the square. Where is the oval? The oval fell off the triangle. Oops." The girls giggle.

The children's efforts are reason for hope. These third-graders entered kindergarten just as a wave of reading reforms were being integrated into classrooms, not only at their own school but also across the country.

The new reading program this year has meant an additional 45 minutes of instruction every day, and children get additional tutoring in the areas where they are weak.

And more third-graders this year were proficient enough in English to qualify for the school's dual-language program, and their reading has improved dramatically compared with the third-graders in English-immersion classes.

"I have the greatest hope that it will be enough," says Spiller, the district's research and evaluation director. She monitors students' progress through regular assessments.

Third-graders have shown progress since December, and she hopes it will be enough. At least 61 percent of third-graders must test proficient in reading or the school again won't meet its federal progress requirements.

If only they had a little more time, Spiller says, they would be sure to make it. About 70 percent of fourth-graders are on track to pass AIMS.

"Once they figure out the language, they shoot up," Spiller says.

Test time is growing near.

"The students know they have a big test coming up," says Jessica Barrios, Oscar's teacher in the dual-language program.

She has assured them that AIMS won't determine if they go to fourth-grade. But they have to pass AIMS to graduate from high school, so they may as well start now.

She has high expectations for her students, assigning them to reading groups named after colleges: New York University, Arizona State, University of California-Los Angeles.

Down the breezeway, Hines explains to her students that AIMS will measure what they know compared with what they are supposed to know. There is no reason to tell them what hinges on their scores.

They've worked hard all year. "Just do your very best," Hines tells them.
 
 
Home Contact Us Site map Site map