The concept proposed here is not truly revolutionary. It does not throw out the old order to install a new one, but instead displaces the authoritarian spelling system by reintroducing the original basis of English orthography. As one dictionary editor put it, "American spelling is phonetic. That is to say, the letters of our alphabet stand for certain sounds...." Discussions of written English start from this premise, but quickly digress to celebrate (as a literary triumph) its failure to approach that goal in practice! Even as the random nature of the spelling "system" limits access to it, characteristics that make it inaccessible to many are touted as a literary virtue, not as a principal roadblock to literacy. For example:
· From the front matter to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.): "For the trained observer the vagaries of English orthography contain a wealth of linguistic history; for most others, however, this disparity between sound and spelling is just a continual nuisance at school or work."
· From the introduction to Learning to Spell, Perfetti, Rieben, and Fayol (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997): "The word spelling can evoke images of classroom drill and testing, children writing strings of letters as a teacher pronounces words ever so clearly. ... For countless adults who confess with self-depreciation to being terrible spellers, it is a reminder of a mysterious but minor affliction that the fates have visited on them."
These passages epitomize reactions among literary and educational intelligentsia to arguments critical of English orthography. The problem is treated as a trivial matter, "just a continual nuisance," a "minor affliction" for literate Americans. Its role as a roadblock to reading and writing for a majority of children and as a major contributor to limiting the success of the American educational system is not discussed in polite intellectual or academic circles.
fēl lost hwen forst too rēd and rīt werdz in an
inkomprēhensibul laŋwij, SPELING.
AKSES ulowz ŧhem too rīt werds in ŧhe laŋwij ŧhā spēk.
One well known reference suggests that the traditional writing system is the root of other unfortunate aspects of present-day American society as well. In June 1971, Ben D. Wood, Director of the Bureau of Collegiate Educational Research, Columbia University, wrote in a foreword to English Spelling: Roadblock to Reading by Godfrey Dewey: "Even among those of our children and adults who do not become non-readers, the traumas of an irrational alphabet often continue as hidden or unconscious antipathies for, or roadblocks to, effective reading habits, and even more effective roadblocks to writing. Nonreaders not only feel déclassé, but also too frequently become victims of frustrations leading to delinquency, crime, and the self-destructive violence associated with political infantilism and susceptibility to demagoguery." [Emphasis added.]
A more recent book (Spelling Dearest, Niall M. Waldman) traces how English writing became the most difficult modern European language to master. The author also highlights many of the consequent problems stemming from its illogical development.
Suggestions that these problems will fade away with adoption of a phonemic
orthography are greeted with disbelief,
indifference, derision, or outright hostility. Only a few recognized
experts accept even the possibility that a viable alternative to
authoritarian orthography exists. The usual response is "Are you serious?"
Faced with proof of its viability, a language expert may mention that G. B.
Shaw supported it (sure proof that it is a crackpot idea) or may cite failures
of "spelling reform" or i.t.a. (initial teaching alphabet)
experiments with the comment, "It's been tried before and doesn't
work." Final dismissal is usually accompanied by, "The public doesn't
accept it." These attitudes
originate in closed minds. Webster's 1789 prophesy concerning grave
consequences of failure to adopt rational English orthography has indeed come
to pass. He wrote, "Delay in the plan here proposed may be fatal ... the
minds of men may again sink into indolence; a national acquiescence in error
will follow, and posterity be doomed to struggle with difficulties which time
and accident will perpetually multiply." Now is the time to throw off the easy habit of defending
spelling merely because it is traditional. Let us rationally compare the
effectiveness of spelling vs. phonemic orthography in leading our
children to literacy.
We all know how spelling
works: To write a word, a child must recall how to spell it by associating a
"conventional" sequence of Roman letters with the word/thought. The
most effective approach for children is rote memorization, but intellectually
mature individuals may use memory aids such as grouping words according to unusual spelling patterns or mispronouncing
a word in a special way to suggest its proper spelling. However done, the
object of "learning to spell" is to acquire a spelling lexicon
(memorized list) from which a word’s conventional letter sequence can be
recalled when it is to be written.
In this discussion, the term "reading" encompasses only the
decoding step from written word to mental word/thought. Reading
conventional text requires the reading lexicon in the reader's brain to
contain a spelled visual image of all words the author has written. Writing requires a
spelling lexicon in the author’s
brain that contains the spelling of each word to be written. These
memorized lists are in addition to the vocabulary list every child remembers
specifically for oral communications. A child with a 5,000 word vocabulary
stored in an oral lexicon (for spoken language) must memorize a
second list of 5,000 reading words and yet another of 5,000 spelled words in
order to be able to read and write as well as he or she speaks. All 3 lists
contain a different form of the same words, but little else is common among
them. The information they contain is acquired and used differently and appears
to be stored and retrieved in different complex ways. Learning written
English is so stressful that few among us have sight-word or spelled-word
lexicons that equal their spoken vocabularies.
Mental word elements
are an integral part of a child's oral language. When information is to be
transmitted, they “order” the speech organs to convert
thought/words into sounds. When information is received, speech sounds are
converted into word/thoughts by means of the same elements. These processes
are so easily learned during early child development that they seem instinctive
rather than volitional to some. This is the basis for the claim that oral
English is "natural" while written (spelled) English is man-made or
"unnatural." [See The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker,
William Morrow and Co, 1994]. Such distinctions are false and misleading.
All forms of language communication are manmade. Babies become
aware of oral English as their growing brains develop connections for hearing,
interpreting, and remembering spoken words as well as for voluntary control of
speech organs for uttering the remembered words. Development of mental
connections is natural, but acquiring specific word elements and the skills to use them is learned.
Although learned, oral language processes are so easy for children that
they seem spontaneous or "instinctive."
That appearance is deceptive; children actively learning new language skills usually are intently focused and often exhibit intense excitement and great interest in these activities. They are delighted to discover that communicating with words helps them understand and control their world. American children have a "natural" ability to identify the 40 or so English word elements they need to develop their individual speech habits and oral word vocabularies quickly and easily. Educators seem to have discovered this "phoneme awareness," but appear unaware that the conventional writing system does not employ phonemic characteristics in any systematic way.
children too lern ŧhu nāmz uv leterz in ŧhu alfubet
Roman leter nāmz rairlē korēspond too ŧhu fōnēmic elements ŧhā reprēzent in werdz.
Phoneme awareness is probably at its peak in children just before they learn the names of the letters of the Roman alphabet. Children taught phonemic characters rather than letters of the alphabet to represent word elements retain and use phoneme awareness throughout life. A child who recognizes the 43-5 characters of AKSES and responds orally with their names is ready to start reading AKSES text whenever he or she decides to do so. Under such circumstances, children develop written language skills as quickly and easily as they do oral language; it seems to develop spontaneously or "instinctively."
Learning to recognize the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet and to say their names in sequence is the traditional preparation for reading. However, ability to read traditionally spelled text does not follow from knowing the alphabet. Traditional reading must be developed by memorizing individual spelled words under tutelage of a spelling authority until the learner has a reading lexicon large enough to be able to use a dictionary. Typically this preparation requires 3 or more years of schooling. An unacceptable number of Americans never master it.
In contrast, learning 43-5 AKSES
characters and their names leads directly to reading AKSES text.
A traditional reading class is conducted by a teacher with a group of students. Teacher is an essential part of the learning process; only Teacher knows the correct response to each written word in the lesson. All other participants are engaged in a game played with 2 rules: Rule 1 - Recall from memory the word represented by the next printed sequence of letters and pronounce it; failing that, apply Rule 2 - Guess a word that fits the story or pictures on the page. If Teacher says you are wrong, try to memorize the word that Teacher says is right. In this manner, children build up lexicons of word-pictures (spellings) associated with word-sounds... Children with good visual image recall often recognize a word after 1 or 2 positive reinforcements; the less fortunate may require 3, 4, or even more encounters to remember a written word well enough to recall it reliably when encountering it again. For many children, the initial stages of acquiring and learning "sight words" is a laborious, discouraging task. Until a child develops a reliable list of many hundreds of words, it faces the unpleasant prospect of encountering one or more indecipherable words in every sentence. Only after a child acquires hundreds of common sight words can Teacher suggest other techniques (such as phonics, word group associations, or dictionary use) to change Rule 2 into more than a chancy guessing game.
This thought brings up an important technical question: When has a
particular individual, child or adult, "learned to read"?
Certainly throughout school years, an average student is often stopped in
mid-sentence by an unrecognized spelling that turns out to be a word in his or
her oral vocabulary. With traditional orthography, even well-educated readers
encounter written words they cannot confidently "say" without
referring to an authority. For
traditional spelled writing, the answer seems to be: Except for Authorities,
English speakers never completely know "how to read". With
AKSES, every child has mastered basic reading when able to decode and recognize
all words in their oral vocabularies, so the answer is: Either before
or shortly after they first enter school!
In an (hypothetical) English-speaking country with a
phonemic writing system, no classes
are dedicated to "learning to read." Perhaps as many as half the
children enrolling in school are able to "say" most written words,
the simplest definition of reading. Non-readers are those whose physical,
mental, or social development is slower than average. With
The contrast is obvious. With AKSES text, reading and writing are natural extensions of children's common childhood language skills. By mastering phonemic characters, they read any word they see and write any word they think of. They know how to read and write almost from the start, giving them a confidence in basic literacy skills by the end of first grade that few of today's traditionally trained students ever attain. Eliminating major sources of frustration, feelings of inadequacy, and the continual threat of many small failures improves each child's self-image and their attitudes toward society.
AKSES, children nō how too rēd and rīt awlmōst from ŧhu
Ŧhōz skilz ar ŧhu bāsis frum hwich troo literusē ēvolvz. Tēcherz bēkum gīdz too lerniŋ.
The secret to language "transparency" lies in the nature of information transfer from one person to another. Speech mode is transparent by definition: A speaker is unaware of exerting any special mental energy from the time a word is "on the tip" of the tongue to the time it is understood by listeners. A listener is equally unaware of expending effort (in the absence of distracting noise). The conversion of thought-words in a speaker's mind to transmitted sounds and back again into the same thought-words in the listener's mind seemingly requires no conscious effort or intellectual control for either participant; as far as they are aware, it just happens.
Reading and writing written language is not quite as effortless. It requires physical manipulation and coordination of external objects and control of eye movements. This is especially true for beginning readers and writers. To the extent reading and writing processes mimic corresponding speech processes and use the same input and output routes in the brain, written language seems transparent to an individual. They do not involve difficult, confusing, and seemingly extraneous intellectual processes and proceed with as little effort as speech.
The following sections contrast the way beginning readers view
traditionally-spelled and phonemic writing. To start with, traditional students
know the letters of the Roman alphabet; phonemic students know the AKSES characters and their names.
A beginning traditional reader sees "cat" and says
/see/ /ae/ /tee/. Teacher explains, "/See/ /ae /tee/ spells /kat/,
and every time the word "see-ae-tee" is printed in a book, the book
is telling us to say /kat/." A child makes no progress until it learns
that reading requires recalling whole words; individual letters are meaningless except as grouped to
spell words. An embarrassingly large number of Americans never get that
concept right. The goal is to develop a sight-word reading lexicon, a new
intellectual activity for a child. With traditional text, this process only
accidentally relates to the phonemic word elements used in speech. To read
traditional text, a student must develop a new direct path from visual input to
the brain through sight-word recognition to assemble them into sentences to be
interpreted according to grammar. The visual image of a word is compared with
each entry in the reading lexicon to recognize the word-thought it represents.
The word-thought produced by this process is sent directly on, bypassing the
child's oral phoneme-based word recognition system. Further intellectual tasks
are added as teachers present alternate methods to help children build reading
lexicons. With traditional spelled text, perhaps fewer than half of American
children eventually become proficient readers.
A beginning AKSES
reader sees "kat" and says /k/ /a/ /t/. Teacher explains, "That
is correct. Say the sounds quickly and the word is /kat/." Children learn
to blend the names of characters to "speak" them. They match each word thus revealed with a
word in their oral lexicons. Eventually the process becomes automatic and
requires no conscious effort. The goal of building a sight-word lexicon (for
speed and effortless reading) remains, but a child is not under pressure to
produce it from the start. Sight-word
reading skills develop naturally (and gradually) as a child's intellectual
abilities mature and it wants to read faster. In the meantime, children read at
their own rate and enjoy the thrill of self-teaching. No confusing artificial
learning systems like phonics are ever needed as they are for spelling. In the
beginning, children still "guess at" words when blended character
names do not quite match their common pronunciations, but such guesses almost
always are correct because differences usually are small unless a child has
non-conventional pronunciation habits. In severe cases, teachers’
intervention may be required. In all cases, AKSES text encourages the development of standard pronunciation.
Nearly all children learn to read before leaving first grade.
The i.t.a. experiments demonstrated that teaching phonemic writing does not provide students quick mastery of conventional reading and writing. The reason is simple; phonemic writing is transparent because it works through an individual's oral lexicon. In the i.t.a. experiments, all words were written with phonemic characters, but i.t.a. students, like traditional students, do not immediately develop sight-word lists as large as their oral lexicons. This is not a problem because infrequently used words are easily decoded; students simply match up their elements with words in their oral lexicon. When students were switched from i.t.a. to conventional text after first grade, they were again faced with all the same old traditional spelling roadblocks to learning. The i.t.a. experience suggested that introducing children to "easy" phonemic writing then switching them to traditional text created greater frustration for some than teaching conventional writing from the start.
The reverse situation, creates few difficulties. Traditional readers face the "minor nuisance" of learning phonemic characters and how they relate to their own oral vocabulary. Good readers are already familiar with most AKSES characters. Most are able to decode AKSES text at once without special instruction. Building up reading speed requires experience, a process of replacing spelled images in the sight-word lexicon with equivalent AKSES images. Individuals develop speed on their own because AKSES words are always readable without reference to authority.
Training students to read and write AKSES in school and then turning them loose in a conventional-writing society would invite conflict and ultimate tragedy. Out-of-school contacts with written material during their school years should be primarily AKSES text appropriate for their educational level. Graduates have a right to expect to live and work in an AKSES-oriented society. Americans serious about solving the country's literacy problem must support programs to encourage mass media and print publications to convert to AKSES in order to make them available for AKSES-literate students as they progress through school. Proponents help by becoming proficient in AKSES themselves.
AKSES izn't guud bēkawz ŧhen ordinairē
pēpul wuud rīt ŧhu sām as ŧhu wel ejūkāted.
Ŧtat's riet, but if wē wunt awl children too rēd and rīt, izun't ŧhat ŧhu gōl?
Publishers and editors, literary critics, and literature and language professors have been uniformly successful in a coordinated defense of Samuel Johnson's traditional spelling against ragged onslaughts of "spelling reformers." This discussion would not be complete without mention of the major objections to orthographic revision and answering arguments. I warn you, this is boring stuff. But, if you firmly believe that English cannot survive without spelling, this section is mandatory reading for you, otherwise skip it. [See more extensive coverage in Godfrey Dewey (mentioned above) and Noah Webster's Dissertations on the English Language, mentioned in Background.]
Some rather old arguments were:
proposed reform requires people to relearn the language." Ans:
The change from traditional to
proposed reform obscures etymology and diminishes our literary
heritage." Ans: Scholarly study of etymology surely is
not practiced on current publications. A change to
3. "Distinction between words having different meanings, but similar sound would be destroyed." Ans: Benjamin Franklin, a man frugal with his words, had this answer, "That distinction is already destroyed in pronunciation." To paraphrase Noah Webster: Do men not pronounce "all" and "awl" precisely alike? Is "knew" ever mistaken for "new" in informal or formal speech? Was "peace" ever mistaken for "piece," "pray" for "prey," or "flower" for "flour" even when spoken rapidly? On the other hand, readers have no trouble determining the proper pronunciation of words spelled the same but having different meanings: "wind" means both "to move around" and "air in motion" and "hail" means "to call out" or "falling frozen drops of water." Does this diversity ever cause the least difficulty in the language of ordinary books?
is idle to conform the orthography of words to pronunciation, because the
latter is continually changing." Ans: In Samuel Johnson's time and
country, that argument possibly made some sense. Within the confines of the
Modern critics add arguments even more "legalistic," arcane, and bolder in deceptive contrivance: [See H. L. Mencken, The American Language, Raven I. McDavid, Jr. ed. Knopf, 1977, pp 479-502; and Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, pp 188-191.] Here are some arguments these authors present against phonemic orthography:
Modern child development psychology has shown that, at an early age, an American child develops language (oral tradition) by modifying brain functions to facilitate rapid and accurate exchange of information and begins to develop a personal oral lexicon.
Traditional written English communication requires a child to develop 2 additional word lexicons, one for sight-reading and another for spelling, and separate brain functions to process written words into thoughts and thoughts into written words. Thus traditional orthography has intellectual elements that are difficult for most children to learn. Success in reading traditional text requires certain types of mental ability that many children do not have. Even those who have such abilities require years of concentrated study to achieve a useful level of mastery.
The alternative, phonemic orthography, builds written English communication skills upon elements of the oral tradition by sharing brain functions already developed for speaking. This phonemic concept is implemented in a proposed English writing system, AKSES, which promises to enable nearly all American children to master basic reading and writing skills during the first year of formal schooling. Contrary to "spelling reform", AKSES is readily accessible to everyone, even to traditional readers and writers who eventually may desire (or need) to adopt it.
Published December 24, 1998. (Last worked on 04/22/09) - James H.