Spelling Reform or Writing System Reform?

A distinction between AKSES writing reform and most reformed spelling systems must be clearly understood:

  Spelling Reform

In all cases I have examined, spelling reform proposals attempt to simplify English spelling by changing the spellings of only certain words.  Older approaches replaced a limited number of dictionary words with new spellings or added spellings as alternates.  More complex schemes provided rules for specific changes in certain conventional spellings under specified conditions and usually include many common words as exceptions.  All provide a new dictionary (word list) of altered spellings.  In most cases, the discussions of reforms are in linguistic jargon, making them as difficult to understand and apply as the rules of conventional spelling.  In all cases, children must memorize the visual letter patterns of words they wish to read and memorize the spellings of words they wish to write.  Competent readers and writers of conventional orthography see no benefits, only the unrewarding task of relearning spelling.  The usual argument that Americans do not accept spelling reform because they are in some way romantically attached to conventional spelling is a myth.  It is a story invented to hide the truth that most students acquire such loathing for English spelling that they cannot tolerate the idea of being forced to relearn different spellings.

  Writing Reform

The modifications to traditional writing recommended in AKSES are relatively minor.  The only real difference is the basis of the orthography.  Spelling provides conventional representation of individual words and requires users to learn (commit to memory) the spelling of every word as a unit.  Correct spellings are those found in a dictionary.  Phonemic writing represents words as strings of conventional phonemic characters.  Correct word patterns are also given in a dictionary, a phonemic dictionary, but individuals usually need to use them only to learn the meanings of words or to check the accuracy of oral vocabularies.  Students need to memorize only 45 phonemic characters to decode (read) or encode (write) words they already use correctly in their speech.  These processes are "natural," mimicking mental processes children develop in order to learn speech.  Only minor adjustments are required to conventional Roman script to represent AKSES phonemic characters.

Text written in AKSES looks weird at first glance but quickly acquires familiarity with use.  A bit less than 20 % of words in running text are written the same as they are spelled.  About 60 % differ only in minor ways - absent silent letters, single rather than double consonants, phonemic vowels written as they are sometimes spelled in different words, etc.  This leaves only about  20 % to be decoded character-by-character to be incorporated in a person's sight words.  For children attempting to read and write for the first time, none of this has any significance; they start to read immediately by blending names of phonemic characters into recognizable words and to write by recording word-elements in the way they think of them phonemically.  We have evidence from hundreds of i.t.a.-taught first grade classes to assure us that this kind of learning is easy for all 5-to-6-year-old children (i.t.a. is initial teaching alphabet, the name of both a specific phonemic character set and the controversial method for teaching conventional reading and writing by temporary use of those characters).

Reformed spelling and phonemic writing present a stark contrast in the ways they affect both beginning and experienced readers and writers.

Beginning readers and writers:

   Phonemic writing permits all children to read and write all words in their oral vocabularies within a month or two.  From that time forth, an individual's reading, writing, and speaking vocabularies all contain the same words remembered as one word list in mental phonemic element form.  Children are able to read and write all words in their expanding speech vocabularies without the extra effort of learning to spell them..
  Spelling systems require teachers to train children orally word by word in the beginning.  Both traditional and reformed spelling requires this word-by-word teaching method.  The number of words traditional students can read and write is always less and often very much less than the number of words in their oral vocabularies.  Even 12 years is not enough schooling to ensure that students can write any word they hear or decode any word they see without referring to an authority.  Contrast this with the mastery children using phonemic writing demonstrate from the beginning of their schooling.

Experienced traditional readers and writers:

  Phonemic writing requires readers to recognize 45 phonemic characters and connect them with the phonemic elements of the words in their oral vocabularies.  Most adept readers already know most AKSES characters intuitively and are able to deduce the few new characters, usually without instruction.  Poor readers may need instruction in associating phonemic sounds with characters or recognizing the phonemic content of spoken words.  Once the character set is mastered, reading and writing speed and facility improve with use and self study.  These activities do not require the intervention of a teacher.
  Reformed spelling systems generate resentment in adept readers.  They already recognize conventionally spelled words that are found in their reading lexicons and know how to spell most of the words they write.  They see no reason to change their language habits, especially if the changes do not make it easier to read and write.  Most troublesome are respelling systems that require writers to recall conventional spellings before deciding to apply or not to apply complex new spelling rules.  Poor readers and writers generally find reformed spelling systems as hard to learn as traditional spelling.  They still have the same basic problem, difficulty in memorizing lists of spelling words.  Conventional remedial reading and writing cannot be self-taught.

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First published 2/28/2002.  (Last worked on 10/18/04)  James H. Kanzelmeyer