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Let's face up to the costs of English spelling

Masha Bell, mashabell@aol.com, tel: 01929 552173
independent literacy researcher and writer

Let's face up to the costs of English spelling
David Crystal’s well publicised 'Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling' (September 2012) and Masha Bell’s ebook Spelling it out: the problems and costs of English spelling (July 2012) give very similar accounts of the development of English spelling, but the authors have very different opinions about the people who shaped it and how bad it is. They also differ on what should be done to improve the well-documented poor writing skills of many new recruits to industry and commerce who incur heavy costs for their employers.

While Crystal sees most of the changes to the English spelling system since the 7th century as quite reasonable, Bell regards them predominantly as pointless abuses of the alphabetic principle, which have made learning to read and write English gratuitously more difficult, with heavy costs to children, their parents, schools and the public purse.

While Crystal claims that ‘English spelling isn’t as bad as most people think’, Bell’s analysis of the 7,000 most used English words has established that it is much worse than he believes. Over half (3695 words) contain one or more unpredictable letters (e.g. one, two, four) and make basic English literacy acquisition three times slower than the European average of one year (as reported by Seymour in the British Journal of Psychology in 2003).

Bell also disagrees that the problems of English spelling are due to having only 26 letters to represent its 40+ speech sounds, as Crystal claims. - Learning to spell English is difficult, because it uses 205 spellings for its 44 sounds, most of which are unpredictable, like those for /ee/ in ‘seek – speak, seize, siege, scene, key, ski, quay’. And because many of them are also used for different sounds (e.g. speak - break, breakfast; seize - reins, leisure), learning to read is exceptionally difficult and time-consuming as well.

Crystal believes that, ‘explaining why words are spelled the way they are can help us remember them’. Bell thinks that the English language is now grown-up enough for most of its words to be spelt according to English spelling rules, regardless of their origins. She hopes that her book will kick-start a debate about making English spelling more learner-friendly, with due regard to currently proficient spellers.

Masha Bell, mashabell@aol.com, tel 01929 552173, Wareham, Dorset
Retired teacher, now literacy researcher and author of several books on English spelling, also a website about English spelling problems, a blog about them, and a Youtube video 'Why improve English spelling?

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