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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Can Spelling Reform Improve Reading Performance?

Since the mid-1870s there has been a movement in Britain and the United States to reform English spelling to make it conform more closely to the sound of the words. Although the move was embraced by Teddy Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, and the Chicago Tribune, few changes were made in the last century.  The movement survives today as the Simplified Spelling Society and the English Spelling Society,  founded in 1908, promoting thought and discussion about the troublesome disconnect between sound and spelling.

The English language is based on the Roman alphabet of 26 letters but has 41 separate phonetic sounds based on the letters, not to mention a plethora of silent letters (debt, ghost, receipt, though, know, gnat, to name a few) requiring young students to memorize the spelling.  According to the authors of An Introduction to Language,“The irregularities between graphemes (letters) and phonemes have been cited as one reason ‘why Johnny can’t read.’  Different spellings for the same sound, the same spellings for different sounds, ‘silent letters,’ and ‘missing letters’ – all provide fuel for the flames of spelling-reform movements (Fromkin/Rodman, 1974, pg. 297).

Troublesome words?  Here are some I found mentioned a few times on the web.  Bomb, comb, and tomb do not rhyme, while weigh, they, and say do.  The question raised by the site: why is this the case? I looked up the etymology of each thinking that might give us some answers.

Bomb: derived from French, Spanish, Latin, and Greek
Comb: Old English
Tomb: Anglo-French, Old French, Late Latin, and Greek
Weigh: Old English
They: Middle English and Old Norse
Say: Old English

As long as the dictionaries are published with standard spelling, there will be little traction in making sweeping changes to the system.  What do we do instead? Exposure to the written word and, in turn, expressing thoughts in writing are two powerful tools that helped us all learn to speak, write, and spell correctly.  This knowledge escalates as a child becomes older:  the more the child reads, the better the child writes, the better the child reads.  In fact, I believe that the subtleties of our language are accepted -- and even taken for granted -- with increased exposure to the words that appear troublesome at face value. Over time we get it, we get the context, we know the meanings, and so do the children who are given the opportunity and the resources.




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