Is bad spelling to blame for poverty and crime, or do we just need to lighten up about language? Sue Palmer examines two approaches.
The trouble with developing an interest in the English spelling system is that it can trap you in your left brain, leaving you endlessly preoccupied with small sequential processing tasks.
As the author of numerous phonics and spelling courses, I have much personal experience of this particular obsession. Once, while writing some early reading resources, I'd been hunting for "oy" words and found disappointingly few: once you've done boy, coy, joy and toy, and a few odds and ends such as oyster and Rolls-Royce, they're thin on the ground. Then I spotted one: sloyd. "But what does it mean?" asked my co-author, a well-balanced children's author. "I don't think you'll find it in the working vocabulary of many small children."
"It's a Swedish system of health and fitness, based on woodwork," I cried, nose still in the dictionary. "They should know it."
So how I sympathise with Masha Bell, a speaker of German, Lithuanian and Russian, who didn't start to learn English until she was 14, but then became hypnotised by the mysteries of its spelling system.
Her new book, Understanding English Spelling, is a fascinating read, combining autobiographical obsession, linguistic explanation, historical anecodote and passionate rhetoric. Any teacher, struggling with the literacy strategy's litany of spelling objectives, and wondering how the hell we got ourselves into this fine mess, should find much of this book as enchanting and enlightening as I did.
Once she's explained the inconsistencies of English spelling, Bell turns her attention to its effects and the arguments for spelling reform. After eight years trapped in her left brain writing the book, it's not surprising she sees spelling failure as the driving force behind everything from low self-esteem and poverty to rising crime rates.
I suspect her argument that spelling reform could "save much swet, menny teers and vast sums of munny" while "rasing litteracy standards at a stroke" will make little impact, although it's interesting to learn that Sweden (consistently a top performer in international studies of achievement in literacy) reformed its spelling system in 1907.
Bell goes on to categorise the spelling patterns of English in two appendices that take up the second half of her book. Unfortunately, because of her preoccupation with spelling reform, she chooses to provide these as catalogues of what John Hart, in 1551, called "the vices and faults of our writing, which cause it to be tedious and long in the learning; and learned hard and evil to read".
There are word lists based on complexities of pronunciation for reading, and spelling lists of words with unpredictable spelling patterns. The overall effect is depressing and confusing, and leaves you wondering how anybody ever manages to read and write English at all.
Much more cheering is the Manual for Testing and Teaching English Spelling, by Claire and Juliet Jamieson, which treats the great chaos of English orthographic convention as a challenge, rather than a problem. There's less entertainment here; it's a no-nonsense "how-to" book rather than a personal monograph. As someone who once taught dyslexic students, I found it spell-binding.
After a brisk chapter on the teaching of spelling, the authors provide a simple diagnostic spelling test to help you gauge whereabouts students need to start the course. Then they provide lists of spelling patterns in four basic groups - vowel sounds; consonant sounds; homophones and silent letters; and word structure and grammar - all clearly laid out and highly accessible.
All this would be extremely useful to anyone teaching spelling, from the specialist teacher of dyslexic pupils to non-specialist teachers trying to provide differentiated spelling coverage in the average primary or secondary classroom (which would, of course, be much more helpful for the children than expecting them all to be at exactly the developmental point assumed by the literacy strategy framework). In fact, for people like me, who have been driven slightly mad by their interest in the English language, it is comforting just to hold the Manual for the Testing and Teaching of English Spelling, and stroke it gently. I find it deeply comforting to know that all those words are trapped in there, neatly organised into boxes and tables, no longer roaming free and lurking ready to trap the unwary.
The more we know about our language, the more authors such as Claire and Juliet Jamieson find ways of making it clear and easy for everyone to learn, the less we need worry about its quirks and waywardness. Especially now computer spellcheckers mean that, give or take a few homophones, everyone can access correct spelling with ease. My only disappointment is that they haven't included sloyd.
Sue Palmer is an independent literacy consultant and former teacher