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Let's spell it out: the literacy drive isn't working

The Government's literacy strategy is failing to reduce educational underachievement. English results in the national tests for 11-year-olds blossomed between 1998 and 1999, but have remained stuck for the past three years. When the current generation of Year 6 pupils are tested as adults, around 25 per cent of them will again be found to be functionally illiterate.

English speakers worldwide share a determination not to address the irregularities of English spelling. But they haven't always avoided the problem. In the first half of the 20th century, there was greater understanding of what makes learning to read and write English difficult, and what should be done about it.

In 1953, the House of Commons passed a Spelling Reform Act. In 1963-64, London University's Institute of Education and the National Foundation for Educational Research launched a survey to investigate whether English spelling impeded the acquisition of literacy, and what could be done about it.

It found: a simpler spelling system allows children to learn to read and write far more quickly; those who cannot cope with traditional spelling can make good progress when using more phonemic spellings; a more regular system for spelling improves pupils' motivation, producing a more positive attitude to learning and greater enjoyment of it.

The research project used the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA). Teachers who took part in the study were so amazed to see even their slowest pupils learning to read and write so much better that they wanted to carry on using it. They believed that once children had grasped the alphabetic principle with ITA, they would be able to switch to normal English spelling and continue improving. Thus ITA was adopted in Anglophone schools across the world.

The brightest children switched from ITA to traditional spelling easily, but lower ability children could not cope, and after a decade the ITA strategy was regarded a failure. Unfortunately, its prolonged use obliterated the findings of the 1963-64 research and the clearly established need to simplify spelling.

The literacy strategy is failing because it is also being defeated by the irregularities of English spelling, just as ITA was. The currently favoured phonics approach shields children from the harsher realities of English spelling for as long as possible. They meet only the absolute minimum of unpredictably spelt words for the first few years, so nearly all of them make good progress. For roughly a quarter of learners, progress slows down, comes to a standstill, or regresses, when they are confronted with increasing numbers of the 3,500 common English words that are only partially phonic (for example, although) or completely unphonic (for example, quay). These children do not manage to progress beyond the reading level appropriate for nine-year-olds; in spelling, they don't even reach that.

Why don't we finally take note of the results of the 1963-64 research and make English more learner-friendly? Children spend two to three years learning English phonics (for example, but, bed, sister) and then another 10 learning to disobey them (for example, country, said, system). That is why we have to spend millions of pounds and a lot of energy, year after year, on measures to improve literacy rates.

Spelling simplification could make our children's lives less frustrating - and save money. It requires allowing children to continue using most of the phonic rules which are taught in their first three years at school.

Masha Bell is a retired secondary teacher of modern languages and English

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