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Fri 27 Mar

Monday November 25 2013

Crispin Hull's Portico: Spelling etc.

The text message from the cat breeder to my wife read: "Little Trim is doing well. She wade 1.3kg...".

Should we get apoplectic? The breeder is making a living. Her meaning was clear. She wrote the word “weighed” exactly as it sounded. If English spelling was reformed so words were spelt as they were sounded and the great works of literature were read aloud, nothing would be lost.

Moreover, in this world of text messaging, speed and content are more important than accuracy, so does it matter if we text: “Good nite”?

So why be concerned?

Well, because that bad spelling is a symptom of a more deep-seated malaise: poor general literacy.

(By the way, the pronunciation “spelt” and the change of the spelling of it are slovenly corruptions of “spelled” and we should revert to “spelled”, “learned” and “burned” etc for pronunciation and spelling. The Oxford is awash with quotations using “spelled”.)

Educationalist Chris Nugent and federal Labor MP Alannah MacTiernan have argued recently that the teaching of English in Australia has let down a generation of children because ideology and fads have replaced the teaching of core literacy.

The “whole-language” fad – suggesting reading can be acquired “naturally” as with speech, and guessing words based on context or pictures -- has slowly replaced systematic decoding of writing. Decoding is done by sounding out each letter at a time, or phonics. This plus reading out aloud, learning to spell and extracting meaning from words form the core of literacy.

A language like English is a human construct. It does not come “naturally”. It has to be learned. The modern Australian curriculum has abandoned these teaching methods, especially in public schools. The result has been steadily falling literacy despite ever more amounts of money being poured into schools. That has been measured by the regular Progress in International Literacy Studies.

In 2005, the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy found that literacy instruction should be "grounded in the basic building blocks of reading": letter-symbol rules, letter-sound rules, whole-word recognition and the ability to derive meaning from written text.

In 2008, the inquiry’s chair, Ken Rowe, said that despite the 2005 research and conclusions, nothing much had changed because "higher-education providers of education and those who provide ongoing professional development of teachers, with few exceptions, are still puddling around in post-modernist claptrap about how children learn to read".

This should not be a Liberal v Labor or left v right argument, but it has degenerated into one because the Labor-left side supports the teacher unions which by and large have gone along with the replacement of rigorous learning by “post-modernist claptrap”, to make life easier for teachers. They also do not like regular testing of literacy that can be done easily with spelling and reading aloud. Test results arm parents.

Tragically, the children missing out here are the very ones that the Labor-left side should be lifting up with equal opportunity. That is what that side of politics aspires to. But a child will never get an equal opportunity in life without functional literacy. It is a relief that MacTiernan, who is so passionate about teaching literacy, is a Labor MP. We can only hope she can persuade more of her Labor colleagues to her view.

All that said, phonics and sounding out are made more difficult in English because its spelling has so many quirks and exceptions to the principle of sounding words as they are spelt. It would be a fool’s work to attempt to regularise all spelling on phonic principles. It would no sooner be done than changes in the way words are pronounced would make the exercise out of date.

Moreover, English is pronounced differently in different places around the world, especially vowels and dipthongs. Indeed, one might need a whole new set of symbols to represent, say, the New Zealand accent accurately, if such a venture were possible.

But we could take a few steps to help:

  • We could use the more phonic “–er” rather than “–re” in words like “centre” and “spectre” and “–or” rather than “–our” in “colour” and “honour”. We do not say “cent- rah” or “hon- awer”.
  • It would make immediate sense in Australia because these more phonetic spellings are already in wide use, so pass the accepted-usage test. And when schoolchildren search the literature (on Google) they come across these spellings used by respected sources (Harvard, Princeton and the Library of Congress, for example) all the time.
  • We have already changed “program” without ill-effect. We do not say “program me”. (Computerisation, surely has not come that far.)
  • It would be terrific to get rid of the silent “gh” and “h” in words like “through”, “height” and so on. These spellings make the selling and application of phonics more difficult.
  • The rationalisation of the use of “c”, “k”, “s” and “z” would also help. As would the replacement of “ph” with “f”.

But these suggestions are probably beyond hope. It might be easier, indeed, to start pronouncing words they way they are spelt (or spelled), rather than the other way around. Some people do pronounce the h in “where” and “when”, for example. But I doubt people will say “per-honics”.

More likely we will have to live with what we have got. And what is that? By and large it is a phonetic language. And the best way to sound out the written words and to make sense of them is to first deal with each letter in a word phonically. And later the exceptions can be learned by rote.

The fact that there are so many exceptions, is no excuse for abandoning phonics, or abandoning accepted spelling. This is because the resulting fall in literacy has contributed to inequality; the flight of the middle classes to private schools and the consequent downgrading of the public system; and Australia falling behind other nations with consequent effect on competitiveness and wealth.

Also, bad spelling has become a mark for social exclusion and sneering when it is usually not the bad speller’s fault, but the fault of the education system. So in the name of social inclusion we should change.

Bless-ed are the phonically literate for they shall inherit the earth.



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Andrea Collisson, Oak Beach, 30-11-13 00:19:
Will and Masha, you may enjoy the following. Here's the link to source http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2012/09/reason-why.html

The Grammarphobia Blog
Is “the reason why” redundant?
Q: Whence comes the ubiquitous redundancy “the reason why”? Isn’t “reason” itself sufficient to the task?

A: Yes, “reason” is sufficient to the task, but we see nothing wrong with “reason why.” In fact, we sometimes use the phrase on our blog. And we’re not alone in this.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage uses it as well, as when the editors reach this conclusion on an unrelated matter: “There is no reason why you need to avoid this usage.”

We’ve written about this before on our blog. As the earlier post points out, the words “reason” and “why” here aren’t redundant.

In this expression, “why” is a conjunction and means “for which” or “on account of which,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The noun “reason” in this usage means “cause” or “the thing that makes some fact intelligible,” Merriam-Webster’s says.

“Reason” in this sense, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is commonly used with “why,” “that,” “for,” or an infinitive. So all of these uses are correct:

(1) “The reason we left early …”

(2) “The reason why we left early …”

(3) “The reason that we left early …”

(4) “Our reason for leaving early …”

(5) “The reason to leave early …”

In obsolete usages, Oxford says, “reason” was also accompanied by “wherefore” and “of.”

The OED has examples of “reason why” dating back hundreds of years.

Here, for instance, is a line from William Caxton’s 1484 translation of a fable from Aesop: “The wulf on a daye came to the dogge and demaunded of hym the rayson why he was soo lene.”

And here’s one from John Bellenden’s 1533 translation of Livy’s History of Rome: “He couth fynd na resson quhy he aucht nocht to helpe the romane pepill to recovir the land.” (“He could find no reason why he ought not to help the Roman people to recover the land.”)

And you’ve probably heard the expression “to know the reason why” (as in “I’ll have her or know the reason why!”). The OED dates that usage from 1719.

Check out our books about the English language
Will DEVLIN, Port Douglas, 28-11-13 19:39:
Well, now THIS excites my interest. Crispin, your column, as always, is thought provoking and as close to fact as one is likely to read in Newsport or any other publication. I am a self confessed grammar- and spelling-pedant. There, it's said. My wife and children have made much mileage over the years pointing out the obvious. Indeed, i can safely say that my two daughters share this inheritance from their father! All that said, I am prepared to go out on a limb and argue AGAINST simplification of the beautiful language with which we English-speakers have been blessed. It's never 'program' but 'programme'; and it's never 'center' but 'centre'; to change is to bow to the ubiquitous pressure of the land of the double arches, the land of fast food, the land that boasts the most powerful military and the strongest economy on the planet but at the same time the most under-educated population. Further, and I refer to Masha's letter, with the greatest respect. The term is either "the reason" or "why" - never both; there's a principle at English known as the 'tautology' and this is the classic. My wife has always said to our children (all grown adults now) "when you have a book, you always have a friend" and i couldn't agree more! I have lost count of the number of people I know who profess that they "don't read" at all - not a novel, a newspaper, a biography, nothing. One chap states he has "never read a book" in his 46 years. Just to clarify one issue in Crispin's article, the word you sought, and failed to find, is 'diphthong' - perhaps you've spelled it your way to prove a point. Cheers, and please keep you thought-provoking articles coming - they are a pleasure and rightly seek and receive considered response.
Masha Bell, Wareham, England, 26-11-13 17:56:
I agree that,
"it would be a fool's work to attempt to regularise all spelling on phonic principles".

But there is no reason whatsoever why it should not be made much more learner-friendly. We could, for example, drop the clearly redundant -e endings from words like 'have, gone, delicate, nature' to make it easier for learners to see that they have short vowels, rather than long ones, as in 'gave, bone, inflate, mature'. They do nothing but undermine the English short and long vowel system (mad – made – madden) and make learning to read far more difficult than need be.

They are there mainly because in the early days of printing typesetters were paid by the line and liked to insert extra letters to earn more money, and also to fill empty space, to make the margins of pages neater. Adding an extra -e was their first choice (olde, worlde, worde), along with consonant doubling (will, fuss, inne, shoppe, hadde).

In the 17th century most of them were dropped again. Their culling was started by the pamphleteers of the English Civil War (1642-9) who wanted to get the maximum of propaganda onto a single page, but those that escaped this tidying up of English spelling are with us still.

I have made several other suggestions for making English spelling more learner-friendly http://improvingenglishspelling.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/modernising-english-spelling.html, but young children's first attempts at spelling tell us more clearly than anything which areas could do with being made more sensible (frend, sed, Wensday, menny, bruther). They keep 'misspelling' such words, and teachers keep having to correct them for years on end, only because their conventional spellings are insane.

Sadly, while most educated people keep repeating that modernisation of English spelling is "probably beyond hope" it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Masha Bell
Peter McNeill, Julatten, 25-11-13 16:01:
Why doesn't phonetic have an F? I feel truly sorry for anyone trying to learn English (let alone Strine) as a second or third language.

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