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.