Friday, 18 March 2011

Down With Spelling! - Emma Barnes

Here's a radical proposal - one to shock my fellow writers to the core. (This is my first ABBA post so I thought I'd kick off with some controversy.) I love writing. I want the children I meet to love writing too. But sometimes when I'm in schools, with my Visiting Author hat, I find the experience bitter-sweet. Why?

Because although the children I meet love hearing stories, acting out stories and inventing new stories, often the whole process of "writing down" the stories is still painful for them. I work mainly in primaries and even in Year 6 this is still the case for some children. Sometimes reading stories - the same stories that they love to hear - is a struggle too.

Children should read. It is the key that unlocks their educational future. It is also one of the greatest (and cheapest, most convenient and therefore most widely accesible) pleasures in life. Yet for many primary age children reading is not pleasure. It is dull - all about deciphering, not romping through a story.

We could get side-tracked into some educational debates here. But one thing that strikes me more and more: English is HARD. Learning to read and write is DIFFICULT.

No, you say. Surely it's as easy as One, Two, Three...A,B,C.

Well, just think about that. Most British children today learn using phonics, and a lot of them make rapid progress, sounding out the words. Until they reach the Tricky Words. One and Two are Tricky Words. Just look at them. They make no sense. You know how to pronounce them only because you have learnt them as individual words. The trouble is so many words are tricky. Such basic words as I and You and Me and There and Their and Go and Come and Who and....Sausage. All tricky. I could go on.

It doesn't have to be this way. In Italian all words are phonetic - their spelling is consistent with their sound. In fact, I'm told in Italian there is no word for Spelling! Think of that - and think of the time freed for more exciting things.

Maybe it is time to reform the English language - the spelling of it, anyway. Then there would be fewer seven, eight, nine year old children who although they have the ability to appreciate the compex dialogue and storyline of a film like Shrek are still struggling their way through The Gingerbread Man when it comes to the written page. Or who can't wait for the next instalment of The Twits when their teacher reads it to them (all children love Roald Dahl is the motto of every primary teacher) but can't manage to read the book themselves.

Of course it would be a bit of a downer for all of us old(er) folks who find One, Two, Three as obvious as falling off a wall. But wouldn't it be worth it to let more people in?

OK, time for the brick bats!


Cathy Butler said...

Well, you're in such splendid literary company as that of Bernard Shaw, Emma, so no need to duck!

Personally I won't join you on that particular barricade, for the (perhaps selfish) reason that I love the way English spelling acts as a kind of fossilizing device, telling us about where words have come from, how they used to be pronounced, and so on. I think reading would lose one of its dimensions were that to be flattened out.

Then there's the question of whose pronunciation you would choose. Would you keep the 'r' in word, because it's pronounced in America and the West Country, or drop it because it's not used in RP? Once you start privileging one group of speakers it all gets very political!

Emma Barnes said...

Charlie, I take your point, but all this historical linguistic richness comes at a price - which is that it excludes a lot of children (and adults) from the joy of fluent reading. "Fossilizing device" you say - surely language is about communicating, not "fossilizing.

And regardless of whose pronunciation you chose, at least a new system could be CONSISTENT.

I'm a bit worried about Bernard Shaw though...didn't know I was following his footsteps!

Cathy Butler said...

I quite take your point about the price in terms of literacy - which is why I admit my motives are selfish! Perhaps 'fossilizing' was the wrong word, though, if it suggests something dead. More like being able to look at the rings on a tree, or even the wrinkles in the face of a friend (or - egad - the mirror!). I think people are only too apt to ignore the past, and my hackles instinctively twitch at any move that seems likely to make that easier.

Mary Hoffman said...

You mean you don't know about "ghoti spell fish"?

Can't join you either but that's because I am one of the fortunate ones who can spell and never have a problem with words.Like Charlie, I like seeing where a word comes from by looking at it how it's spelt,

HOWEVER, phonics is NOT the best or only way of teaching phoneme-grapheme correspondence in a language like English. As you say, "sounding out" doesn't work for lots of very common words.

I am utterly with you there.

Sue Purkiss said...

I do see your point, Emma, I really do. Wasn't there an attempt to do something like this with the Initial Teaching Alphabet? The trouble with that, I guess, was that it just staved off the evil moment when you had to come to grips with stadard English spelling - I've talked to people who learned to read and write with this method and felt very betrayed by it, because they never did learn how to spell properly.

Think of what you're asking! Think of the zillions of people all over the world who use English - think of all the books and documents and articles! How could you possibly organise it so that everyone would switch? And even if you could - wouldn't that eventually render obsolete or of only esoteric interest all the literature etc we already have?

Emma Barnes said...

It wouldn't matter so much if everyone became literate in the end - but a lot of people don't. And it seems to me that if you are not a fluent reader by 8 or 9 then the gulf between your reading abilities and your interests becomes wider and wider and the problem harder and harder to solve. Which is why an easier language would help.

Sue, I am dreaming of computer programmes that could translate all the existing books into the new language...could it be possible?

michelle lovric said...

Interesting post!

Actually even a relatively logical language like Italian does break the rules with many common words. Italian pronounciation is not always regular. Words like anatra (duck) have unusual stresses. And I believe there is a word for spelling in Italian - l'ortografia.

I agree with you that anything that throws down a gauntlet CAN discourage young readers, but, with the right kind of teaching and encouragement, children CAN take up the challenge. For myself, these days, when I come across a strange new Italian pronounciation, I allow myself an enjoyable expostulation or two against the cruel fates that made it that way, and then tuck it into my vocabulary.

In English, I also like the look of clotted unusual, irregular, spiky words on the page. A standardised phonetic spelling would smooth all that out, I fear.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Yes , its a horror teaching children to spell and I taught kids with special needs for 25 years. They really suffer. But ita was another horror invented too. Unfortunately ( or fortunately) English is a rich and historical language that has developed into a nightmare of rules/ unrules and downright cussedness. But I have never found an easy way for kids to learn it. They just have to solider on.
However - that doesn't mean to say they should not be enjoying books, poems, words in all their glory in school. I've taught Ted Hughes' poem, The Midnight Fox, to kids with moderate learning diffs., and they absolutely loved it and engaged with it in their own amazing ways. All of English belongs to everybody. ( Gosh, didn't mean to rant on and well done for doing your first ABBA post!!!!)

Leila said...

How annoying, I wrote a very long post and Blogger has eaten it. I haven't the energy to type the entire thing out again, but I disagree with you completely and utterly. Welcome to ABBA!

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

the spaesmen hav landid in the see ov trankwility.

I'm an editor (who, by the way, wasn't too hot on spelling as a child), so I'm veering the other way to you on this, Emma.

There is a wonderful, beautiful, clever, literary adult novel that explores this theme - and so much more... "School is finished for the summer and last night, 20 July 1969, two men landed on the moon."

It is called Cryers Hill and is by Kitty Aldridge. I recommend it to everyone interested in this subject, here specifically the children who are the guinea pigs of the nationwide Changeover to the experiment in the ITA alphabet.

eesy peesy pwdin pie.


Stroppy Author said...

Brave first post, Emma! Totally, absolutely, 100% disagree. Charlie's point about etymology is not simply historical - it helps us to decipher new words. As in de+cipher...

If it were a matter of phonetics, China would not have a 90% literacy rate, and Japan would not have the same rate as the US and UK. The problem lies elsewhere, almost certainly with motivation and technique. While schools teach chunks of texts rather than whole books, and dreary reading schemes, there is no incentive for the children who don't have books outside school to want to learn to read.

Thank you for such a provocative post, Emma, and welcome to ABBA!

adele said...

I'm with Anne and the others on this, but a good and interesting post. And is there something deeply wrong and immoral about making children learn ten words a week or so for a SPELLING TEST? We had to do I'm ducking and waiting for the brickbats! That was also how I learned French vocab. too. Ten words every week for a test...more towards A level but we never stopped having tests and learning new words in both French and Spanish.

Rosalie Warren said...

I don't agree with the idea of re-making English orthography, but I'd like to pick up on your point about the writing down of stories being painful for some children.

When I write my first drafts, I ignore things like spelling (and pretty much everything else, apart form the story). I believe that children should be allowed to do the same.

There's a place for teaching them to spell, to write clearly and logically and with correct grammar. Of course there is. But there is also a place for them to let their imaginations run wild, without needing to worry about the mistakes they may be making. Such a place should be built into the school timetable.

Keren David said...

I have no problem with children learning to spell - and yes, they still do spelling tests - but I do have a problem with the long hours of handwriting that they do, followed by copying out. Surely we've reached a point where keyboard skills are more important?

Emma Barnes said...

Thanks for your comments everyone - even if you are overwhelmingly against me! I guess I should canvass some children on the issue...

But as children's writers aren't we all desperate to spread a love of books? That's what it's all about for me - I'm a bit surprised that nobody sees it the same way.

Adele - I don't actually think spelling tests are immoral - but surely time that could be better spent.

Leila - I'm so curious now about your vanished post!

StroppyAuthor - but doesn't Japan have two writing systems, precisely because it is so hard for most of the population to become fluent in the more complex/historically beautiful one?

Rosalie - I do agree, but again, it's all about time, isn't it? There is only so much time in the school day.

Sue Purkiss said...

Is a difficulty in deciphering words the only reason some children don't take to books, though? I think not - it's far more complex than that. I haven't done the research, so I'm only guessing - but I would think that parents reading aloud to their children from very early on is hugely important: and lots of parents don't do it.

Andrew Strong said...

Once a child has the desire to write, then tidying up spelling will follow. Make it a chore in the first place, and the writing will never start.

catdownunder said...

Sorry I have to disagree too. I once taught a child who could not hold his head up, could not track from left to right, could not turn a page and could not speak. He managed to learn to read and spell first in English and then (at his own request) in Greek. He did it all by eye-gaze techniques and is now a voracious reader. The apparent complexities of both languages did not stop him.

Frances said...

The system in Steiner schools and some European countries of not teaching a child to read until they are seven seems to lead to easy and successful literacy.
Yes, yes: some children learn at three. But, many are not ready at five years old, and by the time that they are seven have only learned that they can't do it, or that it's a tedious chore.

Poetry24 said...

Emma, thanks for prompting such an interesting and entertaining debate.

Stroppy Author said...

Emma, the additional bits of Japanese (there are three systems in total) are to provide a way of writing things that have no character in Japanese - eg Western names and words for things that have developed recently. It's not a replacement for Kanji. China (which has no such system) has a 99% literacy rate amongst 14-25 year olds - even allowing for propaganda, it's impressive given the complexity of the writing system (though the syntax is easy). And they learn English as well!

Cathy Butler said...

I just wanted to echo Martin's comment, Emma. I hope you don't feel your first dip into the waters of ABBA was too much like a baptism of fire? It's always more fun when there's something to disagree about!

"Conflict is the essence of story - and of blogging." Discuss...

Emma Barnes said...

Thanks Charlie and Martin! No - don't worry - as I said I was prepared for brick bats.

I don't disagree with a lot of what's been said - that most children can learn to read and love reading if they get enough of the right kind of teaching, reading aloud from parents etc. But my point is we don't live in that world, and having a simpler written language could really help a lot of people.

Anonymous said...

If the UK suddenly up and changed the language of writing, I would leave. My 3 year old son asks what words say and mean whenever he sees a new one, and he asks what their Welsh counterparts are (I'm English, so this second part is harder for me to answer, but I do try).

I'm with the majority of commenters here in loving the English language, the history and make-up of it, and completely agree with the consensus that barriers to literacy come as much from other factors as the technical difficulty in spelling.

I also despair at, "(all children love Roald Dahl is the motto of every primary teacher)" as I hated Roald Dahl stories as a child. Could not stand them. But I sat through them, I wrote my reports on them when requested to. Roald Dahl did do me the favour, I suppose, of compelling me to look elsewhere for stories so that in my own time I could read things I enjoyed.

Candy Gourlay said...

i agree most with Andrew Strong's point ... it's about the story and everything else can follow later. rightness and wrongness often get in the way of children (and adults) expressing themselves. there is nothing more dispiriting for a child who has written an amazing story to get the story back covered in bloody red spelling corrections. my editor (on a magazine) used to use a green pen for copy-edits to show us that there was nothing wrong with the substance of what we were writing.

Emma Barnes said...

pressedposies - the Roald Dahl comment was intended a little tongue in cheek. Teachers rely on Dahl because he does appeal widely - but it is very tough on the minority that definitely don't like him.

Linda Strachan said...

I am also in the opposing camp,Emma, I hate the idea. I was never great at spelling when I was young, but I am so much better now!
I agree with Andrew, it is the story that counts - engaging the child with stories and encouraging them to express themselves in their own stories without worrying about spelling that can easily be corrected afterwards.
How crushing to their imagination, as well as their self esteem to be inhibited by fear of getting the spelling wrong.
When I go into schools I encourage children not to worry about spelling in the first instance, to get their stories and ideas out there.

One of my sons had his writing marked down because he did not use a wide vocabulary appropriate to his age, although his use of spoken language and any talks given to the class received high marks.
Then in high school one teacher told him 'Write what you want to say and don't worry if you can't spell a word - just make an attempt I will know what you want to say.' From then on he wrote without concern for spelling and his work improved tremendously.
He had been using simpler language because he was aware he couldn't spell words he knew would be more appropriate.
Subsequently his work improved dramatically and eventually his spelling did too!