The government's latest publications on spelling make some sensible points, particularly on the historical origins of English spelling, but are loaded with jargon and cumbersome. This is typical of government documents - I put the point to the second director of the National Literacy Strategy that they needed to learn to write for an audience of teachers, and above all to take the time, in Bernard Shaw's phrase, to write a short letter rather than a wrong one. He agreed, but it made no difference.
This alternative, Slimmed Down Spelling, is the outcome of practical work with people learning to spell. I have been working on it since about 1996, as a development from the approach to reading that appeard in The Literacy File.
It uses plain English instead of jargon (a phoneme, for example, is nothing more or less than a sound) and has the following key points:
English spelling is an example of fuzzy logic, in which items do not necessarily share all the characteristics of a group to which they belong. In English, roughly three-quarters of letters represent sounds. But sometimes letters work in groups, some words have an extra letter, and occasionally we do not need the letter we think we do – these cases are awkward. To learn to spell, we need to understand both the theme – the sounds – and these variations.
1. If we hear a sound when we say a word carefully - without taking any shortcuts - we need at least one letter for it. We use a letter to represent a sound because we hear it. This covers roughly three-quarters of spelling.
2. Sometimes letters work in groups –eg, station has one sound per letter for the first three letter then the group tion. We use a group when we’ve learned we need it – this way, we don’t guess at what group we might need.
3. Some words have an extra letter, eg made, chaos. We use an extra letter when we’ve learned we need it. Sometimes there is a function for the extra letter – eg plague where the u stops the e from softening the g, as it would in page.
4. Sometimes, because of shortcuts in speech, or changes in the way people speak, the letter we need is not the one we think we need. These letters are awkward, and we only use them when we’ve learned we need them. The easiest example is probably was rather than woz. Once again, we use an awkward letter only when we’ve learned we need it.
Once we’ve learned to spell a word – and we never copy – we find at least one other that is like it. This helps us build up our understanding of patterns, and is especially useful to people who do not find learning to spell straightforward.
It usually takes children and adults six weeks to three months to learn to apply these principles. They work. But they are designed to teach people to spell and not to promote a political agenda. Slimmed Down Spelling has been published in The Times Educational Supplement, and is in my book, Using Phonics to Teach Reading and Spelling. I've presented it at courses at the London Institute of Education and for the Lighthouse organisation. It works.