English Spelling: a Case of Psychological Child Abuse

Modification of an article by Abraham F. Citron, Ph.D.
Dept. of Educ. Sociology, Wayne State Univ, Detroit, Mi. (1913-2006)

At the portals of education we have laid, not a highway, but a labyrinth.

Brainwashed as we are, we do not perceive our spelling as difficult, irrational, deceptive, inconsistent, clumsy, frustrating and wasteful; but it is and especially so to children.

Our spelling devours hours of study for years, squanders teachers’ energy, blocks and frustrates children, renders writing more onerous and reading more difficult, strings out our words and inflates every cost of written communication. Our child-defeating spelling is one of the basic sources of academic discouragement and failure, aiding in the transformation of many children into psychological or physical dropouts.

The large majority of elementary and high school students in this country are either very poor, poor or mediocre spellers; the big majority of adults are no better. Millions of student hours are spent on spelling, millions of dollars are spent in teaching time, yet results are quite poor. Most students dislike spelling, many students abhor it.

Make no mistake about it, spelling is inextricably interactive with reading; our inconsistent spelling contributes greatly to reading difficulties.

Our culture is based on words and on power over words; our instructional system is built almost entirely of words. Every other power and expansion in academics comes through mastery of words. Even the artist, mathematician, musician, athlete finds his or her career stunted without power over words. Our system moves on words, runs on words, exists on and in words. At the narrow base of this immense system are 26 letters which we combine into hundreds of thousands of written words.

Much depends, therefore, on how we combine these letters. Note that we are working with an alphabet not at all designed for the sounds of English, but borrowed from the Romans, who had designed it to express the sounds of Latin. At the outset we are stuck with only 26 letters to express 41 (some say 44) phonemes of spoken English.

A second difficulty which has been gathering on our word system over centuries is that letters have been combined into words according to differing schemes at different times, letters have been stuck on just to justify lines of print, spellings have been borrowed from other languages. We have changed the sound of letters, we have changed the way we pronounced words while the spelling has often congealed on the old form. All this and more has evolved over centuries in haphazard ways.

The result is that we have inherited an orthographic system full of inconsistencies, irrationalities, quirks, exceptions and disorganization. And because, by the time we have become adults, we are accustomed to it, we unthinkingly force this “system” on our children.

We double-cross children in hundreds of ways as they struggle to master our unnecessarily difficult word forms.

We teach children a hard ‘c’ as in ‘cat,’ ‘can,’ ‘candy,’ and then double-cross them with words such as ‘certain,’ ‘center,’ ‘cement.’ In a word such as ‘cease,’ the first ‘s’ sound is expressed with a ‘c,’ the second with an ‘s ‘; in ‘civic,’ two different sounds are expressed with ‘c.’ Observe what a complicated mess we make with ‘necessary.’ We teach children to sound ‘k’ as in ‘kick,’ ‘kid,’ ‘klan,’ and then confront them with ‘knee,’ ‘knob,’ ‘knife,’ etc. Further, if hard ‘c’ and ‘k’ are sounded alike, why do we need them both? We teach children ‘p’ as in ‘poor,’ ‘put,’ ‘push,’ then force them to handle ‘photo,’ ‘phrase,’ ‘pneumonia,’ etc.

We cross up children with our miserable ‘ie’ and ‘ei’ combinations as in ‘believe’ and ‘receive’; and the “i before e” rule is little help since the exceptions are nearly as numerous as the examples. With ‘craze’ and ‘haze’ we use a ‘z’, but to express the same sound in ‘please’ and ‘tease’ we use an ‘s.’ We cross up the kids by spelling ‘lease’ with an ‘s’ and then ‘fleece,’ the same sound, with a ‘c.’ In both these words, the vowel has the same sound but in one we express it with a double ‘e’ and in the other with ‘ea.’

We force children to drag along outmoded and useless ‘ough’ forms in words such as ‘through,’ ‘bough,’ ‘plough,’ ‘though,’ ; and useless ‘gh’s in a host of words such as ‘light,’ ‘might,’ ‘bright,’ ‘night,’ etc. Our spelling is literally laced with these inconsistent and meaningless forms outmoded in the long, long ago.

[Professor Julius Nyikos, of Washington and Jefferson College, did a comprehensive study of the spelling of the phonemes in six standard, desk-size dictionaries. He found 1,768 ways of spelling 40 English phonemes! If he had included unabridged dictionaries in his research he would have undoubtedly found several others.] [1] [Furthermore, there 26 single letters and at least 341 combinations of from two to five letters to represent a single phoneme. There is not even one English spelling rule without exceptions — some of the exceptions have exceptions! A computerized attempt to use a set of 203 spelling rules was able to spell correctly only 49% of a list of 17,000 common words.] [2]

What would happen in our educational system with numbers if we told children that a 2 was two except when it had the value of 4 or 7? Or take a more extreme example: what would happen to children if we used red lights for ‘stop’ only some of the time and green lights for ‘stop’ some of the time? Such examples highlight the cruciality of consistency in basic education. Yet we throw orthographic inconsistencies at children all the time and wonder why so many find our written system difficult. [3]

II. Reliability, Reliability, Reliability.
Children learn most of the things they need to know, without formal training. If we look at the way they learn it “naturally” we see that, given motivation, they learn things most quickly and easily if they can rely on an environmental response, if they can discern a pattern that does not fail them.

Learning to walk is a complex matter, but doubtless one reason it is achievable is that the child can depend on the forces of gravity, distribution of weight and balance, which are constant. The child is rewarded every time balance is maintained and taught by a tumble when balance is lost. The child feels balance being maintained or being lost.

Learning to talk is enormously complex, but again surely one reason it is achievable is that certain sounds are always associated with certain objects, actions, ideas. The spoken word ‘mother,’ or ‘mamma,’ or ‘ma’ always means a given person in a given role, as does ‘pa.’ The spoken syllable ‘milk’ always means milk, ‘jump’ means jump and so on. The sounds are reliable hence learnable. We have little trouble teaching children to tell time because we are consistent on the differing jobs of the clock hands, and we are consistent on the numbers and their positions on the clock face. Learning always involves perception of a pattern – the simpler and more reliable the pattern, the quicker the learning.

A basic principle of all learning is that children need a perceived reliable and integrated world as a basis for learning. All aspects of socialization, including necessary skills, are much more readily acquired if the child has the confident feeling of being in a reliable, secure and therefore a trusted world. Such a world is integrated in that one aspect of experience builds into or reinforces another. For example, learning to walk builds into learning to run, which builds into participation in (social interaction) children’s games requiring running. This means that learning to talk will build into learning to write and read. In an integrated world, writing and reading should be as closely and as naturally as possible linked to speaking.

The principle of reliability does not mean that a child [will] never be surprised or shocked or puzzled or discouraged. It does not require a world of monotony. But it does require a regularity of pattern in the skills crucial to the culture.

III. Our Present System Constitutes Psychic Child Abuse.
What is being insisted upon here is nothing other than we have all said repeatedly over the years as a basis for the education of children. We have said, “Don’t lie to children.” The position here put forward is that our spelling is deceptive — it is one lie after another and hence it constitutes, not education, but psychic child abuse. Unnecessarily difficult and confusing word forms, which many children fail, are not helping them to “grow” — it is not “educating” them — it is child abuse.

It is no less abuse because the system is administered in the name of knowledge and culture, or because it is enshrined in tradition. It is no less abuse because the forms come down to us wrapped in the prestige of “English literature:’ It is no less abuse because the system is standard throughout the land or because we all participate in it, nor because it is curricularized and blessed with the authority of every school board of every state. It is no less abuse because children cannot manage the perspective or the courage to cry out specifically against it. It is abuse because it traps children in needless drudgery and frustration, detracts from their feelings of success and of adequacy, defies and negates their sense of logic, robs many of them of love of written forms, and forces them over a course which many fail.

IV. For the children, we should have the courage to change.
Why haven’t we long ago shifted to a consistent phonemic spelling which was and is the intent of our alphabetic system? Despite high-sounding “lexical” and etymological rationalizations, the real reason is that we are used to the forms and do not want to undergo the inconvenience of change. As one graduate student put it, “I’ve learned to operate in one system and I’ll be damned if I’ll learn another.”

But tremendous educational and monetary benefits could be reaped through such a change. Before we opt for costly pie-in-the-sky gimmicks, we should reform our child-defeating spelling. Simplified spelling could be the most fundamental and far-reaching educational innovation since the introduction of the common school.

[1] Nyikos, Julius, “A Linguistic Perspective of Functional Illiteracy,” The Fourteenth LACUS Forum 1987 (Lake Bluff, Illinois: Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States, 1988), pp. 146-163.

[2] Kenneth H. Ives, Written Dialects N SpellingReforms: History N Alternatives (Chicago, Ill.: Prpgressiv Publishr, 1979), pp. 25, 80, 81.
[3] It is well known that experimental psychologists have induced apathy and behavioral breakdown in rats by training them in behavior leading to reward (food) and then switching the reward to punishment.

About bcenglis

Bob Cleckler is a retired Chemical Engineer. In 1985 he read Jonathan Kozol's shocking new book, "Illiterate America." He decided to use his research skills as an engineer to see if there was a solution to the problem. He spent more than a year in his research. He read EVERY book he could find on the subject of his research. He read dozens of books from the large Marriott Research Library at the University of Utah. Based upon his findings, he developed a solution to the problem of English illiteracy. It is a PROVEN solution. Dr. Frank Laubach spent his entire adult life teaching adult illiterates around the world how to read in more than 300 alphabetic languages. Dr. Laubach proved that he could teach students, in 98% of the languages in which he taught, to read fluently in less than three months. His books, "Teaching the World to Read" and "Forty Years With the Silent Billion," never mention being unable to teach ANY of his students to read fluently.

Cleckler collaborated with Gary Sprunk, M.S. English Linguistics, to perfect his solution based upon Dr. Laubach's experience and findings. Two non-profit educational corporations were formed. Cleckler is the CEO of Literacy Research Associates, Inc. and Vice Pres. of R & D of NuEnglish, Inc. Gray Sprunk is President of NuEnglish, Inc. Cleckler's award-winning book, "Let's End Our Literacy Crisis," originally published in 2005 is now available on our website, http://LearnToReadNow.org, without cost or obligation for the Second Revision, released in late 2012. This breakthrough book covers:

A. the tremendous need for improving English literacy. Cleckler found research proving (1) that 48.7% of U.S. adults are functionally illiterate, defined as being unable to hold an above-poverty-level-wage job, (2) that 31.2% of these functional illiterates are in poverty, and (3) that they are more than twice as likely to be in poverty because of their illiteracy as for all other causes combined. Furthermore he found at least 34 types of serious physical, mental, emotional, medical, and financial problems that illiterates must endure every day of their lives that we would consider a crisis if we had to endure them. Cleckler also found that illiteracy costs EVERY U.S. adult -- readers and non-readers -- an average of more than $5,000 each year for government programs that illiterates use; for truancy, juvenile delinquency, and crime directly related to illiteracy; and for the higher cost of consumer goods due to illiterates in the labor pool and in the workforce.

B. the causes of illiteracy. Before any problem can be solved, you must find the cause. Otherwise you can spend huge amounts of money fighting the symptoms of the problem without preventing the problem from recurring.

C. the preferred, proven solution to the problem. We have been fighting the symptoms of the difficulty in learning to read English for almost a century. Although numerous changes in American education have been implemented in the last century, none of them solve the foundational cause of the problem. Almost half of U.S. students never become fluent readers, and most of the ones who do become fluent readers require at least two years to learn to read well enough to continue increasing their reading skills after third grade, when most reading instruction in school ends.

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