How Our Spelling Damages the Mind


A slight modification of an article by
Frederick Atherson Fernald, Ph.D.

Learning to read the English language is one of the worst mind-stunting processes that has ever formed a part of the education of any people. Its evil influence arises from the partly phonetic, partly lawless character of English spelling. Altho each letter represents some sound oftener than any other, there is hardly a letter in the alphabet that does not represent more than one sound, and hardly a sound in the language that is not represented in several ways, while many words are written with as many silent letters as significant ones.

Frequently, there is nothing in a word to indicate in which of these ways its component sounds are represented, nothing in the written group of letters to show which sounds they stand for, and which of them, if any, are silent, so that a learner can never be sure of pronouncing rightly an English word that he has not heard spoken, nor of spelling correctly one that he has never seen written. The spelling of almost every word must be learned by sheer force of memory. In this work the pupil’s reasoning powers cannot be utilized, but must be subdued, while his memory is sadly overworked.

In the affairs of the child’s daily life, the logical following of rules is rewarded; in learning to read, it brings him only bewilderment and discomfiture. He is taught that b-o-n-e stands for bohn (not bo-ne), and t-o-n-e for tohn, but also that d-o-n-e stands for dun, that g-o-n-e spells gawn, m-o-v-e spells moov, and b-r-o-n-z-e is bronz. Now when he comes in reading to another similar word, as none, he has no means of telling whether to call it nun, noon, or non; he can only took up at the teacher and wait to be told.

The influence of the spelling class quickly drives him to repress any inclination to reason, and he quickly gives himself up to a blind following of authority. Few children learn English spelling without getting the pernicious notion that cramming is better than thinking, and that common sense is a treacherous guide. The child who can take what he is told without asking why, who can repeat a rule without troubling himself about its meaning, gets along best. On the other hand, the child who has difficulty in learning to spell, may have to suppress his logical faculties. He is constantly trying to spell according to some principle, some rule, and of course, coming to grief.

Thus a boy who had long been at the foot of his spelling class, was one day given the word ghost, and, making a desperate attempt at analogy, (with roast), spelled it goast. Thus bringing shouts of laughter from his fellow students, he said, with clenched fist and tearful eyes, “You needn’t laugh; you all spell homelier ‘n that!” Thus, so much attention is given to spelling that children get false ideas of its importance.

The spelling, or graphic representation, becomes to them the word, while the spoken word is called the pronunciation, and is only thought of as an appendage. They learn to despise the poor speller, a prejudice which is never out-grown, and above all they become so absorbed in the manipulation of words that they have little chance to grasp the significance of the ideas for which the words were intended to stand.

If our notation of numbers were as irregular as our notation of speech, so that the numbers from 40 to 45, for instance, should be written as follows: 40, 741, 420, 43, 414, 225; and if no one could tell at sight whether a number like 7,243,812 contained several figures which were “silent,” or had exceptional values, who can doubt that the study of arithmetic, instead of being a valuable discipline, would be mere enervating drudgery? If it were proposed that children should learn a style of writing music which gave different values to the same characters, similarly placed, in different pieces and added a host of “silent” notes, the evils of learning such a system would be plainly seen. Yet many people who have forgotten their own sufferings in the spelling class cannot see that children are so very much perplexed in learning to spell, or perhaps maintain that the struggle involved “is good for them.”

“I know,” says Max Muller, “there are persons who can defend anything, and who hold that it is due to this very discipline that the English character is what it is; that it retains respect for authority; that it does not require a reason for everything; and that it does not admit that inconceivable is therefore impossible. Even English orthodoxy has been traced back to that hidden source, because a child once accustomed to believe that t-h-o-u-g-h is tho, and that t-h-r-o-u-g-h is thru, would afterwards believe anything. It may be so; still I doubt whether even such objects would justify such means.” Lord Lytton said, “A more lying, roundabout, puzzle-headed delusion than that by which we confuse the clear instincts of truth in our accursed system of spelling was never concocted by the father of falsehood. . . . How can a system of education flourish that begins by so monstrous a falsehood, which the sense of hearing suffices to contradict?”

Here is a chief cause of the incapacity for thinking which college students bring into the science laboratories. This irrational process, taken up when the child enters school, occupying a large share of his time, and continuing for six or eight years, has a powerful influence in shaping his plastic mind. When at last he is allowed to take up the study of nature — at the wrong end of his school career — what wonder that he sits with folded hands, waiting to be told facts to commit to memory, that he cannot realize what a law or rule is, and does not know to use his reason in deducing the answer to a problem?

Rational education will never flourish as it should till a reformation in the teaching of reading and spelling has been accomplished. Furthermore, Mr. J. H. Gladstone, member of the English School Board for London, has computed the number of hours spent by children in learning to read and spell English to be 2,320, while, in gaining an equal knowledge of their native tongue, Italian children spend only 945 hours. The difference amounts to nearly two school years and shows under what a disadvantage English-speaking children labor.

The most striking testimony to the irregularity of our spelling is the adoption by many teachers of a sort of Chinese mode of teaching reading. (Now it is called the whole word method!) The children are not taught that the letters represent constituent sounds of words, but they learn to recognize each group of letters as an arbitrary compound symbol standing for a word. This is more of a dead drag on the memory than even the A-B-C method, and if it could be completely carried out, would be a vastly longer process. The effect on the mind is certainly not good. Minds do have a saturation point.

“But what can be done,” will be asked, “shall our children grow up without learning to spell?” No, but the memorizing of these anomalies and contradictions can be, at least, put off till the pupil’s minds are in little danger of being perverted by it. Enough of the enormous amount of time spent on this drudgery can be saved to make possible the introduction of the study of things into the primary schools, and many of the millions of dollars which we spend each year for public education can be turned to imparting real knowledge instead of the mere tools of knowledge.

These ends may be attained by the use of phonetic spelling as an introduction to the customary spelling. Children can and do learn to read English, spelled phonetically, in a very few lessons, and then learn the traditional spelling so quickly afterward that much less time is required for the whole process than is commonly devoted to memorizing the current spelling alone. Classes taught to read this way, in Massachusetts, so early as 1851, proved the advantage of the method to the satisfaction of that able educator, Dr. Horace Mann, and the method has been successfully employed in many places in this country and in the British Isles.

[Will this information wake us up? So far it is met by the educational and political authorities with complete silence!] Probably due to the scepticism in the closed minds of our hierarchy of education.

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,, 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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