Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Does spelling matter?

Last week in the oxforddictionaries blog, professor Simon Horobin posed the question ‘Does spelling matter?’ and, in truth, it’s very hard to answer largely because it is so multidimensional. One of the most immediate and obvious of problems when dealing with correct spelling is the seemingly enormous amount of emotional investment people have in the issue.

Naturally, being someone who is engaged in the teaching of reading and spelling, I can't claim to be neutral on the question. From the perspective of teaching young children to read and spell accurately from the start, Sounds~Write's answer would be an unequivocal yes to Horobin's question. In general, I've always felt that as long as a written text is legible, there’s nothing fundamental about which to object. But then I'm a literate adult. Of course, even for adults problems might arise in cases where differences in accent might cause a word to be read one way when it is more usually read in another. The differences in standard pronunciation between the United States and the UK are very often immediately noticeable but then so are many regional differences within the UK. Moreover, I suppose it is possible for a misspelt word to convey the wrong meaning, though context normally provides a simple check. There is as well the social aspect: in some settings, if your job application contains a spelling mistake, you can be sure it won't get past the Cerberus guarding the gates of HR!

In a number of his books, David Crystal makes the point that there has always been a degree of variation in spelling. He points out that from Anglo-Saxon times until the eighteenth century very few people worried about the 'consistent use of a standardised spelling system as a sign of an educated person' (Stories of English, p.41) Since the eighteenth century, there has been a tension between centripetal (pulling in to the centre – the standardisers) and centrifugal (tendencies that pull away from the centre – the divergers) forces in the English language. As the names suggest, the standardisers want to 'fix' the language as far as possible, whereas the divergers are happier to tolerate difference, which is why, as the pendulum swings between the two poles, the argument over spelling arises so often.

In the blog posting ‘Does spelling matter?’ what quickly becomes obvious is that the piece betrays some confusion about how the spelling system works in relation to the sounds of the language.

For example, although it states (correctly) that the spelling systems in Finland and Spain are ‘transparent’, it also says that there is a ‘closer relationship’between spelling and pronunciation’ in those countries. Of course, regular readers of this blog will know that the writer probably means that the relationship between sounds and printed symbols is transparent to the extent that most are one-to-one. That doesn’t mean though, as I have have pointed out many times in this blog (here and here and here), that there isn’t a ‘close relationship’ between the sounds in English and the spelling system. The relationship in English is just more complex. The question is: can it be taught?

Of course, it is impossible to be a perfect speller in English. With, we are told, over a million words in English, no-one is, as professor Horobin puts it, 'up to scratch'. How would anyone know how to spell a word if it was relatively complex from a structural point of view (i.e. polysyllabic and containing less frequent spellings of sounds) and the speller had never seen the word before?

The problem with the way most people look at spelling is that they put the cart before the horse: they start with spellings and not with the sounds of the language. There are, depending on accent, around forty-four sounds in the language and these sounds provide the anchor for spellings. If we teach (even quite young) children how the spelling system works in relation to the sounds, we have something that is relatively easy to learn in the first three years of schooling for most children.

As Horobin points out, it's also true that there are anomalies, such as the fact that for many people the spelling T represents the sound /ch/ in 'Tuesday' and there are some archaisms or words we simply say differently than we did a thousand years ago, such as 'any' and 'one'. Still, these really aren't difficult to teach if the teacher knows how the alphabet code is structured and they know how, in terms of concepts and skills, to teach it, not forgetting how young children learn of course.

The real reason why the whole question of spelling comes up so frequently is that many commentators have never thought of spellings as representations of sounds (or symbols for sounds) in the language. That’s what the writing system was invented for! Once we think of the system in this way, we have something that is easy to mediate: there are sounds and there are spellings. All words are comprised of sounds and all sounds have been assigned (at some point in time) spellings.

Copies of Horobin's newly published book Does Spelling Matter? can be got from Amazon here.

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