Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Take a Leap /leep/ for Literacy

What would happen if psychology suddenly lost its silent “p” and was spelled with an “s”? Would we lose any basic understanding of its function or importance? Instead, I think we would save many taxpayer dollars, increase teacher’s class time for content, reduce teacher training needs, and increase student success (dyslexic or otherwise).

I am not a math person, but I think I can figure out these formulae:

Teach a kindergartener to read/spell + never have to address the issue again = less time in school

Less time in school = less teachers, less classrooms, less books, etc. = less tax $

Why don’t we have a phonics-based spelling system? I don’t know. It seems to make so much sense. Every child could learn to read more easily and people from around the world would have an easier time learning our language. There would certainly be less “bad spellers” in the world!
Most kindergarteners are praised for beginning to spell phonetically, and then we spend the next six years – or more -- training them to “spell it right.” Some never get it, hence computers with spell-check.

I live with a dyslexic child who, though he conquered reading, has spent more than 7 years on this “spelling project” and is still in the starting phase, learning the patterns that have so many exceptions. Because he doesn’t have good sequential memory skills, the phrase, “I” before “e” except after “c”, is useless to him.

When your child is learning to read, what do you say? “Sound it out.” But, that doesn’t work with all words. We have a whole generation who learned to “sight read” because of the confusion over our supposedly phonics-based system. Is that a hard /g/ or a soft /g/? Is that “e” short, long or silent? Why does “ch” sometimes sound like /ch/, as in “church”, but other times sounds like /k/, as in “school”?

My son’s spelling program, Sequential Spelling, uses the following as a simple demonstration of the changing sounds in our language:


Notice the difference in the “a” sound from “ma” to “mag”? What is the change in the “g” sound from “mag” to “magic”? What happens to the “c” sound going from “magic” to “magician”? Let's not even talk about "cian" sounding like /shun/.

As a homeschooler, I can attest to the idea that if the system is easy to learn, it is easy to teach. It is obvious that a truly phonics based system of spelling would increase students’ ease of learning, thereby reducing the number of instruction hours needed by trained and re-trained professionals. The need for reading specialists and remedial teachers would diminish. And maybe, just maybe, there would be more time in the day for more art, music, history and the sciences.
I know that phasing one system in and another out can, and probably should, take many years. England’s “Great Vowel Shift” in sounds took 150 years. So, I propose a few first steps:

1. Remove initial silent sounds like that “p” in psychology and “g” in gnu.
2. Get rid of the silent “gh” in “neighbor” and “weigh”.
3. Replace “ph” with “f” in words like “pharmacy”.
4. Only use the letter “c” when needed for the /ch/ sound. Otherwise, substitute “s” and “k” as appropriate.
5. Start marking long vowels (leave short vowels alone) with a line over top – preparing the way to remove silent “e” someday.

These would be small steps for our generation, perhaps huge leaps in literacy for the generation to come. Next, we will work on implementing the metric system!


  1. Well that certainly would help my daughter who has special needs, not to mention the time and money you mentioned that we spend teaching these silly rules! But alas, if it's going to take 150 years, I still have to figure out what to use for my daughter THIS year. *sigh*

  2. Intriguing idea. Years of melding other languages (French, German, Greek, etc.) into our own without altering the spelling to fit the rules English already had in place has certainly made a mess. It would be interesting to streamline things to fit into the rules. If we did, reading what is currently Modern English would be like Old English to future generations.