Jack Bovill: Spelling out the real social costs of illiteracy

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ARE some variant spellings acceptable, as advocated recently by Ken Smith, an university lecturer? How does the Spelling Society view this?

To give some background to this issue, a little history does not go amiss. The Spelling Society of the UK will reach its 100th year next month with a dinner at University College London.

The aim of the Spelling Society is to raise awareness of the problems caused by the irregularity of English spelling.

What are these problems? They are many. Children are taught an alphabet and then told to disregard it in many instances.

This is as confusing as saying yesterday two plus two equals four, but today it will equal three, five or nine. Your readers will know of silent letters – consider "k" in knife, or the "k" and "c" in knock. These letters are silent. Consider Wednesday with its silent "d", or the doubled letters as in "till" but not in "until".

Little surprise that nearly a quarter of children leaving the schooling system continue, year after year, to be deficient in spelling, probably never reading a book, a few buying tabloid newspapers which have deliberately restricted their vocabulary to enable readers to read them.

Young people who do not acquire reading and writing skills due to being turned off by the numerous irregularities of English spelling early in their schooling either have to take up jobs on low salaries, or not work at all, or turn their undoubted energy in illegal directions. Little wonder that over 50 per cent of the prison population is functionally illiterate.

Does this matter to the literate readership of the Yorkshire Post? Yes. The high social costs in terms of further training, retraining, social security costs, prison and court costs are paid out of taxation.

Just count up the full cost of a yearly production rate of 200,000 young people coming out of the schooling system inadequately prepared for the information age, unable to read or write with confidence, if at all.

How many of you can, with your hand on your heart, say you are good spellers? How many of you worry about your child's progress at school due to reading and writing difficulties?

The Spelling Society is very conservative. We support traditional spelling, but recognise that the current problems caused by the irregularity of the English spelling system have an unacceptably high cost in terms of money, time wasted, careers blighted and other social costs, some of which are listed above, some of which you will know from personal experience.

All those with spelling difficulties do not have difficulties with the spoken language. That is a separate matter. The representation of

the spoken word in writing with its high number of irregularities and the problems arising from that is what concerns the Spelling Society.

However, many English people experience difficulty with not being reliable spellers. You have no alternative but to be literate in the medical and legal professions and in many other spheres of organisation. The Spelling Society fully endorses the need for accurate spelling.

The recent independent survey carried out on behalf of the Spelling Society showed that over 54 per cent could not spell embarrassed, and that not one could get all 10 of the words right.

This result confirms the Government survey that shows there has been no improvement in literacy in the UK since

the 1950s.

Overall, standards of attainment in reading in English primary schools have been more or less static since the 1950s.

Ken Smith, a lecturer at Bucks University, advocates accepting some variant spellings for no more than 20 common words.

Is this a good thing? In terms of money, yes. Ken Smith, on a lecturer's salary, is better employed teaching his university students rather than being a red pencil spelling corrector.

The problem started far earlier than the arrival of students at his university course. Is it time to take a fresh look at modernising the spelling system, which is the spoken word in print?

We reluctantly modernised our coinage from 240 pence in the pound to 100 pence, from –32 degree Fahrenheit, to 0 degree Centigrade and from 16 ounces to one pound in weight, replacing it with 100 grams and kilograms.

Not many people are advocating going back to 20 shillings makes a pound, or 212 degrees is when water boils. These decimalisation changes freed up valuable time previously spent learning a complex system of weights and measures – our teachers and our children continue to benefit.

If you have suggestions, we would like to hear them. Spelling and language matter.


Five of the most commonly misspelt words:






Jack Bovill is chairman of the Spelling Society. Its website address is: www.spellingsociety.org