The costs of English spelling

  1. The international costs of English spelling, and the comparative costs of improvement
  2. Abstracts of papers at the Centenary Conference of the Spelling Society on the Costs of English Spelling, June 2008, at the University of Coventry

The international costs of English spelling, and the
comparative costs of improvement

Many literate people think the only problem with English spelling is that it is so hard to spell – but a big cost of its unnecessary difficulty is that it stops 600 million who are less advantaged from being able to read or to read well in English, as their native language, or as their second language.

For historical reasons, English is currently the world’s lingua franca, spoken by more non-natives than by native-speakers, so it is disastrous that its written version is so difficult. English spoken language cannot be learned from the written, nor the written from the spoken. This particularly hinders developing countries in using English in education, with the advantages of ready-made materials and the value of wider literacy in English for these countries' economic progress. Papua Niugini, for example, is a multilingual nation which has had to develop a simple-spelling pidgin for the national language rather than continue with the Australian-introduced English. English spelling is a major reason. For historical reasons, Chinese is now becoming a dominant language, also difficult. English is losing its international opportunity

Spelling is the technology of written communications, yet in English it remains the most backward element of ICT. Its continuing unnecessary difficulties inflict economic, social, international and personal costs. Enormous problems can be caused by very small things, easily fixed up. The serious difficulty of English spelling lies in its unpredictability for learners and writers through surplus letters and multiple vowel spellings, often misleading. It is in the public interest to remove these barriers to access to English, the world’s major lingua franca for commerce, science, technology, education and transmission of cultures.

Finland, Netherlands, Germany, Japan, and Korea have the highest rates of current account surpluses relative to GDP, contrasting with rising debt for Anglo nations (except the special case of Canada). An important factor is that they also have the world’s highest literacy rates - far higher than in Anglo countries, and at less cost. They all had major or minor reforms of their writing system in the past 150 years. Finnish and Korean are probably the easiest writing systems in the world. English undergraduates studying German can spell better in German than they can in English. Japan has a particularly easy introductory writing system for beginners (‘syllabic’ hiragana) so that basic literacy is close to 100%, and because learners are not stumped at the start, as so many are in English, they are more confident to attempt the next slopes, which do require disciplined work to acquire, but result in a 5-script writing system still including hiragana, that gives fast visual access to meaning.

In contrast with languages with more consistent alphabetic writing systems, phonics teaching methods in English require more time-consuming rote-learning, enormous expense in educational materials and remediation, and more early literacy failure and higher rates of dyslexia directly linked to spelling, that lead on to costly school failure and lower employability.

A ‘benefit’ of the difficulties of English spelling has been to maintain social barriers to upward mobility; it most handicaps the most disadvantaged. The supposed benefits of difficult spelling to literate readers are illusory, except for the fact that they have mastered it.

Comparative costs of retaining or improving English spelling

The costs of starting again from scratch would be prohibitive, with vast new publishing and re-training, loss of access to everything now in print, and disturbance to inter-language relationships. The only justification would be a breakthru to a writing system that crossed languages, like Chinese but without its difficulties. Many proposed reforms have sought radical changes in sound-spelling relationships or alphabet characters, but the only successful precedents have been in largely illiterate societies, such as the Turkish switch from Arabic to a Latin alfabet in 1928.

Many successful experiments have been made with various phonemic initial learning spellings, including i.t.a., that assured learners’ early success, but faced problems of necessary unlearning in transition to present spelling. There are also costs in teacher training, materials and implementation of an unfamiliar beginners system.

 However, an initial learning spelling as a dictionary pronunciation key that led into the present English spelling system with the ‘traps’ cleaned up would cost no more than the present multifarious ‘reading schemes’ and streams of spelling books. Consistent vocabulary spellings could enter dictionaries in the conventional way, as alternative acceptable spellings, to survive or drop out by popular usage.

The vast and costly reading research of the past 130 years could switch to experiments to find the most useful principles to make present spelling optimally consistent and predictable for all categories of users and learners, with minimum disruption to the present appearance of print. The internet is a flexible, inexpensive, global medium for experimenting. SMS texting shows popular readiness for removing impediments. An international English Spelling Commission is needed to monitor research and recommendations.


Enormous problems can be caused by very small things, and fixed up by simple unexpected things.  The unnecessary difficulty of English spelling is one of these small things.  Other examples are Dr Semmelweiss stopping childbed fever by insisting doctors wash their hands; and cholera in London stopped by clean water. Human flight only became possible once you stopped thinking you had to flap wings. Alexander the Great just cut the Gordian knot. There are legends about a lost horseshoe nail setting off loss of lost kingdom, and a little Dutch boy stopping Holland being flooded by putting his finger in a dyke.  Modern science would be impossible without the replacement of roman numerals by arabic – and some reactionaries fought that for five hundred years!

Small unnecessary difficulties in English spelling are like land mines in a garden, making all the garden dangerous.  The less advantaged you are, the more dangerous the garden.

These small difficulties have enormous ramified costs internationally – from affecting individual wellbeing to economics and politics. Let us look at these costs.

  • Most people feel something is wrong with them because they cannot spell well. An immense and costly reserch industry for sixty years has been trying to find out what is wrong with the millions who find it hard to learn to even read – while it ignores human engineering to remedy what is wrong with the writing system that fails them. Of course spelling is not the only reason why people fail, but it is an important reason. 
  • Researchers such as Usha Goswami and Phillip Seymour find there are far more dyslexics in English than in languages with more consistent spellings, and  that English spelling alone makes children take around three years to learn to read, contrasted with one year for Italian or German. Derek Thackray found that children could learn to read younger with i.t.a, the initial teaching alphabet, and less able children failed less often– but we have still not taken on board the lessons for why i.t.a turned out not to be a long-term answer for literacy.
  • Personally, everyone knows children who have tremendous difficulty learning spelling, adults who have never been able to learn to read easily, university graduates who still cannot spell properly in their native English – let alone the billions across the world trying to master English as a second language.

It is easy to blame people who are not as clever as you are.  But the truth is, the harder that anything is, it will be hardest on those who are not very good at it anyway.  A rough track is hardest for a crippled child.

  • People point to earlier times claiming everyone was a good speller – but the fact is that up to a third of primary school could be spent learning spelling, and many unfortunate children never got beyond the spelling. ‘The child who is good will learn his book well, and if he cant read, will try for to spell.’  What a cost for the primary school curriculum today if we tried to reinstate spelling at that intensity.
  • Children’s training in thinking rationally is damaged, when at the very start of schooling they are expected to swallow rote learning of irrational spelling,unlike rational maths tables, and they suffer the cost in their self-esteem and morale when they fail.  The lasting emotional is the biggest problem for adult illiteracy.
  • English spelling is important internationally because a universal lingua franca is ideal for international communication, to complement local languages. The present lingua franca is English –now spoken by far more non-native speakers than native-born. It is the treasure house in print of most of the world’s thinking, science, commerce and literature.  But English is failing to become universal, in large part because of silly spelling difficulties as well as silly grammar. Billions of people are cut out from full participation because they cannot read it, to have a written guide for their spoken language or a predictable way to write it themselves.
  • English spelling contributes to why so many pidgin Englishes are springing up all over the world, mutually unintelligible to each other, as recently headlined in New Scientist (March 2008) – Chinglish, Singlish, and the like.  There is no consistent spelling system that can help keep them linked to a standard form of speech. Similarly Latin, in the chaos that followed the disintegration of the Roman Empire, was only maintained in the few remaining strongholds of literacy, such as the monasteries and lawcourts. In the countrysides, without literacy, scores of local dialects and dog-Latins developed, only later united by the new nation states into the various Romance Languages – French, Spanish, Italian and so on.
  • Centuries later, it had been hoped that multilingual developing countries could use English for education  – with all the textbooks already, and opening access to commerce and the resources of the developed world.  But native teachers could not use books to help learn the spoken language, or knowing the spoken language, read the books.  So, for example, multilingual Papua Niugini had to drop English as its main official language and establish a pidgin, Tok Pisin, which has simple spelling and simple speech.
  • In central Australia, aboriginals could learn to read and write in six months in their native language Pitjitjinjara because its written version is straitforward. But English spelling baffles them and helps keep most of our indigenous people from English literacy.  In a course in the 1970s to help aspiring outback students enter University, their biggest academic problem was English spelling, after unpunctuality, their continuing walkabout habit.

International English lingua franca is doomed unless it becomes demotic, updated while remaining keeping backwards compatibility. Obsolete elements of Queens’ English spelling can stay treasured at home by whoever.

  • Worldwide, English spelling has had a tremendous cost for methods to teach literacy. Bandwagons recycle, because spelling stops any of them working properly.  Phonics methods failed too many because spelling exceptions bamboozled them and rote learning was too tedious. So Whole Language methods attempted to bypass the problem by pretending you could learn to read without spelling. Now phonics is back in again, with the same problems as before  - until the traps are taken out of spelling.  A half-hour overview of reading and spelling at shows up how much simpler the teaching and learning of reading could be without such problematic variability in spelling.
  • The bad effects flow on to other languages than English.  Until recently most research on reading was in English, so other countries copied our methods that had had to try to cope with English spelling, when their own languages did not have those difficulties. Dina Feitelson investigated the disaster in Israel when they tried to use the latest Whole Language methods for the children of illiterate Middle Eastern immigrants. It turned out that the children of literate European immigrants learned to read Hebrew without trouble because out of school their parents tutored them by the alphabetic methods they had been taught back in Europe.
  • English spelling costs through the extra burden of failing learners and functionally illiterate adults in Anglo countries despite their spending more on teaching reading than any other. 
  • Add in also the economic cost of the thousands of remedial teachers, thousands of remedial tuitions at £2500 per pupil, thousands of remedial reading schemes, every year dozens more spelling books published, and hundreds of researchers in reading and spelling.
  • Over a score of journals of reading and remedial reading have produced over the years thousands of research reports and articles. In the ten years 1982-92, the ERIC educational database listed 32,292 articles on reading, 2,057 on spelling, and there have been tens of thousands more since. Surely by now all that research would be getting somewhere – if only they would recognise the hedgehog in the living room and take it out.  In contrast, look up Google to try to find constructive solid research on how practicable spelling reform might be possible.
  • There are enormous vested interests in maintaining a difficult spelling. A cartoon shows a publisher telling an author, ‘How naive of you, Mr Meredith, coming here with a reading scheme that works.’ Teachers have said to me – ‘But if learning to read is made easy, what about my job?’ The answer of course, is how much easier and more pleasant to teach so much more that needs to be taught to classes that do not have alienated failing learners. And publishers bereft of selling spelling books could publish and sell so many more books and magazines when everyone was able to learn to read with enjoyment.
  • Professor Wells points out how the need for English language  pronunciation dictionaries is increased by the misleading features of English spelling. Some years ago my  research on children’s dictionaries found that almost all ducked  giving any pronunciation clues at all. Now a number provide different ways to show pronunciation but they all look rather odd except for Chris Jolly’s clever phonic dictionary, with its guide looking simply like  present spelling made more sensible.



Language is used to keep out, as well as to communicate. Present English spelling helps restrict English literacy to an in-group, and our potential universal lingua franca to a diminishing future.

Yet all that is needed are consistent principles based on cognitive psychological research on human abilities, to take out the unnecessary traps. The educated elite should not boggle at such minimum change. Every issue of  New Scientist celebrates amazing achievements of homo sapiens on frontiers of space, nanotechnology and even creating life. The alternative spellings in text messaging are wildly popular. 

What is needed, then, that could be introduced first by experiments and admitting mor co-existing alternativ spellings to dictionaries?

  • The points of unnecessary difficulty are five – too many surplus letters that are not needed to show meaning or pronunciation and may even mislead; too many ways to spell the same sounds, and too many ways to say the same spellings, and of these, the worst are the spellings for the five long vowels A E I O U. The fifth problem is attitude change by those who perceive a vested interest in keeping a privileged status, so that at last they can be willing to surrender the spelling traps for the sake of those less fortunate.
  • Experiments by psychologists and armchair scientists  - like yourselves when you go home -  can easily demonstrate that children and foreign learners can read English more easily when misleading letters in words are cut out, and that present readers can find it easy too.  
  • Seven principles could make English spelling more predictable and consistent, and keep backward compatibility with our heritage of English print .
  • The educational flip back to teaching phonics could have more success than the last time around.
  • The spellings of word families would still give clues to meaning, and antiquarians could still enjoy themselves finding the etymological origins of words from the dictionary, as they do in other countries.

Bring on a Commission on International English Spelling.

Whenever I see anyone given the degree of Doctor of Letters, I think it is about time that academics did take the research idea of Doctor of Letters seriously.


Interim account of abstracts and papers at the
Centenary Conference of the Spelling Society
June 9-10, 2008 at Coventry University

Presenters and papers

The most costly English spelling irregularities

Ms Masha Bell

English spelling researcher and author, Lithuanian by birth, learned English as a second language and has written extensively on spelling reform and educational matters relating to spelling pedagogies. Author of 'Understanding English Spelling'

The spelling inconsistencies which cause the biggest reading and spelling problems and overlap between the two, i.e. to explain which spelling inconsistencies absorb most learning time and incure the greatest teaching costs.
I give a brief explanation how English spelling makes learning to read and write harder, with a few examples. e.g. when a letter always spells just one sound, or if the letter o in English always spelt just the short o sound of 'on, of, hot, not, spot' or 'ou' always the sound of 'out, shout, found, round, ground', learning to read and write is very easy.
Learning to read English is slower because children cannot be taught the basic system in a few months and then left to practice the application of these rules of the system on their own. They keep getting stuck on words like 'once, could, colour' and need regular practice with an adult sitting next to them, helping them to make sense of the words that make no phonic sense.
Much of this one-to-one teaching is done by parents at home. Schools spend money on such one-to-one tuition when the parents can't, or for some other don't provide it. In severe cases intensive one-to-one help is administered in a bout of a few months by outsiders (e.g. Reading Recovery) which costs around £ 2500.- per pupil.
But such help is also provided less formally in every primary school by teachers and classroom assistants to thousands of children every day, from reception up to the end of secondary school in some cases.
Overall, I emphasize the 'time is money' theme and explain which spellings are particularly time-absorbing. I also refer to unchanging standards, employers complaining about them officially since 1921, research findings about English spelling.

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The cost argument in historic appeals for spelling reform

Dr Steve Bett

Formerly professor of typography and computer graphics, and a communications consultant involved in training faculty on how to build better e-courses. He contributed to the book, Internet Based Learning, Kogan-Page, 1999. He maintains a resource site on alphabets, alternative transcription systems, and spelling reform, and is a volunteer literacy instructor.

A deep orthography inflates the cost of maintaining the traditional orthography, whether or not there is any difference in the cost of implementing less radical and more radical schemes
How orthographic depth inflates maintenance costs
I think we will need a metric for orthographic depth. I have never found one that is entirely satisfactory. I once said that orthographic depth relates to how close a spelling dictated by the writing system is to the dictionary key. The problem is that you need to have an optimum dictionary key - one that is extremely close to the one on which the writing system is based.
We probably need two writing systems to compare English against. We have two elusive variables: a measure of relative orthographic depth and a measure of relative costs.

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Does being a Chinese speaker reduce
the time of learning English spelling

Ms Raffaela Buonocore

Teacher of English as a foreign language in China, and professional translator of English-Chinese

How much extra it costs to teach English spelling to Chinese learners.
Does having learned pictograms make it easier for them?
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Remedial teaching of reading: a trial with reformed spellings

Mr Christopher Jolly

Educational publisher through the "Jolly Learning" company, and publisher of the very successful "Jolly Phonics" reading books.

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The cost of teaching English in primary schools

Ms Zuzana Kotercová

Postgraduate student of English and business at Coventry University, UK. She has carried out research into the amount of work undertaken by a sample of English primary school teachers in carrying out spelling instruction, as distinct from general reading and writing skills.

An initial survey and analysis of the amount of time (and therefore money in staff salaries) spent by teachers in teaching English spelling to primary school pupils. The research was partly financially supported by the Spelling Society

Speakers at the Spelling Society's conference argue that £18m is "wasted" each year teaching 15th-century spellings to 21st-century pupils. If spellings were kept up to date teachers wouldn't have to teach them because they'd be common sense.

The figure of £18m emerges from this final-year student research project on the costs of English spelling. Zuzana Kotercova calculates that teaching spelling in primary schools costs £2.85 per hour, per teacher. This ends up as £556 per teacher, per year, based on the average salary of a primary school teacher and the typical time he or she spends teaching spelling.

View article in the Guardian

The Emotional Costs Of Learning Modern English Spelling

Professor Anatoly Liberman

Professor of Germanic Philology at the University of Minnesota, and writer of both popular and scholarly books. Professor Liberman's primary interest has been the history of English words. In 2005, he published a popular book for lay readers entitled "Word Origins and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone", Oxford University Press, 2005, "An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology", University of Minnesota Press, 2008. He has also collected more than 20,000 articles for "A Bibliography of English Etymology". "The Oxford Etymologist" is Professor Liberman's weekly column on word origins at the Oxford University Press blog.

My perspective is that of an American professor, reviewer, and panelist. Bitter experience has taught millions of people that the difficulties of English spelling cannot be overcome. Young Americans, perhaps more pragmatically-minded than their European peers, often take their illiteracy for granted, almost as one takes an inborn physical defect. Time and again I have heard the statement (usually followed by a giggle): "I am a terrible speller." This "defect" has devastating consequences in many areas, and especially in academe. I remember losing interest in the manuscript of an article in which on the first page principle was written instead of principal. Though I hated myself for my snobbery, I could not help it. While reading the dissertations of my advisees, one of my main concerns is not to miss any of their spelling errors. I have also spent years teaching English as a second language. Foreigners have no choice but to be docile and learn what they are taught, but here, too, it would be more profitable to concentrate on phonetics, grammar, and words, rather than spelling. As far as I can judge, among the native speakers of the European languages, the resignation of English speakers, when it comes to spelling, has no parallels.
See the book review

Visit “The Oxford Etymologist” blog

Why do we need pronunciation dictionaries? -

with a report of preference polls for words of dubious pronunciation

Professor John Wells

Emeritus Professor of Phonetics, University College London. Prof Wells has been a prolific publisher in his field, and most recently has edited the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. He is also President of the Spelling Society.
This relates to the new, third, edition of my /Longman Pronunciation Dictionary/, published in March 2008.

If our spelling system were not so opaque and inconsistent, there would be very little need for a dictionary devoted exclusively to pronunciation.

Unsurprisingly, then, there are three competing English pronunciation dictionaries on the market: the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary, the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation, and my own Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. As well as showing the pronunciation of vocabulary words in British (RP) and American English, they also cover - to varying extents - proper names and inflected forms.

The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary is the only one to offer statistics derived from public preference polls. In preparation for the new edition, I conducted a new on-line poll, with the publishers' help, in April-June 2007.

Responses were accepted only from those respondents who indicated their geographical origin as Britain (= England, Wales, Scotland and the Channel Islands, but not Ireland). The number of valid responses varied by question, but was in the range 800-825.

There were 30 items in the questionnaire: accept/except, adult, applicable, Asia, careless, contribute, debris, diphthong, dissect, during (initial consonant and stressed vowel), egotistic, electoral, H, homogeneous, hurricane, impious, kilometre, lamentable, liquorice, mischievous, necessarily, omega, poor, protester, tinnitus, tune, via, were, yours. As in previous questionnaires, each question was multiple-choice, asking which of two or more pronunciations the respondent preferred for the given word.

Selected findings are presented.

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The international costs of English spelling, and
the comparative costs of improvement

Dr Valerie Yule

Researcher and writer on spelling and literacy. Formerly clinical child psychologist in hospitals and disadvantaged schools, and academic in education, psychology and English departments, Universities of Melbourne, Monash and Aberdeen.

This paper, set out in detail above, analyses the ways in which difficulties in spelling as the technology of written communication carry personal, social and economic costs, world-wide, with an assessment of the particular points of difficulty, and who are disadvantaged by them. Quantitative research still requires collation and extension.

The difficulties of unpredictability in English spelling have in the past served elitist social purposes as a barrier to social mobility.

Today the costs are more serious and obvious. It is in the public interest, internationally, that access be as wide as possible everywhere to the major lingua franca for commerce, science, technology, education and transmission of cultures. This necessity also carries the condition that removing the traps in English spelling does not hinder access to our heritage of print and everything now in print in English. This is feasible. Introduction of needed changes can be inexpensive and move quickly, but requires reserch and application of existing reserch, especially in cognitive psychology, pilot experiments and an International Commission on English Spelling.

The costs of poor reading skills

Mr Tom Zurinskas

Researcher into spelling reform and the implications of the current traditional orthography as part of his work into language in general and into the computer applications of linguistics in particular.

There are many articles written about cost issues regarding the lack of reading skills. This paper addresses summaries of several culled from the internet within the past few years. Internet addresses are given for more thorough investigation.

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And see

Pages on spelling at,

Principles for a three level spelling improvement -