International English Spelling:

how systematic repair is possible

A conceptual breakthru to impruve English spelling sistematically
without disrupting present readers

A set of seven principls can remove the disadvantages of present spelling and enhance its advantages, with minimum change in its familiar appearance.  'Interspel' operates on three levels to facilitate transition.
'Top-down' 'Spelling for reading without traps' makes minimal change in the familiar appearance of spelling.
'Bottom-up' initial sound-simbol spelling for learners is also a dictionary pronunciation gide.
This is modified by systematic 'morfemic' principls to become 'Spelling for riting without traps', which acomodates both 'reading by iy and riting by ear'. Thirty or so very common irregular words and suffixes remain unchanged.

A first start can be simply to cut out surplus letters in words when they serv no purpos to indicate meaning or pronunciation. Since 56% of literat adults cannot spell accommodate, spell it as acomodate insted.

This monograf is also available as PDF iconpdf
See also wikipedia entry on Interspel

Other web-pages on spelling and writing systems explain principles for spelling reform,
The needs and abilities of readers. writers and learners, and the representation of the English language, Other aspects of spelling reform,
A method of lerning to read and spell online and by DVD that would be far esier with a predictabl spelling system,
Other ways to improve literacy learning
Web pages of other spelling reformers for interest and comparison.

Contents of this page

  1. Summary of the seven principls to improve English spelling.
  2. How systematic repair is possible. The seven principls in detail, their rationale, and how they can be applied.


Summary of the seven principls

  1. Retain the spelling of the most common hundred words, which make up about half of everyday text. Only around 31 of these require alteration; the remainder are regular.
  2. Regard spelling as a standardised conventionalised representation of the language set out as in formal speech with minimal slurring.
  3. Apply the alphabetic principle to the rest, including regularising current spelling patterns for final vowels;  and using the primary vowels letters a e i o u to spell both 'long' and 'short' vowels, distinguishing long vowels as necessary by a diacritic (a grave accent) or the 'magic e' tactic. Unusual stress in words can be represented for learners by dubld consonants.
  4. This alphabetic base of relating letters to sounds is modified with morphemic principles that visually represent grammar and meaning, as in plural and tense ending 's'.
  5. Only a few sets of words that sound the same are so confusable that they need differentiated spellings.
  6. Names and places can be spelled as they please.
  7. For 'Spelling for reading without traps' , recognise also eight alternative vowel spellings with one-way pronunciation for reading. These alternatives are not needed for 'Spelling without traps for writing and initial learning', which is fully consistent.

These seven principles are a feasible way to prevent English spelling remaining a barrier to literacy. They change only around 2.6% of letters in everyday text, so present readers are hardly inconvenienced, and result in a more predictable relationship to the spoken language for international users, learners and spellers. Its more consistent visible relationship of related words regularises the 'Chomsky' feature of  English spelling to assist faster automatic visual recognition in reading for meaning, keep our heritage of print accessible, and improve not lose, visible relationships with international vocabulary in other languages. These all call for experiment and investigation.

2. How systematic repair is possible


It is possible to remove the present unpredictability of present English spelling in a way that combines the advantages of minimal change in the appearance of present spelling, systematization by principles, and a phonemic spelling for learners.  It keeps accessible our heritage of print, past and present, while matching spelling more closely to the needs and abilities of readers and writers, learners and English language learners, using both visual and auditory reading processes, and improving visible relationships of English and international vocabulary. 

This combination of advantages has been claimed to be impossible, but psychological and linguistic research and technological advances now make it feasible when accepted assumptions are challenged. 
The first of seven research-based principles is unexpected - to retain the irregular spellings of around thirty of the hundred most common words which make up about half of everyday text. 
For the rest, orthography follows a conventionalized standard; the basic alphabetic principle is used for initial learning spelling and dictionary keys, and is progressively modified into adult text modified by morphemic principles; spelling of homophones is only differentiated when essential; there are indicators for irregular stress; and some transitional features include personal choice for the spelling of names.
The sound-symbol relationships suggested for investigation  include consistent spelling patterns for final vowels, grave accents to distinguish long and short vowels when needed, mostly for beginners, different spellings for /s/ in word and case endings, and, for transitional reading, eight one-way alternative vowel spellings and three consonant alternatives.  Rationale is given at each point.

Investigation is called for, with formal and informal experiments, and the establishment of an official International English Spelling Commission to oversee, monitor, and implement whatever improvements, these or other investigations indicate.  Methods of pilot testing are briefly discussed.

Note: Ocasionaly some spellings of words may drop surplus letters or rationalise the spelling of /f/.  Readers can observe their initial responses and, indeed, whether they notice all modifications.



Most modern languages have implemented major or minor reforms of their writing systems in the past 150 years.  English spelling alone has not been improved.  Yet orthography requires the same human-engineering research and development as the rest of modern communications technology, since it is an essential  tool (Yule, 1986). The challenge is to retain the advantages of present spelling but take out its difficulties, rather than more sweeping change. This policy has many practical advantages in retaining backwards compatibility and costs of implementation. Present spelling has useful features that suit the English language and its users, and that are overlooked by proposers of new systems or plain phonemics. There is a basic underlying system that can be made consistent by applying principles rather than ad hoc series of rules, which has been another approach. The assumptions against improving English spelling can be turned into ways to improve it.  For example, Noam Chomsky’s work on deep phonology (Chomsky & Halle, 1968, and Carol Chomksy, 1970) is still misinterpreted as a key argument against spelling reform, to his expressed distress.  The way to go is to apply ‘Chomsky’ to improve spelling.

 Do not let your hackles rise against any changes, at least for ten minutes. Any change in a long-learned habit is affected by psychologist Gordon Allport’s insight that we can stand our own spit but other people’s spit is revolting.  Spelling is like spit.  Your own misspellings are OK to you but anyone else’s altered spellings can seem to you - well, spittable. That is, until they are familiar and you become used to them. We no longer spell develop with an e on the end, and Frenzy with a ph - but that took us over a hundred years, and there are still doughty diehards fighting these changes.Yet while dictionary English spelling is static, informal spelling is in flux if not chaos, as is everywhere observed -  from Text Messages on mobile phones, decisions to stop marking down undergraduates’ exam papers for spelling errors, advertising spelling, and linguist Vivian Cook’s revelations in his little book about broccoli in the  graveyard that is spelling (Cook, 2004).
Further documentation of the surprising state of spelling today is set out in The Book of Spells and Misspells (Yule 1005), which I hope everyone will buy for their friends and for a good laugh.    
Seven principles are presented here for investigation, to clean up the underlying English spelling system to be predictable, yet change as little as 2.6% of letters in everyday text. The principles turn spelling reform assumptions on their heads and cut Gordian knots. They are research-based, to consider the needs and abilities of all users - readers, writers, learners, computers and international communicators.  They use both visual and auditory channels for reading and writing, keep our heritage of print accessible, and improve not lose, visible relationships of words, within the language and with international vocabulary in other languages.

PRINCIPLE 1.  Retain half of everyday text unchanged.  The rationale for this conceptual breakthrough is simple. Only one hundred common words make up about half of everything you read, and only thirty-one of these ubiquitous words are irregular. If thirty-one words are given to learners to acquire explicitly as ‘tricky sight-words’ for rote-learning, that is not too many even for beginners, who are capable of learning up to forty words from flash-cards without decoding, and who can then be assured that the rest of English spelling will be manageable.  Contrast the present burden. Suggested ‘sight-words’ are:
all almost always among are come some could should would half know of off one only once other pull push put as was what want who why, and international word endings -ion/-tion/-ssion plus -zion - as in question, passion, vizion. 

PRINCIPLE 2  Continue to regard spelling as a standardized convention, as it is now, but systematized and the simpler the better - for example banana for banana, despite its three different ‘a’ sounds. Dog can be read by anyone as saying dog, regardless of how you say dog. That is, spelling representation is like a line sketch of a man that is recognized for such the world over, rather than a photograph, that is, of a specific man. The traditional aim of phonemic reform, spelling as you speak, comes to grief in decisions over choice of dialects, as if spelling were to be like the photograph.  Instead, the standardized representation of words would simply be taken from present standard UK and American dictionaries, but applied in spelling as in formal speech-making, not slurred as in casual talk, for example, indescrìbabl rather than, say, ‘ndscribbl, independant not indpendnt, pictùr not pikcha. When you say words like spesial or qestion quickly, they sound like speshl and kweschn. (For present purposes the definition of a phoneme is a speech sound that discriminates words in a language.)  This clear representation of the full structure of words would help to keep global Englishes similar in pronunciation rather than drifting into further dialects and slurrings. National Englishes would maintain their individuality in their vocabulary development, which can be shared with the world too, as well as in our distinctive accents, which are inevitable, and indeed charming, unless global broadcasting homogenizes us all.  In my own multicultural Australia, the diversity of the pronunciation of English, and our tolerance of this, demonstrates how faint now is the possibility of a global closely phonemic spelling system - broadband is essential.

There are already several thousand words with alternative but similar spellings in dictionaries. This flexibility would be extended, especially during transition, but not to the extent of disturbing automatic visual recognition in reading.


The original base of English spelling, the alphabetic principle that letters represent sounds, is the base in its systematic repair.  Beginners start with direct sound-symbol correspondence, it is used dictionary pronunciation keys, and acceptable for informal writing. Vowel letters a e i o u represent both long and short vowels, a massive simplification, but long vowelscan have a grav accent as diacritic when needed, or be given the ‘silent e’ treatment - the latter chiefly to enable recognition reading of present spelling, not required for memorizing or writing. The details here are tentative.a. Consonants.  As in
bad dad fad gag hag jag keg leg meg nag peg quik rag sag tag van wag ax yen zen chin shin this thin  which sink sing plezhur.  Distinctions are unnecessary for th.   For now, c = k and q = kw.     Dubld consonants have 3 uses only: 

 i. Morfemic:  Final /ss/ for single nouns and adjectives, as in
The prinsess and the  prinsses  found the dragons' dens in the denss forest.   ii.  Showing irregular stress  -comitty distinguishd from comity

 iii. RR  distinguishes a short vowel when needed as in  carrot corral currant. (Contrast car, coral cur.)

b. Vowels. Vowel spellings are based on existing dominant spelling patterns.

a e i o u as in mat pet bit not cut  A E I O U as in màt  pèt  bìt  nòt  cùt or, in transition, as in mate, pete, bite, note, cutear er air or au as in car perturb (ur is stressed) hair fort taut

ow oy oo oo as in round boil boot  ?buuk

At present there is no distinctiv spelling for the sound as in wolf could put book. What is the solution?  wlf cd pt bk?  wwlf cwd pwt bwk?  wulf cud put buk?

Consistent spelling patterns for final vowels
The second step for learners is consistent spelling patterns for final vowels – as in pity, may, be hi-fi, go, emu, spa, her, hair, for, saw, cow, boy, too. This makes consistent present common conventions for vowels in final place, which to the visual distinctiveness of words in reading for meaning.

Sequences of vowels are very simply represented. Accents for lerners are optional.

a - bazaar pàella dàis (paid) càos taute - idèa, (year) (meet) bèing crèol hidèusi - dìal dìet flìing ìota pìus o - òasis, (boat) pòet  gòing(boil) Zoo/zòolojy out

u - dùal sùet flùid dùo inocùus

For reading, seven additional one-way vowel spellings can be recognized in present spelling, but need not to be learned for writing - ai, ea, ee, igh, oa, ew, ir.  Each of these spelling patterns is pronounced only one way, not many ways as now, and nobody has to learn these spelling patterns to use themselves. 

Details of three considerations that apply are discussed in appendices below that are  summarized here:

1. The English primary vowel system rather than ‘Continental’.

i. The English short vowels a e i o u are used in the English language far more often then the Continental sounds as in pasta, ballet, police, depot tabu, so changed spellings would be fairly drastic. 

ii. In English vocabulary the toggling of short and long vowels in many word families gives great advantages when both long and short vowels are spelled with a e i o u , the long vowels being distinguished when necessary by diacritics, as with à è ì ò ù.  The visual representation of word families is greatly enhanced (the Chomsky line).

Spelling reform thinking to date has overlooked this advantage. iii. In latin-alfabet languages of the world a great deal of shared English and classically-derived vocabulary is visually similar when the English versions keep their present spelling/sound relationship.

2.  The effects of commonality of visual representation of long and short vowels for reading for meaning.

3 The concept of an initial learning spelling. The advantages when an initial phonemic learning spelling modifies rapidly and systematically into adult text that also allows reading of present spelling.  Exampl - a passage from Don Quixote in beginners spelling with a fonemic base, consistent spellings for final vowels, plus 31 very common irregular words learnt as ‘sight words’.

In a vilaj in La Mancha in Spàn, of which I cannot remember the nàm, ther livd not long ago an òld-fashond jentlmen, who was never without a lanss upon a stand, an òld shèld, a thin horss and a grayhound. He àt bèf mor than muton; and, with minsd mèt on mòst nìts, lentils on Frìdays, and a pijon on Sundays, he consùmd thre-quorters of his income. The rest was spent on a plush còt, velvet briches, with velvet slipers for holidays; and a sùt of the best hòmspun cloth, which he gàv himself for wurking-days. The master was nearly fifty years òld, with a helthy and strong complexion. His body was long and his fàs was thin. He was an erly rìzer, and a luver of hunting.

I cannot see why a fonemic base for lerners need be any further from present spelling than the exampl above.

4. Morfemic principlesVisual representation of units of meaning promotes fast automatic recognition of meaning, and give clues to vocabulary and grammar.
Three morfemic principles modify the alfabetic base.

  1. Consistent spelling  -s/-es and -d/-ed for verb and plural endings, even if the sound is like /z/ or /t/  as in
    The cats, dogs and foxes snarld, barkd, and shouted. 
  2. Words are not changed by additions, - as in dàzys, downsìze. 3 . Consistent spellings for classical afixes - as in edùcàtion, passion, vizion, depiction.

5. Words that sound the same.Only a handful of sets of words that are ‘homofones’, may need to be spelled differently to avoid confusion, eg possibly too/to (?tu) /two,  for/fore/four/  know/no.  Most homofones are already spelled the same, and the meaning is automatically directed by context. You can check this up yourself.

In the last few paragrafs, homofonic homografs have included second, present, conventions, just, long, short, can, pronounced, fast, base, even, sound, like, letter, and tense.

6. Indicators of irregular stress. Irregular stress in words can cause confusion and even incomprehension for learners, especially foriners.  It can be indicated by dubld letters as in comitty, umbrella, and lapell contrasted with làbel;  by syllabic consonants when schwa sounds are minimal, as in melncoly ;and with ‘ur’ for the stressed ‘er’ sound, as in perturb.  This is a flexibl matter and adult text may simplify, e.g. predicament rather than prediccament, but both acseptabl.

7. Some transitional features, and personal spellings for names and placesSilent initial letters are temporarily retaind to avoid problems with dictionary serches, as with psìcology and knot.The spelling of names of pepl and places are the owners’ responsibility and right.Spellings for French imported words - Most imported words can be given an English spelling, but some, especialy French, are so problematic to respel they may be best left until the pronunciation has ‘englishd’, as with beef,  porkand mutton.  Lerners can be given a page that lists Continental sounds and untransliterabl forin spelling patterns and pronunciation rules- e.g for bouffant boutique boudoir bouffe bouillon bouquet bourgeois bourgeoisie - rather than attempting, as some have tried, buurzhwaazee or boekai -  until eventually such words become mor anglicised in everyday speech, as in perhaps, depo, amatur, cadett?


The result is spelling without traps.  As fonts and handwriting can be varied according to purpose, so ‘spelling without traps’ can be adapted to vary according to three purposes – for reading; for reading aloud and showing pronunciation by adding occasional acsents for long vowels, and dubld letters for unexpected stress; and thirdly for writing and initial lerning.

1. Spelling without traps for reading is almost identical to what we now have, is but without traps.  The only training required for present readers is to realize that sounds as in the letter names A E I O U can be represented with grav accents as in à  è  ì  ò  ù.   ii. During this transition, new readers will read some spelling variations, with one-way pronunciation, but new writers will only need one-way spelling.  

2. Spelling without traps for reading with pronunciation clues includes grav accents to show long vowels and dubld letters to  show unexpected stress.

3. Spelling without traps for beginners and for writing. Writers are not bothered with having to recall alternative spellings. See example above.

Investigation and action.  Informal change in English spelling should not add more uncòordinated càos, as has happened with some past changes intended to improve. Spelling improvement needs informal experiments by anyone - test out yourself what you like when you like. We can conduct our own experiments on the Net, and rebel at some of the stupidities that for so long have been enforced as a social strategy to keep the hoi polloi off the ladder of social mobility. Anyone could start with cutting out surplus letters that serve no purpose in representing meaning or pronunciation, as in acomodate, delicat, disiplin,  gardian, forin.  (See Appendix D on surplus letters in words.)

In the experimental pilot stages, publications can decide on their own house-styls, which may mix the three levels, or amend present spellings towards them.  There may be more trends to ‘spelling pronunciation’ – speaking as it is spelled – as well as the dominant trend to streamline our written words.Minor details such as predictabl conventions for schwa in suffixes can also be sorted out, but there must be research  - and official grants for R & D in this neglected branch of comunications tecnology. 

For some reformers, R & D is a word connoting postponement and expense, but no one can claim that it has not produced amazing practical results in all other areas of modern IT.Once spelling change gets on the way, it can move fast – as it has with text messaging, but it must not move into just other forms of caos. English spelling has been a social oppression, and a global oppression. It needs an International English Spelling Commission, because the English language now belongs to the world, and not to a chosen few.

To be passive and not to rise up against these barriers to literacy represents what has been called ‘a failure of the human spirit’.


Appendix A.

Why the five primary vowel letters a e i o u should represent English not ‘Continental’ pronunciation in English spelling

'Continental' spellings for the five basic vowels sounds a e i o u, as in pasta ballet police depot tabu are used in a significant proportion of spelling systems in the roman alphabet, and romaji transliterations for languages such as Japanese and Chinese.  It would seem an attractive and sensible proposition for English spelling system to join this international usage.  Overseas lerners of spoken English would not then have to change the values of these five vowel letters from their accustomed usage. However, the very fact that English is the major international language turns out to be one of the many reasons why the primary English vowel sounds should continue to be represented as they are now, but consistently, without unpredictable variations.

The English language has around twenty vowel sounds, more than most other languages. Some, indeed, such a Hawaiian, Japanese, Italian and Spanish, have five or hardly more, so that it is no problem for them that the roman alphabet has only five primary vowel letters, a e i o u.  English, however, does have problems, and the many different solutions over time have only made the spelling worse. There are over 218 different ways to spell those twenty vowels sounds.

 In the future English pronunciation may collapse the 21 vowels of  into say ten, or experience yet another Great Vowel Shift as in medieval times, but current distinctive features of the language require continuity in the present usage for the five primary vowels a e i o u as the short vowel sounds as in man  men  bit  not   but.

English ‘short ‘and ‘long’ vowel sounds a e i o u and AEIOU (sounds in the letter names)are the predominant vowels in English text, where usually around 60% of words will contain short vowels and 20% long vowels, so that change in their representation is a significant disruption. The five most common vowel sounds in English are the so-called 'short' vowels, and are usually spelled with the five primary vowel letters. These five vowel sounds often present difficulties for foreigners to discriminate and pronounce, and have no clear representation in the ‘Continental’ vowel system, altho they may occur in some other European languages.

The 'Continental' vowel sounds occur significantly less frequently in English, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. English and continental  pronunciations for the five primary vowel letters    a  e  i  o u
Frequencies in a million words of English text

English 'a' as in mat, including 30% unstressed as in about

Continental 'a' as in pasta, n 1,475, plus spellings for the sound as in car, 18,791


English ‘e’ as in pet, including 30% unstressed as in system, plus even more obscure, as in demand, n  25,699
Continental  ‘e’ as in ballet,


English  ‘i’ as in pig, including 1% unstressed as in possible, plus less stressed as in edit, 4,504
Continental as in police,


English ‘ o’ as in dog, including 22% unstressed as in atom
Continental  ‘o’ as in depot 


English ‘u’ as in sun, including 1% unstressed as in focus
Continental  ‘u’ as in debut


(Compiled from Rondthaler & Lias, Dictionary of Simplified American Spelling, Scholars Edition, 1986, pp  305-397, showing frequencies in a million words.)

That is, in a million English words there are a total of  675,035 Anglo pronunciations of the primary vowel letters a e i o u, that is, up to 76%. In the million words, there are a total of only 228,202 Continental pronunciations for the primary vowel letters, that is, roughly 23%.

To use Continental vowel spellings for the primary vowels would clearly change far more of English text unnecessarily, especially if it meant that the English primary vowels were spelled with digraphs , making the spelling of English words longer, when the trend and the demands are that it should become shorter and more streamlined.

The English short vowel sounds are often difficult for foreigners to distinguish and pronounce in any case, but they are clearly such a staple of the English language that some approximation must be made.

It would cause less disruption to the appearance of English spelling and of English vocabulary internationally to use the primary vowel letters for all instances of the Anglo sound a in mat.  This would regularise traditional spellings such as meringue, have, plait, guarantee, salmon, and harangue into merang, hav, plat, garantee and samon, but all except one of these instances require only omission of redundant letters, which is least disrupting to the appearance of text and reading for meaning.

2. The relation of short and ‘long’ vowels in English word-families

The English language has a special linguistic relationship between the so-called ‘short’ vowel sounds  a e i o u  and the ‘long’ sounds pronounced as in the letter names A E I O U, in a significant proportion of English word families. Noam Chomsky has made of this an argument for the visibl representation of what he perceives as underlying structure.

Present spelling quite often shows this relationship of words visually, facilitating reading for meaning - altho not nearly as often or consistently as the Chomsky theory of optimal spelling is supposed to show - as in nation/national  finite/infinity reduce/ reduction.  An English spelling repair could make these relationships visible more consistently when needed for learners and when discriminations are needed (for example, the suggestion of using grav accent diacritics for lerners, and when needed - which is not always - as in nàtion/national.)

 3. Visible relationships of vocabulary in English and other languages  facilitate reading and understanding. Modern languages share much modern vocabulary across the world, and English also shares vocabulary with Romance, classical and Germanic origins.   Often enough this shared vocabulary may be pronounced with English short vowels in English, and with Continental or other vowels in other languages, as in:

dame/dame, gas/gas, man/mann, material, material, mild/mild  nature/natur, number/ nummer, cadet/cadet, fruit/frucht, under/unter

especially in the vocabulary of the modern world - for example, in Indonesia where 80% of the words in one Indonesian children's picture book were imports - alkohol, dokter, kompres, pil, dekor, kamera, televisi, mikrofon, monitor, musik, rol film, sekretaris, genarator,  hanggar,  helikopter, kabin, kompresor, mobil, mobil  pilot, tkompas, kronometer,antena,  interkom, traktor, transformator, voltmeter, basket, kroket, ping-pong, raket, ski, pelikan,vultur.  (The K consonant is familiar to us, but switching of vowel representation would slow visual recognition until it became familiar.

4. Greater disruption and reduced backward compatibility if English spelling is greatly changed.  There may come a breakthrough of a writing system that can cross languages, like Chinese, with phonemic representation only needed for local grammars, but until then, repair of the English spelling system is more useful and practicable than radical change in its appearance.

 For example, observe in the following sentence the high proportion of print that would be affected by changing the spelling of the five primary English vowel sounds: 

Thx need for cxmpxtxbxlxtx wxth thx xmmxns xmount xf prxnt xn Englxsh txday xnd our globxl hxrxtxge xf prxnt xn Englxsh xs xn xmportxnt cxnsxdxration.

5. Pronunciation of English vowels by foreign learners of English

The 20+ English vowel sounds can present overseas learners with problems of discrimination and pronunciation, especially for those who may be accustomed to only five or hardly more. 

There is only one advantage in applying the Continental vowel system. Learners of English accustomed to the spelling of the five Continental vowels can experience some initial confusion when the primary vowels are pronounced differently.  However, they are likely to have difficulties in discrimination of spoken English primary vowels in any case, the usage is not a bar to comprehension, and the transfer is not a serious handicap.  (See Appendix 5.)

 As long as a new vowel system is consistent and they can distinguish the sounds, learners can transfer quickly  - for example, English-speakers can learn German or Italian pronunciation from principles that can be listed on a quarto sheet.  Research on Serbo-Croatian biscriptalism is also be useful on how readers can transfer to different linguistic environments.

In short, the reasons for retention of the English pronunciation of the five primary vowel letters are:

  1. Predominance of these five ‘short’ sound patterns in English speech,
  2. The relationship of short and ‘long’ vowels in word-families. See Appendix C.
  3. The visible relationships of vocabulary in English and other languages that facilitate reading and understanding,
  4. The need for backward compatibility with the immense amount of print in English today and the global heritage of print in English. These outweigh the amount of print in all other languages.

APPENDIX B.  The value of similar visual representation of short and long primary vowels for reading for meaning.

The ‘Chomsky theory’ and diacritics for 'long' vowels

(A diacritic character is a mark or symbol which is added to another character in order to change the pronunciation of that character.)

The five 'name' vowels sounded as in A E I OU and often called 'long vowels' are not a proper linguistic set but in everyday practice they can be regarded as a set:

i. They make a set as far as ordinary people are concerned because from childhood on they know them as the names of the five primary vowel letters a e i o u, and ‘magic e’ is a common spelling device for them.

ii. In the English language long vowels often toggle with the short vowel sounds a e i o u within word families, and share spellings, as in
national/nation, finish/final,  disposition/dispose, production/produce
(but not always, as in repetition/repeat and succeed/success).
Noam Chomsky interpreted these relationships of words as based on the underlying deep structure of their phonology (Chomsky & Halle, 1968) and Carol Chomsky (1970)  gave this as an argument that present English spelling as 'optimal', because often (but not always) the same morpheme is spelled the same way regardless of whether it is pronounced long or short, or even slurred into insignificance.

The 'long' vowels are the biggest bugbear in English spelling. The hotchpotches of expedients to spell them are major booby traps (See list below) while reformers' ‘sensible’ respellings (e.g with two letters to represent one long vowel sound) often make words look so difrent that they are often immediately rejected as uncouth, with no opportunity to become familiar and thus accepted.

 A solution is single vowel letters with optional grav accents added as needed.  Advantages:

  • Improved visible relationship of short and long vowels in word families, plus pronunciation clue,  is a neat answer to the common 'Chomskyan' objection to spelling reform.  Diacritics for long vowels help lerners to identify both meanings and pronunciation of related words, such as pròsèd/pròsession national/ nàtion, repetition/ repèt,  finish/ fìnal,  dispozition/ dispòz,  production/ prodùs, sucsèss/sucsèd, repetition/repèt. The testable claim is that such linkage also helps skilled readers to read text faster for meaning   
  • Aid for learners.  J H Martin used macron diacritics over long vowels in teaching beginners to read. They added marks in their own writing only if they chose. This also suits lerners' 'natural spelling' tendencies to spell long vowels like short ones eg. Suzi mit lik an iscrem.  
  • Economy.  Singl letters are suficient to spell 21 of the 48 vowel grafemes, and only two letters are needed for multipl vowel sequences such aspòet. 
  • The minimal visibility of grav accents does not disrupt skilled reading as macrons, dieresis or other diacritics could.  The direction of the accents goes with the flow of the eye and flow of hand-writing.   Colons (:) or ‘silent e’ can be substituted when email, typewriters or hasty writers cannot handle accents, but accents disrupt reading less, they can be made single stroke on keybords, are available for most fonts in word-processors, and customising, internet and email formating capacities are continually improving. Accents can be applied according to house style, personal preference or practicalities transmission.  Experience will show what is really needed.
  • Limited necessity. Diacritics are needed for less than one word in five and for adult text may be altogether omitted, as in baby, medium, kind, most, education. Context also often gives suficient clues to make diacritics unnecessary.


Examples of the many traditional spellings of the long vowels

  bake  play   baby    wait    raise  maize  great  eight  straight  dahlias   gaols  they  reign  ballet  matinees   veils   bouquets  N 17

e    we  beat   chief  street police  machine   please  freeze  cheese  receive  people believe  key  league  N14

i   hi-fi    my   die    like  light  sign  either dye island guide  eyed   diamond    aisle   choir  N14

o  old float  know rogue chauffeur   depot   mauve brooch   shoulder folk  though, beau   ghost  Cologne  N14

u   music  new due   refuse  you  view  Hugh beautiful  ewe deuce feud  juice  lieu   fugue  N14

Appendix C. An initial learning spelling

The concept of an initial learning spelling has been around for a long time, as with Pitman’s initial teaching alphabet, i.t.a, which gave learners the shoehorn into how to read, but they had to adapt later to traditional spelling (TO), not all with success, particularly in spelling. 
Some think that an initial learning spelling that also operates as dictionary keys eventually be adopted as the regular spelling system, different from standard spelling conventions. However, this overlooks the important role in learning to read and skilled reading of automatic visual word recognition, whether this is the initial strategy or consequent from first decoding.  To learn one set of letter strings and then adapt visually to another is not the most efficient way to go. It cannot even be compared with Japanese initial learning of linear semi-syllabic hiragana  and then learning the pictographic logographs of  Chinese characters.

In the repaired English spelling that is proposed here, the original alphabetic base first acquired by learners is almost imediatly modified by the further principles, so that even within weeks it is possible to read a spelling system that is ‘traditional spelling cleaned up’, and they can begin to read it almost from the start.

Appendix D. Surplus letters in English spelling

Up to 6% of letters in words in English text are surplus, serving no purpose in representing meaning or pronunciation, and indeed often mislead. Individuals can make their first step to improve their spelling by dropping letters they clearly see are  useless.

  • Eficiency. Save time and paper - and often the hassl of trying to remember what the extra letters are and where they should go.
  • Informal trends everywhere are to streamline. Most spelling ‘mistakes’ consist of leaving out the surplus letters or putting them in the wrong place. See the 16-word spelling test below.
  • My extensive experiments in readers’ response to omission of surplus letters show that for most peple disruption is insignificant, many surplus-cut spellings are never even noticed, and poor readers can benefit.
  • Omitting surplus letters only arouses negative responses from most readers when the  is cut to th, probably because the is the  most familiar and recurring word in text, so that it ‘hits me in the face’ when its three letters are cut by a third.

On the other hand, readers take longer to adjust to changed letters in words, and adding letters changes the appearance even more and encounters most resistance.  Spelling reformers can check this out with their own proposals.

‘F’ rather than ‘ph’ for the sound /f/ is a welcomed improvement, which has been increasing since 1750, as for example, phrenzy gives way to frenzy. ‘F’ is shorter, it is the modern translation of the Greek original, and we often see it internationally, eg at airports, with ‘telefon’ ‘fotograf’ etc.  

The Sixteen Word Spelling Test
for everyone who thinks they are a good speller

Some or all of these words  may be incorrectly spelled. 
Write them out correctly. 

 acomodate . .

 exessiv  . . . .

  miniture  . .

 professr  . . .

gage    . . . . .  

unparaleld  . . . 

disapoint  . . . .

 gardian  . . . .

mischivus  . . . .

psycology  . . .

sovren  . . . . . .

disiplin  . .  . .

iliterat  . . . . . .

ocasion  . . . . .

recomend  . . . .

tecnicly  .  . . .

See The 16-word spelling test for details of findings from this simple test.  Most people, even literacy educators, cannot write out all these 16 words correctly.  The missing letters are not even missed, or cannot be replaced correctly.

Appendix E.  Spelling without traps for readers

Don Quixote is a suitabl hero to illustrate spelling reform.

'Spelling without traps for readers' retains 31 very comon words with irregular spellings; several different spelling patterns may represent one speech sound, but all are consistent, except for two possible pronunciations for c/ce and g/ge. The five primary vowels may be long or short. Diacritics assist pronunciation when needed.

In a village in La Mancha in Spain, of which I cannot remember the name, ther livd not long ago one of those òld-fashond gentlmen, who ar never without a lance upon a stand, an òld shield, a thin hors and a grayhound. He ate beef mor than mutton; and, with minsd meat on mòst nights, lentils on Frìdays, and a pidgeon on Sundays, he consùmed three-quorters of his income. The rest was spent on a plush coat, velvet britches, with velvet slippers for holidays ; and a sùte of the best homespun cloth, which he gave himself for wurking-days. The master was nearly fifty years òld, with a helthy and strong complexion, lean-bodyd and thin-faced, an erly rìser, and a luver of hunting.  Some say his surname was Quixada, ie. ‘lantern-jaws’, tho this dus not matter much tu us, as long as we keep strictly to the trùth in every point of this history.


1. A short list to illustrate the range of research alredy available

 Adams, M J. 1990. Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Bell, M. 2005. Understanding English Spelling. Cambridge, UK: Pegasus Educational.

Chomsky, C. 1970. Reading, writing and phonology. Harvard Educational Review, 40:287-309. 

 Fishman, J. (Ed) 1977. Advances in the creation and revision of writing systems.  The Hague: Mouton.

Frith, U (Ed) 1980. Cognitive processes in spelling. London: Academic Press

Lieberman, I. &  Shankweiler, D. 1991. On phonology and beginning reading  In  Rieben, L & Perfetti, C. (Eds.) Learning to read: basic research and its implications. Hillsdale, N J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Perfetti, C A, Rieben, L  &  Fayol, M (Eds.) 1997. Learning to spell:  Research, theory & practice across languages. Hillsdale, N J: Lawrence Erlbaum associates.

Pitman J & St John J. 1969. Alphabets & Reading. London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons.

Rieben, L  & Perfetti, C A (Eds.) 1991. Learning To Read: Basic Research And Its Implications. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Upward, C. 1996. Cut Spelling: a Handbook. Simplified Spelling Society. 2nd edn.

Venezky, R  L. 1999. The American way of spelling: the structure and origins of American English Orthography.  NY: The Guilford Press.

Yule, V. 1986. The design of spelling. Harvard Educational Review. 56: 278-297.

Yule, V. 1994. Problems that face research in the design of English spelling. Visible Language. 28: 1.26-47

2.  Further examples of research in cognitive psychology and education show that much of the necessary work has already been done and still stands today. However, highly relevant fields such as computational linguistics, artificial intelligence and neurolinguistics are advancing so rapidly that references would soon be outdated. The tasks now are co-ordination, filling in the gaps, and the practical application of spelling improvement.

Chall, J. 1967, 3rd edn,1996. Learning to read: The great debate. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Clarke, A C. 1962. Profiles of the future. London: Gollancz. (For attitude.)

Coltheart, M. 1984.  Writing systems and reading disorders. In L. Henderson (Ed.) op. cit.

Coltheart, M & Coltheart, V. 1997. Reading comprehension is not exclusively reliant upon phonological representation. Cognitive Neuropsychology.  14.1.167-175. 

Dewey, G. 1971 .English spelling: Roadblock to reading. Columbia University: Teachers College Press.

Ehri, L C. 1989. The development of spelling knowledge and its role in reading acquisition and reading disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 222, 356-365.

Ehri, L C. 1991. Learning to read and spell words.In  Rieben, L & Perfetti, C. (Eds.)  Learning to read: basic research and its implications. Hillsdale, N J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gillis, S, & Ravid, D. 2000. Effects of phonology and morphology in children's orthographic systems: a cross-linguistic study of Hebrew and Dutch. In E. Clark (Ed.), The proceedings of the 30th annual child language research forum, pp. 203-210. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of language and Information.

Goswami, U. 2003.How to beat dyslexia.The Psychologist.16.9.462-5.

Gottlob, R, Goldinger, S D, Stone, G O. & Van Orden, G C. 1999. Reading homographs: orthographic, phonologic, and semantic dynamics.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance. 25.2. 561-574.

Gregersen, E A. 1986. Morphological considerations in the creation of rational orthographies. Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society. 14-17.

Hanley, J R, Masterson, J, Spencer, L H. & Evans, D. 2005. How long do the advantages of learning to read a transparent orthography last? An investigation of the reading skills and incidence of dyslexia in Welsh children at 10 years of age. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Harris & Hatano, G. (Eds.)1999.  Learning to read and write: A cross-linguistic perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Henderson, L. (Ed.) 1984. Orthographies and reading. Perspectives from cognitive psychology, neuropsychology and linguistics. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Huey, E. B. 1908/1968.  The psychology and pedagogy of reading. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T.

Kavanagh, J F  & I. G. Mattingly. I G (Eds.) 1972. Language by ear and by eye. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kavanagh, J F & Venezky, R L. (Eds.) 1980. Orthography, Reading and Dyslexia. Baltimore: University Park Press.

Landerl, K, Wimmer, H, & Frith, U. (1997). The impact of orthographic consistency on dyslexia: A German-English comparison. Cognition, 63, 315-334.

Lauder, Afferbeck. 1965.  Less Stalk Strine. Sydney: Ure Smith. (A lexicon of Oz Spel as u speak)

Mosely, D V & Nicol, C. (undated. circa 1980.) Aurally Coded English Spelling Dictionary. Wisbech, Cambs: Learning Development Aids.

Mwaura, P. 2003. Africa stays tied to colonial tongues. Guardian Weekly TEFL supplement, August, p 1.

National Reading Panel. 2000. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction,

Paulesu, E, Demonet, J-F, Fazio, F, McCrory, E, et al. 2001.  Dyslexia: cultural diversity and biological unity. Science. March 16. 291. 5511. pp 2165-8.

Perfetti, C A, Rieben L, & M. Fayol, M. (Eds.)1997.  Learning to spell: Research, theory & practice across languages, N J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Post, Y V, Swank, P R, Hiscock, M, & Fowler, A E. 1999. Identification of vowel speech sounds by skilled and less skilled readers and the relation with vowel spelling. Annals of Dyslexia, 49. 161-193.

Rayner, K, Foorman, B R, Perfetti, C A, Pesetsky, D. & Seidenberg, M S. 2002. How should reading be taught? Scientific American, March, 286. 84-91.

Rondthaler, E & Lias, E J. 1986. Dictionary of Simplified American Spelling, Scholars' Edn. New York: The American Language Academy.  A mine of information.

Seidenberg, M S, Waters, G S, Barnes, M A. & Tannenhaus, M K. 1984. When does irregular spelling or pronunciation influence word recognition? Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 23:383-404.

 Seymour, P H K, Aro, M. & Erskine, J M. 2003. Foundation literacy acquisition in European orthographies. British Journal of Psychology. 94. 143-174.

 Shankweiler,D. & Liberman, I. (Eds.) 1989. Phonology and reading disability: solving the reading puzzle. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 

Snow, C E, Burns, S, and Griffin, P. 1998. Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Stanovich, K E. 2000. Progress in understanding reading. NY:The Guilford Press.

Stuart, M. 1998. Let the emperor retain his underclothes: A response to Scholes' The Case Against Phonemic Awareness.  Journal of Research in Reading. 213: 189-194.

Templeton, S. 1992. New trends in an historical perspective: old story, new resolution - sound and meaning in spelling. Language Arts, 69, 454- 463.

Thorstad, G. 1991. The effect of orthography on the acquisition of literacy skills. British Journal of Psychology. 82.527-537. A comparison of literacy skills of English and Italian children.

Treiman, R. & Cassar, M. 1997.  Spelling acquisition in English. In  C. A. Perfetti, L. Rieben & M. Fayol (Eds.) op.cit. 

Upward, C. 1987. Heterographs in English. Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society. 1.18-25.

 -  1992. Is traditionl english spelng mor dificlt than jermn?  Journal of Research in Reading, 82-94.

Verrekia, L D. 1996. Orthographic representations of lexical stress in English. Dissertation Abstracts International. 576-A, Dec. 2361.

Wimmer, H, & Landerl, K. 1997. How learning to spell German differs from learning to spell English  In C A Perfetti, L Rieben & M Fayol, (Eds.) Learning to spell: Research, theory & practice across languages, N. J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Yule, V. Publications on spelling 1973 -2004 include articles in the Spelling Progress Bulletin and the Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society.  A further short list below:

--  1988. English spelling and pidgin; examples of international English spelling. English Today. 4.3.29-35.

 -  1992 Orthography and reading: Spelling and society. Unpublished doctoral thesis, Monash University, Australia. Dissertation Abstracts International. vol 536-A,

 -  1995. The politics of international English spelling. In D.  Myers & N. Walker Eds.The politics of Literacy in Australia and the Asian-Pacific Region.  Northern Territory University Press, Australia.

 - 1995. The politics of spelling. In D.  Myers Ed. Reinventing Literacy: the Multicultural Imperative. Brisbane. Phaedrus Press, Australia.

 - 1996. Take-home video for adult literacy. International Review of Education.. 42.1-3. 187-203.

 - 2001. How people spelled when they could spell as they liked. Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society. 29. 1.34-37Yule, V. 2001. Why English spelling has resisted reform since 1755. Australian Style. 9.1.4.

- 2005. The Book of Spells & Misspells. Lewes, Sussex: the Book Guild.

- 2005. OzRead&Spell: Help yourself to read and spell,or find out where you got stuck.  Experimental Version 11, DVD.  To be published online at OzReadandSpell (in preparation). Earlier versions  - ABC GO! 1981, 1993, 1999, 2000, 2003, variously in DVD, VHS PAL video, and CD in PC and Mac formats.

 -            Plus unpublished monographs on improving English spelling, 1997-2004, which contain basic information  why spelling needs repair, spelling as comunications tecnology, barriers that prevent improvement, teaching literacy, bringing in the future, games and curiosities, and further references.

3.  Fuller bibliographies directly on spelling reform are available in publications on the website of the Simplified Spelling Society,, and  Ozideas Internet pages, examples below. 

Miscellaneous notes

The English language does not belong to the English any more. It is a global language. Its writing system, then, also belongs to the world, to be as useful as possible for global comunication. 

Without improvement, English spelling will continue to be a screening test that keeps out the poor and disadvantaged.
Written Standard English currently unites the English-speaking world. Could it unite it more efficiently, and be more user-frendly than it now is?   Our assumptions about it being impossible can be challenged, and turned upside down.

It is widely believed that English spelling represents morfemes really well, and this would be lost if there was improvement.
Actually present English spelling sometimes does and sometimes doesnt, for exampl -
succeed/succession, independent/dependant strategy/stratagem, fire/fiery

Grav accents as in à è ì ò ù can indicate that the five English 'long' vowels (spoken like the names of the letters A E I O U)
are pronounced differently from the five 'short' vowels a e i o u.
When lerners have some skill in both reading and speaking, most of these acsents are no longer needed
(cf Hebrew pointing of vowels for lerners, dropd in print for adults).


Further pages on spelling:

1. Introduction
Introduction to spelling improvement. /spockham.htm. Text of a radio broadcast
Rationale. How assumptions and barriers against improving the writing system do not hold. Answering the common objections to spelling improvement. /sration.htm

2 Needs and abilities of users and learners
i. Needs and abilities of readers /sreadsp.htm
ii. Needs and abilities of writers to spell - /swritsp.htm
iii. Needs and abilities of learners - /slernsp.htm
iv. Needs and abilities of users of international English - /sintrnt.htm
v. Spelling reform for the Internet (an older page)

3. The nature and teaching of English spelling

See the online video,
The underlying English spelling system that could be made more consistent - /spelsys.htm
Spelling patterns for the English vowels - /svowchart.htm
The Book of Spells & Misspells
- a treasury of spelling for everyone
22 Lessons in reading and spelling - v01acover.htm
The 16 word spelling test for anyone who thinks they can spell - 16sp.htm
Spelling and classroom practices - sclassprac.htm

4. Improving English spelling.  Older pages show the development of the spelling project.

Spelling improvement. 2002. - /spelimp.html
Seven principles to repair English spelling, 2006 - /sp7princ.htm
Cutting out the surplus letters in words.Streamline - a first step in updating spelling. /ssurplu.htm
Quik gidelines for a next step, with sampl texts, and furthr notes /sfastrs.htm. FASTR Spelling
Cutting out surplus letters. /intspel.htm 2002
Further steps you can try yourself, with f, j, consistent word endings and vowel spellings. /intspel2.htm
Further experiments to spel sensibly - Pronunciation and gramr, and a final solution? /intspel3.htm 2000
The future of English spelling. What can be done? /

5. Spelling as an entertainment

Spelling Games - starting with a Spelling ABC - different from a Spelling BEE
16-word Spelling Test of 16 common words that few experts can spell all correctly. /16sp.htm
International English Spelling Day, October 9 /spday.html
How people spelled when they spelled as they liked before the 18th century dictionaries /spfree17c.htm

Other web pages.  Some may become out of date. Please let me know.

The Children of the Code is a US reading-related TV project -
Simplified Spelling Society.
Richard Wade's Freespelling guide - If you cant think how to spell a word, spell it as you would like it to be
Steve Bett's collection on almost everything to do with spelling -
A bibliography and link page by Steve Bett. Steve Bett puts forward a radical change of caracters for initial lerning to read, plus much other interesting information. To compare with Interspel alfabetic spelling for beginners

With my thanks to all whose comments and criticisms have helped in the development of these ideas.

Valerie Yule, 57 Waimarie Drive, Mount Waverley, Vic. Australia 3149.
Researcher on literacy and imagination. 
Formerly of Melbourne, Monash and Aberdeen Universities,
clinical child psychologist and teacher.