Is better teaching or a modernisation of English spellings the answer?

Spelling it out: the problems and costs of English spelling is one of the latest books by Masha Bell, and details the development of spelling in England, and how it was formed it, and how bad it sometimes is.

This book is rather different to another one that was recently released by David Crystal, and they both have very different opinions about spelling in the English language. They also have differing opinions on what should be done to improve the writing skills of people in the country, as poor writing skills are something that affect businesses every day. The two authors do agree that there is a serious cost to bad spelling in business in the UK.

While Crystal sees most of the changes to the English spelling system since the 7th century as quite reasonable, Bell regards them predominantly as pointless abuses of the alphabetic principle, which have made learning to read and write English gratuitously more difficult, with heavy costs to children, their parents, schools and the public purse.

While Crystal claims that ‘English spelling isn’t as bad as most people think’, Bell’s analysis of the 7,000 most used English words has established that it is much worse than he believes.

Over half (3695 words) contain one or more unpredictable letters (e.g. one, two, four) and make basic English literacy acquisition three times slower than the European average of one year (as reported by Seymour in the British Journal of Psychology in 2003).

Bell also disagrees that the problems of English spelling are due to having only 26 letters to represent its 40+ speech sounds, as Crystal claims. – Learning to spell English is difficult, because it uses 205 spellings for its 44 sounds, most of which are unpredictable, like those for /ee/ in ‘seek – speak, seize, siege, scene, key, ski, quay’.

Because many of them are also used for different sounds (e.g. speak – break, breakfast; seize – reins, leisure), learning to read is exceptionally difficult and time-consuming as well.

Crystal believes that, ‘explaining why words are spelled the way they are can help us remember them’. Bell thinks that the English language is now grown-up enough for most of its words to be spelt according to English spelling rules, regardless of their origins.

She hopes that her book will kick-start a debate about making English spelling more learner-friendly, with due regard to currently proficient spellers.