American Literacy Council

Spelling Matters

This page contains summaries of various publications, editorials, and articles that bear directly on the literacy crisis.

Study Says Half of Adults in U.S. Can't Read or Handle Arithmetic
New York Times - September 9, 1993

Nearly half of the nation's 191 million adult citizens are not proficient enough in English to write a letter about a billing error or to calculate the length of a bus trip from a published schedule, according to a four-year Federal study of literacy in America.

The study, released by the Education Department, presented a bleak statistical portrait of the nation's literacy.

The Department tested more than 26,000 Americans, in a representative sampling of those above the age of 15, with questions revolving around practical matters that people face every day:

... making out a bank deposit slip and understanding instructions for prospective jurors.

...Insufficient education and a growing number of adults whose first language is not English were important reasons that the scores were so low.

...conducted by the Educational Testing Service, the New Jersey Company that administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test for college admissions and other standardized tests.

...called for a comprehensive approach to solutions, involving businesses, schools, and community groups.

...businesses estimate they lose between $25 billion and $30 billion a year nationwide in lost productivity, errors, and accidents attributable to poor literacy. So, the results came as no surprise to the business community.

Dr. Rondthaler on Illiteracy Figures and Causes

If you're flying to Mexico, you can hold in your hand a little card that shows the spelling of every Spanish sound. Then, when the plane lands, you can pronounce, in Spanish, virtually every word on every sign you see. You won't know the meaning of many words, but you can pronounce them, and that's a good start toward learning the language.

The reverse is not true. No immigrant coming to the U.S. can hold a card that shows the spelling of English sounds. Such a card, if it could be made would be the size of a refrigerator door since we spell our 42 sounds in a potpourri of over 400 different ways. Scores of rules and exceptions add to the confusion.

In our major cities over a hundred different languages are in daily use. For many immigrants this means little or no communication beyond their ethnic borders. They never see the big picture. We lose them as creative and productive citizens... An innovative proposal follows...

From the Book "Dictionary of Simplified American Spelling"
by Edward Rondthaler

American Spelling Book Dictionary of Simplified American Spelling by Edward RondthalerOur 45,000 most frequently used words listed in standard and simplified spellings arranged in parallel for handy comparison.

The book includes statistics on frequency of phoneme occurrences, and contains charts graphically depicting the wide variety of ways in which most of our phonemes are spelled. Shown, for example, are the 24 different ways in which the spoken oo-sound (as heard in "moon") is spelled.

English Spelling How it is Pronounced
moon (oo) . . . . . . m oon
group (ou) . . . . . . gr oop
fruit (ui) . . . . . . fr oot
glue (ue) . . . . . . gl oo
drew (ew) . . . . . . dr oo
two (wo) . . . . . . t oo
flu (u) . . . . . . fl oo
canoe (oe) . . . . . . can oo
through (ough) . . . . . . thr oo
rule (u-e) . . . . . . r ool
lieu (ieu) . . . . . . l oo
loose (oo-e) . . . . . . l oos
lose (o_e) . . . . . . l ooz
pooh (ooh) . . . . . . p oo
coup (oup) . . . . . . c oo
bruise (ui-e) . . . . . . br ooz
jiujitsu (iu) . . . . . . j oojitsoo
silhouette (hou) . . . . . . sil ooet
buoy (uo) . . . . . . b ooy
deuce (eu-e) . . . . . . d oos
manoeuvre (oeu) . . . . . . man oover
sleuth (eu) . . . . . . sl ooth
rendevouz (ous) . . . . . . rondev oo
mousse (ou-e) . . . . . . m oos

Note: Tables like this are displayed in AMERICAN SPELLING for all English vowel sounds, and also for principal consonant sounds. Over half of the words on an average page have irregular spellings as shown in the book. (Scientific and foreign words not included.) Available from the American Literacy Council.

Old Fashioned Spelling is Tuf and Dum
by Edward Rondthaler
(Excerpts from the U.S. News & World Report article, available from the ALC)

About a month ago we crowned the latest winner of the National Spelling Bee. This 13-year-old champion has memorized more illogical English spellings than most of us master in a lifetime.

... The (Spelling Bee) lauds a course of study that lags far behind the times and is partly to blame for our illiteracy and its disastrous by-products

... It's not easy to defend English spelling. Try explaining to a rational child why sane adults spell KUM "come" or DUM "dumb" or BLUD "blood" or SED "said" or TUF "tough." Where's the logic?

... Other means of communication do not scramble words. Neither TV nor radio nor tape recordings nor the telephone give us sounds that must be unscrambled to be understood. Our spelling ought to be a mirror of speech. Other languages do it.

... This article was written in 1987. Since then Germany has identified 185 core words (in 1996) whose spellings did not consistently identify sounds, and they corrected them to a simpler, consistent spelling by government legislation. Spelling has never been a grade school subject in Germany, France, or Spain.


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