by Steve Bett     

Just after this article was written, European researchers reported in Science that hard evidence  had been found linking dyslexia to code confusion. "This research proves the existence of a universal neurological basis for dyslexia," says Uta Frith, a neuroscientist at University College London and one of the authors of the study. But the frequency of diagnosis of the disorder in the different countries depended on how easy it was for native speakers to spell the words in their language. Those with the disorder can usually cope with simple writing systems but not complex ones.

Italian words are spelled the way they are pronounced, unlike many words in English and French. Since there is no tricky relationship between sound and symbol, Italian speaking dyslexics can cope better with their reading disability.   more

It is not the mother tongue that is tricky, it is the writing code.  The following article defines the problem in terms of code overlap and polyvalence: factors which prevent some people from mastering reading and writing and most people from mastering English spelling.  Problems that could be postponed and nearly eliminated through the use of a more phonemic writing system.  No specific notation is recommended:  Unifon and two other phonemic notations are mentioned.

  • Does English have a dyslexic orthography? 
  • Does the inefficiency of the English spelling code 

  • result in lower literacy rates? 
  • Could a consistent spelling system   [such as an i.t.a. initial teaching alphabet
    reduce teaching time by 50%? 
  • What were the results of the experiments with i.t.a.
  • How much did i.t.a. help children with reading?. 
  • Can the English alphabet [1 symbol per sound] be restored?

  • [currently 561 symbols - 42 sounds]  saxon-spanglish.html 
  • Is spelling pronunciation possible? 

  • Is it possible to pronounce words as they are spelled? 

Objectives:  To introduce and provide relevant information related to such questions as: What is an alphabet?  Is the English writing system alphabetic?  What does it mean for a writing system to be phonemic?  How phonemic is the English language?  How phonemic is the English writing system?  When the writing system is changed, does it change the language?  Why is the gap between spelling and pronunciation so much greater in English than in other languages? 

There have been hundreds of speeches and articles on our declining literacy rates and the problems that some children have in learning to read and write. Some of these articles suggest that the fault is with the learners [some are dyslexic or have other learning problems] or the teachers [some teachers are poorly trained or ineffective]. Teaching methods, television, and society in general have also been faulted. Only recently have some researchers suggested that part of the blame might be with the needless complexity of the spelling code used for English. If dyslexia is found only in children trying to learn English, should the dysfunction term be applied to the children or to the overly complex code we ask children to learn? 

The code is rarely identified as the culprit because most people assume that the code is part of the English language. Once the writing system is identified as a code, its relationship to the language is seen as a historical accident. Changing the code used to visualize speech would have no effect on the language or pronunciation. 

There is nothing wrong with the English tongue or the roman alphabet. It is not the mother tongue that is tricky, it is the writing code.  There are over 40 phonemes to be representation. What the 26 Latin characters lack in number can be made up through the use of markers, diacritics, and digraphs.  This is not an ideal solution but it is quite workable.  Linguists such as Sweet have commented, "There is nothing wrong with the Latin letters, only our irrational use of them." 

Mark Twain said, "Our alphabet does not know how to spell." 1  Traditional spelling matches pronunciation guide spelling less than 40% of the time.  This was not always the case. The 10th century Saxon alphabet and the Old English writing system had few of the code overlaps and little of the polyvalence we see in today's English orthography. (Scragg, 1974)

McLuhan wrote that the alphabet, unlike previous writing systems, could be mastered by anyone in a few hours. By an alphabet, McLuhan meant a consistent set of correspondences between the simple sounds [or phonemes] of the language and the written symbols used to represent these sounds [graphemes] (See the Unifon alphabet below). What could be mastered in a few hours was 20 to 40 sound signs - the exact number depending on the language being represented. English and most northern European languages need at least 40 sound signs or phonograms.                                                                         

ALPHABET: A type of writing system in which a set of symbols  represents the important sounds [phonemes] of a language. 

The task of associating 40 sound categories with 40 graphic shapes is not that daunting. According to Flesch, Russian school children are routinely introduced to the Cyrillic 39 character alphabet at the rate of one letter per day.  All children master the task within 4 months and from then on are able to relate the symbols on the page to sounds they have already mastered as native speakers of Russian.  In 4 months, Russian school children display a level of proficiency that it takes the average English speaking children nearly 4 years to achieve. 

This is the penalty for having a confusing and inconsistent orthography.  Complicated tasks take longer to master than uncomplicated ones.  The problem with English orthography is that it is needlessly complicated.  Normally the invention of superior codes replace inefficient codes.  For example, The Hindu-Arabic numbers replaced roman numerals.  Language codes seem to be more tradition bound. 

The advantage that countries with phonemic alphabets enjoy can be matched simply by adopting a phonemic alphabet for English.  Similar performances were achieved by children learning a phonemic code for English.  The most researched phonemic code for English was Pitman's augmented roman, popularly known as the i.t.a. An even more efficient code, one without digraphs or two letter sound-signs, is shown below:

It is true that the average adult can memorize 40 paired associates in a few hours particularly if a mnemonic is employed. For example, the Phoenician letter names were typically the names of common objects that started with the letter's sound. It would be as if our letter names were ox, building, [cup], door, goad, ...instead of ey, bee, [see], dee,... To make things simpler, the shapes of the letters resembled their names, the letter Ahks [alef] looked like an ox head, the letter Building [beyt] looked like a building or a floor plan for a house, the letter Door [daleth] looked something like a door... The notion that an alphabet should be pictographic [shape suggests name] and acrophonic [name suggests sound] was borrowed from the Egyptians. The Semites added an alphabetic order because the same collection of shapes were used for their number system. A=1, B=2, G=3, D=4, etc. Historians have attributed the rapid spread of the northern semitic alphabet to its simplicity and ease of teaching.

Compare the task of memorizing 20 to 40 sound-signs to the task of learning what remains of the English alphabet. There are only about 40 simple sounds in the English language but the traditional code represents them over 400 different ways [Dewey 561, Coulmas 1204]. This suggests that English employs a very inefficient code and that the English writing system might be ten times as difficult to learn as the writing systems or codes for Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, Turkish, Finnish, or Russian. According to Dewey (1971), each simple sound in the English language is associated not with one but with and average of 14.7 different letters or letter combinations. [more on polysemy]  [letters associated with the vowel in RULE

Some researchers who have compared reading and spelling skills across languages have concluded that most of the problems identified as dyslexia or associated with low literacy rates in the U.S. are directly attributable to the needless complexity of the traditional English spelling system [TES]. This complexity is largely lacking in the writing systems of most other languages. Cases of dyslexia and illiteracy after four years of schooling are extremely rare or undetected in Italy, Spain, Turkey, Finland, and other countries with highly phonemic or transparent orthographies. [more]                 

Simpler codes lead to greater mastery of reading and writing, fewer failures, and reduced learning time. If the English spelling system or code is ten times as complex as the spelling systems for Spanish and Italian; it is no wonder that school children in Spain and Italy can achieve in one year what it takes English speaking children four to six years to achieve. 

When words are spelled the way they sound, it is relatively easy to spell any word you can pronounce. In an alphabetic or highly phonemic writing system, such as Italian or Spanish, the way a word is spelled is a reliable guide to its pronunciations. 

International literacy expert, Frank Laubach, claimed that English had the worst spelling system in the world. It is certainly true that it is ten times more complex and inconsistent than it needs to be. Dr. A.J. Ellis showed that the 26 letters could have 658 different significations. 40 sounds should be represented with about 40 symbols not 600*. [The number of different spellings one can identify depends on the size of the dictionary. In an abridged 70,000 word dictionary, Dewey found 561 different ways to represent 42 sounds. ] 

In 1890, the philologist, Henry Ellis, suggested a simpler code for English. This was later promoted as New Spelling and in 1960 became the basis of Pitman's Initial Teaching Alphabet    (.i.t.a.). i.t.a. was not a methodology but simply a correspondence table where each symbol was associated with one and only one sound. In English, each of the 42 sounds in the language can be spelled an average of 14.7 different ways. In i.t.a., each sound was spelled just one way. 

A mor fonimic Saxon Alfabet for English
The Saxon alfabett: 42 fownimz - 17 vaulz - 25 connsonants

A e
ago the



AI 'y
ais ice

aut out



Ch tsh








EI ey

eis ace





H. *hw


I. .Y.



iest very

J dzh

judj jaj



L  .l


M  .m


N  .n










OI oy




R.  .r







tot tott

Dh Th

thy  thai


upp urr

.W *u

hwk hook

U uu




W. hw




Y. Yu






 vowels-white, semivowels-gray, consonants-blue, digrafs-dk. blue
Irregular traditionally spelled words are italicized, eye-ai, out-aut, 
*vowels when not followed by a vowel - wwln=woolen

Fortunately, 75% of the words that rhyme use only 4 different vowel spellings. In other words, knowing the sound, a student should be able to guess the correct spelling 75% of the time in four tries. With i.t.a. [Pitman's Initial Teaching Alphabet], the student should be able to guess the correct spelling 100% of the time after one try. ITA spelling was basically a systematic alternative to invented spelling. i.t.a. was an alternative to guessing or inventing the spelling of familiar pronunciations or guessing the pronunciation of unfamiliar strings of letters. 

The Saxon alphabet above shows one way to consistently spell 42 important English speech sounds.  Any time you hear an "ah" sound as in "ox", it must be spelled aaks or oxx in this orthography. o is pronounced  'awe'  The double consonants make this sound so short it is virtually indistinguishable from aa.  The single o is not short, but it has so little stress that it could pass for an unstressed aa or ow. An i.t.a. such as Saxon-Spanglish diminishes the need to guess which letter goes with a particular sound from over 4 to 2 or less.  The result matches the dictionary pronunciation guide . It matches traditional historical spelling only 30% of the time.. 

Sir James Pitman believed that a consistent orthography would simplify teaching across any methodology. There was some basis for this optimism. Phonics is often not the approach used to teach children in Spain or Italy where reading achievement is over twice as fast as in English speaking countries. What counts is the orthographic transparency of the writing system.

In the late 1960's, the British House of Parliament passed a bill funding a bold experiment with consistent spelling. British schools were given the books and collateral materials they needed to introduce this new medium of instruction: the Initial Teaching alphabet or i.t.a.. Teachers were given a crash course in i.t.a. but were not told specifically how to teach it. 

i.t.a. was extensively researched in the early 1970's [see Downing]. Children could learn i.t.a. almost as easily as children in other countries could learn their consistent spelling system. The shortfall has been attributed to the inability of parents to help and the shortage of books written in i.t.a.

Since the goal of i.t.a. was to find a better way to teach children to read and write, i.t.a. tried to look like TES [Traditional English Spelling]. Unfortunately, there is no way for a systematic spelling system to look much like a chaotic one. i.t.a. spelling matched TES or traditional dictionary spelling only 40% of the time. No phonemic rendering of English speech will match traditional or historical spellings more than 40% of the time. To test this claim, count the number of times the dictionary pronunciation guide matches dictionary spelling. In the chart above, the phonemic or consistent sound spellings [i.t.a., IPA] match the traditional spellings for only one group of words. i.t.a. correctly spells *moon and cartoon but fails to match 17 other [TES] spelling patterns. i.t.a. matches TES when spelling *guru and flu but fails to match 17 other [TES] spelling patterns. [See: How many ways can you spell day?] 

With i.t.a., student's quickly picked up the idea of how an alphabet is supposed to work but were left to their own devices when the time came to transition to TES. No organized attempt was made to help children get from toon as in *cartoon to *tune. In the 4th grade, children were expected to abandon i.t.a. for TES. The reading transition went fairly smoothly and children trained in i.t.a. were able to retain their advantage. Spelling was another matter. Many children had problems trying to respell i.t.a. words that did not match TES. This is understandable since 60% of the words did not match. 

Given the fact that i.t.a. worked regardless of the teaching methodology and with serious gaps in the support system [insufficient materials, no assistance from parents, no consistent teaching metrology, lack of linguistic sophistication on the part of the teachers...], why was it abandoned? Basically, it was a fad and all fads soon loose their luster. i.t.a. was not understood by parents. i.t.a. was not supported by the major educational publishers. It was more costly than traditional approaches to the teaching of reading and was deemed administratively inconvenient. Had the i.t.a. been incorporated in a proven teaching methodology it would have been twice as effective but this never happened. 

Interest in phonics has been revived. Is there any chance that i.t.a. could be revived? It is possible. Except for government support, the conditions are as favorable as any time in history. In 1970, a school had to buy a library of i.t.a. books and materials. Today, an individual teacher with a classroom computer could generate all of the needed materials. There is a vast library of digitized books on the Internet as well as an on-line converter that will change the spelling from TES to New Spelling. [New Spelling and Fonetic are non-ligatured versions of i.t.a.]. Teachers could easily generate their own materials. 


Except for its spelling code, English would have the simplest grammar of all European languages. Cleaning up the code would make English easier to learn and the clear choice for an international language. 


In the early 1800's, Noah Webster remarked, "Letters, the most useful invention that ever blessed mankind, lose a part of their value by no longer being representatives of the sounds originally annexed to them." The effect is, "to destroy the benefits of the alphabet." 

Webster was aware that there was a time in English history when the language had a functional alphabet. Tenth Century clerics devised a Latin based alphabet for English that made it possible to "spell words as they were pronounced and pronounce words as they were spelled." 

Could the restoration of the benefits of the alphabet be as simple as restoring the Saxon alphabet? Could the usefulness of the alphabet be restored by restoring the sounds originally annexed to the letters? 

Spelling reformers such as Webster and Franklin desired a closer connection between spelling and pronunciation. Both desired alphabets that allowed people to pronounce words as they are spelled. Benjamin Franklin, a printer by trade, even produced one. 

The link between spelling and pronunciation was lost in the Great Vowel Shift [ca. 1400 AD]. Prior to that time there had been some quirky spellings introduced by Norman French scribes but the basic sound system still matched Latin. Now 60% of the words in the dictionary do not match the pronunciation guide. To make matters worse, the vowels in some words did not shift. This created code overlaps where words that are spelled the same have different pronunciations. This is the theme of the poem below and a more famous one called The Chaos. 

It is important for teachers to be clear about the problem. It is important to be clear about the complexities of the English writing system and their social impact even if no solution is at hand. This paper suggest a possible solution: the restoration of the alphabet. However, the restoration of the last consistent alphabet used for English is probably more difficult today than it was 300 years ago when Noah Webster and Benjamin Franklin made their recommendations. 

Sound and Letters don't agree - ear rhymes do not match eye rhymes.         
The Rules of Rhyming 
In a phonemic or alphabetic code, words that rhyme or sound alike are spelled the same

The connection between spelling and pronunciation has been lost in the traditional English writing system

Our Strange Lingo [code overlaps]

When the English tongue we speak. Why is 
break not rhymed with freak
Will you tell me why it's true 
We say sew but likewise few
And the maker of the verse
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse

Beard is not the same as heard
Cord is different from word
Cow is cow but low is low
Shoe is never rhymed with foe
Think of hose, dose, and lose
think of goose & yet with choose
Think of comb, tomb and bomb
Doll and roll or home and some.
Since pay is rhymed with say
Why not paid with said I pray? 
Think of blood, food and good
Mould is not pronounced like could
Wherefore done, but gone and lone-
Is there any reason known? 
To sum up all, it seems to me
Sound and letters don't agree
transcriptions of problem words in Spanglish [a=ah, i=ee] and Unifon
Bold words above are spelled phonetically 

breik frik [friek] / brAk frEk
sow [so'] fyu [fiu] / sO fY
v'ers / vcrs
hors w'ers [w'rs] / hOrswcrs

bird h'rd / bErd hcrd bierd h'erd
cord w'rd /kord wcrdcord w'ord
cau low / kx lO  cau lo'  low
[go to the COW POEM]
shu fow  / SC fOshu fo'
ho'z do's luz / hOz, dOs, lUzhowz, dows, luuz
gus chuz / gUs KUz guus chuuz
co'm tum baam / kOm tUm bomcowm tuum bomm
dol ro'l ho'm s'm / dol rOl hOm sumdoll rowl howm summ
peid sed / pAd sed 
bl'ad-blod fuud gwd [gud] / blud fUd gCd 
mowld [mo'ld] cwd [c'd] / mOld kCd 
d'an gon lown / dun gon lOn
Izz therr enny rizn nown? 
Tu s'm upp ol, itt siemz tu mi - 
Saund 'n lett'rz dont agri 
Chaos poem

Almost anyone can come up with a more consistent way to spell English words. Two alternative phonemic codes are shown above [and also below]. The new spellings are consistent but appear odd. They can be easily sounded out by referring to a correspondence table. However, they are not what we are used to: Until the new associates [such as a=ah and i=ee] are fully memorized, they may cause some readers to stumble. 

The sheer number of alternatives to TES has tended to dilute the support for any one proposal and prevent any rationalization of the more consistent orthography. With 1000's of simpler more efficient codes, agreement on one is difficult. 

Any phonemic reform of English would require respelling 60% of the words in the dictionary. This is no problem for children or ESL learners, but it is more of an adjustment than most adult English speakers want to handle. Although IPA is a little hard to read, there are a number of phonemic proposals that can be easily deciphered. The objection to them is that they cannot be read as fast as TES. Speed readers read word patterns. They do not try to sound out words. 

Half way reform proposals which preserve word patterns such as removing all of the silent letters [for example, the silent e in give and have] have not fared any better than full reforms. Those who have completed primary school prefer to keep a familiar code no matter how inefficient and inconsistent to having to learn a new one. Given the choice, they prefer to spell giv, liv and hav with a redundant and misleading terminal e. 

Most people are unaware of the fact that English lost its alphabet in 1400. An alphabet is a consistent set of correspondences between sounds and symbols (letters). Alphabetical writing systems are highly phonemic. Old English (Anglo Saxon) was over 90% phonemic or consistent with its correspondence table. Modern English is only 40% phonemic. It is consistent with its pronunciation guide only 40% of the time. 

What values should be assigned to the letters that they may be most easily learnt, read, and written? 

The traditional English spelling system [TES] uses historical spellings but not the historical long vowel sounds or the consistent historical alphabet. As a result, about 60% of the words are not pronounced as they are spelled. 

Most of the separation between spelling and pronunciation occurred during the 14th century during what was called the "great vowel shift." The vowel shift did not affect the short vowels but shifted the long vowels to a more closed jaw pronunciation: In many words, /a/ [ah] came to be pronounced /ae/ [ash], /ae/ became /e/ [eh], /e/ became /i:/ [amigo, machine, si], and /i:/ became /ai/.[aisle] . 

Pronunciation changes over time. To preserve a consistent alphabet, when the pronunciation of a word changes, its spelling also has to change. Countries that set up academies to revise spelling to keep it aligned with pronunciation have managed to maintain their alphabets. England never set up an academy and the 18th century dictionary writers were reluctant to reestablish a connection between speaking and writing after the great vowel shift of the 14th century. 

The solution that has been suggested for the past 300 years is to adopt a phonemic notation and spell words as they are spelled in the dictionary pronunciation guide. The chief problem with this solution is that it changes the spelling of 60% of the words in English. Two examples of the phonemic spelling of English are shown above. Literate readers read logographically or in terms of whole word patterns - they rarely sound out a word on the basis of individual letters. Thus changing the look of a word for speed readers will reduce their reading speed. 

It is not that literate readers cannot read a passage that is spelled phonetically, it is just that they cannot read it as fast. After a phonemic reform, it may take as long as a year for whole word English readers to recover their reading speed. 

The ones that benefit from alphabetical or consistent spelling are the young not the old. With a better code, the young could acquire a high level of literacy four to ten times as fast as they do at present. 

Fonemic transcripshan beysd on a historic alfabet
Phonemic transcription based on a historic alphabet 

Iggnoring vaul shiffts and raiting acording tu the 
dicshanerry pranunncieyshan gaid daz not produs kaaos. The resullt izz riedabl withaut a kiy

Literacy is largely a decoding and encoding skill. Readers and writers begin by associating written symbols [graphic shapes] with spoken sounds. Since there are only about 40 significant sounds in English speech, an efficient code would associate them with 40 symbols. 40 sounds would be referenced 40 ways. Each sound [phoneme] would be referenced by one and only one letter or letter combination. 

With the traditional code, however, the 40 sounds are referenced in 615 different ways [Ellis, 1900]. Each letter is associated with an average of not one but 14 different sounds [Dewey, 1971]. [Here is a list of 18 of the 29 different symbol configurations used to represent the /u:/ sound]. Students must associate 26 letters with 40 sounds in over 400 different ways. Instead of learning 40 paired associates students must learn over 400. The complexity of the orthographic code makes the learning task ten times more difficult. It is over 10 times easier to associate a shape with one sound than it is to associate it with 14. 

The advantages of an alphabetic reform are not quite as great as reformers claim. One reason is because the base pronunciation is not necessarily the same as the one the child uses. After the alphabet was restored, the spelling pronunciation of [tomato] would be taw-mah-tow - not tow-mey-tow. The child might have to learn two dialects, one for spelling and one for conversing with his or her peers. A phonemic spelling reform would not have an immediate effect on the way that people pronounced words. 

The traditional (mid 18th century) English spelling system [TES] is based on the notion that the business of spelling is to represent the origin and history of a word instead of its sound and meaning. The playwright George Bernard Shaw (1941)] argued that this reduced the alphabet to absurdity. TES can be called non-alphabetical since the spelling of more than 50% of the words do not match the dictionary pronunciation guide. The disconnect between spelling and pronunciation limit the effectiveness of the phonics approach to the teaching of reading. 

Dr. Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first popular dictionary, felt that it was folly to imagine that the dictionary could embalm language and preserve its words and phrases from mutability. He saw no reason to standardize English spelling beyond the word level because he felt that what changed the most was pronunciation. As it turns out, English pronunciation is probably more standardized today than in 1755. Compared to the changes that occurred in the 14th century, English pronunciation has hardly changed at all from the way it was spoken in London in 1755. Some words and phrases have dropped out of favor and new words and phrases have been added. Most of Johnson's spellings, however, have survived intact. 

We have a choice, either obscure the etymology or historical spelling of the word or obscure the pronunciation of the word. Traditional English Spelling [TES] obscures the spelling. 

An Alphabet for Spelling Pronunciation - an alternative to a prescribed dialect. There is an alternative. Instead of using a base pronunciation such as GA [General American] or RP [educated british], one could use spelling pronunciation [SP]. Spelling pronunciation would not match up with any particular dialect of English but it would be intelligible to all. SP would be as pan-dialect as the traditional English spelling [TES]. 


Old English [Saxon] 700-1060 - Middl English1250-1400






up *upp, buck

ago *agow  sofa

 A. æ


æsh, add

wand are *aar



elbow *ellbow *edj

her bird *berd


i ie

itch pill pit *pitt

ski  amino iel *eel



cost  awe *o

auto *oto owe *ow

W  U


hook *hwk *wud

hoop *huup

'e  'a 'u 'i 'o

schwa - '

other  around

Saxon letters have 2 sound values that can be distinguished by dbl consonants
Middl English yuzd the seim vaul teibl butt the spelling waz cheinjd

To make SP work, the letters and letter combinations would have to be associated with specific sounds. Spelling pronunciation requires a real alphabet. To deal with the shortage of vowel letters relative to the number of vowel sounds in English speech, vowel letters could have up to two sounds each. To distinguish which of the two sounds is being referenced, pronunciation guides could continue to use diacritics. [itch = 'ich, each = ich]. Saxon usually marked the short or checked vowel with a double consonant [tch, ck] but this practice was not extended to all the French and Latin loan words. 

What symbol-sound [grapheme-phoneme] correspondences make the most sense? Many linguists recommend the historical one: The one used for OE [old English] and ME [middle English]. This augmented Latin alphabet is basically the same one used by most countries that adopted the Roman alphabet. 

In the 9th Century, English had an alphabet and a highly consistent orthography known as West Saxon. The alphabet was augmented by the addition of the wynn, thorn, eth, and the ash. Wynn was replaced by the W, and the thorn and eth were replaced by the digraph, TH. The ash [æ] is still needed to distinguish the sound of [at, ash, parallel] from three other a-sounds [are, want, water], [ago, sofa], [all, what]. 

Besides [æ], English has several other vowel sounds that are not found in Latin. The mid vowel in Latin was simply an unstressed A as in [ago and sofa]. In English the mid vowels have much more importance and IPA distinguishes three related but slightly different sounds with [3:, the turned v, and the turned e]. The sound in HER and HURT /h3:/ is different from the sound in HARE /her/, HEART /ha:rt/ or OTHER /^th'r/. 


short chekt

long free




a. - ae
add   batter



ai - 'y
ail ais mait

aar | air
caar | ire

e. - ea
bell   bread



ei - ey
eis  grey they

eir - ear
their  heir bear

ill   fill  itt

ie - ee
 si iel  field

y - i
very vary

oi - oy
oil  oyster

ir - ier
irrigate  near

otter  pott

ao - o
cost ot

silo, go

ow - o'
slow boat

ore  pour roar

.w. - ou
hook hwk  put

guru zu


yu - iu
yu yuz

tour  poor

upper cutt

herder urn

r - er

au -ou
kraut  out

our power

.w. means a w between two consonants = /u/  could = cwd  wud

Saxon Spanglish is a little more complicated than necessary because it is designed to transition to traditional English

parralellis a systematic spelling, parallel is the traditional spelling. Traditional spelling often lacks an underlying logic. The second A is a schwa so consonant doubling should be avoided. The first a is ae, a short vowel marked by doubling the trailing consonant 

Spanglish allows two spellings per vowel.  There is no real need to have two ways to represent a sound.  However, 2 is better than the 20 in the traditional writing system

herder = hrrdr or hurrder, murder = mrrdr or murrder, error=error, errar, errer receive=reciev
During the vowel shift many i words, but not all,  became pronounced [ai] [eye]
is /i:s/ came to be pronounced ais (ice). Time /ti:m/ (team) became taim (time).

One can make these distinctions by using a marked r, e, and a. [h'er, h'ert, her, hart, 'ago, 'ath'r]. The marker changes the letter that follows into a lax central vowel. Except for tradition, one could use the marker alone: h'r, h'rt, her hart 'go. The apostrophe could indicate an elision and mean that the vowel symbol has been left out or alternatively that the apostrophe is actually a schwa-postrophe: [h'r, h'rt, her hart 'go]. [The symbol font, available on all modern computers, replaces the apostrophe with a turned epsilon (') which is quite similar to IPA's turned e.] 

Latin recognized a long and short pronunciation of five vowel letters but did not distinguish them. In other words, five vowel letters were used to represent 10 vowel sounds. It was possible for some countries, e.g., Spain, to do away with 3 vowels so that a referred solely to [ah] and not ambiguously to [ah or uh] and i referred solely to [ee] and not [ee and ih]. [o] can still refer to two sounds [owe] and [awe] and the English long e is typically represented as a digraph [ei or ey] as in [rey]. There is no [uh] or [ih] sound in Spanish: [Only gringos say, "hahs-tuh and cah-muh" (hasta cama)]. The short u [as in the word, hook] is also absent. 


Spelling pronunciation [or pronouncing words as they are spelled] can work if an alphabet is restored. It doesn't work when a letter can refer to a dozen different sounds. The best alphabet to restore, according to the Oxford linguist, Henry Sweet, is the historical one. The augmented Latin alphabet is [with a few exceptions such as y, h, j, w] the same one that is used in every country that adopted the Roman alphabet. 

Spelling pronunciation, since it requires that every letter be articulated, still requires a mild spelling reform. Words that cannot be pronounced as written and understood by a native speaker need to be respelled. Misleading silent letters probably need to be removed first. There is no point, other than tradition, to retain the e in have. This only confuses the use of e as a long vowel marker in words such as behave. To be consistent, "You have to behave." should be written "Yu hav tu behave." Spelling pronunciation would dictate that behave be pronounced beh-haav-uh, the way the word was pronounced before the 14th century. Today, the word is generally pronounced [bi-heiv], but behave [beh-haav-uh] can still be understood. As long as a native speaker can understand the meaning of a spelling pronunciation, respelling is not required.

Phonemic Transcriptions:IPA is the most popular code for dictionary pronunciation guides.
Normally it looks rather odd when used for more than a couple of words.   Sweet's version below is quite attractive. The version where he replaces the eth [ð] with the Greek deltadis even better.
Spanglish, one of several ASCII-IPA notations compatible with e-mail, is an IPA  equivalent that uses no special characters or diacritics.  It is supposed to look less alien than IPA.  Please write and tell me [ ] if it achieves its aesthetic goal and if you could read it without a key.
IPA-International Phonetic Alphabet SS-Saxon-Spanglish Fonemic Notation
W'ns 'pon ' taim ð' bjutif'l do:t' 'v '
greit m'd3iò'n want'd mo:': p':lz tu: put 'm'h h': tre3ju':z."Luk thru: ð' sent': 'v  ð' mu:n hwen it iz blu:," sed h'r m'th' in æns': tu: h': kwestò'n, "Ju: mait faind j': ha':tz di:zair."
Sweet's ipa
Wans apon a taim the [dhe] biutifal doter av a
greit majishan waanted mor perlz tu pwt amang her treazherz."Lwk thru the center av the muun hwen itt izz blu," sedd her mather inn aenser tu her queschan, "Yu mait faind yer haartz dizair."

The number of words requiring respellings may be quite low. Certainly nothing close to the 60% required by a phonemic reform. Once the student knows that f and v are so closely related that the letter f was used in Saxon for today's v sound, perhaps there is no need to change of to 'ov. Most people pronounce what as /hwot/ or /wot/ where o=awe. If A is always pronounced [ah] or [uh] as it is in the saxon alphabet,  the old what spelling can probably be retained. [Spanglish whaat]. 

Spelling pronunciation does not have to match a particular dialect such as General American or educated British. It just has to be close enough to be understood. Students could be taught the Saxon alphabet and spelling pronunciation and how to transcribe their own dialect. 

i.t.a. worked but not as well as predicted. It should have been nearly ten times as easy as TES but the research only documented a 200% improvement in the mastery of reading and writing skills. About half of this gain was lost when the student started reading and writing in TES. Much of this loss can be attributed to the fact that no lessons were given on how to move from i.t.a. spelling to TES spelling. Children whose traditional spelling is logical and consistent, of course, retain their 200%+ advantage. Spanish students never have to learn that the traditional way to spell thru is through. 

ITA is one of hundreds of viable alternative phonemic notations for English. The i.t.a. code is not quite as elegant as Saxon, the original phonemic notation for Old English, because it tries to retain the shifted long vowel sounds. As a result, diphthongs cannot be sounded out but must be memorized as unique two letter symbols. ai [ah+ee] = ie yu = ue ei/ey [eh+ee] = ae. The addition of a silent e to mark long vowels works but doesn't make much phonological sense. For spelling pronunciation to work, every letter needs to be sounded out or pronounced. 

The updated Saxon code seems to be optimal if the goal is to restore the English alphabet for use in spelling pronunciation. An alphabet is basically a sound - symbol correspondence table. The Saxon alphabet associated no more than two sounds with each letter. The compromised alphabet in use since 1875 associates an average of over 14 sounds with each letter. 

The spelling pronunciation approach gets around two key objections to a more phonemic reform such as ITA: [1] It does not respell nearly as many words and [2] it is pan-dialect. The artificial spelling pronunciation dialect can be understood by all English speakers. Unlike many proposed reforms of English spelling, the SP proposal does not sever the connection with the past. Restoring the Saxon alphabet makes Old English and Middle English more accessible. 

ITA could be revived today in any classroom with an Internet ready computer. However, there may be some better options available that are more in line with international spelling and less visually disruptive. One could, for instance, restore the Saxon alphabet and use it for spelling pronunciation. Being able to pronounce words as they are spelled would have definite advantages. 

One can memorize a symbol-sound correspondence chart in about 2 hours and become literate in an consistent code in 40 hours or less. Learning how to deal with the code overlaps, irregular spellings and the other inconsistencies of traditional English orthography takes considerably longer. The goal of an i.t.a. is to get children up to speed quickly and to postpone frustration. With an ITA, children can employ their entire vocabulary in their writing since it allows them to spell as they speak.

In the digital world, codes are updated every six months or so. It is much more difficult to update a spelling code due to the weight of habit and tradition and the fact that there are so many code choices. Any one of the improved codes would assist those struggling to learn how to read and write in English.

Go back to the questions and see if you can answer the 5 questions. 

  • Does English have a dyslexic orthography?

  • Dyslexic means a disturbance in the ability to read so the question needs to be rephrased.  Does the lack of consistency in English orthography contribute to or cause a disturbance in reading ability.  The answer to this question is clearly yes.  Can we do anything about it?  That question is beyond the scope of this paper but the evidence suggests that children learning to read and write transparent orthographies generally do not have the problem 
  • Does the inefficiency of the English spelling code result in lower literacy rates?  Yes, in the sense that complex skills are more difficult to master. A complex code raises the bar.
  • Could a consistent spelling system [such as i.t.a.] reduce teaching time by 50%?  Students could master i.t.a. in half the time but this only postpones the transition to the traditional code.  It does not make it much easier.  What might help is a structured approach to learning to read and write.  Learn one spelling pattern at a time.  When the students have learned five spelling patterns for each vowel sound, they will be able to spell 75% of the words in English in four tries or less. Spelling is a different and more difficult task than reading.
  • What were the results of the experiment with i.t.a.? How much did i.t.a. help children with reading?  The use of a consistent initial teaching medium created a much less frustrating early reading environment. Students were able to achieve quick early success and write using their entire 3,000 word speaking vocabulary. Because of the lack of reading materials, students had to transition to the traditional system by the third year of school.  Although the transition was difficult, the i.t.a. group managed to retain a slight advantage.  In other words, as far as reading is concerned, the i.t.a. approach does not hurt. The promoters of i.t.a. were probably overconfident.  They presumed that it would work with any teacher using any method and that no special efforts were required at transition time. 
  • Can the English alphabet [1 symbol per sound] be restored? [currently 561 symbols-42 sounds]  saxon-spanglish.html 

  • Is spelling pronunciation possible. Is it possible to pronounce words as they are spelled? 
  • What is an alphabet?  A grapheme-phoneme correspondence table for all of the important sounds in a particular language.  A type of writing system in which a set of symbols represents the important sounds [or phonemes] of a language
  • Is the English writing system alphabetic?  To a degree.  It is about 40% alphabetic at the word level and about 75% alphabetic at the syllable level.
  • What does it mean for a writing system to be phonemic?  All languages are 100% phonemic.  Writing systems are pohonemc to the extent that they capture and visualize the sound code.  The sound code continually changes.  To keep up, the written code needs to be revised every 50 years or so. 
  • How phonemic is the English language?  100%
  • How phonemic is the English writing system?  40%  A phonemic code for English woujld respell 60% of the words.
  • When the writing system is changed, does it change the language?  No.  The writing system simply describes the spoken language. 
  • Why is the gap between spelling and pronunciation so much greater in English than in other languages?  [1] no reforms, [2] more change in the spoken language since the invention of printing [1455].  We generally spell Chaucer's middle English [1250-1500] but we no longer speak that language.

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    Dyslexia REFERENCES

    Upward, Chris. JSSS 27-2000/1  Revelations of a Cross-Linguistic Perspective, 

    Harris, Margaret & Hatano, Glyoo (1999) Learning to Read and Write: A Cross-Linguistic Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

    Frith, Uta et al. Science 


    Bett, Steve T. [1998] How many ways can you spell DAY? HTML DOC  

    Bett, S and Bird, S. On-line orthographic converter 

    Bohmig, Stephan, Alberto Fontaneda, and  Tom Zurinskas.  The foreignword on-line truespel converter - a phonemic transcription of English
    The foreignword IPA converter

    Bright, Wm. and Peter Daniels. 1996. The World's Writing Systems. Oxford University Press

    Burchfield, Robert (1985) The English Language. Oxford University Press 

    Carney, Edward. (1994) A Survey of English Spelling. London:Routledge 

    Crystal, David. (1987) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge University Press 

    Crystal, David. 1995. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge UP

    Dewey, Godfrey. (1971) English Spelling: Roadblock to Reading. New York: Teachers College Press. 

    Dewey, Godfrey. (1970). Relative Frequency of English Spelling. NY: Teachers College Press.

    Downing, John. (1967). Evaluating the Initial Teaching Alphabet. London: Cassell. 

    Downing, John & Leong, C-K. 1982. The psychology of reading. NY: Macmillan Publishing Co. 

    Eco, Umberto. (1995)  The Search for the Perfect Language. London, Blackwell 

    Ellis, Alexander. (1750)  On Early English Pronunciation. Chaucer Society.

    Frith, Uta. (2001) Dylexia higher in English...  Science
    based on research by Paulesu,  Eraldo.  Reported by Reuters and ABC News, March 15,  2001

    Flesch, Rudolf. (1980)  Why Johnny Still Can't Read.

    Campbell (1983) Old English Grammar. Oxford University Press 

    Coulmas, Florian. (1990) Blackwell's Encyclopedia  of the English Language, Blackwell

    Gimson, A.C. (1980) An Introduction to the Pronounciation of English

    Gray, William S. (1956) The Teaching of Reading and Writing: an international survey. Unesco. 

    Hanna, Paul. Hodges, R.E. & Rudorf, E.H. (1966). PhonemeGrapheme Correspondences as Cues to Spelling Improvement, Doc.OE-32008, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare.USGPO 

    Hanna, Paul (1992) Spelling: Structure and Strategies. University Press of American 

    Hass, Werner. (1969). Alphabets for English. Manchester University Press. 

    Hass, W. (1970). Phono-Graphic Translation. Manchester University Press. 

    Ives, Kenneth. (1979). Written Dialects & Spelling Reform. Progresiv Publishers, Chicago 

    Johnson, Samuel. (1755) . A Dictionary of the English language: London: Knapton. 

    Jones, Daniel. (1950). The Pronunciation of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 

    Laubach, Frank C. (1996). Let's Reform Spelling -- Why and How. New Readers Press. New York. 

    Lindgren, Harry. (1969). Spelling Reform: A New Approach. Alpha. 

    McLuhan, Marshall. The medium is the message.

    Pitman, Sir James. (1965) Communication by Signs, New Scientist. 25 (433) pp 580-1. March, 1965 

    Pitman, Sir James & Robert St. John. (1970) Alphabets and Reading. London: Pitman 

    Riemer, John A. 1969. How they Murder the Second R. New York: Worth. Children taught i.t.a. become avid readers and creative writers. In the traditional classroom, the child learns to spell 168 words in the first year. The dull rote learning drills tend to discourage if not destroy the child's curiosity and creativity.

    Ronthaler, Edw. and Lais, Edw. (1986) Dictionary of Simplified American Spelling. American Literacy Council 

    Sampson, G. (1985) Writing Systems. London: Hutchinson. 

    Scragg, D.G. (1974) A History of English Spelling. Manchester: Manchester University Press 

    Sweet, Henry (1891) A New English Grammar 
    Sweet, Henry (1890) Spelling Reform

    Wijk, Axel. (1959). Regularized English.  Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell

    Zachrissen, R.E. (1913, 1971) Pronunciation of English Vowels 1400-1700. New York: AMS Press 

    Links:  Search Engines - q-ref.html [quick reference]                                                                                                   top^ Dictionary

    SPELLING LINKS PAGE  The problems with the English writing system. The trouble with spelling

    Analysis of the list of the 500 most frequent words in English.    50 sounds


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