[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J21, 1997/1 p9]
[Also on this page: Review: English spelling and the computer. Tribute: Ronald Threadgall.
[See Journal, Newsletter, Anthology, Bulletin articles, and Written Dialects by Kenneth Ives.]

Spelling Reform and the Deaf:
a problem and a strategy

Kenneth Ives


Deaf and hard of hearing students have great difficulty with phonics as it is usually taught. However, when they learn lipreading, this has a phonic basis in the speaker. If regular students are initially taught to spell phonemicly, and the deaf and hard of hearing lipreading students are taught to write what they see in the same phonemic spellings, the two groups of students can communicate in writing. Joint educational experiences then become possible.

The problem.

Nancy Randall Beiter, of Springfield, Virginia, raises a problem spelling reformers have ignored. She writes (in part):
I have a daughter who is hard of hearing and was unable to learn to read by using phonics. What is easy for you and me, ie, stringing familiar syllables together to enable us to pronounce or understand unfamiliar words, simply does not work for many types of learners, not just those who are hard of hearing. It does not work for anyone who is not an audio learner. Those who learn better by seeing a written word or a written series of numbers are not helped by phonics. My daughter learns how words are spelled not by sounding them out, but by remembering their shapes. For her and the millions of people like her, the spelling 'simplifications' you suggest would be disastrous. Deaf people learn to lipread by the shape of words on the lips, not the sound.

American Sign Language (ASL) is not a translation of American English into hand symbols. It is a totally different language. American deaf people read American English but communicate with each other in ASL. Reading different spellings of words or homonyms is less difficult for them because they are not confused by knowing how a word sounds They work only from the context of the word in the sentence or paragraph.

We parents are terrified of any move to place additional emphasis on phonics, 'slow' or 'stupid'. My daughter cannot take any foreign language in the public schools other than ASL because they are all taught phonetically.

Even in the general population people have a tremendous difficulty with homonyms. "Eye half a good I four airer and eye often sea miss steaks in the paper that make it hard four me two understand watt they are trying to right."
Clearly, teaching deaf and hard of hearing people requires special techniques which few elementary school teachers have been trained for and alerted to.

There is a clue in the quotation above, that lipreading is "by the shape of the words on the lips". These are reliably but not always clearly visibly related to the phonics of the words being spoken.

If normal-hearing students were taught by a phonics-first program to spell by phonic rules, they could be writing the same way lipreading students could be taught to transcribe the speech they see.

Then both sets of students could communicate in writing with each other, even if the normal-hearing did not know ASL, and the deaf or hard of hearing had not yet learned traditional spelling. The transition to traditional spellings for the irregular English words would then be similar for both types of students and be similarly understandable by both.

Special story book editions may be needed for lipreading teachers and students, picturing lip positions along with phonemic transcriptions and traditional spelling translations. This may be specially needed for vocabulary-building picture books, as these supply 'key words' for understanding what is being talked about.


Lipreading textbooks describe the type of speaker who is easiest to lipread as those who:

1) speak slowly;
2) open their mouths to show tongue motion;
3) are in good light;
4) pronounce clearly; and
5) have expressive faces. Gestures may also help.

These texts suggest that hard of hearing or deaf persons ask people

a) to use short sentences;
b) to pause beween sentences;
c) not to try to follow every word, but get the gist of each phrase or sentence;
d) to try hard to locate 'key words' in a sentence;
e) when entering a conversing group, to ask someone "What are they talking about?"

Because of the ways various word sounds are made, some are easy, others difficult for lipreaders to decypher. Thus H, G/K/C are difficult, throaty sounds, and N, D, T, L are somewhat less difficult, the tongue being against the roof of the mouth. And deaf persons cannot distinguish between voiced and unvoiced consonants. Hence lipreaders often only get some of the sounds of the words.

Thus a deaf person may see ?OU ?OO YOO ?OO for How do you do? and ?E? ?U ?AH? for Get the log.

And: B/P ? EE S/Z ?OO? B/P R E ? F/V A S ? for Please cook breakfast (not Breeze took breakfast).

With a common phonemic spelling, some classes might train some regular students to help early lip-reading students decypher and translate the phonic and difficult sounds they see into meaningful sentences.

By training some teachers to pronounce clearly, it could be possible to 'mainstream' fluent lipreaders in at least special demonstrations and lectures, from late first grade on.

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J21, 1997/1 p26]
[See Roger Mitton's article in J20 Spellchecking by computer. and other journal articles by Frank Knowles.]

Frank Knowles reviews

R. Mitton English spelling and the computer, Longman, 1996.

This volume is a very welcome addition to Longman's 'Studies in Language and Linguistics' series, perhaps especially so as it deals with what many people would - wrongly - assume to be the by-ways rather than the highways of the linguistic sciences. The fact that this book brings together two of the 'pet hates', it would seem, of a large number of people - that is, spelling and computers - makes Mitton's engagement with his subject all the more alluring.

It is natural that people who write in English should look to computers to assist them in their task. 'Assist', however, is often a euphemism for opt-out on the part of writers who place their entire faith and trust in the spell-checker attached to their word-processing package.

English spelling is wayward and its non-systematic 'system' is difficult to acquire systematically. The corollary of this is that, in spite rather than because of schooling, most native speakers of English acquire their (less then perfect) control over English spelling as a result of unrelenting exposure to it, regularities and vagaries alike. This type of 'learning' is not analytical, it is holistic, relying on visual patterns and shapes, disparately stored and rendered subliminal. The act of spelling then becomes an act and, occasionally, a test of memory. If this procedure fails, people then normally search first for analogies and only later try, if need be, to apply 'rules', bearing in mind their concomitant exceptions. Questions about associated pronunciations often verge on complete irrelevance.

If the above is granted, then it can be seen that the advent of computer assistance with spelling problem might somehow release the users of such software from any careful concern about accuracy. The burden can be 'safely' passed across to the machine - such would appear to be the subliminal impulse or the supraliminal decision of exceedingly large numbers of people. After all, computers can store very large amounts of information and retrieve arbitrary items of it almost instantaneously, can't they?

Mitton provides an erudite and sure guide to this fascinating territory. His natural starting point is 'how did we collectively arrive at the current position?'. What, too, has the body of expert opinion to contribute to the continual expression of gripes about English spelling?

The approach adopted by Mitton in his attempt to clarify issues and to indicate useful possibilities and procedures is, thankfully, empirical. The basic starting point is: what are the actual spelling errors at issue, how often do they occur, and how can they be categorized? This account provides the preface for a more wide-ranging discussion of the differentials between spelling errors, slips and typos. This, in its turn, opens the door to an extensive and expert consideration of computerized spelling checkers and correctors. The material offered here is - in this reviewer's opinion - of very high quality and interest. This is because of the detailed information provided, always of intrinsic linguistic interest, about the sort of strategies - and their associated algorithms - which have been embedded in various word-processing software packages. Of particular interest - yet in quite sharp contrast to the strictly 'symbol-processing' aspects of spelling identification-cum-correction software - is the account of the methods used to constrain the bounds of potentially extensive and time-consuming searches for potential answers to spelling problems identified. The utility value of contextual and other information is also carefully considered from a more strictly (text-)linguistic point of view, corroborated by the highly valuable operational information derived from large-scale statistical analysis of textual corpora.

The book concludes by describing an experiment involving a comparison of several spelling checking and correction software packages. The purpose of this is, first, to provide a basis for accurate quality assessment of such software tools, and second, to lay the foundations for the design and implementation of more sophisticated software of this type.

Mitton's book is an excellent account of the way algorithm-based thinking and engineering can be applied to the wayward English language in the area of spelling. He deserves much congratulation, as well as the wide dissemination of his scholarly, thought-provoking and timely book.

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 21, 1997/1 p34]

Ronald Threadgall: a tribute.

We are sad to report the death on 26 January 1997 from cancer at the age of 75 of Ronald Threadgall, a valued friend to and collaborator with the Simplified Spelling Society over the past decade. Since the death in 1987 of our previous President, Professor John Downing, Ronald represented an essential link to that greatest of all experiments with the English spelling system, the Initial Teaching Alphabet (i.t.a.).

His first contribution to the Society's work took the form of a dynamically presented paper at our 1987 conference, entitled 'The Initial Teaching Alphabet: proven efficiency and future prospects' (JSSS J7, 1988/1, pp18-19), in which he paid tribute to John Downing's pioneering work in implementing and subsequently evaluating the i.t.a. in hundreds of British schools. Ronald had then recently become General Secretary of the United Kingdom i.t.a. Federation, a post he held until 1993, and in that time he ensured close relations with the SSS, with attendance at i.t.a. Federation committee meetings by both the Chairman and the Editor-in-Chief of the Society.

Ronald's career as a remedial literacy teacher using the i.t.a. stretched over a quarter century from 1965, and he became Head of the Remedial Department at Clacton County High School, Essex. The experience he thereby gained was possibly unique, inasmuch as the i.t.a. was otherwise used with beginning learners rather than, as in his case, secondary school students with literacy difficulties. He gave the SSS the benefit of that experience in an address in January 1993 (see JSSS J15, 1993/2, pp6-7).

As well as helping to preserve our knowledge of the incomparable i.t.a. experiment, Ronald inspired important developmental work within the SSS. He enabled the Society's Publisher-Chairman Chris Jolly to establish contact with Sue Lloyd, who, with her long experience of using the i.t.a. with beginners, authored his successful and methodologically ground-breaking literacy programme Jolly Phonics. [See link to Jolly Learning web.] Likewise, Ronald's experience helped SSS Research Director Dr Gwenllian Thorstad to design the extensive research programme reported on in this issue of JSSS.

We mourn Ronald's passing, but are grateful for his achievements which are worth quoting whenever the SSS makes its case for spelling reform.

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