Sunday, August 10, 2008

Britain: Correct spelling under attack

Just because students can't spell `their' and `truly' doesn't mean we should accept variations that break all our useful rules

So English spelling is in the dock once again. This time it's students who write "thier", "ignor" and "arguement" (and obviously don't know how to use a spell checker). The solution? According to Ken Smith, an academic at Bucks New University, we should now tolerate variant spellings. Students are now incapable of learning the spellings of "their" and "truly" that countless millions have mastered over the centuries. So let's change our attitudes to spelling to help this deserving minority.

Two important things are left out of this argument. One is that English spelling does have a system. The silent "e" in "tone" shows that the preceding "o" is long; the lack of "e" in "ton" show the "o" is short.

And so on with all the other vowels: "Dane/Dan", "pin/pine" etc. (The exception is TV commercials for Danone that pronounce the name to rhyme with "salmon" in breach of the silent "e" rule.) If we allowed odd variants like "ignor/ignore", this would obscure the silent "e" system in English. Better to teach people the real rules of English spelling, not folk myths about "i" before "e", which at best affects 11 common words.

The real advantage of a sound-based system like English is indeed that anything can be read aloud - as newsreaders demonstrate with foreign names, such as Solzhenitsyn and Pervez Musharraf in the past couple of days. As the system has been around for centuries, it has stuck with various anomalies, like the 11 ways of saying "a" - "age", "bad", "bath", "about", "beat", "many", "aisle", "coat", "ball", "beauty" and "cauliflower". The only languages that don't have such problems are those with "shallow" spelling systems that were standardised comparatively recently, such as Finnish.

English is called a "deep" spelling system because of rules like silent "e" and because it treats words as wholes. When we're reading silently, we don't read words like "the" and "of" letter by letter; we recognise them as wholes, just as we recognise a Nike swoosh or McDonald's golden arches. We go straight from the whole word to its meaning without passing through the sounds. We recognise the two hundred or so most frequent words of English as shapes - and we couldn't read silently at speed if we didn't. But reading whole words also applies to the famous oddities like "lieutenant" and "yacht": we store them as one-offs and don't work out their pronunciation letter by letter.

If we made the spelling of "they're", "there" and "their" interchangeable, we would be ignoring all the aspects of English writing other than sounds. The three forms fit into sentences in very different ways; the difference in spelling helps us to see the structure of the sentence. Spelling makes distinctions that are impossible in speech, such as "whole" versus "hole" or "beech" versus "beach". Reducing writing to a pale shadow of speech is impoverishing the English language.

There's nothing very unusual about using whole words: it's how Chinese works. Speakers of the different Chinese dialects can understand each other in writing even if they have different words for the same character. An educated Chinese speaker knows about 5,000 characters; a dictionary has 40,000. Surely we can manage a few hundred unique words in English? Memorising the spelling of the hundred most common words of English would mean that you spelt at least 45 per cent of the words correctly in any piece of typical writing, quite a useful start.

The panel (above right) shows some of the words that English-speakers are most likely to get wrong, the variants that people produce and the percentage of web pages that get them wrong. Would accepting all these variants make life easier?

One type of variation is between styles of spelling. Look up "judgment" or "minuscule" and the preferred spelling varies between North American and British dictionaries and from publisher to publisher. It's a matter of identity; use "color" and you're American, use "colour" and you're British.

The most common type concerns the consonant doubling rules of English - "embarrass", "accommodate", "desiccate". "Supersede" and "definitely" are probably examples of one-offs where you have to remember the word as a unique whole.

Before adopting greater tolerance to spelling, we need to take many factors into consideration, not just how letters go with sounds. And we need to take far more people into consideration than UK students.

The majority of people using English in the world are not native speakers and live outside English-speaking countries. Any change will have to take their needs into account, in particular the need for a consistent spelling system with constant word forms rather than something based on native speakers' pronunciation and characteristic spelling mistakes.


Florida school-voucher plan allowed on the ballot

It's a disgrace that people have to fight to give voters a say. But the antidemocratic education groups are fighting tooth and nail to prevent that

A Leon County circuit judge ruled Monday that two constitutional reforms designed to expand taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools can go before voters statewide in November. Opponents promised to appeal. Judge John C. Cooper rejected arguments by attorneys for the Florida Education Association, school superintendents and other education groups that the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission had overstepped its authority by putting Amendments 7 and 9 on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The two amendments were crafted to eliminate constitutional language cited by the 1st District Court of Appeal in 2004 and Florida Supreme Court in 2006 in decisions that scrapped former Gov. Jeb Bush's statewide voucher program called "Opportunity Scholarships."

Cooper, however, did not consider the legal merit of vouchers, which was not at issue in the Monday morning hearing. Instead, he ruled that the tax and budget commission -- empaneled every 20 years to review the state's finances -- has the authority to put the measures before voters. The state constitution's language empowering the panel to propose "state budgetary process" reforms allowed it "to propose revisions to any portion of the constitution touching upon the state budgetary process generally," Cooper wrote in a 14-page decision.

Amendment 7 would scrap state constitutional language prohibiting state aid to religious or "sectarian" institutions. Amendment 9 combines two issues -- spelling out that school districts must spend 65 percent of their budgets on classroom education, and also mandating that the state isn't "exclusively" required to fund education through a free public-school system.

If the two amendments are approved by voters, the Legislature could reinstate and even broaden Bush's voucher program to subsidize enrollment at religiously affiliated and other private schools.

More here

Surprise! Free college boosts enrolment

Tulsa County, Okla., is attracting the attention of educators across the country with a new scholarship program that has dramatically boosted college attendance by guaranteeing free tuition to all high school graduates. Tulsa Achieves is among a growing number of programs nationwide that seek to boost economic growth by expanding the skilled labor force though improved access to higher education.

The Tulsa program has proved a boon for Cassidy Mays, 19, who had planned to take a year off after graduating from Union High School in Tulsa to earn money for college. "I didn't really have money just to fork out, so it would have been a good time to take a break," said Mr. Mays, who is pursuing a pre-med associate degree. "There's no telling if I would have ever gone back." He is not alone. Tulsa Community College has doubled its enrollment of county applicants in the past two years, from 972 in 2006 to more than 1,800 this year, said Lauren F. Brookey, the college's vice president of external affairs.

Miss Brookey said the Tulsa Achieves scholarships will provide up to 100 percent of any county high school graduate's tuition at the college. The program requires applicants to complete up to 63 credits in three years. Tuition costs $2,100 for full-time enrollment, which is 30 credits a year.

No new taxes were levied to pay for the program, said William Stuart Price, owner of a Tulsa energy company and vice chairman of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. Instead, the college reallocated 1 percent of its general operating budget to fund the program last year, and this year will spend just less than 2 percent of the operating budget, Miss Brookey said, adding that private donations offset the reallocated funds.

The budget comprises revenue from state and county taxes, and programs like the federal Pell Grants and the state Oklahoma's Promise, which gives free tuition to children from families earning less than $50,000 annually. "Our goal was to get more people into the college pipeline so that they would go on to get higher degrees and increase the number of college graduates in the area," Miss Brookey said. "All social indicators are tied to your level of education."


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