[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1994-2 p33 later designated J17]
[Also on this page: IRA convention report.]

Spelling Czecher.

The following item by Chris Pomery appeared in the Times Educational Supplement, 15 October 1993, p18, under the title 'Almost better dead than zed'. It is here reproduced with permission.

Moves to update a national spelling guide for teachers that was last revised in the early 1950s have unleashed a flood of protests from intellectuals fearful that the Czech language is being undermined and debased just as the country regains its political and social freedom after four decades of communism.

Academician Zdenek Hlavsa, who worked on the update, said: "One old man wrote to tell me I should be imprisoned for changing it. This feeling goes back to the nineteenth century when the official language was formed. It may sound ridiculous to English speakers where the dictionary can adjudicate between variable spellings. Here it is a matter of public debate.

As is often the case, English loanwords are the culprits. As Czech is written the way it sounds, should loanwords be spelled the way we write them or the way a phonetically trained Czech would write them? Some early arrivals - fotbal and volejbal - have already been assimilated. Woircestrova omacka in context remains good old Worcester sauce even when pronounced "vor-chester".

The howls of protest begin over plejboj - when everyone knows the eponymous magazine is Playboy - while "software" remains unchanged. Is philandering more quintessentially Czech than computer engineering, critics ask? They become positively strident over the transmogrification of president to prezident, "No, no, no, for the rest of my life I will spell it with an s," says 21-year old medical student Klára Nedelníková emphatically rejecting the vernacular s/z shift now legitimised by the academy. "I can tell you all educated Czechs will do it the same."

The academy is well aware that it is damned as a centralizing legislator as well as being culturally demonic. "Those that criticise us say institutions should follow the highest level of education and not common use," says Dr Hlavsa of the s/z shift, "but it is difficult to decide what to suggest."

While not always defending language against the tyranny of les paroles, as in France, the debate over change is underpinned by a dark fear, not of transatlantic cultural imperialism but of political domination by a powerful neighbour. "Czechs still suffer from an uneasiness of the danger of the influence of German," notes Dr Hlavsa. "There are a lot of people living who were taught in school that they should pay attention to German loanwords and thinking and that these should be stopped and fought against." Czech finally supplanted German when the country achieved full statehood after 1918.

The spelling changes are intended to make life easier for Czech children. Their problems begin with Jan Hus, the Protestant reformer burned at the stake through the treachery of Emperor Sigismund the year Henry V won the battle of Agincourt. Hus ditched the old Czech orthography where two or three letters could stand for a single sound, as in Polish, and introduced four accents. His system won acceptance because of a parallel technological innovation - the first printed book in Czech appeared just 50 years later - and is the orthographic equivalent of holy writ. With more than one-third of all Czech words sporting one or more accents, many Czech children need remedial pronunciation coaching to learn to roll their r's properly. The English of course have never adopted them: we spell "Czech" the Polish way, instead of Çech.

Dr Hlavsa believes spelling rules like y/í and s/z have prestige because they must be learned by heart, an observation which points at the centre of a wider debate: how to move away from rote learning and oral exams to develop children's debating and essay-writing skills, and foreign language abilities. Meanwhile in a classic fudge, the education ministry has decreed that both systems should coexist for one year.

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1994-2 pp35,36 later designated J17]
[See Journal, Newsletter, Anthology, SPB articles, and book Written Dialects by Kenneth Ives.]


Kenneth Ives.

At the 1994 Convention of the International Reading Association in Toronto, Canada, April 1994, three perspectives were found by this attender to have significance for spelling and writing.

1. A pre-convention institute on the 1964 First Grade Studies financed by the U.S. Office of Education, and how their conclusions have held up in the interval.

2. A session sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English, on their new study "Basal Readers: A Second Look", after their 1987 study, "Report Card on Basal Readers". Basals are "reading schemes" which have stressed learning many skills and words outside of context, and much filling in of blanks and testing, with limited vocabulary and writing not chosen by pupils.

3. The emergence of a conscious "Whole Language Plus Phonics" movement, avoiding the polarization and extremes which some enthusiasts for each of those two movements get into.

The 1964 First Grade Studies.

In 1964, the U.S. Office of Education financed 27 studies of reading instruction in first grade. These each involved 140 days of teaching, by various methods, to a total of 9,100 children on whom readiness data were obtained. The cost was $800,000.

What was the situation in teaching reading at that time?

These studies were conducted shortly after James Pitman's Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA) began to be used in some schools in England and the United States. In the 1950's in the United States, Basal Reading schemes were used 100%, with workbooks. In 1955, Rudolph Flesch criticized the results of sight reading (look and say) teaching. Only about 7% of prereading instruction taught the letters. This was before the Sesame Street TV program.

Very narrow vocabulary was the rule. Some schemes had only 150 or so different words. Only in 1963 did one publisher come out with books having as many as 2,000 different words in their vocabulary.

Key results of the studies were:

1. No clearcut gains for any teaching methodology. None were 100% good or bad.

2. Print awareness was a key factor.

3. The total school environment for teachers and learners was most important.

4. Reading research was important, for the findings and for training new researchers.

5. Students who started reading and writing with ITA wrote fluently. Parents liked their writing. At the end of second grade these students spelt better than those taught without ITA.

Recommendations from those studies included:

1. Teach reading readiness, don't wait for it.

2. Avoid difficult types of texts: dialog, varied punctuation, contractions. Use noun clause, verb clause.

3. Limit the instruction time on skills.

4. Teach more vocabulary.

5. Have more oral reading.

6. Adjust the vocabulary to the students' level: they should recognize 90% or more of the words.

7. Make use of class or reading groups of 10 or less. Students in groups this small are more attentive.

The conclusions of the panel of speakers was that the results and recommendations of these studies stood up well over the 30 years.

NCTE Session on Basal Reading Schemes.

National Council of Teachers of English has recently published "Basal Readers: A Second Look" as a sequel to its earlier (1987) study "Report Card on Basal Readers". That volume had 28 recommendations.

The authors of the second study found that, in the intervening six years publishers made what the writers felt were "cosmetic" changes: they -

1. use Whole Language terms in their introduction, but changed the program rather little;

2. include some trade books ("real books");

3. still have students fill in blanks, write on topics they do not choose, and work on unconnected words;

4. use literature for control and drill, and squeeze it to fit their pattern;

5. teach an average of 164 skills, and stories are organized around them;

6. still have tests as a major factor. Many of these test background knowledge not comprehension. Tests on literature may kill students' interest.

In 1993, a publisher's sample kit to a school for first grade weighed 37 pounds. Only 2% of this was trade ("real") books.

In 1988, a National Assessment study found that 90% to 98% of schools used basal reading schemes.

In 1993-4 in fourth grade, 36% use basals exclusively, 49% use a combination, and 15% do not use basals at all. A third of teachers say they use daily work sheets, but half the children say they use them daily. Some schools use the basal readers but not the work book. And 44% of fourth grade students read for fun every day.


Goodman, Kenneth S., Yetta Goodman, Yvonne Freeman & Sharon Murphy (1987). Report Card on Basal Readers. Katonah NY: Richard Owen.

Shannon, Patrick & Kenneth S. Goodman (1994). Basal Readers: A Second Look. Katonah NY: Richard Owen.

Weaver, Constance & Patrick Groff (1989). Two Reactions to the Report Card on Basal Readers. Bloomington IN: ERIC Clearing House on Reading and Communication.


An Emerging Perspective.

At least three sessions at the Toronto IRA Convention indicated that a combination of Whole Language and Phonics is emerging as a conscious, open perspective and practice.

While "exclusivist" proponents of each of these two perspectives often engage in "theory-bashing" (Lofland, 1993) of the other philosophy, this newer perspective tries to avoid those extremes and coordinate the best in both practices.

Morton Botel gave a seminar, publicized in advance and presented by publisher Scholastic Inc., titled Whole Language versus Phonics: Is This a Proper Debate? He argued for a negative answer, and reported that 80% of Whole Language teachers do teach a phonics program, many quietly. He argued for formal, explicit, structured learning, especially for those students who do not come from a literate environment at home.

He argued for a limited time on phonics, with only a little "practice and drill" on isolated components. It is important to start from the whole to the parts. Read an entire story, or other text, then draw attention to some specific features of the text.

A large packed session of the Reading: Orthography and Word Perception interest group was chaired by J. Richard Gentry, who spoke on "Is Spelling Caught or Taught?" He argued for, and illustrated the "Taught" answer. Two other speakers there gave classroom examples on "Integrating Spelling in a Second Grade Classroom" and "Once You Give Up the Workbook, How Do You Teach Spelling?".

Bill Harp's session was titled "If I Teach Phonics, Can I Be a Whole Language Teacher?" He presented 10 myths about Whole Language, including # 10, "Everyone understands what Whole Language means." He reported that when Portland Oregon schools changed to a version of Whole Language, their reading scores went up.

He presented four principles for effective phonics instruction:

1. Word identification should be an aid to constructing meaning. Teach sound-letter correspondences to aid meaning.

2. Skill instruction should look as much like reading and writing as possible.

3. After analysis, put the parts back together again, so the children can see part-whole relations.

4. Word identification is only useful when the word is in the listener's vocabulary. Graphic cues are only effective if the child can recognize miscues and self-correct. Work on meaning and skills together.


Botel, Morton & Jo Ann Sciver (1994). Phonics for Language Learning. NY: Scholastic.

Buchanan, Ethel (1989). Spelling for Whole Language Classroom. Katonah NY: Richard Owen.

Cazden, Courtney B. (1992). Whole Language Plus. Essays on Literacy in the United States and New Zealand. NY: Teachers College Press.

Gentry, J. Richard & Jean Wallace Gillet (1993). Teaching Kids to Spell. Portsmouth NU: Heinemann.

Harp, Bill (1994). Integrating Basic Skills Instruction. Chapter in: Bringing Children to Literacy. Portsmouth NU: Heinemann.

Liberman, Isobel & A. M. Liberman (1990). Whole Language Versus Code Emphasis: Underlying Assumptions and their Implications for Reading Instruction. Annals of Dyslexia 40, 1990, 51-76.

Lofland, John (1993). Theory-bashing and Answer - improving in the Study of Social Movements. The American Sociologist, 24, 2, 37-5 8.

Vail, Priscilla L. (1991). Common Ground: Whole Language and Phonics Together. Rosemont NJ: Modern Learning Press.

Wilde, Sandra (1992). You Kan Red This! Spelling and Punctuation for Whole Language Classroom, K-6. Portsmouth NU: Heinemann.

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