Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/September 1885/How Spelling Damages the Mind

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947758Popular Science Monthly Volume 27 September 1885 — How Spelling Damages the Mind1885Frederik Atherton Fernald



LEARNING to read the English language is one of the worst mind-stunting processes that has formed a part of the general education of any people. Its evil influence arises from the partly phonetic, partly lawless character of English spelling. Although each letter represents some sound oftener than any other, there is hardly a letter in the alphabet that does not represent more than one sound, and hardly a sound in the language that is not represented in several ways, while many words are written with as many silent letters as significant ones. There is nothing in any word to indicate in which of these ways its component sounds are represented, nothing in the written group of letters to show which sounds they stand for, and which of them, if any, are silent, so that a learner can never be sure of pronouncing rightly an English word that he has not heard spoken, nor of spelling correctly one that he has never seen written. The spelling of each word must be learned by sheer force of memory. In this work the pupil's reasoning powers can not be utilized, but must be subdued, while his memory is sadly overworked. In the affairs of the child's daily life, the logical following out of rules is rewarded; in learning to spell, it brings him only discomfiture and bewilderment. He is taught that b-o-n-e stands for bōn (not bo-ne), and t-o-n-e for tōn, but that d-o-n-e stands for dun, that g-o-n-e spells gôn, m-o-v-e spells moov, and b-r-o-n-z-e bronz. Now when he comes in reading to another similar word, as none, he has no means of telling whether to call it nōn, nun, nôn, noon, or non; he can only look up at his teacher and wait to be told. The influence of the spelling-class quickly drives him to repress any inclination to reason, and he gives himself up to a blind following of authority. No child learns English spelling without getting the pernicious notion that cram is better than thinking, and that common sense is a treacherous guide. The child who can take what he is told without asking why, who can repeat a rule without troubling himself about its meaning, gets along best. On the other hand, the child who has difficulty in learning to spell may be expected to develop strong logical faculties. He is constantly trying to spell according to some principle, and, of course, constantly coming to grief. Thus a boy who had long been at the foot of his spelling-class was one day given the word ghost, and, making a desperate attempt at the sort of spelling he had oftenest heard succeed, he spelled it g-h-o-g-h-j-s-t. This bringing upon him shouts of laughter, he said, with clinched fist and tearful eyes: "You needn't laugh; you all spell homelier 'n that!" So much attention is given to spelling that children obtain false ideas of its importance. The spelling, or representation, becomes to them the word, while the real word is called the pronunciation, and is thought of as an appendage. They learn to despise the poor speller, a prejudice which is never outgrown, and above all they become so absorbed in the manipulation of words that they have little chance to grasp the ideas which the words stand for.

If our notation of numbers were as irregular as our notation of speech, so that the numbers from forty to forty-five, for instance, should be written, say as follows: 40, 741, 420, 43, 414, 225; and if no one could tell at sight whether a number like 7,243,812 contained several figures which were "silent," or had exceptional values, who can doubt that the study of arithmetic, instead of being a valuable discipline, would be mere mentally enervating drudgery? If it were proposed that children should learn a style of writing music which gave different values to the same characters, similarly placed, in different pieces, and added a host of "silent" notes, the evils of learning such a system would be plainly seen. Yet many people, who have forgotten their own sufferings in the spelling-class, can not see that children are so very much perplexed in learning to spell, or perhaps maintain that the struggle involved is "good for them."

"I know," says Max Müller, "there are persons who can defend anything, and who hold that it is due to this very discipline that the English character is what it is; that it retains respect for authority; that it does not require a reason for everything; and that it does not admit that what is inconceivable is therefore impossible. Even English orthodoxy has been traced back to that hidden source, because a child accustomed to believe that t-h-o-u-g-h is though, and that t-h-r-o-u-g-h is through, would afterward believe anything. It may be so; still I doubt whether even such objects would justify such means. Lord Lytton says: 'A more lying, roundabout, puzzle-headed delusion than that by which we confuse the clear instincts of truth in our accursed system of spelling was never concocted by the father of falsehood. . . . How can a system of education flourish that begins by so monstrous a falsehood, which the sense of hearing suffices to contradict?'"

Here is a chief source o the incapacity for thinking which academy and college students bring into the science laboratories. This irrational process, taken up when the child enters school, occupying a large share of his time, and continued for six or eight years, has a powerful influence in shaping his plastic mind. When at last he is allowed to take up the study of nature, at the wrong end of his school course, what wonder that he sits with folded hands, waiting to be told facts to commit to memory, that he can not realize what a law is, and does not know how to use his reason in obtaining knowledge? Rational education will never flourish as it should till a reformation in the teaching of reading and spelling has been accomplished. Further, Mr. J. H. Gladstone, member of the English School Board for London, has computed the number of hours spent by children in learning to read and spell English to be 2,320, while, in gaining an equal knowledge of their native language, Italian children spend only 945 hours. The difference amounts to nearly two school years, and shows under what a disadvantage English-speaking children labor. Can any one believe that 4,923,451, or 13·4 per cent, of our population over ten years of age would be illiterate if learning to read were not so formidable an undertaking? In Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, and some German states, there are hardly any illiterates.

The most striking testimony to the irregularity of our spelling is the adoption by some teachers of a sort of Chinese mode of teaching reading. The children are not taught that letters represent constituent sounds of words, but they learn to recognize each group of letters as an arbitrary compound symbol standing for a word. This is more of a dead drag on the memory than even the A-B-C method, and, if it could be completely carried out, would be a vastly longer process. The effect on the mind is certainly no better. The Chinese have to memorize a compound symbol for each word in learning to read, but the patient endurance of such a burden is not consistent with the character of any other people than the submissive, imitative, unprogressive Chinese. The Japanese, who have long been clogged by the same system, have recently taken measures to throw it off.

"But what can be done?" will be asked; "shall children grow up without learning to spell?" No, but the memorizing of these anomalies and contradictions can be, at least, put off till the pupils' minds are in little danger of being perverted by it. Enough of the enormous amount of time spent in this drudgery can be saved to make possible the introduction of the study of things into the primary schools, and many of the one hundred millions of dollars which we spend each year for public education can be turned to imparting real knowledge instead of the mere tools of knowledge. These ends may be attained by the use of phonetic spelling as an introduction to the customary spelling. Children can and do learn to read English spelled phonetically in a very few lessons, and learn the traditional spelling so quickly afterward that much less time is required for the whole process than is commonly devoted to memorizing the current spelling alone. Classes taught to read in this way, in Massachusetts, so early as 1851, proved the advantage of the method to the satisfaction of that able educator, Horace Mann, and the method has been successfully employed in many places in this country and in the British Isles. The following extract from a letter written by Mr. William Colbourne, manager of the Dorset Bank, at Sturminster, England, since deceased, furnishes a special example, though it may be conceded to be exceptionally favorable:

"My little Sidney, who is now a few months more than four years old, will read any phonetic book without the slightest hesitation; the hardest names or the longest words in the Old or New Testament form no obstacle to him. And how long do you think it took me—for I am his teacher—to impart to him this power? Why, something less than eight hours! You may believe it or not as you like, but I am confident that not more than that amount of time was spent on him, and that was in snatches of five minutes at a time, while tea was getting ready. I know you will be inclined to say: 'All that is very well, but what is the use of reading phonetic books? He is still as far off, and may be farther, from reading romanic books.' But in this you are mistaken. Take another example. His next elder brother, a boy of six years, has had a phonetic education so far. What is the consequence? Why, reading in the first stage was so delightful and easy a thing to him, that he taught himself to read romanically, and it would be a difficult matter to find one boy in twenty, of a corresponding age, that could read half so well as he can in any book. Again, my oldest boy has written more phonetic shorthand and long-hand, perhaps, than any boy of his age (eleven years) in the kingdom; and no one I dare say has had less to do with that absurdity of absurdities, the spelling-book! He is now at a first-rate school in Wiltshire, and in the half-year preceding Christmas he carried off the prize for orthography in a contest with boys, some of them his senior by years!"

Mrs. E. B. Burnz, of New York, says, in regard to her experience at Nashville, soon after the civil war: "The phonetic teaching in the Fisk School, as elsewhere, proved beyond all cavil that with phonetic books as much could be accomplished in four months in teaching to read as by a year with the common method. And, moreover, it showed that there is no difficulty experienced by children in passing from the phonetic to the ordinary printed books. After going through the phonetic primer and First and Second Reader, the children passed at once into the Second Reader in common print, and from the phonetic Gospel into the common New Testament." Successful experiments in common schools are on record in sufficient numbers to prove the practicability of the method.

Several phonetic primers have been published and are used in some American and English schools, for teaching English in the schools of Paris, and by missionaries among the Indians and other peoples. With one of these books, parents will find it a light task to teach their children to read at home in a few lessons. Since there are only twenty-six (or, counting œ and æ, twenty-eight) letters in our alphabet, while for phonetic printing means of representing forty sounds are needed, each of these books uses an extended form of the alphabet. Unfortunately, no one alphabet for the phonetic printing of English has yet been agreed upon; still, any of these systems can be adopted for the schools of a city or town, with the certainty of good results. The alphabet devised by the American Philological Association may be said to be the most authoritative; it has also the merit of employing only three new letters. I am not unaware of the efforts being made to replace the current spelling by a phonetic system for all purposes, but that is a matter quite distinct from the subject of this article; and all who believe that the orderly and vigorous development of the mental faculties should be the chief end in education, whether they favor or oppose the spelling reform, can work together for the spread of the phonetic method of teaching reading.