London, September 8 : A leading British academic feels that literacy rates in several English-speaking countries have been marred by strict spelling rules.
John Wells, Emeritus Professor of Phonetics at University College London and president of the Spelling Society, says that children should not be compelled to memorise irregular spellings and learn how to use the apostrophe.
"The teaching of literacy in schools is a major worry. It seems highly likely that one of the reasons Britain and other English-speaking countries have problems with literacy is because of our spelling and the burden it places on children," Times Online quoted him as saying.
"In Finnish, once you have learned the letters, you know how to spell, so it would be ludicrous to hold spelling tests. In countries like Italy and Spain it's similar. But with English it's not phonetic, and there are just so many irregularities.
"It seems to be a great pity that English-speaking countries are holding back children in this way. There are lots of other things that are neglected in class because so much time is spent on spelling," he added.
Professor Wells even said that forcing pupils to learn the use of apostrophe was an equal waste of time.
"Instead of an apostrophe we could just leave it out (it's could become its) or leave a space (so we'll would become we ll). Have we really nothing better to do with our lives than fret about the apostrophe?" he said.
"Let's allow people greater freedom to spell logically. It's time to remove the fetish that says that correct spelling is a principal (principle?) mark of being educated," he added.
Pointed towards the emerging technologies that are leading to a re-evaluation of spelling, Prof. Wells said: "Text messaging, e-mail and internet chat rooms are showing us the way forward for English."
However, there are some who feel that the problem with a phonetic approach to spelling would lie in deciding whose pronunciation to base it on.
"Would we continue spelling the word think with a 'th' because that is how some of us pronounce it, or would it be spelled 'fink' as it is in the East End of London or 'tink' as in Ireland?" Elaine Higgleton, editorial director for Collins Language, said.
David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics and author of the book 'Txting: the Gr8 Db8', also believes that Prof. Well's suggestion may not be workable because, no matter how sensible it may be, sooner or later people rise up against such reforms.
He, however, concedes that a time will come when there will occur a shift to a more phonetic form of spelling.
"Change has to be (from the) bottom up. It is already happening on the Internet - people are simplifying spelling all the time. Type the world rhubarb into Google without the 'h' and you will find thousands of references to it," he said.