Background Research Notes: CODE REFORM (ATTEMPTS) HISTORY

NOTE: Video Excerpts of Code Reform Attempts (including Dewey) are now available on line cotcsmall.swf





"It is hard to say which is more remarkable, the number of influential people who became interested in spelling reform or the little effect they had on it." From "The Mother Tongue" by Bill Bryson 

America’s spelling reformers wanted to simplify and rationalize our lexicon, for reasons ranging from the anti-colonialist (why shackle ourselves with sense-defying British spellings?) to the ridiculously practical: Lopping off superfluous letters would shorten books and save ink and paper, claimed the champions of  “simplified spelling.” Moreover, American schoolchildren could shave a full two years off their studies if liberated from spelling drills.

Defenders of traditional spelling occupied the high ground of poetry and custom, while the reformers trotted out efficiency, that god of turn-of-the-century progressivism. The ensuing debate wended its way down colorful byways. The simplified spellers brandished a finding of an underemployed worker at the U.S. Pension Office, who had counted 1,690 different spellings of the word “diarrhea” in pension applications. To this, the mossback Librarian of Congress Ainsworth R. Spofford replied, “Is there any phonetic system which could bring about a uniform spelling of that word?”

The game was really afoot when the spelling reformers found a sugar daddy in the person of Andrew Carnegie. The philanthropic steel titan counseled a name change for the organization (“reform” scares people, he insisted), and so the Spelling Reform Association became the Simplified Spelling Board.


The Players - according to a 1906 New York Times Newspaper ( the society included: Chancellor Andrews of the University of Nebraska, Justice Brewer of the United States Supreme Court, President Butler of Columbia University, O. C. Blackmer of Chicago, Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, Dr. Melvil Dewey, Dr. Isaac K. Funk, editor and publisher of The Standard Dictionary; Lyman J. Gage, ex-Secretary of the Treasury; Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine; Dr. William T. Harris, United States Commissioner of Education and editor of Webster's International Dictionary; Prof. George Hempel of the University of Michigan, Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Henry Holt, Prof. William James of Harvard, President Jordan of Leland Stanford University, Prof. Thomas R. Lounsbury of Yale, Prof. Francis A. March of Lafayette, Prof. Brander Matthews of Columbia, Dr. Benjamin E. Smith, editor, and Dr. Charles P. G. Scott, etymological editor, of The Century Dictionary; President H. H. Seedley of the Iowa State Normal School, Cedar Falls; Col. Charles E. Sprague, President of the Union Dime Savings Institution; Prof. Calvin Thomas of Columbia, Dr. William Hayes Ward, editor of The Independent, and President Woodward of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

From H.L. Mencken (1880–1956).  The American Language.  1921.

The current movement toward a general reform of English-American spelling is of American origin, and its chief supporters are Americans today. Its actual father was Webster, for it was the long controversy over his simplified spellings that brought the dons of the American Philological Association to a serious investigation of the subject. In 1875 they appointed a committee to inquire into the possibility of reform, and in 1876 this committe reported favorably. During the same year there was an International Convention for the Amendment of English Orthography at Philadelphia, with several delegates from England present, and out of it grew the Spelling Reform Association. 35 In 1878 a committee of American philologists began preparing a list of proposed new spellings, and two years later the Philological Society of England joined in the work. In 1883 a joint manifesto was issued, recommending various general simplifications. Among those enlisted in the movement were Charles Darwin, Lord Tennyson, Sir John Lubbock and Sir J. A. H. Murray. In 1886 the American Philological Association issued independently a list of recommendations affecting about 3,500 words, and falling under ten headings. Practically all of the changes proposed had been put forward 80 years before by Webster, and some of them had entered into unquestioned American usage in the meantime, e. g., the deletion of the u from the -our words, the substitution of er for re at the end of words, and the reduction of traveller to traveler.
  The trouble with the others was that they were either too uncouth to be adopted without a long struggle or likely to cause errors in pronunciation. To the first class belonged tung for tounge, ruf for rough, batl for battle and abuv for above, and to the second such forms as cach for catch and troble for trouble. The result was that the whole reform received a set-back: the public dismissed the reformers as a pack of dreamers. Twelve years later the National Education Association received the movement with a proposal that a beginning be made with a very short list of reformed spellings, and nominated the following by way of experiment: tho, altho, thru, through, thoro, thoroly, thorofare, program, prolog, catalog, pedagog and decalog. This scheme of gradual changes was sound in principle, and in a short time at least two of the recommended spellings,program and catalog, were in general use. Then, in 1906, came the organization of the Simplified Spelling Board, with an endowment of $15,000 a year from Andrew Carnegie, and a formidable list of members and collaborators, including Henry Bradley, F. I. Furnivall, C. H> Grandgent, W. W. Skeat, T. R. Lounsbury and F. A. March. The board at once issued a list of 300 revised spellings, new and old, and in August, 1906, President Roosevelt ordered their adoption by the Government Printing Office. But this unwise effort to hasten matters, combined with the buffoonery characteristically thrown about the matter by Roosevelt, served only to raise up enemies, and then, though it has prudently gone back to more discreet endeavors and now lays main stress upon the original 12 words of the National Education Association, the board has not made a great deal of progress. 36 From time to time it issues impressive lists of newspapers and periodicals that have made them optional, but an inspection of these lists shows that very few publications of any importance have been converted and that most of the great universities still hesitate. 37 It has, however, greatly reinforced the authority behind many of Webster’s spellings, and aided by the Chemical>
Note 35.   Accounts of earlier proposals of reform in English spelling are to be found in Sayce’s Introduction to the Science of Language, vol. i, p. 330 et seq., and White’s Everyday English, p. 152 et seq. The best general treatment of the subject is in Lounsbury’s English Spelling and Spelling Reform; New York, 1909. A radical innovation, involving the complete abandonment of the present alphabet and the substitution of a series of symbols with vowel points, is proposed in Peetickay, by Wilfrid Perrett; Cambridge (England), 1920. Mr. Perrett’s book is written in a lively style, and includes much curious matter. He criticises the current schemes of spelling reform very acutely. Nearly all of them, he says, suffer from the defect of seeking to represent all the sounds of English by the present alphabet. This he calls“one more reshuffle of a prehistoric pack, one more attempt to deal out 26 cards to some 40 players.”  [back]
Note 36.   Its second list was published on January 28, 1908, its third on Janurary 25, 1909, and its fourth on March 24, 1913, and since then there have been several others. But most its literature is devoted to the 12 words and to certain reformed spellings of Webster, already in general use.  [back]
Note 37.   In April, 1919, it claimed 556 newspapers and periodicals, with a circulation of 18,000,000, and 460 universities, colleges and normal schools.  [back]

Link to the list of 300 word spellings Roosevelt ordered reformed.

For a thorough history of spelling reform see: Spelling Reform in Context

and/ or English Spelling Reform

For Children of the Code views and notes on orthographic form see

Let's Stop Reading Shame!

Millions of kids grow up ashamed of their minds because they blame themselves for not being good enough at reading. It's a crime they feel this way and we want your help to stop it. We are raising money to give our DVD sets to the teachers and literacy volunteers that need it the most but can afford it the least. Help us raise funds that will spread the word about and help stop reading shame!  Donate now!



For more information about
Children of the Code events
please click here
or call:

October 2012 NEWS:

 (more info)


Please sign up to receive notices when we post new articles, videos, and updates.
Sent by Google's FeedBurner. Easily unsubscribe at any time. Never any spam.

Note about interviews: Participation in the preceding Children of the Code interview does not constitute or imply an endorsement of the Children of the Code project or documentary by the interviewee. Conversely, including an interview does not constitute or imply an endorsement of the views, organizations, books or products of the interviewee, other than as explicitly stated, by the Children of the Code Project and documentary.  

There is no substitute for your first-person learning.

Click to go to the index of Children of the Code video sequences

Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst  Director, Institute of Education Sciences, Assistant Secretary of Education, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Jack Shonkoff Chair, The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child; Co-Editor: From Neurons to Neighborhoods
Siegfried Engelmann Professor of Instructional Research, University of Oregon; Creator of Direct Instruction  
Dr. Edward Kame'enui Commissioner for Special Education Research, U.S. Department of Education; Director, IDEA, University  of Oregon
Dr. G. Reid Lyon  Past Director, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Dr. Keith Stanovich  Canadian Chair of Cognitive Science, University of Toronto
Dr. Mel Levine Co-Chair and Co-Founder, All Kinds of Minds; Author: A Mind at a Time, The Myth of Laziness & Ready or Not Here Life Comes
Dr. Alex Granzin  School District Psychologist, Past President, Oregon School Psychologists Association 
Dr. James J. Heckman Nobel Laureate, Economic Sciences 2000; Lead Author: The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children
Dr. Timothy Shanahan President (2006) International Reading Association, Chair National Early Literacy Panel, Member National Reading Panel
Nancy Hennessy  President, 2003-2005, International Dyslexia Association
Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams Senior ScientistSoliloquy Learning, Author: Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print
Dr. Michael Merzenich Chair of Otolaryngology, Integrative Neurosciences, UCSF;  Member National Academy of Sciences
Dr. Maryanne Wolf Director, Center for Reading & Language Research; Professor of Child Development, Tufts University
Dr. Todd Risley  Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Alaska, Co-author: Meaningful Differences
Dr. Sally Shaywitz  Neuroscientist, Department of Pediatrics, Yale University, Author: Overcoming Dyslexia
Dr. Louisa Moats  Director, Professional Development and Research Initiatives, Sopris West Educational Services
Dr. Zvia Breznitz Professor, Neuropsychology of Reading & Dyslexia, University of Haifa, Israel 
Rick Lavoie Learning Disabilities Specialist, Creator: How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop & Last One Picked, First One Picked On
Dr.Charles Perfetti Professor, Psychology & Linguistics; Senior Scientist and Associate Director, Learning R&D Center, U. of Pittsburgh, PA
Arthur J. Rolnick Senior V.P. & Dir. of Research,  Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis;  Co- Author: The Economics of Early Childhood Development  
Dr. Richard Venezky  Professor, Educational Studies, Computer and  Information Sciences, and Linguistics, University of Delaware
Dr. Keith Rayner  Distinguished  Professor, University of Massachusetts, Author: Eye Movements in Reading and Information Processing
Dr. Paula Tallal  Professor of Neuroscience, Co-Director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University
Dr.John Searle  Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language, University of California-Berkeley, Author: Mind, A Brief Introduction
Dr.Mark T. Greenberg Director, Prevention Research Center, Penn State Dept. of Human Development & Family Studies; CASEL Leadership Team
Dr. Terrence Deacon  Professor of Biological Anthropology and Linguistics at University of California- Berkeley
Chris Doherty  Ex-Program Director, National Reading First Program, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Erik Hanushek Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Dr. Marketa Caravolas Director, Bangor Dyslexia Unit, Bangor University, Author: International Report on Literacy Research
Dr. Christof Koch Professor of Computation and Neural Systems,  Caltech - Author: The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach
Dr. Guy Deutscher Professor of Languages and Cultures of Ancient Mesopotamia, Holland; Author: Unfolding Language
Robert Wedgeworth  President, ProLiteracy, World's Largest Literacy Organization
Dr. Peter Leone  Director, National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice
Dr. Thomas Cable  Professor of English, University of Texas at Austin, Co-author: A History of the English Language
Dr. David Abram Cultural Ecologist and Philosopher; Author: The Spell of the Sensuous
Pat Lindamood and Nanci Bell  Principal Scientists, Founders, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes
Dr. Anne Cunningham  Director, Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education, Graduate School of Education at University of California-Berkeley
Dr. Donald L. Nathanson  Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College, Director of the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute 
Dr.Johanna Drucker  Chair of Media Studies, University of Virginia, Author: The Alphabetic Labyrinth
John H. Fisher  Medievalist, Leading authority on the development of the written English language, Author: The Emergence of Standard English
Dr. Malcolm Richardson   Chair, Dept. of English, Louisiana State University; Research: The Textual Awakening of the English Middle Classes  
James Wendorf  Executive Director, National Center for Learning Disabilities
Leonard Shlain Physician; Best-Selling Author: The Alphabet vs. The Goddess
Robert Sweet  Co-Founder, National Right to Read Foundation


HELP US: If you appreciate this interview and the work of the Children of the Code project please take a few minutes to share your thoughts with us. Your comments and feedback not only help us learn to better serve you, they help us get the support we need to continue the project.  Click here to read what others are saying about the Children of the Code Project.

SIGN UP HERE to receive general updates about our project or news of future interview releases 

The Children of the Code is a Social Education Project and a Public Television Series intended to catalyze and resource a social-educational transformation in how we think about and, ultimately, teach reading. The Children of the Code is an entertaining educational journey into the challenges our children's brains face when learning to read. The series weaves together archeology, history, linguistics, developmental neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, information theory, reading theory, learning theory, and the personal and social dimensions of illiteracy. 



Copyright statement:  Copyright (c) 2012, Learning Stewards, A 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization, All Rights Reserved. Permission to use, copy, and distribute these materials for not-for-profit educational purposes, without fee and without a signed licensing agreement, is hereby granted, provided that "Children of the Code -"  (with a functioning hyperlink when online) be cited as the source and appear in all excerpts, copies, and distributions.  Thank you. (back to top)