x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

UK plan to scrap 'I before E' rule creates outrage

Teachers are infuriated at new guidelines that propose schools should no longer teach one of the best known mnemonics.

LONDON // Few things are guaranteed to inflame Britain's chattering classes more than a perceived assault on the English language. So government educationalists probably knew they were about to ignite a firestorm when they included a proposal in new guidance to be sent to primary schools that teachers drop the generations-old mnemonic of "i before e except after c". Not only has the proposal led to explosions of righteous indignation but it is also generating a wider debate on whether many antiquated English spellings should be changed and hauled into the 21st century.

The 124-page Support for Spelling document, which will be distributed to more than 13,000 schools in England and Wales as part of a national strategy to improve teaching methods for children under 11, is supposed to make lessons more engaging. But the proposal to drop the "i before e" rule, which has been chanted by children for as long as anyone can remember, has caused near apoplexy among traditionalists.

According to the document: "The i before e rule is not worth teaching. It applies only to words in which the 'ie' or 'ei' stand for a clear 'ee' sound. Unless this is known, words such as "sufficient" and "veil" look like exceptions. "There are so few words where the 'ei' spelling for the 'ee' sounds follows the letter 'c' that it is easier to learn the specific words." This has proved fighting talk for many, especially as the full rhyme actually runs: "I before e except after c when the sound is ee." Sometimes this is followed by: "Or when the sound is 'a' as in neighbour and weigh."

Ignoring the fact that even this does not apply to words such as seize, Bethan Marshall, a senior English lecturer at King's College London, stoutly defends the rule. "It's a very easy rule to remember and one of the very few spelling rules that I can remember and that's why I would stick to it," she said. "If you change it and say we won't have this rule, we won't have any rules at all, then spelling, which is already terribly confusing, becomes more so."

Judy Parkinson, author of the best-selling book I Before E (Except After C), told The Daily Telegraph: "There are words that it doesn't fit, but I think teachers could always get a discussion going about the 'i before e' rule and the peculiarities of the English language, and have fun with it. That's the best way to learn." But Jack Bovill, chairman of the Spelling Society, told the BBC yesterday that the mnemonic was useless. "There are so many exceptions that it's not really a rule," he said.

Greg Brooks, a literacy expert and former lecturer at the University of Sheffield, went further and told the Times Educational Supplement that the rule was thoroughly misleading. With Pandora's box now fully open, the general public rushed into the discussion. "We had fun learning the exceptions to i before e, which we remembered with the sentence: 'Sheila, the counterfeiter, was seized by a weird thought at the weir'," Richard Bird wrote in an e-mailed comment to the BBC.

The debate now includes the question of whether the whole English spelling system should be overhauled. Mr Bovill, for one, believes it should. "English spelling needs to evolve to suit the people, not for people to evolve to suit it," he said. Masha Bell, an author who has long campaigned for English spelling to be simplified, added: "Children are having to fill their heads with this rubbish because spelling is rubbish. I think the spelling system should be reformed. We could get rid of the silliest anomalies."

Mr Bovill and Prof Marshall agree that one spelling long overdue for change is the rule (in British English, but not US English) that practise has an "s" as a verb, but is spelt practice as a noun. "The problem is," Prof Marshall admitted disarmingly, "that I don't spell particularly magnificently myself. Luckily, computers these days all have spellcheckers." dsapsted@thenational.ae