Letters: Learning to spell

If we want good writers, we need to help children learn to spell


Sir: According to Philip Hensher ("The awful truth about our universities", 23 March), the Royal Literary Fund has concluded that "the standard of literacy in our universities has never been lower".

Every large-scale survey of English literacy standards over the past 150 years has found only a minority with good writing skills. A few decades ago they were identified by the 11- plus and given a decent education. The rest attracted little concern, because there were plenty of jobs that did not need good writing ability.

Now employers need more people with reasonable writing skills. These remain hard to obtain because to become a reasonably competent writer of English one has to memorise roughly 4,000 phonically incoherent spellings, like be, see, tea, ski, key, quay, far more than any individual of average ability can cope with.

Germans need to imprint on their minds no more than 800 quirky spellings, Spaniards around 500; the lucky Finns can spell all words merely by applying phonic rules. Most European countries have come to recognise that phonically consistent spelling makes learning to read and write much easier, and have made amendments to their orthographies. Anglophone governments have tried to address their shortage of competent writers with changes in teaching methods and increased spending on education, but this has made little difference.

When reading was the main source of spare-time entertainment, it was much easier to get children to read; and copious reading helps to imprint those thousands of quirky spellings on your memory. Now that children have their own radios, i-pods, televisions and computer games in their bedrooms, learning to write has become even harder than it used to be.

The generally abysmal writing standards have been regularly bemoaned in all Anglophone countries for decades. It is not something that schools alone will ever be able to change. If we want more competent writers, we will have to do something about the frightfulness of English spelling.



Oily fish study raises conflicting views

Sir: So yet another "health recommendation" has been debunked - this time the health benefits of oily fish (24 March). What has floundered here is not just one more medical theory but the credibility of the medical establishment as a whole. Nobody expects scientists in any discipline to be perfect but after so many years of consistent downfalls one does expect them to have at least some slight awareness of their own imperfection. But no - now they will trumpet the falsehood of the oily fish claims with the same unshakeable faith in their own rightness with which they previously claimed its correctness.

This comes hard on the heels of the horrific drug tests that have ruined the lives of six healthy young men - tests conducted with the same naively unshakeable faith.

Learning from experience appears to have gone out of fashion as an adjunct to scientific discipline. Would it be too much to ask the medical establishment to admit that one can never be completely sure whether one is right or not?



Sir: Your treatment of science is misguided. To headline your paper (24 March) with a statement of certainty ("Debunked: the health benefits of fish") on the basis of a single unconfirmed study is a misuse of science. To any scientist, this does not represent proof, but rather just one more step in the road to understanding the truth.

You risk damaging both the fish industry and health supplements manufacturers by what is, in effect, tabloid sensationalism. Many previous examples, in particular the MMR-autism debate, show that putting too much faith in one controversial result can be disastrous.

You qualify your article - at the end - with moderating comments from the authors, the British Heart Foundation and the FDA, but this is insufficient to offset the impact of the headline.



Sir: A new study reveals that there is no clear benefit from eating oily fish as a source of omega 3 essential fats. The study, using volunteers with chronic heart disease, showed eating high amounts of oily fish led to some increased mortality from cardiac deaths.

This is because - as Animal Aid's new report on the fishing industry reveals - 30 per cent of the fat found in fish can be saturated - a high risk factor for heart disease. Other studies have found that eating fish can also be associated with other health risks, as fish fats act like a sponge, soaking up chemicals such as dioxins and mercury that are present in our planet's polluted oceans. These toxins are regarded as some of the most dangerous known to man, and have been linked to cancer and birth defects in humans.

In fact, a popular fish oil supplement had to be withdrawn at the start of 2006 due to the discovery of high levels of dioxins found in the product. Omega 3 fats can, in any case, be obtained from healthier sources including soybeans (including soya milk and tofu), walnuts, rapeseed oil, flaxseed and dark green vegetables such as spinach.



Sir: You write that there is no evidence that oily fish have health benefits and that it is a myth that spinal manipulation is good for back pain. My experience does not accord with what you have written.

In the 1990s I developed angina: by 1994 it was so bad I could not walk up a five-yard slope without needing to rest. The doctors gave me strong medication, and I put myself on the "Mediterranean diet" with a large daily helping of omega 3. In six months I was off the medication, and in the intervening 12 years I have been symptom-free. I continue to take omega 3 daily.

More years ago still, I injured my back rowing. Some two or three times a year it would go into spasm, making me unable to walk. During one particularly bad bout, my GP said he was not trained to treat this kind of thing, and suggested a chiropractor. I limped in: in one treatment he removed the pain and I walked free. He gave me three follow-up treatments, and for the last 30 years I have had no recurrence of the problem.



Sir: I am delighted to hear that new research has found that, after all, the omega 3 in fish oils is of no benefit to us.

That undoubtedly means that it actually is of benefit and that there is concern about the huge increase in sales of it in supplement form.

I'm so happy that I can continue with my policy: listen carefully to what the medical profession says, then do the exact opposite.



Middle-class fears about education

Sir: What a joy it was to read Johann Hari's clear-headed, unabashedly progressive reflections on the dangerous education bill working its way through parliament ("So what about the children of the poor?" , 16 March).

Hari is the only commentator that has, to my knowledge, so vociferously stood up against the all-pervasive middle-class fear of working-class children, a fear that stymies the smattering of liberal measures in the Bill.

His solution is radical but rational - "bussing kids to far-off schools to ensure a genuine social mix". This would ensure that the motivated middle classes must share the benefits of their privileged homelife, manifested in a constant push from their parents to achieve, in a classroom of genuinely mixed social parentage. Just a shame our representatives lack the courage.



Sir: Johann Hari is right about the polarisation in Britain's schools, and that the education bill will make this worse.

This applies mainly in big cities, where schools are relatively close together and public transport abounds. When our four children went to an ILEA comprehensive school in the 1970s and 1980s, parental choices were processed by the education authority, which allocated places according to a banding system, thus aiming at "real" comprehensive education in Hari's terms.

Children took verbal reasoning and maths tests for this purpose; SATs could now be used. Consistently, about 87 per cent of children got their first choice, with second and third choices and an appeal system as backup. Motivated children of pushy, middle-class parents were as likely as anyone else not to get their first choice.

This did not feel "unimaginably radical", and has presumably been considered and rejected by the government, and the rebels. Diversity needs to be within each school, not between competing schools, but there seems to be no room for this simple idea in the current meaningless rhetoric of "choice" and contempt for local authorities.




Costly Kember

Sir: The Foreign Office's announcement earlier this week that British nationals could not expect to be bailed out by HM Government when they get into difficulties abroad does not bode well for the recently liberated peace campaigner Norman Kember. Can we all assume that his return to the UK will be accompanied by a bill for the hugely expensive rescue operation and subsequent repatriation?



Curries and cricket

Sir: It has been widely reported that the England team roused themselves to victory by playing Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" in the dressing room prior to the final session. People have commented that it seemed a strange choice. Knowing the undergraduate humour associated with sports teams, and given they are touring in the home of the curry, I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that "ring of fire" is also a euphemism for the after-effects of a vindaloo.



Expensive water

Sir: Diana, Princess of Wales, would be appalled that so much money has been spent on her memorial fountain in London's Hyde Park (report, 22 March). The Public Accounts Committee has criticised spiralling costs and problems. How ironic that this appeared just before World Water Day, when we are encouraged to think of the billion people who lack access to safe, drinkable water.

It would be more fitting to have spent the money on supporting charities like WaterAid or Bristol charity For-Ethiopia, doing vital, practical water projects in developing countries.



Civilising idea

Sir: With all this talk of civilisation for Iraq, I am reminded of what Gandhi said when asked about Western civilisation: "It would be a good idea".



Lunchtime lobby

Sir: The headline on Pandora's lead story (23 March) is inaccurate. The lunch with the Home Secretary attended by the women's lobby was entirely on the record, as everyone present was aware.



Funding cuts

Sir: You report that David Cameron thinks that the job cuts being made in our NHS as local management learns to live within its means are "extremely serious" ("Cameron blames Brown for NHS job cuts", 24 March). How many more cuts would have been necessary had the Tories prevailed on all the occasions when they (including Mr Cameron) voted against increases in health service funding?



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