Noncognitive Skills, Paul Tough's How Children Succeed, and how a state of anxiety affects learning


A fascinating one-hour program on the importance of "noncognitive" skills, featuring an interview with Paul Tough about his book, How Children Succeed, was broadcast on Public Radio's This American Life this past weekend. It will be archived as a podcast on Sunday evening, 9/16/12 by 7:00 P.M. central time. For more information, go to .

There's a lot in this program that people may wish to discuss in this CoP.

David J. Rosen



David and Colleagues: The comments below were posted earlier on the aaace-nla list and relate

to the work of Paul Tough. 

Tom Sticht


Colleagues: There continues to be a growing understanding of the role of
contextualization in improving motivation and learning in secondary,

postsecondary, and adult education. A recent posting on the
web site reports a review of work on contextualization of developmental
education in community colleges by Dolores Perin of Columbia University.
This research and additional research on applying Functional Context
Education principles are discussed in the first workshop listed below in
the note from ProLiteracy.

Regarding the intergenerational effects of adult education, a new book by
Paul tough entitled How Children Succeed joins a growing body of research
on how both cognitive and noncognitive factors such as self-confidence,
self-control, persistence, and others are predictive of success in school
and adulthood. This book and other research on noncognitive factors in
children's and addult's development are discussed in the second workshop
mentioned below in the ProLiteracy note.

I am offering both these workshops as separate workshops, as in Syracuse for
the  ProLiteracy organization, or in one integrated workshop with two 3 hour

My workshop schedule for the Fall and for 2013 is now forming and includes
plans for presentations in Iowa and Georgia. As usual I charge no fee for
these workshops but sponsors must pay my travel expenses. For more
information contact me at tsticht at

Tom Sticht



ProLiteracy Hosts Workshops by International Literacy Expert, September
20-21, 2012

International literacy expert Thomas Sticht will be at ProLiteracy’s new
headquarters in Syracuse on September 20 and 21 offering workshops related
to workplace literacy, career pathways, and family literacy.

The “Functional Context Education and Workforce Development” workshop will
take place on September 20 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. This workshop discusses
workplace literacy, career pathways, and postsecondary transition and
focuses on the professional wisdom and scientific research supporting the
educational practice of blending basic skills and English language services
with postsecondary education and training. Participants will explore
research and development on educational approaches such as
contextualization, integration, and acceleration for assisting adult
learners to achieve upward economic mobility through employment.

The registration fee is $15.00 and includes lunch and afternoon
refreshments. All participants will receive a certificate of completion.
This workshop is co-sponsored by CenterState CEO. Learn more at

The “Intergenerational Effects of Adult Education” workshop will take place
on September 21 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. This workshop reviews extensive
professional wisdom and scientific research on adult basic education and
its effects on children's cognitive, educational, and economic development.
Consistent with the Pew Foundation's Economic Mobility Project (EMP), which
"focuses public attention on economic mobility—the ability to move up or
down the income ladder within a lifetime, or from one generation to the
next," this workshop makes the case for investing greater resources to
prepare adult educators for engagement in early parenthood education and
family literacy programs as a means of promoting upward mobility across

The registration fee is $15.00 and includes lunch and afternoon
refreshments. All participants will receive a certificate of completion.
This workshop is co-sponsored by the Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County.
Learn more at

About Thomas Sticht

Dr. Thomas Sticht has taught at Harvard University and published more than
170 books and articles on adult literacy. In 1997, the Reading Research
Quarterly reported that his research and that of Paulo Freire were the two
most influential lines of adult literacy research in the last 30 years. He
is a member of the Reading Hall of Fame, and in 2003 he was awarded
UNESCO’s Mahatma Gandhi medal for his 25 years of voluntary work on
UNESCO’s International Literacy Prize Jury.

More Information

For more information,contact Katie Schisa, director of Life Links, at
kschisa at These workshops are organized through
ProLiteracy’s Ruth J. Colvin Center for Innovation and Excellence in Adult
Literacy with generous support from the Literacy Coalition of Onondaga
County and CenterState CEO.


Hello Rochelle,

The most interesting part for me -- and the most hopeful -- was economist James Heckman talking about how we should be teaching what he calls "non-cogitive skills," how these are often not difficult to teach or learn and often have a huge impact on other kinds of learning. Non-cognitive skills (he agreed it's a horrible name) include such things as certain kinds of social skills, executive (brain function) skills such as self management, and something he referred to as character, but apparently does not mean what most people think of as moral character.

There is a sequence later in the podcast in which we hear a mother being taught certain kinds of parenting skills and learn from her what a positive impact this has had on her relationship with her young daughter.

One big takeaway -- none of these very important school (and GED) success skills is being taught or assessed now in schools. What we assess now is only cognitive skills, the kind easily measured by paper and pencil standardized tests -- and only in reading, writing, math and science.

Another big takeaway -- when people (kids and adults) are in a constant state of anxiety, perhaps as a result of poverty and chaos at home -- they are in a flight, fight or freeze mode -- useful for survival but not for the kinds of learning one is expected to do in a classroom. I don't know if this is a disability, but apparently there are techniques for reducing stress that may be helpful for learners. I would like to hear more about that.

This American Life host, Ira Glass, framed the topic well by asking what seemed like an absurdly general question at the beginning -- what should we be teaching in schools? By the end of the podcast it was clear why he chose that question -- if the "non-cognitive skills" baby ever was in classroom learning bathwater, it got thrown out it with NCLB and high stakes cognitive tests.

I wonder if anyone else has listened to this podcast yet and, if so, what you think.

David J. Rosen


David and all: In 2009 there were discussions on Lincs lists about cognitive and noncognitive "skills".  I have found it important to include noncognitive skills in my workshop on The Intergenerational Effects of Adult Education. In the workship I review a larger body of research on the importance of noncognitive skills in adult literacy education. I also discuss the use of picture books by Leo Lionni to develop noncognitive skills for adults and their children. Paul Tough's book is a good addition to this argument about the importance of factors beyond cognitive skills in achieving academic and career success.

Tom Sticht


August 21, 2009

Cognitive and Non-cognitive Skills in Adult Basic Education

Tom Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education

Today many states and the federal government are looking at universal
preschool as a means of raising achievement levels of children in the K-12
system and increase high school graduate rates. The primary arguments for
universal preschool have focused on the research showing that preschool
education produces large returns to investment (ROI).

Now research by Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman suggests that
ROI to preschool education results not so much from the improvements the
programs make in children’s cognitive skills (language, literacy) but
rather from non-cognitive skills. In an interview with Heckman in June of
2005 by the Minneapolis branch of the Federal Reserve Bank. He stated,

Quote " Enriched early intervention programs targeted to disadvantaged
children have had their biggest effect on non-cognitive skills: motivation,
self-control and time preference…… Non-cognitive skills are powerfully
predictive of a number of socioeconomic measures (crime, teenage pregnancy,
education and the like).”End quote

This distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive skills has been
illustrated with young adults who have wanted to enlist in the military
services. Generally, military policy rejects the enlistment of non-high
school graduates (NHSG) because, compared to high school graduates (HSG),
because they have high rates of failure to complete their full term of
service. However, in some cases NHSG have been permitted to enter the
military and research has indicated that if they were willing to delay
coming into the military for up to seven months after they were qualified,
instead of insisting on coming in as soon as possible, then their
completion of their term of service was about the same as that for HSG.

Other research indicated that non-cognitive skills could substitute for as
much as 50 percentiles in cognitive skills. In this research, NHSG below
the 30th percentile on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT-a literacy
and numeracy test) who waited for seven or more months to enter into the
military after they were qualified had completion rates of around 68
percent compared to 72 percent of HSG who scored above the 80th percentile
on the AFQT but wanted to enter as soon as they were qualified.

In these studies then, the non-cognitive skills (motivation, self-control,
time preference) identified by Heckman appear to have been almost as
important as completing high school and/or having high cognitive skills in
influencing the persistence of these young NHSG adults in fulfilling their
military obligations satisfactorily.

Numerous studies of adult basic education (ABE) have found that
non-cognitive skills are the major outcomes of ABE. Almost universally,
studies of ABE outcomes report that adults feel better about themselves,
they overcome learned helplessness, they feel more motivated to succeed in
life, and, importantly, these positive non-cognitive skills often modify
adults’ behaviors with their children.

Research by Wider Opportunities for Women found that mothers enrolled in
basic skills programs reported that they spoke more with their children
about school, they read to them more, they took them to the library more
and so forth (Van Fossen & Sticht, 1991). In one visit to a single mother’s
home, the mother’s second grader said, "I do my homework just like Mommy"
and thrust his homework into the researcher’s hand. This type of
non-cognitive, motivation skill development in the child was obtained for
free as a spin-off of an adult basic skills program.

More and more it is being recognized that while cognitive skills (e.g.,
literacy) are necessary for success in K-12 and higher education and in
fields of work, they are not sufficient. Additionally, attention is being
focused on the assessment and development of non-cognitive skills with
children and adults (e.g., ETS, 2009).

It seems likely that the field of ABE could also benefit from more attention
to non-cognitive skill identification, development, and assessment, too.
Given the relatively brief periods of time that adults can devote to
attendance in programs, and the generally modest gains they make in
cognitive skills (literacy, numeracy), a focus on non-cognitive skills
might form the basis for a more appropriate determination of the ROI to
ABE, for both the adults and their children.


ETS Policy Note (Winter 2009). Vol. 17, NO. 1 (

Minneapolis Federal Reserve (2005, June). Interview with James. J. Heckman.

Van Fossen, S. & Sticht, T. (1991, July). Teach the Mother and Reach the
Child: Results of the Intergenerational Literacy Action Research Project of
Wider Opportunities for Women. Washington, DC: Wider Opportunities for
Women. (

I am glad that other adult educators heard this podcast. I was intrigued by what Paul Tough had to say. I think I've heard many of the same point made in other places, but I was especially interested because the show seemed to find a balance between realism (people's brains are negatively affected by growing up in stressful circumstances) and hope (many of the missing skills can be taught). It "rang true" to my experience in the adult education classroom--some people do seem to be lacking important "non-cognitive" skills, and I do seem to see improvement in these skills over time.

This is one book I hope to read soon.

Rachel Baron

ABE/GED Instructor

Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council

Hi Rochelle,

I should mention first that my students are voluntary, and the age range is usually in the 20-40 range. These are not teenagers, and I think that a great many of them have built these skills already--that's why they decided to come back to school!

I think the thing that can be most disruptive and obvious is a lack of impulse control. In almost any class, usually at least one or two of my students have trouble not giving immediate reactions to everything that happens in class. For example, if one student is reading aloud and pauses before saying a word, another student will often jump in to provide the word. What I have found, though, is that if I make my expectations explicit (please don't jump in right now), the student realizes what he/she is doing and can stop. In other situations, I might tell the class beforehand to write the answer to a question rather than just blurt it out. For most students, most of the time, I find that a few directions now and then can really help them learn how to avoid dominating the group--and I can still keep that contagious enthusiasm in the class!

The other thing that comes to mind right now is that some of my students (sometimes the same ones I just described) are very "fragile." They have trouble dealing even with small failures and setbacks. In a voluntary program, it's all too easy to just watch these students disappear off the roster as they encounter challenges of various kinds. I try very hard to help my students realize that making mistakes is a normal part of life. Academically, I encourage students to talk about their reasoning and learn to identify and avoid mistakes they made before. This is especially helpful in math, where normally confident students often become more willing to just give up and walk out. The tricky part is managing the classroom environment in such a way that students can see success coming out of mistakes. At its best, the class becomes a supportive network, with other students willing to cheer each other on and help each other out.

I hope this at least a partial answer to your question. I'm sure other people on the list will have other observations and ideas.

Rachel Baron

ABE/GED Instructor

Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council

Hi LINCS Community, way to get me alerted to something! Today, the Dept of Ed hosted Paul Tough to speak about his research. Many of us from OVAE attended.

I'm certainly intrigued. I think our students have a lot of "grit"  that got them through some crazy times and gets them in our doors day after day.

Some may also be suffering some of the lingering trauma from the disadvantaged childhoods as Tough discusses. This has been discussed and documented by ethnographers and qualitative researchers.

I'm thinking about the parents of the children he studied. Those same neighborhoods that disadvantage children are the homes of our adult students, too. I'd like to think more about how we can help students  nurture their grit, curiosity and perseverence and harness it to help them reach their goals.

Heidi Silver-Pacuilla, OVAE





Dealing with children in Rome--who were abandoned, mentally "challenged" or in many ways damaged, during the early 1900's--Maria Montessori developed a teaching method based upon children's basic needs and natural desire to learn. As the first woman to become a physician in Italy, Ms. Montessori elevated her profession to teacher and looked at children's learning from a medical framework. Some of these children could not even speak but she taught them math and life skills in a child-centered environment. <?xml:namespace prefix = o />

This flew in the face of John Dewey's teacher-centered communist community of learners model, and when the Montessori Method was plagiarized in the U.S. Ms. Montessori demanded that it stop. The result is we now have an education system controlled by thug union bosses, costing more to maintain than any education system in the world--with a success rate somewhere around tenth place--and a public school dropout rate of 60-70 percent. Feel-good social sciences are the priority over math and science as more people expect more from the government instead of seeking self-reliance.

Who is surprised that the government broadcasting agency's NPR has just discovered the potential for "non-cognitive learning" given our dismal record with coercive "cognitive" instruction in the public system?

"Fool me once, shame on thee..."

Donn Liston, MEd

Anchorage, Alaska 

Thank you again for sharing the Ira Glass podcast about Paul Tough's new book and the research he pulls together. Has any one been looking at the ASAP program at CUNY, specifically the MDRC evaluation report (2012) (available on their website)? One note that caught my attention was the coorelation it sees between the number of contacts beyond the mandatory minimum as a predictor of successful completion of the 3 year program: it suggest the advisor plays a key role, no doubt addressing the non-cognitive skills, either consciouisly or unconsciously, diretly and indirctly, Unfortunately, it's harder to justify that funding when the funder's focus in on paying for instructional hours and measurable outcomes.

Arthur Upham, BSE Grant Coordinator

Madison (Area Technical) College

Madison, WI

Hi all,

I finally got a chance to read How Children Succeed, and I find that Paul Tough has made an interesting and fairly convincing argument. If you're able, I’d highly recommend both reading the book and listening to the podcast, since the podcast is not just a recap of the book. (Besides—you get to use different learning styles! :) )

Predictably, little is explicitly mentioned in the book about adult education. Tough does describe some parenting intervention programs, and he describes them as both important and effective (37-42). Although the programs he describes require a fairly drastic change in attitude and behavior for the parents involved, Tough doesn’t seem to draw any conclusions about the malleability of adults’ noncognitive skills, focusing instead on the repercussions for the children.

The other direct connection to adult education occurs in the introduction to his book, where Paul Tough discusses the work of James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist:

“According to their scores on achievement tests, which correlate closely with IQ, GED recipients were every bit as smart as high-school graduates. But when Heckman looked at their path through higher education, he discovered that GED recipients weren’t anything like high-school graduates. At age twenty-two, Heckman found, just 3 percent of GED recipients were enrolled in a four-year university or had completed some kind of post-secondary degree, compared to 46 percent of high-school graduates. In fact, Heckman discovered that when you consider all kinds of important future outcomes—annual income, unemployment rate, divorce rate, use of illegal drugs—GED recipients look exactly like high-school dropouts, despite the fact that they have earned this supposedly valuable extra credential, and despite the fact that they are, on average, considerably more intelligent than high-school dropouts.” (Tough, xviii) (emphasis in original)

This echoes some of the research that I’ve heard about the poor college graduation rates of GED recipients, but it also raises some questions for me. Tough portrays the GED as a “quick fix” for young people who drop out of high school. This may be the way a great number of people approach the test, but as a GED instructor, it seems simplistic to me. Based on the book’s premise (that skills like self-control, optimism, and grit make more of a difference in a person's life than intelligence alone), it seems to me that the student who manages to attend a class and study for several months in order to prepare for the test may actually be more successful in the long run than the one who shows up on test day and whips through easily.

I know that the GED Testing Service surveys test-takers about their preparation for the test. I wonder if anyone has compared test-passers who report many hours of preparation to those who report few or none. How do their college enrollment and completion rates compare? How much difference (if any) is there in the noncognitive skills of these two groups? How much difference does it make to a student to have at least one positive classroom experience before going on to college?

What are your thoughts on this? Are any of you aware of this type of research? What is your personal experience?

Rachel Baron

GED/ABE Instructor

Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council


Rachel and colleagues: The present discussion of non-cognitive factors in educational achievement is in line with a note I wrote in February 2006 entitled Adult Education Makes Early Childhood Education a Good Economic Development Strategy. In that note I reported research by James Heckman, Nobel Prize winning economist, which I argued supported the need for a greater commitment to adult education.   <?xml:namespace prefix = o />

In my earlier note I indicated that in an interview with Heckman in June of 2005 by the Minneapolis branch of the Federal Reserve Bank he was asked about making the case for early childhood education (ECE) as an economic development strategy. In his response, Heckman downplayed the effects of ECE on cognitive skills, and instead stated, " Enriched early intervention programs targeted to disadvantaged children have had their biggest effect on noncognitive skills: motivation, self-control and time preference. …Noncognitive skills are powerfully predictive of a number of socioeconomic measures (crime, teenage pregnancy, education and the like….Kids in the Perry Preschool Program, an early childhood intervention, are much more successful than similar kids without intervention even though their IQs are no higher. And the same is true of many such interventions.”

In a workshop I am presently presenting, entitled The Intergenerational Effects of Adult Education,  I review research on cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes of adult basic education and how this education may affect the children of the adult learners. The general topic and time schedule for the one day, free workshop is :

Part 1 09:00-10:30am  Professional Wisdom and Scientific Evidence for Investing in Early Parenthood Education (EPE)

10:30-10:45 Break

Part 2 10:45-12:00 The Intergenerational Transfer of  Cognitive & Non-Cognitive Abilities

12:00-12:30 Lunch

Part 3 12:30-02:00 EPE & the Oracy-to-Literacy Transfer Effect

2:00-2:15 Break

Part 4 2:15-3:30 Using Picture Books for Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Development in Children and Adults; Workshop End

In my workshop I review the work on cognitive and non-cognitive development in both children and adults, including the work on MegaSkills® by Dorothy Rich, the non-cognitive skills identified by Paul Tough in his new book on How Children Succeed, and the work of William Sedlacek on the non-cognitive factors predictive of success in postsecondary education.  I argue that the evidence for the intergenerational transfer of cognitive skills and non-cognitive characteristics from parents to their children in adult basic education means that more attention needs to be paid to the role of adult education in contributing to the cost-benefits of both adult basic education and early childhood education.

For additional information on my free workshop contact me at

Tom Sticht




Hi, Rachel and all,

Michelle Carson suggested I weigh in on these questions, and I wanted to share some brand new research that may provide an alternative perspective on GED test-takers, in contrast to the negative perspectives of adult learners in economic research. New research on adult learners' experience in GED preparation is now available at :

In the 2011 Perceptions and Pathways project, researchers interviewed adults in seven U.S. states who had received GED® credentials approximately five years earlier. The interviews covered the educational experiences of adults from secondary schooling through postsecondary education. Many of the adults participated in adult education before GED testing.

At this site you will find adult learner perceptions of adult education and their recommendations to adult educators. And, yes, you will see that a positive classroom experience makes quite a difference to learners before they go to college - they had plenty to say about their teachers and classmates. Research Allies for Lifelong Learning  continues to analyze data from the Perceptions and Pathways project and will be posting additional results on in the near future.

You can find more information on the Perceptions and Pathways project on the GED Testing Service website at Perceptions and Pathways: Life Decisions of GED Test Credential Recipients from Secondary to Postsecondary Education.

On that same page, there is also a study on GED preparation from 2009, called Preparation for and Performance on the GED® test. You can also find more information on Crossing the Bridge, a two-year study of GED test-takers who went to college. The national postsecondary enrollment rate for GED passers is 43%; approximately 12% of enrollees graduated during the period of study.

I hope this information will be useful to adult educators interested in transitioning adult learners to college!


Margaret Patterson, PhD

Senior Researcher

Research Allies for Lifelong Learning

The comments from Rachel and Tom remind me strongly of Daniel Goleman’s book: “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ” which I highly recommend. I also feel that one’s support system really matters. I have repeatedly heard that having at least one caring adult in a young adult’s life makes all the difference in the world. One place this is described is in “A Framework for Understanding Poverty”. Perhaps it is true that the majority of, or the average, GED takers have less support and fewer networks to depend on. Having taught in adult ed for a few decades, I feel that many students I encountered were lacking in realistic goal setting and decision making skills, did not monitor and self-correct their own behavior, did not exhibit planning behaviors and did not see connections between events. These skills can have both cognitive and non-cognitive effects. If a person did not have opportunity to have these skills modeled for him/her it may be difficult to execute them.  

Tom, Margaret, and Mary,

Wow! Thanks for all the resources!

It's going to take me a while to look through this (I do have to do my job!), but I greatly appreciate the links, author names, and general support. :)

Rachel Baron


Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council



Hi Rachel and everyone,

Here are a couple of other resources relevant to this discussion:

Beyond the Big Test: Noncognitive Assessment in Higher Education
William E. Sedlacek. You can get this at Jossey-Bass.

And also, here is the transcript/resources/information of a guest discussion that was held on the LINCS Assessment Discussion List a couple of years  back.  The guests are Dr. Sedlacek, author of the book noted above, and Dr. Patrick Kyllonen, Research Center Director for the New Constructs Center at Educational Testing Service (ETS).

Assessment of Noncognitive Skills in Adult Basic Education | LINCS

Hope you find these helpful!


Hi all, continuing on our theme of noncognitive skills, I receive the online publication Education Week and it has an article on the importance of helping students gain soft skills for preparation for higher ed.  The article contains some references to research, as well as a number of interesting resources. The final sentence in the article is:

"This is the critical nut to crack," ...."if our country is really going to support success for all learners."

Is anyone familiar with any of the resources mentioned in the article?  If so, what has been your experience with them?



I hightly recommend a book called Everyone's a Winner - Life in our Congratulatory Society by Joel Best. This outlines many many trends in our overal culture and the stress that our students feel as they try to navigate an ever changing and competitive educational system and job market. Yes, our students lack some of soft skills needed to be successful. There are steps we can take that become part of the overall program policy. These steps include defining student expectations, setting clear action steps to reach goals, periodic meetings with an advisor /support staff to identify progress. All of these best-practices can be easily integrated into a program at no expense. 


Parents who coddle their kids now expect the entire government-educational complex to wet-nurse them through college. No natural consequences, no expectation of self-reliance; just more of what has already dumbed down our country.  Good training for PRISON!

Donn Liston, MEd

Anchorage, Alaska

I interpreted the article differently. Schools are now trying to counteract the coddling that helicopter parents are "inflicting" by teaching students that bad things happen and they have to learn to deal with those bad things on their own. I agree that the parents should be teaching kids to deal with life but unfortunatly many are not. When we get these folks in our ABE classes, we should step up and work on these skills with them. I think folks who don't have resiliency, accountability, and the other softskills are the ones who end up in prison because they are so used to doing things they shouldn't and getting away with them. Hopefully, the next generation of parents won't helicopter.

With all due respect, I think this article promotes the kind of thinking that's great for arguing issues like "class size" and "early retirement" for union members. When we turn our educational system to a glorified babysitting service we teach dependency instead of Natural Consequences. Why not just give every student an IEP in kindergarten and goose-step them through school to adult day-care? An entire generation seems to be heading that way, with ear buds on.

I would like to also suggest a book:  "Counseling with Choice Therapy; the New Reality Therapy" by William Glasser. In it he documents extensive therapy sessions with people who don't know how to make hard choices and need to look at why they are so screwed up.  He doesn't tell them what they need to do, he lets them discover for themselves what "reality" is.  They usually figure it out!

Most of my ABE students know they have to do something. They didn't pay one bit of attention to what they were told to do by their parents, or when they were in the public "education" system (there are exceptions, but generally this is true).  Reality is dawning. Our job as ABE instructors is to promote enlightened self-interest, not dependency. Dependency doesn't work.

Donn Liston, MEd

Anchorage, Alaska

I agree that telling folks what to do has little effect on their behavior. And like you, I do not advocate dependency. Everyone, no matter what age, has to figure it out. Some do sooner than others. Some never do. In Glasser's work, what does he do to help his clients figure it out? My guess is that he may ask them some pointed questions.

I think the next generation of parents move from hovering to actually jumping down into the experiences of thier kids. Yet - I think we need to look at the bigger picture. WHY is there this need to do everything for our kids? I completely agree that we need to help students develop the resiliency skills and accountability. Well said.


Responding to Don Liston's comment on Montesorri vs John Dewey:  I believe the worse thing about schools is its homogenity. It damages the intellect and creativity.  It makes it necessary to drug school children.  It gives us "adults" who have spent years in school without learning basic academic skills.  John Gato made a video "" which exposes the the history of schools.  We must continue to do our best with adult learners, but not putting attention on the "early learners" and the schools they must learn in and the curriculum they must learn from is like mopping up the overflowing sink without shutting off the faucet.  John Dewey's philosophy was not child centered and the schools today are products of such thinking.

Sharon Hillestad

I agree that early learning is crucial. And because I did not begin to learn English until the age of 14, I cannot help but think that anyone who is interested in making this more successful must begin to call for a reduction of irregular spellings, such as 'many',  'friend' or 'some'  (cf man, men; fend, fiend; drum, home), which doom the educational prospects of those in the bottom third of the ability range and also disadvantage parentally poorly supported more able children.

If at least a few hundred of the thousands of the 300-year-old English irregular spellings were ameliorated, we would not have so many children losing interest in education from a young age, nor so much need for remedial support or so many pupils ending their schooling almost as ignorant as they entered it. These costs are all the result of failing to ameliorate the hundreds of English words with needlessly irregular spellings.

The inconsistencies of English spelling are of no benefit to the brightest pupils either, and even less to the middle third, but for the bottom third they are educationally lethal. The long time they have to spend on learning to read and write, despite being doomed to achieve a minimal level of competence at best, means that they learn very little during their long years of compulsory schooling.

The iniquities of English spelling should not be allowed to continue doing the damage they do.

Masha Bell
Ex English teacher, now independent literacy researcher
and Youtube video 'Why improve English spelling?'
Wareham, Dorset, UK

I reject the notion that the problem with learning for the legion of students in our public schools, many of whom end up having to become ABE students, is the inconsistency of spelling. Our American English language is a work in progress--developed out of many ideas brought into the "Hobo Stew" of cultures around the globe. Our nation has been built on diversity and imagination, leavened by technology, and expanded by people with the capacity to think big instead of drawing attention to minutia as they promote mediocrity. Standardizing spelling ranks there with changing to the metric system of measurement--much ado about nothing.

Failure of our public education system is well documented and avoided strenuously by "educators" and "retired educators" who wax eloquently on ways to mold it in their vision of conformity. It's a travesty.

Donn Liston, MEd

Anchorage, Alaska



(I lost my earlier comment)

My nation, Australial, has metric.  Pepl objected til it came in, and then found it a boon for everyone, including lerners.It still needs labeling mesurements for carpenters and newborn babies, but that wil be esy. 

I hav found esier spelling helps half the population from extreme difficulty and even failure in literacy.  80% is OK. It is the 20% which has unnecessarily difficult spelling which spoil the rest, for the disadvantaged, dislexic and forin-born. English as a lingua franca is handicapd by its spelling.

To save half the population from extreme difficulty or even failure in literacy, keep 35 wurds which make up 12% of everyday text, and cut the 6% of surplus letters and change the 3% of tricky letters in  the rest.

2011, Yule, Valerie  'Recent developments which affect spelling. On the possibility of removing the unnecessary difficulties in English spelling, while leaving the basic appearance of English print intact.'  English Today, 107, vol 27, No 3. Sept 2011, pp 62-67


Fear of looking foolish has kepd back most advances that make life esier for other pepl. We keep to the current fashon - be it high heels, McMansion houses, wasteful cars, etc.

 Yet how foolish ar the unnecessary letters and tricky letters in our spelling!  Once we ar rid of them, we will wonder why we kepd them so long, like we look back on spellings like phrenzy, oeconomy, daemon,  errour, aether, exotick, horrour, and programme.

Yet most of us cannot spell without a spellchecker.  Let us update our spellcheckers.  Can you spell?  The best of us may not be perfect.

The disadvantaged who cannot follow Donn's advice are the majority of those who fail in literacy.  They cannot cope with computers exept for basic tasks. They certainly cannot transpose spellcheckers to check their handwriting.  Those who do follow Donn's advice take twice as long as we do.

Experiment with cribs for their books, and see who is helpd by them.

I could have used another word besides "foolish" but I was trying to be polite.  I don't mean to offend you, Ma'am, but I simply think you are wrong. I have already stated my case, for why I think instead of trying to simplify our language we should try to be better at teaching it the way it is.  There are math teachers who do not think students should memorize the multiplication tables because calculators are readily available. I don't argue with them because they have a right to their opinion, but I know personally that knowing the multiplication tables provides a framework for computation that is handy in lieu of having to do them on a calculator. Adult Education Students who memorize the multiplication tables have a better "number sense," in my experience.

I like words! I like their sound, and how they look on the printed page.  I tell my students that "the dictionary is your friend" and I often break open the dictionary in the middle of a discussion to share what a certain word means--especially when it may have a similar sounding word that means something entirely different to compare it with. I was a reporter for The Anchorage Daily News during the 1970s when that paper was produced with hot metal presses. We had a tough time getting all of the "typo's" from each paper, but we took pride in trying to get them all. We wanted our message to be clear and understood by our readers. 

I'm not a great speller, but when I see a page of made-up spellings I instantly have a poor view of that person's attention to detail, and their basic education. You can go onto "Craigs List" and see outrageous writings by people who are trying to sell their junk, and they don't make me want to buy whatever it is. It's laughable.

Most of all I believe we owe it to our students to help them see the value of writing clearly and accurately, using resources such as a dictionary to assure they are making a clear statement of what they mean to say. Frankly, when I start to read what you have written to make your point, I quit after the first couple of misspelled words.  I know the convention of proper spelling, and if you don't want to use it then I don't really have the time or inclination to de-code the gibberish. I guess that's the bottom line.

Donn Liston, MEd

Anchorage, Alaska

English is the only alphabetic language that has not had a spelling reform in the past hundred years.  Only the unnecessarily difficult wurds need be changed to bring it up-to-date and vastly help the disadvantaged who ar confused by all words becaus of them.

Look into the subject befor u make hasty judgments.

6% of letters ar surplus to meaning or pronunciation and 3% need changing, apart from 35 common words which make up 12% of everyday text.

I am Australian, and we cope with American and 
British spelling without trubl. 

An English magazine notes that pepl nowadays ar using 'spelling pronunciation' for wurds like worry.  Perhaps that is the solution.


2011, Yule, Valerie  'Recent developments which affect spelling. On the possibility of removing the unnecessary difficulties in English spelling, while leaving the basic appearance of English print intact.'  English Today, 107, vol 27, No 3. Sept 2011, pp 62-67

French reform - see

1986 Design of spelling to match needs and abilities. Harvard Educational Review.56.3. 278 – 297  qv. 

1994.Problems that face research in design of English spelling.Visible Language.28:1. 26-47 (PDF on OzIdeas)

THE BOOK OF SPELLS AND MISSPELLS - a funny and comprehensiv tresury about spelling and why we should look at the task that is set in English, compared with other alphabetic languages. givs an outlinel and a pdf, so it can be downloaded, or bought as a hardback on amazon


I agree completely with u re:  

People shouldn’t have to spend 15 years intensely dissecting English, simply to learn to spell. We need advocates and sponsors to help us reform written English.

I just worry that the reforms u might have in mind might be a bit too radical.

I am a member of the English Spelling Society which first came into being in 1908 as the Simplified Spelling Society, with heavy financial support from Andrew Carnegie . Many of its members have been devising new spelling systems for English ever since, including the Initial Teaching Alphabet (i.t.a.) which the National Foundation for Education Research (UK) used in 1963-4 to test if reforming English spelling would speed up literacy acquisition:

In the hope of obviating the need for reform, many schools then used i.t.a. for just the first school year. This was disastrous for the pupils concerned and the reform movement, because people imagined that all supporters of spelling reformer favoured English spelling being reformed in that way. In 2000 we conducted a member survey on the type of reform they favoured -  some improvements to the current system or a completely new more phonetic system?

The vast majority voted for merely reducing irregularities rather than a new system.

Ever since, I have been working on identifying which irregularities absorb most teaching and learning time (and would therefore make the best candidates for reform) by analysing the 7,000 most used English words. I have established that 80 of the 90 main English spelling patterns have exceptions, but some have very few (e.g. short a of 'cat, sad, rang' has just 3: plait, plaid, meringue). The ones which are chiefly responsible for making English literacy acquisition exceptionally time-consuming are the ones I'll paste in below.
(The first figure in the brackets on the right gives the number of words out of the 7,000 which use the pattern - the second those which don't.)

I hope the listing of interest and use not only for people who are open to the possibility of making learning to read and write English easier, because they show the trickiest areas of English spelling:

e: end – head, any, said, Wednesday, friend, leisure, leopard, bury (301 – 67)

i:  ink – mystery, pretty, sieve, women, busy, build  (421 – 53)

u:  up – front, some, couple, blood  (308 – 68)

a-e:  plate – wait, weight, straight, great, table, fete   (338 – 69)

-are:  care – hair, bear, aerial, their, there, questionnaire (31 – 27)

au:  sauce – caught, bought, always, tall, crawl (44 – 76)

er:  her – turn, bird, learn, word, journey (70 – 124)

ea:  eat – eel, even, ceiling, field, police, people,

          me, key, ski, debris, quay  (152 – 304)

  i-e:  bite – might, style, mild, kind, eider, height, climb

           island indict sign  (278 – 76)

 o-e:  mole – bowl, roll, soul; old – mould

             boast, most, goes, mauve (171 – 100)

-o:  no – toe, dough, sew, cocoa, pharaoh, oh, depot  (106 – 60)

oo:  food – rude, shrewd, move, group, fruit, truth, tomb,

            blue, do, shoe, through,   manoeuvre (95 – 101)

Consonant doubling:

merry (regular) – very(missing)  – serrated(surplus)  - (381 – 439 – 153)

s-:  send, sing – centre, city, scene  (138 – 49)

-ce:  face, fence – case, sense  (153 – 65)

 -ce-: ancestor – counsel (62 – 29)


-tion:  ignition – mission, pension, suspicion, fashion  (216 – 81)

-tious:  ambitious – delicious, luscious; 

-cial:  facial – spatial  (216 –ti- --  55 –ci- , 22 –ssi, 4 others)

Endings and prefixes:

-ary:  ordinary – machinery, inventory, century, carpentry (37 – 55)

-en:  fasten – abandon, truncheon, orphan, goblin, certain (73 – 132)

-ence:  absence – balance;  absent – pleasant ((176 – 58)

-er:  father – author, armour, nectar, centre, injure (UK 340/US 346 – 135/129)

For beginners, the irregular spellings for short e, i and u are the biggest impediments, followed by the other tricky vowel spellings.

The irregular endings and prefixes become significant much later.


I am being misunderstood by you again and have no intention of getting involved in what you have written. Reforming English is a very BIG job and requires people who know how to reform it; otherwise, a bigger mess can be created.

If spellcheckers gave spellings that did not hav surplus letters or tricky letters, pepl could choose the esiest.

80% of English wurds ar sensibly spelld.

Most pepl cannot spell without spellcheckers.  That is silly. Most alphabetic languages set out the rules of their spelling on ONE PAGE.  We could do the same.

Lerning the multiplication tables by hart is like lerning the alphabet and the basic spelling sistem by hart.  English spelling however is full of exeptions to the sistem - ther ar no exeptions to the rules in math.

I hav a doctorat on the reform of English spelling, and study how riting sistems change in other languages. English spelling changes too - but it is too slow.

There is plenty of reserch on the difficulties of English spelling. It needs to be complemented by reserch on how to change them.



I agree that reforming English spelling is a very big job. After failure to improve it for over 350 years, it has got into a terrible state. Among the 7,000 most used English words, 3,700 (i.e. nearly 4 in every 7) now contain one or more unpredictable letters. Mostly it is just one letter (friend, head, build, pretty, mother). At sound-grapheme level, English is therefore 80% regular. But one omitted letter (frend) or wrong letter (muther), makes the whole word look wrong, and marked wrong in spelling tests.

U seem to think that u have found the perfect way to reform English spelling. But unless u engage with other people and win them over to your way of thinking, how can reform come about?

Because I had to learn 4 languages before the age of 18, and then chose to learn another 3, I could not help but notice that learning to read and write English is much more difficult than other alphabetically written languages - because its spelling is very irregular. To me, the logical way to improve English spelling and literacy acquisition therefore seems simply to reduce at least some of its worst irregularities (the way all other European languages have been modernised over the centuries).

Premature retirement in 1995 gave me the opportunity for a close analysis of English spelling regularities and irregularities. (I pasted some of the results into my last post.) I think debates about how best to reform English spelling will have to take them into account.

The main English spelling patterns are the following:

A (cat),   a-e, -ain, -ay (plate, plain, play),   -ar, -are, au, -aw  (car, care, sauce, saw)

b  (bed),     c-, -ck, -c  (cat/ot/ut, c/l/ram, pick, comic), ch, -tch  (chat, catch), d  (dog),

e (end),   ea, --y (end, eat, funny),    er ­ (herb),    f, g, h ­ (fish, garden, house)

i, i-e, -y ­ (ink, bite, by),   j, -dge, -ge  (jug, bridge, oblige),

k  ( kite/kept, seek, risk),    l, m  (lips, man),   n, -ng  (nose, ring),

o (on, want, quarrel), o-e, -o  ( bone, old, so),   oi, -oy  (coin, toy),

oo  (food, good), or,  -ore  (order, more),   ou, -ow  (out, now),

p, qu, r  (pin, quick, rug),    s, -ce, -cy ; (sun, face, idiocy),

sh, -ti-, -ci-  (shop, station, cautious, facial, musician),

t, -te  (tap, delicate), th  (this thing),

u, u-e, -ue  ( cup, cube, cue),

v, -v-, -ve  ( van, river, have), w (wind),  -x  (fix), y-  (yes), z, -se  (zip, wise),

-si-, -sure  (vision, treasure).

8 endings: doable, fatal, single, ordinary, flatten, presence, present, other

2 prefixes: decide, invite

+ consonant doubling after short, stressed vowels (bitter - cf. biter).

If it wasn't for the 3,700 words which disobey them in some way

learning to read and write English would be nearly as easy as Spanish or Italian. But I don't think they can all be improved in one go. There will need to be debate about what and how much to change.

There is no doubt whatsoever that improving English spelling would make literacy acquisition easier and faster

The tricky part is winning people over to the idea of improving it.

I've written another book to that end, explaining how English spelling ended up in the state it is, what the costs of its irregularities are and what benefits reform would bring, but I don't think many people are interested in reading it.

How can we get more people to embrace modernisation of English spelling?


You have done an outstanding job of chronicling the variations in the American English language! I am very impressed.  In fact I think I will begin incorporating these facts in my lessons.

I do not agree with your premise that spelling anxiety creates dyslexia, or that we need to "advocate" for a change in the way the language is organized so some people who are not as capable of acquiring the language and using it can be accommodated. As I have stated before, our language is an amalgam of many languages.  New words are instituted every day.  We don't need a "spelling police."

Donn Liston, MEd

Anchorage, AK

"some people who are not as capable of acquiring the language and using it can be accommodated."'


Since half the population hav dificulty and even failure in aquiring litracy, it costs us all when they ar not acomodated.

56% of the population cannot spell 'accommodation'.  Spel it as 'acomodation' and everyone can spell it.

And without spellchecker, almost everyone cannot spell correctly. - Test your spelling with 16 common words

Test these claims yrself.  Without experiment, sience does not progress.

Arguments ar useless

I don't see anything keeping people in Australia from changing the English language any way they want to, Ms. Yule; you have already referenced the fact they changed to the metric system of measurement, so do it!

While it appears there are quite a few folks here in this conversation that are pretty invested in their perception of the "problems" of American English spelling, let me pose my view from another perspective.

When I turned 60 years old I decided I was going to come to terms with the entire (known) works of William Shakespeare. I have read some of his plays and sonnets in the past, but this time I read Harold Bloom's book: "Shakespeare, the Invention of Humanity."  I picked up some other reference books and before reading each plav I would read the plot and characters, etc.  What a lot of trouble to read some anachronism from 400 years ago, right?

I'm almost done, now after nearly two years, and I hate to see it coming to an end. I have gone back to what Bloom wrote in each of the plays, and it has been difficult to see how he came up with his analysis of some plays from those archaic words and phrases. Reading it has gotten easier as I have moved through the pages, and I'm nearly there!

Shakespeare is the cornerstone of the English language. For centuries knowledge of Shakespeare was the mark of an educated man. Spelling in our language has changed significantly since he wrote his works, and it will continue to change according the interests of English speakers. Some people will never see the point of reading Shakespeare, and some could not plow through it if they wanted to. I guess that's their "disability," and so be it. They will have to settle for something less challenging and more comfortable.

Those persons are predominant in modern society, and I think that may be part of the problem with the entire public education system in the United States at this time.  Public Employee union bullies have taken over, and want everything to be easy for the little darlings without their being held accountable. We are handing the next generation a pig-in-a-poke society in which technology has become a constant distraction or, as Shakespeare might say: “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”


Donn Liston, MEd

Anchorage, Alaska

The folio editions of Shakespeare wer sometimes difficult in spelling, but sometimes esy.


But Shakspere/ Shaksper/ Shakspeare was not pedantic about the spelling. He never signed his own name correctly, coming from a family that ran to thirty-four different spellings of it. No wonder some people have thought he must have been Bacon.

            Scholars of his time wanted to re-spell Old English and Norman-French spellings according to the resurrected languages of the ancient world. Shakespeare poked fun at them with a pernickety character called Holofernes, croaking,

 ‘I abhor such fanatical fantasms, such insociable and point-devise companions; such rackers of orthography, as to speak dout, when he should say doubt; det, when he should pronounce debt, d, e, b, t, not d, e, t. He clepeth [calls] a calf, cauf; half, hauf; neighbour vocatur nebour; neigh abbreviated ne . . . this is abhominable, it insinuateth me of insanie.’   (Love’s Labor’s Lost, Act V, Scene 1) 


The first Shakespeare editions hav meny longer spellings, but some shorter ones too.

SInce brasse nor stone nor earth nor boundlesse sea

But sad mortallity oreswaies their power

How with this rage shall beautie hold a plea

Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O how shall summers hunny breath hold out

Against the wrackfull sledge of battring days

When rocks impregnable are not so stout

Nor gates of steel so strong but time decayes?

O fearefull meditation, where alack

Shall times best iewell from times chest lie hid?

Or what strong hand can hold his swift foote back

Or who his spoile of beautie can forbid?

Oh none, unlesse this miracle have might

That in black inck my love may still shine bright.


brasse  boundlesse  mortallity oreswaies  beautie  wrackfull   decayes  fearefull iewell  foote spoile  beautie unlesse inck

= we hav cut most of the useless letters out of these wurds, becaus we do not pronounce them.

If we realize this diffrence is becaus of surplus letters, we can read it esily.

battring  hunny = better than today




I am reminded of the Chinese saying: "When food on the table family have many problems. When no food on the table, family only have one problem."

I think your arguments are based on faulty facts "half the population hav dificulty and even failure in aquiring litracy" and if you want to misspell everything I really don't care. It only matters if you want educated people to bother reading what you write.

'nuf sed"

Donn Liston, MEd

Anchorage, Alaska

The New England Literacy Resource Center at World Education has developed quite a few resources for adult educators to use to help learners affected by stress and trauma to focus on learning and build their resilience. Our Managing Stress to Improve Learning project, implemented with ABE and ESOL teachers and a few counselors, developed lots of strategies captured on a robust website 

As well, the Sep 2012 issue of The Change Agent magazine is on resilience with stories about how individuals, by I Want This">neighborhoods, and whole communities have drawn strength and persevered to respond to challenges and create change. The articles are identified by the reading level and many are available on audio, consistent with STAR reading instruction guidelines

Finally, we designed and offered a blended prof dev course for adult educators in New England called Helping Adults Tap Their Innate Capacity for Learning and Resilience that was very popular. Unfortunately, we don't have funding to offer it at this time but would hope to do so at some point.

Silja Kallenbach, Vice President

World Education