Twenty years ago a publishing house in England invited me to write a book about spelling for them. ‘Rescuing Spelling’ was the title, and rescuing spelling has been my principal occupation ever since.
Certainly, spelling needed rescuing from the slander of its supposed ‘exceptions’ and ‘irregularity’. It also needed rescuing from being fought over by the Scylla and Charybdis of the Whole Language Camp on the one hand, and The Great Phonics Hoax on the other hand that was rising more like a Zombie than the shining Phoenix from the ashes of its inevitable failure two or three decades before.
But at that time a far greater pestilence was already menacing the horizon: the gathering black clouds of politically distorted pseudoscience were the harbinger of the imminent descent of the edubabbling “research” wolf in threadbare linguistic clothing coming down on the orthographic fold like the Assyrian of old.
In those days, when personal computers were still glorified word processing engines and internet was still a bright idea in the offing, a contract from an editing house was the only real way to publish a book.
I signed the contract - and thereby sold a small corner of my soul.
“What do you mean, ninety-six pages, no more and no less?” I remember wailing to the agent. And that was the least of my woes as the realization grew that, in actual fact, I had been hired to write the book that they themselves wanted, and in a register of eduspeak that they were imposing. The greatest indignity was that all had to be approved in detail by a ‘language’ expert from the local faculty of education! I should have broken my contract there and then.
But I didn’t.
And just as well. Bad book though it is - I am far from being proud of its compromise-drenched presentation - it did, nevertheless, cause a few ripples here and there. A few glimmers of interest flickered among the international schooling community, two or three European schools invited me to staff development residences and I was invited to present at a big international school conference in 1994.
Smarting from embarrassment at my poltroonery in caving in to the debilitating constraints imposed by the educational publisher, I had made the resolution never to write another book. Instead, my overriding aim was to provide teachers with the conceptual framework of the spelling system as it really is and - respecting their professionality - to encourage them to transform what they learned into their own teaching structures, following their own values, judgements and situations.
Increasingly, though, I was being asked for supplementary materials, especially matrices, by teachers who were excited and keen but who were constantly telling me that their overall workload didn’t allow them the time and leisure to learn to construct their own.
Then, in 1997, cornered by a determined trio of feisty teachers in a Brussels restaurant who were not taking no for an answer, I was bounced into the process that, after an exciting and demanding gestation, resulted in the first Tool Box that appeared in 2001.
Watch this space for the sequel!.