I was able to validate my hypothesis that quite a few English-speakers lack phonological awareness and are not aware of the alphabetic principle. Many people have simply memorized some number of words, by sight and by sound. And since learning Unspell involves having the ability to analyze spoken English as a series of phonemes, people who have been taught to read English using the “look and say” method, which does not attempt to draw any significant parallels between sight and sound, are at a loss. This can be remedied using a simple tool: click on an Unspell symbol—hear how it sounds. I'll work on putting something like that together.
Many people commented on the fact that Unspell uses its own set of symbols rather than the Latin alphabet or the International Phonetic Alphabet which is derived from it. I've explained this before, but I'll try again.
Latin cannot be used because spelled English uses Latin. If unspelled English used Latin as well, that would mean that learning unspelled English would cause one to unlearn spelled English. For example, if the word “queue/cue/Kew” were to be unspelled as “kiu,” then that would interfere with one's ability to remember how to spell it. And since spelled and unspelled English have to coexist, this is not good.
Also, Latin cannot be used because it has many fewer letters than English has phonemes (but has two redundant ones, like X and Q). The alphabetic principle, which Unspell is intended to instill, involves one-to-one correspondence between graphemes and phonemes; Latin cannot fulfill this requirement.
The International Phonetic Alphabet cannot be used either, for the same reason as Latin (too similar), but also because it is designed for phonetic transcription, not phonological orthography. Without getting into too much detail, it is useful for capturing minute distinctions between accents and dialects; it is not useful for achieving a dialect-neutral representation of a language.
There were also some entirely negative comments to the effect that “language is a living thing and cannot be reformed by fiat; therefore Unspell is a bad idea.” This is a non sequitur: the former does not imply the latter. The English language is indeed a living thing, just like any non-dead, spoken language. But written language is in essence dead. Grammar is, in general, part of the living language and cannot be reformed, but orthographies are purely artificial and can be reformed quite a lot. The difference is very clear: spoken language is innate, supported by neural structures in the human brain and a critical period during which a language acquisition mechanism exists in children, while written language is an artifice, and, as such, is completely arbitrary. For instance, there is no practical reason why English can't be written using Chinese characters.
Another bunch of negative comments had to do with another misunderstanding: that Unspell is somehow a replacement for English spelling instead of a faster way to bootstrap people into literacy by directly teaching two of its most important prerequisites—phonological awareness and the alphabetic principle. Unspell provides a parallel system that can peacefully coexist with traditional, spelled English. Of course, someone could decide to not bother with learning spelled English and just use Unspell: to each his own.
Some readers thought that Unspell can be best taught through puzzles. I am not sure of that, but—funny that they should have mentioned it—Unspell has built into it the ability to create puzzles. There are the 13 basic shapes (12 if “—” and “|” are taken to be different orientations of the same shape).
These shapes are modified in 4 ways: by stretching them vertically (to make consonants) or horizontally (to make vowels) and by adding a bar and/or a stroke. To make a puzzle, take a phrase of unspelled text and make the shapes generic by erasing these 4 distinctions. To make it even harder, erase the spaces between words (spaces between words are a relatively recent innovation). Here is an example:
Lastly, thanks to all of you who have purchased a copy of Unspeller, but I want to hear from you: have you tried using it to learn Unspell it or to teach it to others? How did it go?