A block to social mobility

The latest report from the Social Mobility Commission warns that inequality in the UK remains entrenched from birth to work. Children who are born to poor parents are likely to end up poor too.

This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, because disadvantaged children will continue to miss out on the preschool preparation which is essential for learning to read and write English with relative ease, and which has to begin almost from the moment a child is born. Being played with, talked to and read to from early infancy onwards makes an enormous difference to children’s grasp of language and grammar. This in turn makes a big difference to how easily children learn to read write words like ‘only, once, other’ or ‘hear, heard, heart’.  

Because poorer parents tend to be less well educated and less literate, and often work long unsocial as well, most of their children start school linguistically a long way behind. They also tend not get much help with reading homework after starting school. This means that while English spelling is allowed to continue making literacy acquisition and access to independent learning exceptionally dependent on a child’s home environment, inequality in the UK, as in all English-speaking countries, will remain unchanged.

The children of poor parents in English-speaking countries are educationally disadvantaged, because English spelling makes learning to read and write English exceptionally difficult. Spellings, with changeable sounds like ‘trout, trouble, troupe’ and irregular spellings like ‘blue, shoe, flew, through, too’, make becoming literate much harder than with more regular systems.

This means that children’s progress at school, and thereby in life too, is far more affected by what happens to them before school and in the early years at school than it is in most other countries. It is much easier to learn to read and write English if u have been regularly read to almost from the moment u were born. Before long, children start to link some of the words they hear with those they see on a page. It is a relaxed and informal way of starting to learn to read, several years before starting formal lessons at school.

English literacy acquisition is  also assisted by having a good-sized vocabulary and basic grasp of English grammar before u start learning to read and write. Being regularly spoken to, instead of being plonked in front of the telly or ignored in your pushchair while mum is ogling her phone, makes a huge difference. Being introduced to books and read to every day as soon as u can sit up makes an even bigger difference. Getting regular help with reading homework when u first start school is unvaluable too.

For children who start school without adequate priming for learning to read from early infancy and get little help with it at home thereafter, it is much harder to become literate. It delays their access to other learning. They start school a long way behind most of their classmates and are unlikely to ever catch up, unless they are exceptionally bright. Poor children with additional learning difficulties are especially disadvantaged. They have little hope of ever becoming proficient  readers and getting much benefit from their many years in compulsory schooling.



Will they ever learn?

English spelling is highly irregular and difficult to fathom. But some people disagree and maintain that if u look harder, u can find sense it, e.g. https://jeffbowers.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/916-2/  and https://tinyurl.com/onion-fam. This is claimed mainly as part of promoting a new teaching method and new teaching materials and training courses.

Looked at objectively, English spelling is shambolic. If u started to learn a foreign language and were told that the words ‘brom, crom, pom, som, trom’ don’t rhyme and are pronounced ‘brom, crum, poom, sim, troam’ u would deem it a crazy system.  – But that is exactly how children must learn to pronounce the letter o in the English words ‘from, front, tomb, women, comb,‘. In sensible writing systems, the letter o has only one pronunciation, as it does in sensibly spelt English words like ‘stop not on hot spot’ or ‘got lots of frocks from Oxfam shop’. Learning to read with sensibly spelt English words is as easy as in other languages, and children make rapid progress, for as long they are taught only with them, as they are at the start of phonics.

Unfortunately, one English word in every four has silly spellings like ‘only, one, other’ or totally insane ones like ‘rough, cough, though, thought, through’. And that quarter of words with silly spellings makes learning to read English much harder and slower than other languages.  Particularly at the start of learning to read.  They are especially common in the most used words and children can’t avoid for long. They have to begin learning to read them too, soon after starting school: and any, on one, count double,  here there were, what who

Such spellings give English-speaking children a much harder start to their schooling than nearly all others. If such words were spelt with the main English spelling patterns (and enny, on wun, count dubble, heer thair wer, wot hoo ) children would undoubtedly learn to read much faster. They would also need much less individual help with learning to read, because they would not keep getting flummoxed as often as they commonly do now. This seems blatantly obvious. It has been confirmed by research too. But people who spent 10 or more years learning to read and write with the current system tend to become attached to it and want it to stay that way.

Learning to write English is even harder than learning to read, because just over half of all words (i.e. 4,219 of the 7,000 most used ones I analysed) contain irregular spellings which have to be learned word by word, like ‘blue, shoe, flew, through, too…’ or ‘speak, speech, even, police, believe…’. That’s why nobody becomes a proficient speller of English in less than 10 years. Learning to read English is easier, because half of the 4,000+ words with tricky spellings pose no reading difficulties. The 194 words with erratic spellings for the /er/ sound, for example (her bird hurt, purple perch, birch lurch…), have regular pronunciations and pose no reading difficulties.

It is not only learning to read and write with a chaotic spelling system that is exceptionally difficult. Literacy teaching is much harder too: it makes progress much more dependent on innate abilities, preschool experiences and the amount of individual help children get when they first start school. Yet this is often overlooked. And although all English-speaking countries have very similar levels of literacy failure and educational underachievement, they almost invariably blame this on poor teaching.

Teachers keep being exhorted to work harder and to look for better teaching methods. And they keep coming up with new ideas. In my lifetime I have witnessed them trying phonics, the Initial Teaching Alphabet, whole word, whole language, invented writing, analytic phonics, synthetic phonics, word study... Their proponents have invariably claimed to have achieved superior results. Adopting them with enthusiasm has mostly also produced quite good results for a while. But in the end, they have all failed to bring about long-term improvements in literacy standards. They fail to surmount the barriers posed by the insanities of English spelling.

What most people don’t realise is that the first English spelling system was as regular as most. The monks who adapted it from Latin in 7th century made a pretty good job of it. But the English language has changed quite a lot since then, especially after the Norman conquest of 1066, when French became the official language of England for 300 years. The poet Chaucer (1343 – 1400) gave the frenchified new English another fairly good spelling system. Sadly, this has since been repeatedly changed for the worse, and mainly for bad reasons.

Luckily, spelling mistakes are now mostly corrected by spellcheckers. Only learning to read English remains challenging as before. But computers are starting to help with that too. There are already a few programmes which help with pop-ups for tricky words, if a struggling reader points at them, such as: meen, ment … throo, ruf, cof … yor, yung, yooth.  Perhaps such simplifications will even start to make people wonder why so many English words continues to be spelt as stupidly as they are?

Why doubling is so troubling

 English has an almost unique system for showing if the letters

    a, e,  i,  o,  u  have  a long or a short sound, as in:

           mate – mat, matter;   theme – hem, hemmed;  hide – hidhidden;

            dote – dot, dotty;   tube – tub, tubby.

When followed by just one consonant, or several consonants and a vowel,

a,  e,  i,  o,  u  are ‘closed’ and should have a short sound, as in:

            am, ample; ten, tender; pin, pinked; pond ponder; bun bunker.

When followed by a single consonant and a vowel, they are meant to be‘open’ and long;

           male, halo;  peter, period; fine, final;  sole, solo;   tube, tubular’.

If stressed short vowel before a single consonant and another vowel is

to be short, it should be followed by a doubled consonant:

                       allergy,  petty,  Finnish,  dolly,  butter.

Schoolchildren spend much time learning to use the rule when adding suffixes to short words:  cut + er→ cutter,  prefer + ed→preferred;                                      but cute + er →cuter,  enter +ed →entered.

Sadly, at least 1,700 words of more than one syllable disobey the ‘closed /short’ – ‘open / long’ vowel system in one (or several) of  5 ways:

  1. At least 567 common words  fail to double a consonant after a short, stressed vowel,   e.g. ‘habit,  very,  similar,  body,  study’.
  1.  219 words have needlessly doubled  consonants after unstressed vowels,       e.g. account,  terrific,   immense, occur, hurrah (when compared to regular use) accurate, terror,   simmer,  occupy,   hurry.
  1. Nearly 200 words end with a surplus –e: (give, promise – cf.spiv drive, surprise tennis).
  2. Around 200 words have irregular spellings for a, e, i, o and u  (plait, bread,  pretty, cough, touch),  sometimes with missing doubled consonants as well (many, women, sausage, money).
  1. At least 665 words do not use the ‘open’ vowel method:                                              87 for long a (late – wait, straight, eight),      373 long e (eke – seek, speak, shriek, key, ski, people, police ) – [e-e is used just in 86 words],    79 long i (while – style, whilst, island, height),   100 long o  (mole – bowl, coal, roll, soul),   26 long u (use – youth, juice, feud, lewd,  beauty, Tuesday).

The above irregularities dilute the ‘long/short’ system so much that hundreds of spellings simply have to be learned word by word, instead of being spelt systematically, like ‘fat, fate, fatter’.  They result mainly from careless changes to the original English spelling system and are most responsible for making learning to read and write English exceptionally difficult and time-consuming. Many of them cause reading difficulties as well, not just spelling ones:                                                                                                            e.g.  hide, hidden – hideous;  arrow – arrive (cf. arise);   save – have;    ouch – touch.

They offer great scope for making English spelling more learner-friendly and literacy acquisition much faster, by merely undoing some of the changes which have made it worse than with all other Latin-based writing systems.

Repairing the worst faults

English spelling is exceptional in two ways:

1) It has more spellings per sound than any other Latin-based writing system, with          205 spellings for 44 sounds which make learning to write very time-consuming.

2) Even more exceptionally, unlike any other Latin-based writing system, English poses            reading difficulties as well, because many of its 205 spellings are used for more    than one sound, like ‘ea’ in ‘treat, threat, great, react, create, theatre’.                      Reading difficulties are a bigger overall educational handicap than writing ones,            because: a) Inability to read impedes progress in all subjects, not just English.                   b) It makes learning to spell English much more difficult too, because we imprint            the right look of irregular spellings on our brains mainly through reading.                         c) Electronic devices and speech recognition software now correct most spelling           errors, but learning to read remains as difficult as before.

At least 69 English spellings have several pronunciations, but some have variable sounds in only a few words, like ‘ai’, just in ‘said, plaid’ and ‘plait’. The changeable sounds of

  a,  ei, ie,  oo, ow,  u, ui,  ch, g, qu and -se hinder progress more significantly:

and – any, apron, father; veil – ceiling, their,  fiend – friend, died, sieve; boot – foot, flood;

how – low;  up – put, truth;  fruitbuild, ruin,

chat – ache, machine; get – gentle,  qu (quick – queue),    –se (please – grease)

The bulk of English reading difficulties however is caused by the irregular pronunciations of  ea,  o,  o-e  and  ou, because they occur in many of the most used words, such as:

 eat – great, bread;   on – only, once, other, who;

bone –  one,  move,  women;   sound – soup, couple, should, cough.

Their problems are sometimes made worse by erratic consonant doubling (teddy, steady) and surplus -e endings (bone, done). Reducing the use of  ea,  o,  o-e  and  ou for more than one sound would make both learning to read very much easier and help considerably with learning to write too.

The reading difficulties of ea, o, o-e and ou could be much reduced by amending the spellings of the sounds for which they are most often misused:                                            short /e/ (bed – head),   short /u/ (much – mother, trouble),  /ee/ (speech – speak),   /oa(toast – most) and /oo/ (groove – move,  group).                                                               To make some of the words with them completely regular, would sometimes require systematic consonant doubling as well (steady → steddy, as in ‘teddy’) or the cutting of a surplus -e (done → dun).

The adoption of all those amendments would reduce the time needed for learning to read and write English dramatically. But even improvements to just some of the worst  irregularities would help to make learning to read English easier.

The confusion caused by ea, for example (to read, have read; dream, dreamt) could already be much reduced by merely making the spellings of short /e/ more regular. Currently ea is used in 254 common words: for /ee/ in 156, 51 for short /e/ and several other sounds in 47 (tear, break, react, create, learn). If the 51 ea spellings for short /e/ became e, the clearly dominant pronunciation of ea would become /ee/ (in 156 words), with different pronunciations in just 47 words like ‘break, react, create’.

Adopting regular spellings for the short /u/ sound would be similarly beneficial. It would reduce the misuses of o, o-e and ou (brother, some, double), help with learning to read and make English spelling more systematic: brush bruther, runny hunny, much funny munny.

There is no good reason for continuing to use ea for the /ee/ sound either, or any of its 10 other totally unpredictable spellings in 412 words which all have to be learned one by one (e.g. even, believe, key, he, police, people, seize, quay, ski, debris)  The irregular spellings for /ee/ are responsible for 11% of all English spelling problems and hinder reading progress very significantly as well. – Apart from the ee spelling, they all spell more than one sound:  reach – real, react, great; ceiling – veil, either;  even – ever;                                     he – then;  fiend – friend, died, diet;  machine – define, engine.

The ee spelling which is used in 133 words has only one pronunciation (keep, sheep, weep…) and poses no reading difficulties. Adopting ee for all 412 words with an /ee/ sound, including the 47 which now have two spellings (e.g. be/bee, here/hear) would clearly make both learning to read and write English very much easier.

The reading difficulties of ea could be partially reduced by merely amending all the words in which ea does not spell the /ee/ sound. But such a word-by-word change would be more difficult for current users to implement. Regularisation of just one or two sounds, like ‘short /e/’ or ‘the long, stressed /ee/ sound’, is much easier to understand and remember.

Making the spellings of short /e/ and /u/ and /ee/ regular (with systematic consonant doubling and cutting of surplus -e as needed) would merely reverse some of the deliberate earlier changes to English spelling which gratuitously undermined its regularity. They would simply repair wilful damages for which generations of children have been paying a heavy price.

An unhelpful abuse of letters

English spelling is exceptional in two ways:                                                                                          1) It has more spellings per sound than any other Latin-based writing system,  with 205 often totally unpredictable spellings for its 44 sounds  (e.g. bed – head, said, friend, any, Wednesday),  which makes learning to write very time-consuming.                         2) Unlike any other Latin-based system, it causes reading difficulties as well as spelling problems, because many of its 205 spellings are used for more than one sound,                                       e.g. ‘ea’ in ‘treat, threat, great’.                                                                          Reading difficulties are a bigger overall educational handicap than writing ones, because:                                                                                                                                                    a) Inability to read impedes progress  in all subjects, not just English.                                   b) It makes learning to spell English much more difficult too, because reading is                      the main way of imprinting the right look of irregular spellings on our brains.                c) Electronic devices and speech recognition software now correct most spelling errors, but learning to read remains as difficult as before.

Altogether, 69 of the 205 English spellings have more than one pronunciation, but some have variable sounds in very few words, like ‘ai’, just in ‘said, plaid’ and ‘plait’. The main causes of English reading difficulties are the irregular uses of 16 spellings, erratic consonant doubling and surplus -e endings. The most handicapping of those are the irregular uses of  ea,  o,  o-e  and ou, because they cause decoding difficulties in large numbers of much used common words. For example:                                                                                eat, great, bread;   on, only, once, other, who;   bone, done,  move,  women;                           sound, soup, couple, should, shoulder, cough.                                                              The other significant retardants of English reading progress are irregularly used:

  a (and – any, apron, father),    ch (chat – ache, machine, choir),                                                    ei (veil – ceiling, height, heir),   ie (field – friend, died, diet, sieve),                                              g (get – gentle),   oo (boot – foot, flood),   ow (how – low),   qu (quick – queue),                            –se (please – grease),   u (cut – put, truth),  ui (build – juice, suite),                                             inconsistent consonant doubling (hole, hollow – holiday,  holly  – wholly)                         and  surplus –e endings  (bone – gonesave – have).

Learning to read English could be made much easier by at least dropping surplus -e endings and reducing the use of ea, o, o-e and ou for more than one sound. This would already make learning to read English substantially easier and improve the literacy levels of Anglophone countries much more than any of the other costly initiatives that they have tried over the last century:                                                                                 blaming teachers for reading and writing failure and making them work harder,               putting children and parents under more pressure with increased testing,                           lowering the school staring age,                                                                                                       employing more classroom assistants,                                                                                           forcing schools to spend more time on the basics and less on play and creativity.

None of those strategies have produced any measurable long-term improvements. All English-speaking countries still have 1 in 6 pupils leaving school with inadequate reading and writing skills. This is likely to continue for as long as learning to read English is allowed to remain as difficult as it is.

Yet just a few well-aimed amendments to English spelling could improve matters in a very short time. If for example, just the needless use of ea for short /e/ was ended by making the spelling of short /e/ regular (hed, sed, bred, brekfast, breth), at least the early stage of learning to read would already become much easier.

Currently ea is used in 257 words: in 156 for /ee/, 64  for short /e/ and for several other sounds in 35 (tear, break, react, create). If the 64 ea spellings for short /e/ were amended to e, the clearly dominant pronunciation of ea would become /ee/ (with just 35 exceptions to 156). This would make the remaining 191 words with ea much easier to decipher.

There is no good reason for continuing to use ea for the /ee/ sound either. The ee spelling for /ee/ which is used in 133 words has only one pronunciation and is much easier to read (keep, sheep, weep…). Adopting ee for all  412 words with an /ee/ sound, including the 47 which currently have two spellings (e.g. be/bee, here/hear, meet/meat) would make both learning to read and write English very much easier, because most of the different spellings for /ee/ have more than one pronunciation:                                                     fiend – friend, died, diet;  ceiling – veil, either;   ski – hi;                                                                 even – ever;  he – the, then;  machine – define, engine.

Making just the spelling of the /ee/  sound regular would already make learning to read and write English much easier. Its 459 totally unpredictable spellings all have to be learned word by word and are responsible for 11% of all English spelling problems.


How Johnson worsened English spelling

The spellings of most English words still obey Johnson’s dictionary of 1755. It was a major achievement but wrecked the regularity of English spelling more than anything else. He probably didn’t deliberately try to make learning to read and write English exceptionally difficult. He did it by trying to force English spelling into a Latin mould.

He still regarded English as an inferior language, despite editing Shakespeare’s plays, and despite the advances made by science after scientists started to write their treatises in English instead of Latin. He continued to believe that English was unlikely ever to become fit for intellectual discourse and still used Latin for his own poetry.

He damaged English spelling in three main ways:                                                                        1. Made consonant doubling  incomprehensible  (ballad – salad).                                        2. Adopted irregular spellings for many endings and prefixes (-en/-on/-an,  in-/en-).        3. Chose different spellings for different meanings of 335 homophones (here/hear).

He made the English system of showing when a, e, i, o and u are long or short, as in  ‘mate – matter,   legal – ledger,   bite – bitten,   cope – copper,   cute – cutter’,  almost totally unpredictable by:                                                                                                                               a) not using consonant doubling in 544 words from Latin roots                                                        e.g.  ‘balance, merit, hideous, copy, study’,    unlike                                                                                ‘ballot,  merry,  hidden, floppy, muddy’.                                                                                   He even dropped doubling from Shakespeare’s  ‘cittie’ and ‘scoller‘.                       b) using doubling needlessly in 223 words to indicate Latin grammar changes                              (e.g. ‘apply’, because in Latin it had the prefix ad  – ‘adplicare’),                                instead of after a short, stressed vowel as in ‘apple’.

He diluted the regular English spellings of many endings, like –er and –en and prefixes like in– and de- (potter, fatteninjure, devote) by changing some of them to their earlier Latin or French patterns:  doctor, scholar; abandon, certainenclose, divine.

He undermined the consistency of English spelling still further by deciding that 335 homophones needed different spellings for their different meanings,  (such as ‘its/it’s, their/there, to/too/two’). Yet he also left 113 sets of different words sharing one spelling (have read – must read).

The main effect of adopting different spellings for identical words is to make it impossible to have a regular spelling system. Sadly, spending many years learning the ‘correct’ different spellings for the 335 identical words ends up making people believe that they are essential, and never considering that 2,500+ other homophones get by perfectly well with just one spelling for their different meanings (mean, lean, bank, tank, rank, found, sound, ground…).

I have examined Johnson’s impact on English spelling and have also read a great deal about him. – He was undoubtedly very clever, but had little empathy for ordinary mortals. He cared even less about young children’s learning and how his spelling choices affected them.

To learn more about Johnson and other wreckers of English spelling read my  blog    or see  my video.


How China improved literacy

When Rob Delaney recently asked on Twitter, “Why do they give 7 yr olds so much homework in the UK & how do I stop this? …” the TV presenter Piers Morgan thought that, “As a nation, we’re falling so far behind educational standards of countries like China, it’s embarrassing. Telling our kids to now give up on homework seems a perverse response to this”.

I doubt that Piers Morgan has ever heard of the big factor, perhaps even the biggest, which has helped China to improve its overall educational attainment beyond recognition.

Traditional Chinese characters make learning to read and write very difficult, and in the 1950s around 85% of Chinese were illiterate.  Some of China’s leaders wisely realised that this would have to be reduced if the country was to make economic progress. And in 1958 Zhou Youguang provided the solution with Pinyin.

Pinyin is a simple alphabetic writing system based on Latin, and Chinese children are now taught to read with Pinyin first. They ten go on to learn to read traditional Chinese writing with Pinyin subtitles. Since the adoption of this practice, China’s illiteracy rate has dropped from 85% to just 5%.

Apart from being used for teaching reading, Pinyin is now also used for typing on all electronic devices, and they automatically convert it into traditional Chinese writing. Before long Pinyin may well drive out traditional Chinese writing altogether. – Most schoolchildren already no longer learn to write the traditional way. Only the very brightest still do.

In Anglophones countries the level of functional illiteracy is only around 18%, but this is still rather high for developed countries. If they want to keep up with China, they should perhaps consider making at least learning to read English a bit easier too?

There is plenty of evidence that simpler spellings like ‘hed  sed, frend’ enable children to learn to read much faster than  ‘head said,  read this friend’. A year-long UK study in 1963-4 for example compared the progress 835 children learning to read and write English with the more regular spellings of the Initial Teaching Alphabet (or i.t.a.) and an equal number using normal spelling during their first year at school. The pupils on i.t.a. learned to read and write much faster, made fewer errors, used a much wider vocabulary and had a more positive attitude to learning. They also needed no parental help with learning to read in addition to the teaching they received at school.

The study was designed to test if spelling reform could speed up English literacy acquisition, because in 1953 the House of Commons had passed Mont Follick’s Spelling Reform Bill. But the results were so impressive, that many schools subsequently decided to adopt i.t.a. for the first school year. – Outside school, books remained in traditional spelling, and after a year, the i.t.a. groups had to switch to it too. They ablest pupils coped with the switch surprisingly well, but the majority regressed severely.

Perhaps Anglophone countries should copy the Chinese and use simpler spellings alongside the tricky ones in the early school years. – For a while I was a voluntary reading assistant for struggling readers who got no help with learning to read at home. I decided to note down 5 – 7 words which made them stumble in each session, like ‘thought, through’, and then put simpler, easily decodable spellings alongside them [thaut, throo].

We then folded the little lists in half, with the normal, tricky spellings on top. The pupils were asked to take the lists home and practise reading them, but to use the simpler spellings only when having trouble remembering the pronunciation of the normally spelt words. – This helped to improve their overall reading noticeably in a very short time.

The best solution would undoubtedly be a proper simplification of the words that are most responsible for making learning to read English exceptionally slow and laborious. But as most children now start to use electronic devices from a very young age, some computer whiz could surely at least devise a program with pop-ups which show the tricky words spelt more sensibly when a child points at it?

Altogether, around 2,000 quite common English words pose some decoding difficulties, but the really bad ones, like ‘eat, great, bread’ and ‘plough, through, rough‘ come to just a few hundred. I have already respelt them more readably, should anyone be interested in making learning to read English easier.  I would love to help.