Suggestions for reducing the worst irregularities of English spelling

Learning to read and write English is exceptionally slow and difficult, because over 4,000 common words have tricky spellings which require word-by-word memorisation. Many of them pose reading difficulties as well (e.g. shoe, flew, to – toe, sew, go). If substantial numbers of the gremlins were brought into line with the main patterns, learning to read and write would become easier and faster. This has been confirmed by several studies.

English-speaking countries are not in the habit of reviewing and updating their writing system. It was last slightly improved between 1642-9 when Civil War pamphleteers cut surplus letters from words like ‘hadde, olde, shoppe’, to squeeze more propaganda onto a page. Other spelling changes have nearly all made it worse. There is now so much wrong with it, that even deciding where to start improving it has become difficult. Most English spellings now have some exceptions, but the worst are :

 irregular spellings for short e and u (e.g. head, said, friend; does, done, double),

 long /ee/ spellings (speak, speech, even, believe, weird, machine, people),

 inconsistent consonant doubling (carrot, carol; arise, arrive),

 different spellings for identical words (e.g. bred/bread, hear/here)

and surplus –e endings (refine – engine).

Correcting all of them would make learning to read and write much easier and less time-consuming. But even amending just some of them would already make a substantial difference. The confusion caused by ea for example, (to read, have read; dream, dreamt) could be much reduced by merely making the spellings of short /e/ more regular.

Ea is used in 254 words: 156 for /ee/, 51 for short /e/ and several other sounds in another 47 (tear, break, react, create, learn). If the 51 ea spellings became e, the clearly dominant pronunciation of ea would become /ee/, with different pronunciations in just 47 words. This would already eliminate many reading and spelling problems. Learners would benefit even more if all 61 common words with irregularly spelt /e/ were regularised, including ‘any, many, friend, said, says, bury, heifer, Wednesday’.

Another 158 words have irregular spellings for short a, i, o and u (e.g. plait, busy, was, some). Some of them hinder progress significantly too, because young children generally start learning to read and write with short words like ‘a fat cat sat; sit in pit; pot got hot; mum must run’. All exceptions to them retard early literacy progress, but not equally. Short /a/ is irregular in just three words (plait, plaid, meringue). Exceptions to short /i/ make only seven common words tricky (build, built, English, pretty, busy, women, sieve). The other 38 (e.g. abyss, crypt, crystal, cyclical, cygnet…) occur in less often used words and therefore don’t impede either learning to read or write very much. The a spelling for short /o/ after w and qu in 29 words (e.g. was, want, squash, squat) is almost regular, with the exceptions and ‘wobbly, wonky, wodge, wombat’ and ‘cough, trough, laurel, sausage’. The wa and qua spellings cause some reading difficulties, with inconsistencies like ‘swan swam’ and ‘was wagging’, but they are also not among the most serious impediments of learning.

Alternatives for short /u/ by contrast, like those for short /e/, are much more damaging. They occur in 68 mostly very common words (come, some, mother, other, brother, done, nothing, tough, rough, blood, flood…) and hinder early progress in both learning to read and write a great deal. Most were made irregular deliberately, around 1200 years ago, when some scribes decided to use o for the short /u/ sound.

The spelling of short /e/ was made irregular, mainly with ea, in the 15th century, when Chaucer’s regular spellings for the /ee/ sound (leve, sleve, even, beleve, reson…) were also ruined. One can only guess what motivated the court scribes, but the 12 unpredictable spellings for /ee/ (leave, sleeve, believe, weird, police, people…). are now one of the three main sources of English misspellings. They necessitate word-by-word memorisation of irregularities for 459 words, and most of them cause significant reading difficulties as well, because they are used for more than one sound: treat – great, threat, react;    even – ever;  ceiling – veil, eider;  fiend – friend, died, diet;  he – then;  key – they;  machine – define, engine;  people – leopard, leotard;  ski – hi;  debristennis.

Only the [ee] spelling which is used for the /ee/ sound in 133 words, has an almost completely regular pronunciation (keep, sheep, asleep…) and is easy for beginning readers. Consistent use of ee for the /ee/ sound, including the 47 words which now have two spellings (e.g. be/bee, here/hear), would therefore remove a very big source of both spelling errors and reading difficulties.

The adoption of different spellings for 335 identically sounding words was one of the major blows dealt to English spelling consistency by Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755. Undoing them all is now probably too much of a mental challenge for people who have spent years learning to master them, but making a start on their abolition, with regular spellings for /ee/ (e.g. here/hear → heer) would be a good start.

Johnson wrecked English spelling even further by diluting systematic use of consonant doubling, for differentiating between long and short vowels, as in ‘made – madder, diner – dinner’. He omitted doubling in over 500 words from Latin roots (radical, sinister) and also used it superfluously in over 200 words (address, annoy), for Latin grammatical reasons. He made doubling logically unpredictable in at least 1,250 words.

Omitted and surplus consonant doublings make not just learning to spell more difficult but learning to read too. They both make it harder to see which vowel is stressed and short or long: hide, hidden – hideous; arrow, arise – arrive. Doubling could easily be made regular again, by deciding to use it systematically, instead of randomly as dictated by dictionaries. It should at least be applied when amending words with currently irregular spellings for /e/ and /u/ which would remain only partly regular without it (e.g. ready → redy; honey → huny), in comparison to ‘teddy’ and ‘runny’.

Surplus letters were inserted mainly by early printers to earn more money, because they were paid by the line. Some words with irregular spellings for short /u/ cannot be made completely regular without cutting their surplus letters as well (e.g. done → dun, some – sum, courage → currage).

It is unlikely that any of my suggestion will get dopted in my lifetime, because most people remain unaware of the many educational, social and fiscal costs which they incur. But I believe that it will happen one day. The exceptionally simple and learner-friendly Korean writing system was first devised in the 15th century but not implemented until the 20th.

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145 worst words in early reading

English reading difficulties are due mainly to 69 of its 205 spellings being used for more than one sound, like o in ‘on, only, other’ or ou in ‘sound soup southern’. Those irregularities make the pronunciation around 2,000 ordinary English words only partially decodable. To become fluent readers of elementary English, children have to learn to sight-read around 600 of them by the end of primary school, but 145 are most responsible for making learning to read English exceptionally slow.

They retard reading progress most, because they are among the most often used English words. Even quite young children know and use them. They feature in nearly all children’s stories, and pupils begin to meet them soon after they first start to learn to read. They impede progress and reduce enjoyment of learning as soon as students move from phonically regular texts with phrases like ‘a fat cat sat’, written specifically for the early teaching of reading, to real stories.

In other languages children don’t have to undergo this transition, because none of their spellings are used for more than one sound. After spending a few weeks learning the pronunciations of the 50 or so spellings used by their writing system, they can decode all words. They don’t keep being challenged by inconsistencies like ‘and any’, ‘breakfast break’ or ‘you should shout’. This enables them to learn to read roughly ten times faster than speakers of English. They also need very little help from teachers, parents or other adults to become fluent.

The fact that English has 205 spellings, instead of the average of 50 for other alphabetically written languages, is partly responsible for English literacy acquisition taking longer. But the main reason for the much slower progress are the 69 spellings with changeable pronunciations.  Some words, such as ‘marine’, ‘epitome’ and ‘chic’, continue to be mispronounced by many students long after primary school.

The 145 words shown below retard progress worst, because they make the start of learning to read English exceptionally difficult and stressful. They destroy many children’s enjoyment of learning soon after they start school. English-speaking countries would undoubtedly have fewer poor readers and less overall educational failure if they reduced at least some of their phonic inconsistencies like ‘does, shoes, toes’.

Only 19 of the 145 worst tricky words are not easily improvable. Seventeen have the short /oo/ sound which has no unique spelling of its own. There is therefore no obvious way of respelling them more readably.  They are written with the main spellings for other sounds: (no, go…  mould, moult….  food, mood…  woven, golf… but, cut, nut… ):  (to,  into,   could, would, should,   good, book, foot, look, took,   woman, wolf,  butcher,   full,   pull,   push,   put).  English also uses just one spelling for both the sharp and soft /th/ sounds (this,   thing). Their reading difficulties have no obvious solution either.       The other 126  worst retardants of reading progress could easily be made more readable [as shown below]:

  another,   both,   brother,   cold,   come,   coming,    do,   does,   don’t,   done,

[anuther,   boath,  brother,  coald,  cum,   cumming,  doo,  dus,   doant,   dun]

 glove,   gone,   love,   most,     mother,   moved,    oh,   old,   once,   one,  

[gluv,    gon,     luv,    moast,   muther,  mooved,  o,    oald,  wunce,  wun]

 only,    other,   oven,     rolled,   shoe,   some,   told,    two,   who,  women,      

[oanly,  uther,   uvven,  roaled,   shoo,   sum,    toald,   too,    hoo,   wimmen]

word,  work,  although,  bought, brought, cough,  country, cousin,   four,  group,  

[werd,  werk,   altho,         baut,      braut,       cof,    country,  cuzzin,   for,    groop]

shoulder,  soup,   thought,  through,   tough,   wound,   you,   your,   down,  grow,  

[shoalder,  soop,   thaut,      throo,        tuf,        woond,    u,     yor,     doun,   gro ]

 know,   slow,   snow,   window,   blood,   door,   broad,  

[no,       slo,      sno,       windo,      blud,      dor,     braud]

  be,    English,    ever,   every,   eyes,   he,    key,    me,     never,    seven, 

[bee,  Inglish,    evver,   evry,     ies,    hee,   kee,   mee,   nevver,  sevven]

 she,   there,   very,   we,   were,   where,    

[shee,  thair,   verry,  wee,  wer,     wair,

 bear,   beat,   break,  breakfast,  dream, dreamt,  great,   head,   healed,  health, 

[bair,    beet,   brake,  breakfast,  dreem, dremt,    grate,    hed,    heeled,   health]

 heard,  heart,   mean,  meant,  measles,   measure,   ready,     

[herd,    hart,     meen,   ment,   meesles,   mesure,    reddy]

 said,   all,   any,   are,   called,   father,   have,   many,   small,   swan, 

[sed,   aul,   enny,  ar,    cauled,   fahther,  hav,    menny,  smaul,  swon]

 table,   want,   was,   water,    what,   caught,   daughter,   laughed, 

[tabel,   won,    wos,   wauter,   wot,    caut,      dauter,        laffed]

 childish,   driven,    find,   finish,     give,   I’ll,   I’m,   live,  ninth,   river,    wild,    

[chiledish,  drivven,  fined, finnish,  giv,   Ile,   Ime,  liv, nineth ,  rivver,  wiled]    

 field,    friend,       building,   fruit,   ruin,   busy. 

 [feeld,   frend,        bilding,    froot,   rooin,  bizzy].

An easy way for teachers to verify what a difference those respellings would make is to test them on primary children who find learning to read more difficult than most. Some of my respellings might strike some people as a bit odd, even though they merely conform to the main patterns of English spelling. I hope they show how unphonically many of the most used English words are spelt.

Two major causes of misspellings

Because of the rottenness of its spelling, learning to read and write English takes roughly ten times longer than other languages with Latin-based writing systems: three years instead of three months for reading and 10 years instead of one year for writing.

English spelling has been repeatedly corrupted since being developed from biblical Latin in 7th century.  Instead of just 44 spellings for its 44 sounds, it now has 205. And despite having many more spellings than sounds, 69 of them are used for more than one sound (a: at – any, apron;  ai: wait – plait, said;  oon – once, only…). This makes learning to read difficult too, not just to write.

Nearly all original English spelling patterns have ended up with exceptions. Some with very many, like ‘food – rude, shrewd, cruise,  group, move’. But two irregularities necessitate more word by word memorisation of unpredictable spellings than all others: 1) The randomly doubled and not doubled of consonants which affect 1272 words, like  ‘rabbit – habit, abridge – abbreviate; offer – profit, offend;  apple – chapel’  and        2) The use of 12 totally unpredictable spellings for the /ee/ sound in 459 words, as in ‘eel, eat, even, police,  believe, weird, people, me,  key, quay, ski, debris.’

Spelling of the /ee/ sound was made irregular in the 15th century, when after nearly 300 years of French domination, English became the official language of England again. The court scribes who had to switch from French to English wrecked Chaucer’s regular spelling of that sound, as in ‘speke, speche, preste, preche, beleve, reson …’.

They probably found the switch challenging. They may also have made English spelling deliberately more difficult, to prevent ordinary people from being able to learn to read and write too easily. They were losing their previously superior status as speakers and writers of French, obliged to adopt what had until then been mainly just the language of illiterate peasants. They can’t have been happy about it. (Nowadays many people are opposed to making English spelling merely a bit more learner-friendly.)

The English system of consonant doubling,  for differentiating between long and short a, e, i, o and u (as in ‘mane – manner), was ruined with the publication of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in 1755. He revered Latin and believed that English needed to be made more Latinate in order to become fit for scientific discourse. Most learned treatises were still written in Latin even in the 18th century, just as Newton’s ‘Principia Mathematica’ had been in the 17th.

Johnson therefore decided that words from Latin roots did not need to conform to the English method of using consonant doubling for showing that a stressed vowel was short, as in ‘rabbit, merry, silly, collar, muddy’. He left many of them looking as if they had long vowels (e.g. ‘habit, merit, lily, column, study), as in ‘rabies, merely, silage, colon, music’.  He damaged the system even further by using doubling after unstressed vowels – to register changes to their original Latin roots (as in ‘abbreviate, accomplish’ and ‘arrive’).

If the two worst dilutions of English spelling consistency were reversed, learning to write would become much easier. If it became permissible to spell the /ee/ sound regularly (e.g. eel, eet, eeven, poleece, peeple, beleeve, weerd, mee,  kee [quee], skee, debree) with perhaps [just a few exceptions], over 400 words would stop being repeatedly misspelt,  and teachers would not have to keep correcting them over and over again.

Regular use of consonant doubling, after all short, stress vowels (e.g. ‘habbit, merrit, lilly, collumn, studdy’), not merely after those that have them in dictionaries, would make an equally big difference. Combining this with the dropping of pointless doubling (parralel, comitt, acomodation), woud make it even better.

Amelioration of those two English spelling problems would make English literacy acquisition much easier. They have caused zillions of ‘misspellings’ since becoming  enshrined in Johnson’s dictionary of 1755. They have made learning to read much harder than need be too:  frieze – friend, dried;   hear – heard, heart;  even – ever; machine – define, engine;   latter, later – lateral;  attitude – latitude….

Insane and unkind

Everybody agrees that being able to read is an essential life skill in today’s world, close behind walking and talking. Continuing to put up with a spelling system that makes this roughly 10 times harder and slower than need be is clearly not very sensible, but there are reasons why this continues to be tolerated.

When people master something difficult over several years, and before their critical faculties have even begun to develop, they tend to go along with the wishes of their elders. They then get used to the system and become opposed to changing it. I have even heard people claim that they love the quirkiness of English spelling! – A bit like prisoners who fall in love with their jailers.

Ignorance plays a big part too. Most speakers of English are not aware that learning to read English is much harder than all other alphabetically written languages. They don’t realise that in most of the world learning to read takes just a few months, instead of at least three years for moderate competence, while continuing to struggle with less common conundrums like ‘echoing, cello’ and ‘epitome’ for several years longer. Most don’t really become competent before the end of primary school, and one in six not even by then.

Pride plays a part too. Good readers get much more praise in English-speaking countries than elsewhere. Good spellers can even win lucrative prizes. This doesn’t happen when pretty much everyone learns to read in just a few months and to write well in about a year too. After WW2 US troops stationed in Germany tried to get the Germans to like spelling bees, but they just did not take off. Learning to read and write German is not challenging enough for that kind of malarkey.

How would children be kept occupied at primary school? – I have honestly had teachers ask me what they would have to teach if learning to read and write was much easier. Once something time-wasting becomes regarded as essential, clear thinking seems to become more difficult.

Nevertheless, should any English-speaking ever develop a desire to have their children learn more during their 10 or so years in compulsory schooling, they should consider making at least learning to read easier. The long time their kids currently have to spend just on learning to read leaves them with less of it for other subjects. Worse still, most subjects cannot be learned much without learning to read first.

Some people will of course claim that the relatively long time needed for learning to read English is not due to its spelling. They will come up with lots of silly excuses, like poor teaching, feckless parents, starting school too young. If u are viscerally opposed to something, it’s easy to come up with all kinds of justifications.

Anyone with even a very small brain, however, can easily see that if u can just teach children that the letter a sounds as in ‘a fat cat sat’, b as in ‘big bull’ and so on, kids have no trouble grasping it and learn to read in no time at all. Most of the world proves this over and over again.

Even the Chinese discovered, back in 1958, that teaching their kids to read with such spellings was dead easy. So they now let them learn that way first and then go on to use that systems as subtitles for learning to read traditional Chinese characters.

Anyone who has ever listened to children learning to read and paid the slightest attention to the words that trip them up, could not help but notice that they are invariably ones with daft spellings: only, once … thought, through… neighbour laughed…

If there were fewer English words with stupid spellings, English-speaking kids would learn to read quicker. It’s as simple as that.

And it’s if not as if the words with stupid spellings must be spelt that way, because English is short of sensible spellings. It has a perfectly good spelling system. But stupidly, ever since the system was first adopted, it has repeatedly been made it worse.

The /u/ sound, for example, was spelt simply as in ‘bun, run, runt’ and ‘much, mud’ until 1200 years ago. There was no good reason to mess it up with the likes ‘front, money’, ‘double, trouble’ or ‘rough, tough’. Those perversions were all adopted for thoroughly bad reasons.

While education was accessible just to the richest and cleverest, this did not matter too much. Rich gents could get secretaries to read and write for them.  It makes no sense to hang on to all spellings that clearly make learning to read much harder than need be and want everybody to become at least a bit educated.

It’s cruel too, now that we send all kids to school and make them learn to read and write. Irregularities like ‘fiend, friend’, ‘great threat’ and ‘sound soup’ are troublesome for all children. They are particularly hard on kids that are not all that bright, don’t get much help with homework outside school or have any kind of learning difficulty.

A barrier to happiness

The director of the Wellbeing Programme at the LSE, Lord Layard, suggested on Radio 4 last week that future UK Chancellors should become more focussed on promoting the nation’s wellbeing and less concerned about economic growth. He believes that happiness is much more dependent on health, personal relationships and social connections than on wealth. I agree with him but believe that the cheapest and most effective way of improving happiness is to reduce obstacles to it, instead of teaching people how to be happier.

Most European countries, and especially Finland, are more able to let their children experience happiness, rather than teach them about it. This is because they have writing systems which enable their children to learn to read and write much faster and more easily than in English. Finland can afford to give its children more time for fun and play, by not starting formal lessons till age seven, because it has a spelling system which makes literacy acquisition exceptionally quick and easy.

Nearly all Finnish children become fluent readers in their first three months at school and can write well by the end of their first school year. They don’t need to work hard at their reading and spelling throughout primary school, with much testing and retesting of literacy standards, as in Anglophone countries. Finnish pupils have no formal school tests until the age of 18. Nor are their teachers subjected to relentless blaming and shaming with Ofsted inspections and the publication of SATs scores like English-speaking ones. Their pupils are able to do well without such measures, but with a much more relaxed and confident attitude to learning.

The learning difficulties posed by the irregularities of English spelling make literacy acquisition ten times slower and costlier than in Finland. They incur more failure and misery, leave less time for play and creativity and entail many other personal and social costs and disadvantages. I am pretty certain that the main difference between countries that consistently score highly on measures of happiness, such as Holland and Finland, and the well-documented misery of Anglophones is due mainly to their writing systems.

I therefore believe that the simplest and easiest way to improve the wellbeing of English-speaking countries is to modernise English spelling, so that at least learning to read becomes substantially easier. Children get baffled, depressed and demotivated by the many English spellings that have several pronunciations, like ‘sound – southern, soul, soup’. They make their schooling harder and the life chances of many much poorer than need be. English spelling could easily be made much more learner-friendly.

I appreciate that for people who speak only English and have become used to its spelling quirks during the many years they had to spend getting to grips with them, this is not immediately obvious. But looked at objectively, English spelling has too many shortcomings, wastes too much time and effort and causes too much failure and misery

The scholar and writer John Hart described it as ‘tedious, long in learning, learned hard and evil to read’ as long ago as 1551. It has been made even worse since.  It is now the only Latin-based writing system that poses reading as well as spelling difficulties, and exceptionally many of both. It causes too much needless stress and misery . It prevents too many speakers of English from becoming successful learners and leading happy and fulfilled lives. Having a spelling system that makes an essential modern necessity like learning to read much harder to access than need be is a major roadblock to happiness.

There is currently a great boom in books about happiness, including ones for teaching  kids about happiness. Reducing the stresses and miseries which stem from irregularities of English spelling would be far more effective in making them happier.

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 as 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, like ‘mean, measure, through, rough, your, youth’ if a struggling reader points at them: meen mesure … throo ruf … yor  yooth.  Perhaps such simplifications will gradually start to make people wonder why so many English words continues to be spelt as stupidly as they are?