Too much homework?

The comedian and actor Rob Delaney started a Twitter storm recently by asking, “Why do they give 7 yr olds so much homework in the UK & how do I stop this?” Who knows more about this madness & can help me?”

The flood of responses indicated that many other people agree that the amount of homework young UK children get is excessive or even a total ‘waste of time’. But there were some supporters of homework too. The Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan thought, “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”.

Our kids are not the only ones that are made to work hard from an early age.  Americans, Canadians and Australians do too. And the blame for this lies entirely with English spelling, because it makes learning to read and write English exceptionally hard and slow.

To become a proficient reader and writer of English takes much longer than with all other alphabetically written languages. Finnish in particular. Finnish kids learn roughly 10 times faster, because they have one of the world’s simplest, most regular and most learner-friendly writing systems. That’s why they also don’t even start formal lessons until age 7 and get hardly any homework at primary level. Yet they regularly beat the rest of the world in educational comparisons.

Written English looks like other alphabetically written languages, because it uses letters. But it’s only partially alphabetic, because its use of letters often obeys no rhyme or reason.  – Nearly all 44 English sounds are spelt in several ways, like the /ee/ sound in ‘speech, speak, shriek, these, police…’. They necessitate word-by-word memorisation of irregularities for at least 4,219 words. Most other languages have some irregular spellings too, but not nearly as many as English.  They are also more rule-governed and  don’t have silent letters, as in ‘have, doubt’ and ‘bomb‘.

The main difference between English spelling and other writing systems, however, is that 69 of its 204 spellings are used for more than one sound (e.g. an – any, apron; on – only, once; eat – great, bread). – That is why English-speaking children the world over get homework almost as soon as they start school.

At the start of learning to read, children learn the main sounds for the 73 main English spellings, with the likes of ‘a fat cat sat’ or ‘ship, shop’ and ‘station’. They start with ‘phonics’.

But quite a few English spellings don’t have a main sound (e.g. roughly, thought, through). Because of them, to become even just moderately fluent readers, Anglophone kids have to learn to recognise around 700 much used tricky words by sight (e.g. ‘head said any Wednesday would…’), in addition to phonics. Until they can sight-read most of the common tricky words, their reading tends to stay hesitant, and they find it difficult to make sense of what they read.

To overcome those hurdles as quickly as possible, schools set reading homework from very early on. Spelling homework follows soon after and continues till the end of school, because learning to spell English is many times harder than learning to read it.

Schools try to get children to master those skills as fast as they can, because reading and writing are crucial for other learning. They try to get parents to help too, because the best way to learn to read English is with lots of one-to-one reading aloud to an adult who can help out with tricky words that children commonly stumble over, like ‘cried, friend, fierce’. It’s hard for teachers to give enough individual reading help to all children in a class of 30. That’s why they set reading homework.

Learning to spell the hundreds of words, like ‘head said any’, takes much time and practice at home too. Help and encouragement from parents makes a huge difference to that as well.

Because my first three languages were Lithuanian, Russian and German, which all have quite regular spelling systems, I did not need to spend much time on learning to read and write in my early years. I did not start to learn English until the age of 14, in 1958. Its spelling came as a big shock.

I have therefore been convinced ever since that if English spelling was made at least a bit more sensible – if it was simplified enough to make at least learning to read substantially easier – the need for homework at primary school would shrink dramatically. Anyone who would truly like to see young children get less homework should do their bit to help bring about improvements to English spelling. It causes too much misery. It also leaves English-speaking countries with much lower overall educational standards than they should have as highly developed nations.

 

Reading Wars still going strong

I recently came across an article by Emily Hanford which gives an account of the American reading wars. Similar disputes about how best to teach reading have been waged in all English-speaking countries for many decades.

After presenting statistics about the persistently poor US literacy standards, Hanford gives us her views on their causes, but tells us first that “virtually all kids can learn to read — if they are taught the right way”. But this is apparently largely not happening, because:

  1. The prevailing approaches to reading instruction in American schools are inconsistent with basic things scientists have discovered about how children learn to read.”
  2. Most teachers nationwide are not being taught reading science in their teacher preparation programs”, because many deans of education either don’t know the science or dismiss it and therefore “The pre-service teachers … at these institutions fail to receive the necessary training.”

She informs us that, “Writing is a code humans invented to represent speech sounds. Kids have to crack that code to become readers”, and according to her ‘reading science’ has ‘discovered’ that: Children don’t crack the code naturally. They need to be taught how letters represent speech sounds …  the ways that sounds and letters correspond …the relationship between sounds and letters.” And best way to do it is with “explicit and systematic phonics instruction.

She concedes that, “phonics isn’t enough. Children can learn to decode words without knowing what the words mean. To comprehend what they’re reading, kids need a good vocabulary, too. That’s why reading to kids and surrounding them with quality books is a good idea.”

I would like to explain why phonics provides a good start, but in English, it is at best merely a very minor part of becoming a fluent reader. –  Learning to read English is not like learning to read other alphabetically written languages, because English does not have a proper ‘writing code’.

Written English looks like other alphabetically written languages, because it uses letters, but it uses them very unpredictably, which makes it impossible to teach children a code that they can use with confidence for learning to read and write. – Nearly all 44 English sounds are spelt in several ways, often very many, like the /ee/ sound in ‘speech, speak, shriek, these, police…’. They all have to be learned word by word.

Most other languages have some unpredictable spellings too, although not nearly as many as English. But English is totally different from all other alphabetically written languages in using 69 of its spellings for more than one sound (e.g. an – any, apron; on – only, once; eat – great, bread). To become moderately fluent readers, children must learn to recognise around 700 of the most used of such tricky words by sight. It is only when they can read those instantly, without still having to try and decode them, that they become independent or ‘free’ readers – free from the need for regular help.

Phonics is useful for words like ‘a fat cat sat’ or ‘get the net set’, but insufficient and too laborious for ‘any able father’, ‘heard near heart’ or ‘though thought through’. Until children have learnt to sight-read such words without hesitation, their reading remains laborious.

The spellings with irregular pronunciations are the main reason why all English-speaking countries have almost identical proportions of children who struggle with learning to read, or never become proficient. It is also why those who do not get regular one-to-one reading help at home, when they first start to learn, make very slow progress and rarely catch up.

It is not poverty in itself, or being in care, that impedes children’s educational progress. They are disadvantaged by not getting enough individual help in the early school years, because their parents don’t have the ability, time or energy to give it. And because reading is the most essential prerequisite for nearly all other learning, their reading difficulties handicap the whole of their schooling, .

After a brief grounding in phonics, the best way to become a fluent reader of English, is regular reading aloud to an adult, who sits and listens and helps out with words that are not entirely decodable, like ‘friend, should shoulder’. Teachers know this and encourage parents to play their part, because it is very difficult to provide daily individual reading support to a class of 30.

If all English spellings could be reliably decoded like ‘keep sleep deep’, teaching children to read would be much easier.  Phonics lessons at school would then be enough to turn children into independent readers, as in other alphabetically written languages.

While English spelling remains as it is, phonics can provide no more than a good beginning. To become a fluent reader takes much time and effort after phonics. That’s why even courses which are sold as ‘phonics’ are never as phonic as in other languages. – They don’t just teach the “the ways that sounds and letters correspond” or “the relationship between sounds and letters”. After a few weeks, they start to introduce words with alternative pronunciations, e.g. ‘only one other‘ after ‘on, often, ox’.

They expose children to pronunciations other than the main one with little groups of words, over and over again, to help them to recognise them on sight, and eventually the majority learn to do so. But it takes many encounters, and without regular reinforcement at home, a very long time, with some pupils continuing to struggle throughout their school days and thereafter. – Teachers try to do the best they can with the erratic spelling system they are lumbered with, but it makes their job extremely challenging.

Reading science is of minimal help, because nobody has yet discovered a method for teaching the tricky words that succeeds reliably with all learners. Progress depends heavily on a child’s abilities as well as getting enough individual help.

The best solution to the problem would be to make English spelling more sensible. When spellings have regular pronunciations, the best way to teach reading is blindingly obvious and nearly all children learn to read easily in a few months, even if they are not especially bright or get much help at home. There are no recurring disputes about how to do it.

The irregularities of English spelling make the teaching of reading exceptionally difficult, defeat many children altogether and cause endless arguments about teaching methods.

Teenage mental health

Academics have started to look for the causes of the increase in mental health problems among teenagers, as in this article.

As a mother and grandmother I could not help but notice how the school lives of both primary and secondary pupils have been made increasingly more stressful with the introduction of SATs and league tables over the past 25 years.  I would like to remind people what led to their arrival and intensification, starting in 1991.

At the end of the 1980s Many politicians had become increasingly concerned about the UK’s poor literacy and numeracy levels, as reported by various surveys. Poor literacy worried them most, because it is difficult to impossible to learn much of anything without learning to read and write first. Even maths becomes more and more difficult for pupils cannot read questions or understand written explanations.

At first, SATs were intended just to establish exactly how bad things were. The introduction of league tables and Ofsted rating schools from ‘outstanding’ to ‘failing’, according to their SATs results, has increasingly turned them into an instrument for putting teachers under pressure to make their pupils work harder. This led to everyone becoming progressively more stressed and worried by them.

It has also led to many of the things that made school more enjoyable, such as sport, music, art and drama, being drastically reduced. Year 6 especially has become devoted mainly to SATs practice from September onwards in many schools.

We know that too much work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. What is less acknowledged is the misery that overwork can also cause. Even less attention is paid to the effects of being made constantly aware that you are not doing well.

The pupils who don’t perform well in their SATs and leave school with few GCSEs, are made conscious of their lack of success from a young age, and have it reinforced throughout their schooling. This does nothing for their self-esteem or mental resilience. Even pupils who do relatively well, have been made much more aware that some do better.

The saddest thing of all is that the UK’s literacy standards, which led to the introduction of this insane measuring and shaming, remain just as bad as they were before the arrival of SATs and league tables. – One in six pupils still leaves school functionally illiterate. – All that extra pressure on teachers and kids has been for nothing.

English illiteracy is not a problem that can be cured with just working harder. Around 20% of English-speaking children and adults, in all Anglophone countries, fail to become functionally literate, simply because the irregularities of English spelling make learning to read and write too difficult for them. They have above average trouble learning to read because of the variable pronunciations of 69 English spellings, like ‘o’  in ‘only, one, other, won, woman, women, womb’. They have even greater problems with memorising umpteen unpredictable spellings for one sound in at least 4,219 common words, like ‘blue, shoe, flew, through, to, you, too’.

The only way to improve English literacy standards is to make learning to read and write easier, by making English spelling more sensible. But spelling reform is a complete no-no for many.

It has, however, become very clear that the stress, which pupils and teachers are put under by SATs and league tables cannot remedy this. So let’s at least stop making pupils more miserable than need be with too much pointless testing.

A practice / to practise

Several thousand English words have silly spellings, like ‘friend, said, head’, but the British differentiation between ‘a practice’ and ‘to practise’ is one of the silliest. American English abolished it decades ago, saving countless spelling ‘errors’, without causing any difficulties to anyone.

In British English the ‘practice/practise’ spellings continue to cause endless ‘misspellings’, particularly on school reports. – Perhaps the distinction has been kept mainly to provide an assured source of Schadenfreude to picky pedants?

The differentiation is totally needless. – We don’t use different spellings with ‘to’ and ‘a’ for ‘notice, pause, rise’ or ‘go, play, work’. So why the special treatment for ‘a practice / to practise’? – I can think of no other reasons than to make learning to read and write more difficult, and to provide entertainment for some very sad people.

Giving schoolkids a hard time must have been a major consideration for most of the early fixers of English spelling. The first spelling lists and dictionaries were created mainly by private tutors to the rich. – Making learning to read and write difficult was a good way of ensuring long job security for them.

The main fixer of modern British spelling, however, was the failed schoolmaster Samuel Johnson, with his dictionary of 1755. His attempt to run a private academy in Lichfield flopped before the end of its first year. He then tried to earn a living as a writer for a posh men’s magazine. When that did not go well either, he decided to become a lexicographer.

He was even quite good at coming up with amusing definitions for words,  which made his opus popular. But he made a bigger hash of English spelling than all the other fixers before him. The notion of using just one spelling per sound, or having spellings that obey some logic, appears to have been totally alien to him.

Apart from the ‘a practice/ to practise’ distinction, he made most ‘-is/ –ce, –se …’ endings completely unfathomable: tenis, office, promise, purchase, carcass, witness, lattice, lettuce …’.

He excelled in making learning to write English as baffling and time-consuming as possible. In addition to the ‘-is/ -ice, -ise …’ fiasco, he also made the spellings of hundreds of other endings unpredictable and requiring word by word learning:  flatten – abandon, truncheon, villain; father – doctor, nectar, amateur … .

He made consonant doubling totally incomprehensible: ‘arise – arrive’, ‘shoddy – body’, ‘bus – fuss’.

It is also due mainly to him that 335 words have ended up with 684 spellings, depending on their meaning, like ‘there/their’ and ‘by/buy/bye’; along with 113 sets of completely different words perversely sharing one spelling, e.g. ‘to minute in minute detail’ or ‘to lead like a lead balloon’.

According to Shakespeare, “the evil that men do lives after them”. This has certainly been true of Samuel Johnson. Like Tony Blair, he was not all bad. But the harm he did has far outweighed all his good deeds.

Not good enough

Regular spelling systems make learning to read and write much easier than unsystematic ones. – They make it easy for children to grasp the relationships between sounds and letters, or letter to sound rules. There is ample evidence for this from many countries, but particularly Finland, Estonia and Korea.

In English too, young children learn very easily that ‘e’ spells the short /e/ sound, for as long as they meet only words like ‘bed, fed, bend, mend, defend’. Their progress in reading and writing becomes much slower, however, when they begin to encounter gremlins like ‘head, said, friend’. Their early attempts to write them (hed, sed, frend) also show that they would cope with them far more easily if such words were spelt regularly.

In English-speaking countries, a great of primary education is spent just on teaching children to read and write words with irregular spellings – time which could be spent much more profitably on learning many other things, and having more fun. By modernising English spellings and bringing at least the most time-wasting irregular spellings into line with the main patterns, Anglophone children could become much better educated, in a more relaxed way, without the pressure of endless testing.

Apart from making learning to read and write exceptionally slow and difficult, the irregularities of English spelling also make the start of schooling for many young children more confusing and demotivating than it could be. Nearly all of them start Reception keen to learn, as they demonstrate in their early simple phonics lessons. But as they meet more and more spellings which obey no rhyme or reason, their enthusiasm starts to ebb. –  By making English spelling more sensible, we could preserve young children’s love of learning for much longer and help all of them to become educationally more successful.

We might even improve their brain power. In the 1970s, when some UK schools were experimenting with i.t.a. (Initial Teaching Alphabet) in the first school year, a headteacher in Liverpool gave two infant classes a pattern-matching test, before one started to learn to read and write with normal spelling and the other with the more regular spellings of  i.t.a. The pupils were given the same test again at the end of the year, when the i.t.a. group did much better than on the first test. The group using normal spelling did much worse.

English spelling is unkind to kids. Most of all to kids from deprived backgrounds who don’t get much educational support and encouragement at home.

Making a start on modernisation

The educational standards of English-speaking countries would be much higher if their students did not have to spend so much time on learning to read and write. – English spelling is very irregular and makes both learning and teaching to read and write exceptionally difficult and slow. Writing systems that use just one spelling per sound, like Finnish and Korean, make learning to read and write much easier.

Ideally, English would have just 44 spellings for its 44 sounds, instead of 205. But reducing the current 205 spellings to just 44 would change the look of English writing very drastically. Perhaps I am too pessimistic, but I believe that most people would find this too shocking.

I am inclined to think that a small number of changes, which are guaranteed to make a noticeable difference to young children’s progress in learning to read and write, would meet with more acceptance. And once their worth has been established, further changes are likely to get a better chance of being considered as well.

Some irregular spellings impede overall progress in learning to read and write much more than others. The very worst are those that most confuse young children and put many of them off school and learning from a very young age.

Among those are the 63 irregular spellings for short /e/ and 68 for short /u/. Improving the likes of ‘head, said’ and ‘young, brother’, would already make the start of learning to read and write much easier. And it should be remembered that both used to be almost completely regular before the adoption of ‘o’ for /u/ next to v, w, n and m, as in ‘love, wonder, month’ and  ‘ea’ in ‘head, read, thread’.

Ideally all words with short /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/ would be spelt as in ‘bad,  bed,  big, dog, bun’, as they are is 466, 301, 421, 357  and 308  words each.  The Irregular spellings for short /a/, /i/ and /o/ are less harmful, because they affect only 7, 45 and 32 words. More importantly, only 22 of them occur in high frequency words that pupils are likely to meet in their early reading, or need to use in their own writing:                                                Plait,  aunt,  laugh, have;     build, built, busy, English, pretty, women;     was,  want, wander,  wash,  wasp, watch,  what, swan,  swap,  squash, cough, sausage.

Of the 63 irregular spellings for short /e/, 50 are among the most used English words:         Bread,   breast, breath, dead, deaf, dealt,  death, dread, dreamt, head, health,            leant,  leapt, meant,  readx2,  spread, sweat, thread, threat,  wealth.                                  Breakfast, feather, heather, instead, leather, measure, pleasure, treacherous, tread,  treasure, weather.      Heaven, heavy, jealous,  pleasant, ready, (already), steady, weapon.  Leopard.      Any, many, against, said, says, berry/bury.   Every, friend,  Wednesday. 

Short /u/ is irregular in 57 common words:  Brother, Monday, money, monkey, month,  mother, other, smother.    Come,   some/sum.   Comfort,  company,  compass,  stomach.     Nothing.    Son/sun,  ton.   Among,  front,  tongue, sponge.
Done, none/nun.   Honey, onion.      Won/one, wonder.  Once.      Above, cover,  dove, glove,  government,  love,  oven,  shove,  shovel.
Country, nourishment, young. Enough. Double, trouble.  Blood,  flood.   Rough,   tough.  Cousin,  dozen.  Colour,  does.  Southern.   Courage, thorough.  Worry. Touch. Couple.

+ Monger, mongrel, monk, pommel, covet, covey, covenant, slovenly. slough, Hiccough [hickup].

Having to learn irregular spellings for over 100 very common words at the very start of their education is an obvious major impediment to progress and enjoyment of learning for many children.  Making them regular would already help a great deal.

Reducing children’s misery

Most children start school eager to learn. The majority also enjoy the first few months of learning to read, with the likes ‘a fat cat sat’ or ‘the pot got hot’.

Their enthusiasm starts to wane when they begin to meet words in which some letters don’t have the sounds which they learned for them first, such as like

‘man – many;   here – there;  no – do’.

Instead of being fun, school starts to become more and more of a drag.

Children like things to be logical, but many English spellings are far from that. And they make learning to read and write English exceptionally slow and tedious. Nearly all of the 83 main spelling pattern have some exceptions.

But English spelling does not have to stay like that. We could easily make many of the silly spellings more sensible and easier to read:

many → menny; there → their; do → doo.

This would make young children’s lives less stressful and more enjoyable. –  Nothing succeeds like success. – Instead of progressing at an excruciatingly slow pace, children would start whizzing through book after book with great enjoyment, without needing much help from anyone.

Having a hard time with learning to read is no fun for anyone – not the children doing the learning or the parents and teachers trying to help them. On the Mumsnet discussion boards many comments start on the lines of, “Lost it again trying to help J….. to read – feel awful”.

So why not consider reducing the stress, anger and tears that learning to read and write English so often causes? Why not make English spelling a bit more sensible and learning to read and write more enjoyable, instead of tedious long chore?

If u were born to English-speaking parents and started to learn to read at a very young age, u are probably so used to seeing English words as they are, that u can no longer see anything wrong with any of their spellings. But many of them are needlessly awful:

puff – rough – through;     keen – mean – meant;   bone –  one,  gone.

There are no good reasons for continuing to keep baffling children’s brains with unfathomable nonsense like that. Most of the irregular spellings resulted from bad changes to the first English spelling system.

Children’s logical early spellings show how we could spell many words more sensibly:

frend,  hed,  sed,  uther, bruther.

They would be much easier to read than the versions which have become enshrined in dictionaries. But teachers spend many hours marking them as ‘wrong’ and training them to spell them stupidly instead, ignoring the reading difficulties which the irregular spellings cause:

fiend – friend,   heap – head,   paid – said,   often – other,    bother – brother…

The people who created the irregular spellings must all have hated kids.