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.

Why I hate the word ‘inchoate’

via Daily Prompt: Inchoate

I have been angry about English spelling for nearly 60 years now. – Ever since I first started learning English not long before my 14th birthday. The encounter with ‘inchoate’ rekindled that anger again a few years ago.

I came across the word in my Sunday paper and did not know what it meant. But it was not the need to find out its meaning that made me cross. That happens in any language.  Looking up the meaning of words helps us to expand our vocabulary and continues into old age.

What made ‘ichoate’ hateful to me was that I was not sure how to pronounce it either: incho- ait? Or incho – at? – To rhyme with ‘delicate’ or ‘dedidacate’?

Looking it up in my Oxdic made me even angrier. – I discovered that in addition to the uncertainty about the -ate ending, the ‘h’ was totally silent as well. – The pronunciation of ‘inchoate’ is simply ‘incoat’.

There is no good reason for not spelling ‘incoat’ the way it is meant to be pronounced. It is spelt stupidly mainly on the whim of Samuel Johnson. – A man whom I detest deeply for making learning to read and write English far more difficult than need be.

My dislike of English spelling started with the irregular pronunciations of words like ‘one, two, four, said, friend’.  – I could not simply learn to sound them out, but had to remember how the teacher pronounced them.  Not just for a word or two, but hundreds of them.

What ‘inchoate’ brought home to me once again is that it is impossible to ever quite finish learning to read and spell English. Even after many years of reading and writing a great deal, a spelling like ‘inchoate’ can still flummox u. – It is inconceivable that any German or French spelling could ever do this to an educated adult who is fluent in those languages.

Because I hate the spelling of ‘inchoate’ so intensely, I will definitely never use it. I will find another word for that idea – ‘embryonic’, ‘starting to develop’, ‘evolving’, ‘recently conceived’, ‘just beginning to …’.  Something like that.

I will eschew ‘inchoate’ for as long as its spelling remains so stupid.

A different perspective

English spelling is irregular, but most people are not concerned about its inconsistencies and have trouble understanding why they bother me so much. – The main reason for my never-ending exasperation with English spelling is probably not meeting it until the age of 13,  after Lithuanian and Russian.

In both of those languages, letters are used pretty much as the inventors of the alphabet intended. – They have only a few more spellings than sounds and no spelling has more than one pronunciation, unlike English with 205 spellings for its 44 sounds and 69 spellings used for more than one sound (e.g. ou in sound – soup, southern).

When learning to read Lithuanian and Russian, students learn to sound out their 32 and 33 spellings, such as  ‘T – O – M’  or ‘M – U – CH’, and can then reliably decipher any word. There are no silent letters as in ‘bomb’, or bewildering oddities like ‘comb’ and ‘tomb’, and learning to read is very easy.

In Lithuania children start school in the term of their 7th birthday. When I did, my grandmother taught me to read Lithuanian in just a couple of weeks. For several reasons, I started school two months later than my classmates. They could therefore already read by the time I joined them, and I needed to catch up.

My grandma had another reason for wanting to teach me to read. – Her eyesight was failing, and she was hoping that I would soon start reading bits from her daily paper to her, and I was able to do so in less than a month.

I was very keen to learn English. I had read a Lithuanian translation of Hamlet in the summer holidays before upper school (and starting English) and loved it. I was hoping that I might be able to read it in the original before long. But that expectation bit the dust as soon as I became acquainted with English spelling. – I found its irregularities shocking and was reluctant to accept that any writing system could be so unsystematic.

Again and again, learning to read some words proved of little help with deciphering others: man – many; laid – said;  our – your. Learning to read kept being a matter of remembering how the teacher pronounced the words, and my brain kept silently screaming, “But that’s not how letters are supposed to work!”

But I was only 13, and English was not my language. And although our teacher agreed that English spelling was insane, we just had to get on and learn it.

I became fluent in the end, when I came to England, but I could not stop wondering from time to time why English-speaking people, and especially parents of young children, continued to put up with it. – Why didn’t they clamour for at least some of the irregular spellings to be made more sensible? And how could teachers bear to see pupils having a hard time with learning to read and write, year after year, and not call for change?

I eventually came to understand that they don’t, because they are so used to the system that they are unable to see anything wrong with it. – After gradual introduction to it from early childhood, followed by 10 to 15 years of endless spelling tests, they have come to regard it as perfectly normal.

Furthermore, because very few speakers of English become truly proficient in other languages, the majority don’t know that English spelling is very different from nearly all other writing systems. They don’t realise that English spelling is extraordinarily irregular and makes learning to read and write exceptionally difficult.

Most speakers of English also have no real idea of how English spelling became irregular. – They don’t realise that most of the words with currently weird spellings were earlier spelt more sensibly, such as ‘hed, sed, frend’ by the poet Chaucer (c. 1343 – 1400).

Because I started to learn English relatively late, became fluent in it alongside three other languages and acquired a reasonable command of French and Spanish, with a smattering of Italian, I kept being made aware of how abnormally learner-unfriendly English spelling is. Becoming a teacher of German and English, along with some Russian and French, in the UK, made this even clearer.

What being a teacher also led me to realise is  that English spelling is especially disadvantageous to children from an underprivileged home background.  – Having parents who don’t, or can’t, nurture their children’s language development and love of reading before they start school, and who don’t help them with learning to read thereafter, is a much greater educational disadvantage in English than with better spelling systems.

Having a relatively weak memory is also a much bigger educational handicap in English than in other languages, because both learning to read and write the language involves exceptional amounts of memorisation. Since those skills are essential for other learning, English spelling dooms the educational prospects of less able learners especially badly.

I have tried to explain this to native speakers of English,  in books and the blogs http://EnglishSpellingProblems.blogspot.com and  http://ImprovingEnglishSpelling.blogspot.com and some Youtube videos,  but not very successfully so far. I will keep trying.