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.


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