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.