How China improved literacy

When Rob Delaney recently asked on Twitter, “Why do they give 7 yr olds so much homework in the UK & how do I stop this? …” the TV presenter Piers Morgan thought that, “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”.

I doubt that Piers Morgan has ever heard of the big factor, perhaps even the biggest, which has helped China to improve its overall educational attainment beyond recognition.

Traditional Chinese characters make learning to read and write very difficult, and in the 1950s around 85% of Chinese were illiterate.  Some of China’s leaders wisely realised that this would have to be reduced if the country was to make economic progress. And in 1958 Zhou Youguang provided the solution with Pinyin.

Pinyin is a simple alphabetic writing system based on Latin, and Chinese children are now taught to read with Pinyin first. They ten go on to learn to read traditional Chinese writing with Pinyin subtitles. Since the adoption of this practice, China’s illiteracy rate has dropped from 85% to just 5%.

Apart from being used for teaching reading, Pinyin is now also used for typing on all electronic devices, and they automatically convert it into traditional Chinese writing. Before long Pinyin may well drive out traditional Chinese writing altogether. – Most schoolchildren already no longer learn to write the traditional way. Only the very brightest still do.

In Anglophones countries the level of functional illiteracy is only around 18%, but this is still rather high for developed countries. If they want to keep up with China, they should perhaps consider making at least learning to read English a bit easier too?

There is plenty of evidence that simpler spellings like ‘hed  sed, frend’ enable children to learn to read much faster than  ‘head said,  read this friend’. A year-long UK study in 1963-4 for example compared the progress 835 children learning to read and write English with the more regular spellings of the Initial Teaching Alphabet (or i.t.a.) and an equal number using normal spelling during their first year at school. The pupils on i.t.a. learned to read and write much faster, made fewer errors, used a much wider vocabulary and had a more positive attitude to learning. They also needed no parental help with learning to read in addition to the teaching they received at school.

The study was designed to test if spelling reform could speed up English literacy acquisition, because in 1953 the House of Commons had passed Mont Follick’s Spelling Reform Bill. But the results were so impressive, that many schools subsequently decided to adopt i.t.a. for the first school year. – Outside school, books remained in traditional spelling, and after a year, the i.t.a. groups had to switch to it too. They ablest pupils coped with the switch surprisingly well, but the majority regressed severely.

Perhaps Anglophone countries should copy the Chinese and use simpler spellings alongside the tricky ones in the early school years. – For a while I was a voluntary reading assistant for struggling readers who got no help with learning to read at home. I decided to note down 5 – 7 words which made them stumble in each session, like ‘thought, through’, and then put simpler, easily decodable spellings alongside them [thaut, throo].

We then folded the little lists in half, with the normal, tricky spellings on top. The pupils were asked to take the lists home and practise reading them, but to use the simpler spellings only when having trouble remembering the pronunciation of the normally spelt words. – This helped to improve their overall reading noticeably in a very short time.

The best solution would undoubtedly be a proper simplification of the words that are most responsible for making learning to read English exceptionally slow and laborious. But as most children now start to use electronic devices from a very young age, some computer whiz could surely at least devise a program with pop-ups which show the tricky words spelt more sensibly when a child points at it?

Altogether, around 2,000 quite common English words pose some decoding difficulties, but the really bad ones, like ‘eat, great, bread’ and ‘plough, through, rough‘ come to just a few hundred. I have already respelt them more readably, should anyone be interested in making learning to read English easier.  I would love to help.

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