An unhelpful abuse of letters

English spelling is exceptional in two ways:                                                                                          1) It has more spellings per sound than any other Latin-based writing system,  with 205 often totally unpredictable spellings for its 44 sounds  (e.g. bed – head, said, friend, any, Wednesday),  which makes learning to write very time-consuming.                         2) Unlike any other Latin-based system, it causes reading difficulties as well as spelling problems, because many of its 205 spellings are used for more than one sound,                                       e.g. ‘ea’ in ‘treat, threat, great’.                                                                          Reading difficulties are a bigger overall educational handicap than writing ones, because:                                                                                                                                                    a) Inability to read impedes progress  in all subjects, not just English.                                   b) It makes learning to spell English much more difficult too, because reading is                      the main way of imprinting the right look of irregular spellings on our brains.                c) Electronic devices and speech recognition software now correct most spelling errors, but learning to read remains as difficult as before.

Altogether, 69 of the 205 English spellings have more than one pronunciation, but some have variable sounds in very few words, like ‘ai’, just in ‘said, plaid’ and ‘plait’. The main causes of English reading difficulties are the irregular uses of 16 spellings, erratic consonant doubling and surplus -e endings. The most handicapping of those are the irregular uses of  ea,  o,  o-e  and ou, because they cause decoding difficulties in large numbers of much used common words. For example:                                                                                eat, great, bread;   on, only, once, other, who;   bone, done,  move,  women;                           sound, soup, couple, should, shoulder, cough.                                                              The other significant retardants of English reading progress are irregularly used:

  a (and – any, apron, father),    ch (chat – ache, machine, choir),                                                    ei (veil – ceiling, height, heir),   ie (field – friend, died, diet, sieve),                                              g (get – gentle),   oo (boot – foot, flood),   ow (how – low),   qu (quick – queue),                            –se (please – grease),   u (cut – put, truth),  ui (build – juice, suite),                                             inconsistent consonant doubling (hole, hollow – holiday,  holly  – wholly)                         and  surplus –e endings  (bone – gonesave – have).

Learning to read English could be made much easier by at least dropping surplus -e endings and reducing the use of ea, o, o-e and ou for more than one sound. This would already make learning to read English substantially easier and improve the literacy levels of Anglophone countries much more than any of the other costly initiatives that they have tried over the last century:                                                                                 blaming teachers for reading and writing failure and making them work harder,               putting children and parents under more pressure with increased testing,                           lowering the school staring age,                                                                                                       employing more classroom assistants,                                                                                           forcing schools to spend more time on the basics and less on play and creativity.

None of those strategies have produced any measurable long-term improvements. All English-speaking countries still have 1 in 6 pupils leaving school with inadequate reading and writing skills. This is likely to continue for as long as learning to read English is allowed to remain as difficult as it is.

Yet just a few well-aimed amendments to English spelling could improve matters in a very short time. If for example, just the needless use of ea for short /e/ was ended by making the spelling of short /e/ regular (hed, sed, bred, brekfast, breth), at least the early stage of learning to read would already become much easier.

Currently ea is used in 257 words: in 156 for /ee/, 64  for short /e/ and for several other sounds in 35 (tear, break, react, create). If the 64 ea spellings for short /e/ were amended to e, the clearly dominant pronunciation of ea would become /ee/ (with just 35 exceptions to 156). This would make the remaining 191 words with ea much easier to decipher.

There is no good reason for continuing to use ea for the /ee/ sound either. The ee spelling for /ee/ which is used in 133 words has only one pronunciation and is much easier to read (keep, sheep, weep…). Adopting ee for all  412 words with an /ee/ sound, including the 47 which currently have two spellings (e.g. be/bee, here/hear, meet/meat) would make both learning to read and write English very much easier, because most of the different spellings for /ee/ have more than one pronunciation:                                                     fiend – friend, died, diet;  ceiling – veil, either;   ski – hi;                                                                 even – ever;  he – the, then;  machine – define, engine.

Making just the spelling of the /ee/  sound regular would already make learning to read and write English much easier. Its 459 totally unpredictable spellings all have to be learned word by word and are responsible for 11% of all English spelling problems.

 

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