English spelling is exceptional in two ways:
1) It has more spellings per sound than any other Latin-based writing system, with 205 spellings for 44 sounds which make learning to write very time-consuming.
2) Even more exceptionally, unlike any other Latin-based writing system, English poses reading difficulties as well, because many of its 205 spellings are used for more than one sound, like ‘ea’ in ‘treat, threat, great, react, create, theatre’. 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 we imprint the right look of irregular spellings on our brains mainly through reading. c) Electronic devices and speech recognition software now correct most spelling errors, but learning to read remains as difficult as before.
At least 69 English spellings have several pronunciations, but some have variable sounds in only a few words, like ‘ai’, just in ‘said, plaid’ and ‘plait’. The changeable sounds of
a, ei, ie, oo, ow, u, ui, ch, g, qu and -se hinder progress more significantly:
|and – any, apron, father; veil – ceiling, their, fiend – friend, died, sieve; boot – foot, flood;
how – low; up – put, truth; fruit – build, ruin,
chat – ache, machine; get – gentle, qu (quick – queue), –se (please – grease)
The bulk of English reading difficulties however is caused by the irregular pronunciations of ea, o, o-e and ou, because they occur in many of the most used words, such as:
| eat – great, bread; on – only, once, other, who;
bone – one, move, women; sound – soup, couple, should, cough.
Their problems are sometimes made worse by erratic consonant doubling (teddy, steady) and surplus -e endings (bone, done). Reducing the use of ea, o, o-e and ou for more than one sound would make both learning to read very much easier and help considerably with learning to write too.
The reading difficulties of ea, o, o-e and ou could be much reduced by amending the spellings of the sounds for which they are most often misused: short /e/ (bed – head), short /u/ (much – mother, trouble), /ee/ (speech – speak), /oa/ (toast – most) and /oo/ (groove – move, group). To make some of the words with them completely regular, would sometimes require systematic consonant doubling as well (steady → steddy, as in ‘teddy’) or the cutting of a surplus -e (done → dun).
The adoption of all those amendments would reduce the time needed for learning to read and write English dramatically. But even improvements to just some of the worst irregularities would help to make learning to read English easier.
The confusion caused by ea, for example (to read, have read; dream, dreamt) could already be much reduced by merely making the spellings of short /e/ more regular. Currently ea is used in 254 common words: for /ee/ in 156, 51 for short /e/ and several other sounds in 47 (tear, break, react, create, learn). If the 51 ea spellings for short /e/ became e, the clearly dominant pronunciation of ea would become /ee/ (in 156 words), with different pronunciations in just 47 words like ‘break, react, create’.
Adopting regular spellings for the short /u/ sound would be similarly beneficial. It would reduce the misuses of o, o-e and ou (brother, some, double), help with learning to read and make English spelling more systematic: brush bruther, runny hunny, much funny munny.
There is no good reason for continuing to use ea for the /ee/ sound either, or any of its 10 other totally unpredictable spellings in 412 words which all have to be learned one by one (e.g. even, believe, key, he, police, people, seize, quay, ski, debris) The irregular spellings for /ee/ are responsible for 11% of all English spelling problems and hinder reading progress very significantly as well. – Apart from the ee spelling, they all spell more than one sound: reach – real, react, great; ceiling – veil, either; even – ever; he – then; fiend – friend, died, diet; machine – define, engine.
The ee spelling which is used in 133 words has only one pronunciation (keep, sheep, weep…) and poses no reading difficulties. Adopting ee for all 412 words with an /ee/ sound, including the 47 which now have two spellings (e.g. be/bee, here/hear) would clearly make both learning to read and write English very much easier.
The reading difficulties of ea could be partially reduced by merely amending all the words in which ea does not spell the /ee/ sound. But such a word-by-word change would be more difficult for current users to implement. Regularisation of just one or two sounds, like ‘short /e/’ or ‘the long, stressed /ee/ sound’, is much easier to understand and remember.
Making the spellings of short /e/ and /u/ and /ee/ regular (with systematic consonant doubling and cutting of surplus -e as needed) would merely reverse some of the deliberate earlier changes to English spelling which gratuitously undermined its regularity. They would simply repair wilful damages for which generations of children have been paying a heavy price.