Will they ever learn?

English spelling is highly irregular and difficult to fathom. But some people disagree and maintain that if u look harder, u can find sense it, e.g. https://jeffbowers.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/916-2/  and https://tinyurl.com/onion-fam. This is claimed mainly as part of promoting a new teaching method and new teaching materials and training courses.

Looked at objectively, English spelling is shambolic. If u started to learn a foreign language and were told that the words ‘brom, crom, pom, som, trom’ don’t rhyme and are pronounced ‘brom, crum, poom, sim, troam’ u would deem it a crazy system.  – But that is exactly how children must learn to pronounce the letter o in the English words ‘from, front, tomb, women, comb,‘. In sensible writing systems, the letter o has only one pronunciation, as it does in sensibly spelt English words like ‘stop not on hot spot’ or ‘got lots of frocks from Oxfam shop’. Learning to read with sensibly spelt English words is as easy as in other languages, and children make rapid progress, for as long they are taught only with them, as they are at the start of phonics.

Unfortunately, one English word in every four has silly spellings like ‘only, one, other’ or totally insane ones like ‘rough, cough, though, thought, through’. And that quarter of words with silly spellings makes learning to read English much harder and slower than other languages.  Particularly at the start of learning to read.  They are especially common in the most used words and children can’t avoid for long. They have to begin learning to read them too, soon after starting school: and any, on one, count double,  here there were, what who

Such spellings give English-speaking children a much harder start to their schooling than nearly all others. If such words were spelt with the main English spelling patterns (and enny, on wun, count dubble, heer thair wer, wot hoo ) children would undoubtedly learn to read much faster. They would also need much less individual help with learning to read, because they would not keep getting flummoxed as often as they commonly do now. This seems blatantly obvious. It has been confirmed by research too. But people who spent 10 or more years learning to read and write with the current system tend to become attached to it and want it to stay that way.

Learning to write English is even harder than learning to read, because just over half of all words (i.e. 4,219 of the 7,000 most used ones I analysed) contain irregular spellings which have to be learned word by word, like ‘blue, shoe, flew, through, too…’ or ‘speak, speech, even, police, believe…’. That’s why nobody becomes a proficient speller of English in less than 10 years. Learning to read English is easier, because half of the 4,000+ words with tricky spellings pose no reading difficulties. The 194 words with erratic spellings for the /er/ sound, for example (her bird hurt, purple perch, birch lurch…), have regular pronunciations and pose no reading difficulties.

It is not only learning to read and write with a chaotic spelling system that is exceptionally difficult. Literacy teaching is much harder too: it makes progress much more dependent on innate abilities, preschool experiences and the amount of individual help children get when they first start school. Yet this is often overlooked. And although all English-speaking countries have very similar levels of literacy failure and educational underachievement, they almost invariably blame this on poor teaching.

Teachers keep being exhorted to work harder and to look for better teaching methods. And they keep coming up with new ideas. In my lifetime I have witnessed them trying phonics, the Initial Teaching Alphabet, whole word, whole language, invented writing, analytic phonics, synthetic phonics, word study... Their proponents have invariably claimed to have achieved superior results. Adopting them with enthusiasm has mostly also produced quite good results for a while. But in the end, they have all failed to bring about long-term improvements in literacy standards. They fail to surmount the barriers posed by the insanities of English spelling.

What most people don’t realise is that the first English spelling system was as regular as most. The monks who adapted it from Latin in 7th century made a pretty good job of it. But the English language has changed quite a lot since then, especially after the Norman conquest of 1066, when French became the official language of England for 300 years. The poet Chaucer (1343 – 1400) gave the frenchified new English another fairly good spelling system. Sadly, this has since been repeatedly changed for the worse, and mainly for bad reasons.

Luckily, spelling mistakes are now mostly corrected by spellcheckers. Only learning to read English remains challenging as before. But computers are starting to help with that too. There are already a few programmes which help with pop-ups for tricky words, if a struggling reader points at them, such as: meen, ment … throo, ruf, cof … yor, yung, yooth.  Perhaps such simplifications will even start to make people wonder why so many English words continues to be spelt as stupidly as they are?

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