English reading difficulties are due mainly to 69 of its 205 spellings being used for more than one sound, like o in ‘on, only, other’ or ou in ‘sound soup southern’. Those irregularities make the pronunciation around 2,000 ordinary English words only partially decodable. To become fluent readers of elementary English, children have to learn to sight-read around 600 of them by the end of primary school, but 145 are most responsible for making learning to read English exceptionally slow.
They retard reading progress most, because they are among the most often used English words. Even quite young children know and use them. They feature in nearly all children’s stories, and pupils begin to meet them soon after they first start to learn to read. They impede progress and reduce enjoyment of learning as soon as students move from phonically regular texts with phrases like ‘a fat cat sat’, written specifically for the early teaching of reading, to real stories.
In other languages children don’t have to undergo this transition, because none of their spellings are used for more than one sound. After spending a few weeks learning the pronunciations of the 50 or so spellings used by their writing system, they can decode all words. They don’t keep being challenged by inconsistencies like ‘and any’, ‘breakfast break’ or ‘you should shout’. This enables them to learn to read roughly ten times faster than speakers of English. They also need very little help from teachers, parents or other adults to become fluent.
The fact that English has 205 spellings, instead of the average of 50 for other alphabetically written languages, is partly responsible for English literacy acquisition taking longer. But the main reason for the much slower progress are the 69 spellings with changeable pronunciations. Some words, such as ‘marine’, ‘epitome’ and ‘chic’, continue to be mispronounced by many students long after primary school.
The 145 words shown below retard progress worst, because they make the start of learning to read English exceptionally difficult and stressful. They destroy many children’s enjoyment of learning soon after they start school. English-speaking countries would undoubtedly have fewer poor readers and less overall educational failure if they reduced at least some of their phonic inconsistencies like ‘does, shoes, toes’.
Only 19 of the 145 worst tricky words are not easily improvable. Seventeen have the short /oo/ sound which has no unique spelling of its own. There is therefore no obvious way of respelling them more readably. They are written with the main spellings for other sounds: (no, go… mould, moult…. food, mood… woven, golf… but, cut, nut… ): (to, into, could, would, should, good, book, foot, look, took, woman, wolf, butcher, full, pull, push, put). English also uses just one spelling for both the sharp and soft /th/ sounds (this, thing). Their reading difficulties have no obvious solution either. The other 126 worst retardants of reading progress could easily be made more readable [as shown below]:
another, both, brother, cold, come, coming, do, does, don’t, done,
[anuther, boath, brother, coald, cum, cumming, doo, dus, doant, dun]
glove, gone, love, most, mother, moved, oh, old, once, one,
[gluv, gon, luv, moast, muther, mooved, o, oald, wunce, wun]
only, other, oven, rolled, shoe, some, told, two, who, women,
[oanly, uther, uvven, roaled, shoo, sum, toald, too, hoo, wimmen]
word, work, although, bought, brought, cough, country, cousin, four, group,
[werd, werk, altho, baut, braut, cof, country, cuzzin, for, groop]
shoulder, soup, thought, through, tough, wound, you, your, down, grow,
[shoalder, soop, thaut, throo, tuf, woond, u, yor, doun, gro ]
know, slow, snow, window, blood, door, broad,
[no, slo, sno, windo, blud, dor, braud]
be, English, ever, every, eyes, he, key, me, never, seven,
[bee, Inglish, evver, evry, ies, hee, kee, mee, nevver, sevven]
she, there, very, we, were, where,
[shee, thair, verry, wee, wer, wair,
bear, beat, break, breakfast, dream, dreamt, great, head, healed, health,
[bair, beet, brake, breakfast, dreem, dremt, grate, hed, heeled, health]
heard, heart, mean, meant, measles, measure, ready,
[herd, hart, meen, ment, meesles, mesure, reddy]
said, all, any, are, called, father, have, many, small, swan,
[sed, aul, enny, ar, cauled, fahther, hav, menny, smaul, swon]
table, want, was, water, what, caught, daughter, laughed,
[tabel, won, wos, wauter, wot, caut, dauter, laffed]
childish, driven, find, finish, give, I’ll, I’m, live, ninth, river, wild,
[chiledish, drivven, fined, finnish, giv, Ile, Ime, liv, nineth , rivver, wiled]
field, friend, building, fruit, ruin, busy.
[feeld, frend, bilding, froot, rooin, bizzy].
An easy way for teachers to verify what a difference those respellings would make is to test them on primary children who find learning to read more difficult than most. Some of my respellings might strike some people as a bit odd, even though they merely conform to the main patterns of English spelling. I hope they show how unphonically many of the most used English words are spelt.