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’. The irregular sounds pose decoding difficulties in around 2,000 ordinary English words. To become passably fluent readers before secondary school, pupils must learn to sight-read around 600 of them, but 145 of those are especially responsible for making the early years of learning to read English exceptionally slow. – They would be much easier to decipher, if they obeyed the main English spelling patterns [as shown in the table 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, cuntry, 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, brekfast, dreem, dremt, grate, hed, heeled, helth ]|
|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, wont, 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 ].|
Also: to, into, could, would, should, good, book, foot, look, took, woman, wolf, butcher, full, pull, push, put [which cannot be repelt regularly because they are written with the main spellings for other sounds: no, go… mould, moult…. food]. This is also the case with ‘this, thing, because ‘th‘ is used for the sharp and soft /th/ sound.
The 145 words retard early reading progress worst, because they are among the most often used English words. Even quite young children know and use them. They occur repeatedly in children’s stories, and pupils begin to meet them soon after first starting to learn to read. They impede progress and start to reduce many children’s enjoyment of learning to read as soon as they begin to read real stories, when they move from phonically regular texts, written specifically for the initial teaching of reading, with phrases like ‘a fat cat sat’.
In other languages children don’t have to undergo any such 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 irregularities like ‘and any’, ‘breakfast break’ or ‘you should shout’, and to learn to read roughly ten times faster than speakers of English, and with much less help from teachers, parents or other adults.
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.
English-speaking countries would undoubtedly have fewer poor readers and less overall educational failure if they regularised at least some of the irregular spellings in the 145 words shown above.