How parents make a difference

When all spellings have just one pronunciation and their number is only around 50, as in all Latin-based writing systems except English, teaching children to read is quick and easy. Almost any literate adult can do it. Pupils are taught the sounds for the spellings used by their writing system with a few simple sentences, and after a few weeks they can decipher every word of their language. If they get stuck, they can refer to a simple, totally reliable pronunciation guide, with all spellings set out on a single page, accompanied by words (and for young children with pictures too). Something like the following, for each spelling:

aapple | (picture of an apple)

ai| rain   | (picture of an umbrella)

Pupils need some practice with decoding, but they soon start to recognise most everyday words on sight and have to resort to decoding less and less often. After learning their letter-to-sound correspondences, they can improve their reading speed entirely on their own, without further help from anyone.

English-speaking children start in a similar way. But even at the beginning, they have to learn the sounds for many more spellings than in other languages, because the  44 English sounds are written with 205 spellings. Some irregular spellings present no reading problems (e.g. widen – pardon, again). Some occur in only a few and relatively little used words (e.g. rain – campaign, reign), but 133 are in very frequent usage, and learning their pronunciations is an essential part of learning to read English. But apart from their large number, the 133 most used English spellings make learning to read even harder, because half of them have more than one pronunciation, like the letter ‘a’ in ‘and – any, able, father‘. Students don’t become fluent readers until they have learnt to recognise the majority of such words as wholes.

Learning to recognise most words on sight is part of becoming a fluent reader of any language. But spelling systems with regular pronunciations enable learners to get to that stage much more quickly, and more crucially, with much less help. The literacy progress of English-speaking children is much more dependent on help at home.

Parents who listen to their children read for just 10 minutes a day when they first start to meet words with irregular pronunciations provide invaluable support. By helping them to decipher the words which trip them up, they make learning to read much easier. Praise for getting tricky words right and encouragement to keep trying despite difficulties helps too. It is much more difficult to provide such one-to-one support in a class of 25 or 30.

But English-speaking parents begin to affect their children’s reading ability long before they start school. They start to make a difference almost from the day their children are born. The help which they give with language development, by speaking and reading to them from early infancy onwards has an impact on how easily they cope when they start learning to read. Researchers from the University of Alberta who tried to identify the best predictor of future reading ability in English, and some other languages,  concluded that, ‘… in English, you need a rich home literacy environment. It’s absolutely necessary’. (Science Daily, Feb 2010).

Starting to make young children aware of English speech sounds, by repeating their first babblings like ‘da – da’ back to them, is very helpful. Equally so is encouraging them to be chatty, by talking to them as much as possible, while cooking, out shopping or walking in the park. – All playful exposure to language in early childhood helps to prepare English-speaking children for learning to read and makes it easier.

The synthetic phonics method which is currently used for teaching children to read  in most of the English-speaking world, teaches the different pronunciations of spellings like ‘ou’ in words such as ‘count, could, couple, you’. When children have difficulty decoding such words, they are advised to try and remember the different sounds for the tricky spellings and find the one which is right for that word. – This is much easier if pupils already have a good vocabulary and grasp of English grammar.

Many researchers have reported that pupils from wealthier homes learn to read more easily than those from poorer ones. But it is not financial poverty as such that holds poorer English-speaking children back. They are disadvantaged because they tend to get less help with language development and general preparation for learning to read before they start school, and also less help from home once they are at school. Better off parents are generally better informed about how they can assist their children’s learning and are also more able to do so.

Many poorer parents, for example, don’t read bedtime stories because they find it too difficult. An article in the London Evening Standard in 2011 proclaimed that, ‘One in five parents cannot read aloud’. A 2007 survey by the adult learning organisation Learndirect had found that 1 in 10 parents struggled to understand the bedtime stories they read to their children. Almost a quarter admitted to skipping passages they could not read or inventing words to cover up their problems.

Poorer parents are often also unable to help as much as they would like because they have to work unsocial shifts or are too tired from working very long hours. They may also be unable to give their children much help with early speech development, because they have only a limited vocabulary and are not very talkative. Eating together and holding conversations around a dinner table is much less common among poorer families. Such factors all help to ensure that“children from the poorest homes are almost a year behind middle class pupils by the time they start school”, as researchers keep finding. 

In short, poorer English-speaking children are educationally disadvantaged, because  learning to read, the skill which opens the doors to other learning, is exceptionally affected by their home environment and the educational help it can provide. It makes a big difference to how reading-ready children are when they start school and how well they cope thereafter. Better spelling systems make the educational prospects of all children much less dependent on how much help they get from their parents, teachers or other carers.

Main differences between English and other alphabetically written languages Average for Latin-based  writing systems   English
Sounds          40        44
Spellings          50       205
Spellings with irregular pronunciations           0        69
Words with letters which have irreg. sounds           0     2,000+
Words with some irregular spellings        300    4,000+
Time needed for learning to read      3 – 12 months     3 years+
Time needed for learning to write       1 year   10 years (at least)

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