Unavoidable literacy failure  

One predictable consequence of any hard-to-master system is a high rate of failure. When learning to use a computer involved mastering DOS (or the Disk Operating System), many people failed to cope. The invention of windows put the use of computers within the grasp of nearly everyone.

Languages with simple, learner-friendly writing systems have a similar effect. They enable nearly everyone to learn to read and write quickly and easily. In English-speaking countries by contrast, roughly 1 in 6 children fail to learn to read proficiently by the end of seven years at primary school, and many more than that fail to master writing. Nearly a fifth of Anglophone pupils start secondary school with literacy level which as good as guarantee disappointing progress during the whole of their education.

At the other end of the scale, the percentage of pupils who learn to read and write English easily is also around 20%. The majority reach an adequate level if they work hard for it. But a substantial minority of students never get beyond the basics, no matter how hard they try. Several other skills, like playing a musical instrument or a sport, becoming a good runner, footballer or artist, are also mastered well or poorly in similar proportions to those who cope well or badly with English spelling.

Because failure to learn to read and write has a big impact on pupils’ educational prospects and life chances in today’s world, all Anglophone governments have been increasing their spending on literacy teaching in primary schools over past few decades. They have all also been putting teachers under more and more pressure to reduce literacy failure, but without making much difference. The results of the annual SATs (Standard Assessment Tests) for 11-year-olds in England since 1991, just like similar ones in other English-speaking countries, have continued to show that around 20% of children cannot manage to become competent readers and writers by the end of primary school.

In 1999 the UK government commissioned Sir Claus Moser to conduct a survey of adult basic skills in England. He reported that around 7 million (22%) had literacy levels which were inadequate for everyday reading needs. An earlier US survey had also found that roughly 1 in 5 adults were functionally illiterate.   It seems that, with current English spelling habits, a substantial reduction in the 20% level of functional illiteracy is just not possible. When something is exceptionally difficult to learn, it makes a high failure rate unavoidable.

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