English spelling makes learning to read and write more difficult and much more time-consuming than with other writing systems. A study which investigated how much time pupils in 13 European countries needed for rudimentary literacy acquisition found that English-speaking ones took an average of two and half years, while speakers of the other 12 languages became fluent in three to 12 months. A well-known cliché tells us that ‘time is money’. Since teaching children to read and write English takes much longer, it is inevitably more expensive too.
The difficulties of learning to read and write English, and the longer time needed for it, make the work of teachers much more difficult too. Nearly every English spelling pattern has some exceptions. For reading fewer than for writing, but both are often irregular, e.g.: get, net, set – pretty; bun, fun, run – done. Helping children to cope with the hundreds of such inconsistencies is much harder and requires more training than with better writing systems.
It gives teachers a much bigger marking load too. A small minority of lucky individuals learn the quirky spellings of 4,000+ words like ‘pretty busy women’ (cf. bitty, dizzy, slimmer) with relative ease, simply by meeting them repeatedly in their reading. The majority become reasonably competent spellers only by misspelling them many times, having them corrected and then using the old ‘look – say – cover – write – check’ method for implanting them in their brains. With more regular spelling systems, pupils spell nearly all words ‘correctly’ from the start of learning to write. Their teachers don’t have to keep training them out of spelling logically (e.g. hed, sed, frend) and teach them to disobey the main rules with hundreds of irregular spellings like ‘head, said, friend’.
The need for the constant correction of ‘misspellings’ makes the assessment of written work more difficult too. Having to keep stopping and annotating or underlining spelling errors makes it harder to concentrate on what a student is trying to say. This applies not just to English. It adds to the workload of all teachers, because English spelling errors proliferate in all subjects and all levels of education, and all teachers are expected to correct them. Students at university learn different spellings from those at primary school, but many of them also defy logic and cause misspellings. A few of the worst gremlins (e.g. it’s/its, their/there/they/re) flumox many people right up into old age.
In addition to endless correcting of ‘misspelling’ English-speaking teachers also have to spend more time on monitoring pupil’s progress. When nearly everyone can learn to read in a few weeks, as in most of mainland Europe, there is no need to keep re-assessing it, just as nobody keeps testing children’s walking ability. It is obvious that they can do it when they start using it for exploring their surroundings. In most languages, this applies to reading too. Children learn to read in a few months, or as little as a few weeks, and then use it for other learning. There is no need for regular testing and re-testing of their reading ability throughout primary school.
In English-speaking countries, the monitoring of literacy progress is much more important, because far more children are likely to fall behind, and pupils who make very slow progress in the early years tend to end up struggling in all subjects. Some schools therefore assess children’s reading-readiness even before they start formal literacy lessons. If they are found to be struggling in the first few months, they are given extra help, because reading failure gets harder to remedy the longer it remains unaddressed. Teachers also need to see if any extra support which they provide is making a difference.
The longer time needed for learning to read and write English also creates a much greater need for resources, including human ones like classroom assistants, and more training too. Teachers have to learn how to prevent too many children getting confused and discouraged almost as soon as they start school, by meeting too many irregular spellings like ‘an – any’, ‘our – your’ or ‘here – there -were’.
Teachers need to acquire a good grasp of the regularities and irregularities of English spelling and understand why they must initially use mainly just regularly spelt words, such as ‘a fat cat sat’ or ‘hop on top’. They must learn how to help pupils make a gradual transition to the hundreds of irregularly spelt words, like ‘one who said you could’. They must familiarise themselves with the many available materials for doing so, like graded reading books, flashcards and worksheets. This requires far more training than for writing systems with which reading can be taught by anyone who is literate, without any training, like my grandmother in Lithuanian.
The jobs of English literacy teachers are also made harder by the continuing lack of complete agreement on how best teach it. There have been disagreements about it in all Anglophone countries for many decades, along with several changes to teaching methods. They necessitate re-training, the purchasing of new resources and learning how to use them each time education ministers decree a new direction.
Despite having to work much harder, English literacy teachers enjoy fewer rewards for their work. In most other subjects, one of the great joys of teaching is to help children understand something, or to see ‘a light come on in a child’s brain’. There is nothing to understand about irregular spellings like ‘stole – coal bowl’ or ‘blue – shoe flew’. They involve mainly just helping pupils to imprint the right look of words on their brains, rather than teaching them to understand and think. It’s more like training children to jump through hoops rather than educating them.
Many other subjects involve some rote-learning too, but not so relentlessly. They usually also provide some logical means of finding the right answer, instead of just having to consult a dictionary. In maths, for example, pupils can be taught to work out how 7 x 7 makes 49, if their memory fails them. They can be shown, with cocktail sticks, pebbles or other small objects, how the result is arrived at.
Learning some facts, like historical dates, place names or scientific terms, can be a bit tedious too, but they serve useful educational functions as well. They give children a grasp of time, the layout of our planet and the language of science. The variable letters in ‘speak, speech, cheat, chief,’ or ‘seize, these, cheeses’, have to be memorised simply because they have been enshrined in dictionaries since 1755.
The very worst part of teaching children to read and write English is recurring 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 (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 simpler, learner-friendlier 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 still read labouriously after seven years at primary school. Writing defeats many more. Nearly a fifth of Anglophone pupils start secondary school with literacy levels that guarantee further poor progress.
Most students manage to become adequately literate, but they have to work quite hard for it and mustn’t allow themselves to become too discouraged by their early difficulties. But no matter how hard they and their teachers try , a substantial minority of students never gets beyond the basics.
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 or struggle with English spelling. But because failure to learn to read and write has a very 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 also all been putting teachers under more and more pressure to reduce literacy failure, but without making much of a 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 nearly 20% of children simply cannot manage to become competent readers or writers by the end of primary school.
In the 1990s the UK government commissioned Sir Claus Moser to conduct a survey of adult basic skills in England. He reported in 1999 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 for as long as English spelling is allowed to remain as illogical as it often is, a substantial reduction in the 20% level of functional illiteracy remains impossible.
When something is exceptionally difficult to learn, it just keeps incurring a high rate of failure. Sadly, most people can’t, or choose not to, see the link between the irregularities of English spelling and the persistently highly levels of literacy failure. They mostly blame teachers for it instead.