How reform would help

English spelling is exceptionally irregular and makes learning to read and write much harder and slower than any other Latin-based writing system. By amending some of its worst irregularities, learning and teaching to read and write could be made faster and easier, and literacy failure less frequent. It would reduce many of the disadvantages which stem from its logically unfathomable inconsistencies.

  • One in six Anglophone pupils start secondary school with inadequate reading skills and gain little from their time in compulsory education.
  • Teaching children to read and write English is harder and more expensive than in other languages, with literacy progress exceptionally dependent on help outside school and pupils’ innate abilities.
  • Because learning to read and write English takes longer, children have to start school earlier, have less time for play and creativity and are more liable to become reluctant learners.

Being able to read is essential in today’s world. It is therefore not very sensible to continue putting up with a spelling system that makes learning and teaching this skill roughly ten times slower than need be. It is cruel too, because it is worst for the weakest. Irregularities like ‘great – threat’ are of no help to anyone, but they are especially handicapping for slower learners and ones with any kind of learning difficulty, like dyslexia. Milanese professor Eraldo Paulesu studied the relationship between dyslexia and the English, French and Italian spelling systems.  He concluded that, “English dyslexics would have an easier life if their writing system was more regular”.

Nobody can learn much without learning to read first. Pupils who learn to read and write very slowly get later access to other learning, but they need more time for that too. English spelling leaves them doubly disadvantaged.  They would gain much more from their years in compulsory education, if at least learning to read English was made easier. The 1 in 6 students who never learn to read proficiently suffer most of all. The irregularities of English spelling are the reason why all English-speaking countries have a relatively long tails of educational under-achievement.

With simpler spelling systems, progress in learning to read is far less dependent on children’s home lives. In English, home circumstances and the help they get outside school make a very big difference to how easily they are able to learn to read and write. A Cambridge Review of Primary Education concluded in 2009 that conversation in the home and regular reading of bedtime stories affected reading and general educational progress more than anything else.

English-speaking parents start to make a difference to their children’s educational prospects almost from the day they are born. By talking and singing and reading to them as soon as they can sit up, they are already improving their ability to learn to read. Children who start school with a good vocabulary and grasp of grammar, find it much easier to decipher tricky words like ‘does, said, was‘.

Listening to children read for just 10 minutes a day in their early years at school is invaluable. It is particularly beneficial when learning to read moves from regular spellings like ‘a fat cat sat’ to normal stories and numerous words with irregular pronunciations (e.g. man – many;  there – here; no – do).

Most children find words with irregular spellings tricky. Being regularly listened to by an adult who helps to decipher them is enormously helpful. It is much harder to keep persevering without such help. Children who have to manage on their own, because their parents are unable to give them such help regularly, are enormously disadvantaged by English spelling.

But helping with learning to read is often stressful for parents too. On the Primary Education forum on Mumsnet many threads begin with: “Lost it again trying to help x to read – feel awful”. This is even worse for parents whose own literacy skills are not very strong and find even the reading of bedtime stories difficult.  Around 1 in 10 parents never do.

The irregularities of English spelling make the lives of teachers much harder too. It is much more difficult to teach reading and writing with spellings like ‘though, thought, through‘, than regular ones like ‘out, shout, sprout’. English literacy teaching needs to be more carefully structured and managed than with simpler writing systems. It requires specially written, graded texts and many books which move learners from simple spellings to the less regular ones in a gentle progression.

In English teachers also need to monitor reading progress carefully too, because falling behind can be difficult to remedy. English literacy teaching also needs to be more carefully tailored to individual needs, because children’s innate abilities have a big impact on how they cope with the irregularities of English spelling.

English literacy teachers therefore need more training and many more resources for it. Apart from books written specifically for the teaching of reading, along with flashcards, wallcharts and worksheets, they need more materials for monitoring progress. The support of classroom assistants is also essential. They make an enormous difference to children who have trouble keeping up with the rest of the class. They can provide the one-to one help without which many English-speaking children cannot make good progress, even with excellent whole-class teaching.

The irregularities of English spelling often incur other costs too. Students who leave school functionally illiterate, having learnt very little during their school years, often end up with poorer job prospects and needing financial help from the state throughout their lives. This can also make them more prone to turn to crime and end up in jail. In prison, their illiteracy makes it more difficult to improve their lives through education, and therefore more prone to re-offending.

Technological developments in the last century have increasingly reduced the availability of purely manual jobs. Literacy has become essential for work and general well-being. Making learning to read and write easier would bring personal and national benefits. The Coram Beanstalk organisation which provides volunteers for schools to help weak readers estimates that poor literacy now costs the UK economy £81 billion every year, apart from the many personal disadvantages which poor readers suffer. This would be proportionately similar in every English-speaking country.

English spelling makes learning to read and write exceptionally difficult, and like all difficult systems, defeats more learners than easier ones. Before the invention of Windows, computing was beyond the abilities of most people. Microsoft put IT within the grasp of nearly everyone. Modernisation of English spelling would do the same for English literacy standards.

It would greatly improve the educational prospects and life chances of the millions who currently fail to cope with its irregularities. Making English spelling as regular as Finnish or Italian would be challenging, but it could easily be made much simpler and more learner-friendly by amending some of its worst irregularities.  Its biggest flaws were nearly all introduced with  unhelpful changes made by people who gave no thought to ease of learning to read and write.

(I have also explained why English spelling needs modernising in a video. )

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