Bridging the education gap

Schoolchildren cannot learn much of anything without learning to read first. Learning to read English is exceptionally difficult. Because of this, between 18 to 20 per cent of English-speaking students still have severe reading difficulties by the end of their compulsory education. Writing defeats many more.
English spelling makes learning to read and write much harder and slower than nearly all other writing systems. This could be made much easier by merely undoing some of the damaging changes inflicted on English spelling since it was first adapted from Latin in the 7th century. The most handicapping were adoption of irregular spellings for:     short /u/  (come, once, touch),
      short /e/  (e.g. head, said, friend) 
      and /ee/  (read, believe, weird, police, people …);
unsystematic consonant doubling (with inconsistencies like ‘finish dinner’) and
surplus-e endings (e.g. have, gone, imagine ) which dilute their use in words like ‘save, bone‘ and ‘define‘.
All common words with those irregularities are shown among the 4,219 unpredictably spelt words [accompanied by respellings which show how they would be spelt if they complied with the main rules of English spelling].

Nearly all children make good progress with both reading and writing when they start school, because they are initially taught mainly with regularly spelt short words, like ‘dad met him on the bus’. If /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/ were always spelt consistentlyt like that, their reading and writing would continue to improve rapidly. It becomes markedly slower only when pupils begin to be introduced to more and more words in which some of the letters with which they first learned to read are used for different sounds, such as ‘was, he, kind, once, push’.
       Irregular spellings for a, i and o impede learning less seriously than those for /e/ and /u/ because:
      1) Short /a/ is spelt irregularly only in ‘plait, plaid’ and ‘meringue’.
      2) Short /i/ is irregular in six common words (build, built, English, pretty, busy, women).  The other 37, which are all spelt with y (abyss, crypt, syllable …), and also ‘sieve’ and ‘vineyard’ are less common and hinder reading progress much less .
      3) Short /o/ is spelt abnormally in only 33 words, mostly with a after w and qu (was, want, squash…). Only a few more recently imported English words use o for /o/ (wobbly, wombat), but wa and qua cause some reading difficulties (swan swam; was wagging) and would ideally be improved too.

Irregular spellings for /e/ and /u/ impede progress worse, because they occur in many of the tricky words that children begin to meet soon after they start learning to read. Improving at least most of them would make a clearly noticeable difference to young children’s literacy progress. They also make strong candidates for reform because most of them were made irregular with deliberate changes to the original English spelling system.
     Regular spellings for short /u/ were diluted mainly in the 9th century, with the adoption of o next to n, m, v and w (son, mother, love, wonder). This was partly because the letter v (Latin numeral 5) was at first used for four sounds (i.e. vp, vse, even, vvith).
     Spellings for short /e/ became irregular mainly in the 15th century, with the adoption of ea in 51 words (dread, head, thread) and also for /ee/ in 156 words (dream, heal, treat). The reading difficulties which this change introduced are epitomised by ‘must read’ and ‘have read’. They could be much reduced by at least dropping the surplusa from the 51 words in which ea spells the short /e/ sound.
     Adoption of regular spellings for /ee/ would also be of great help. The current 12 different spellings for /ee/ (leave, sleeve, even, believe, weird, people…) are used in 459 words and pose one of the biggest hurdles in learning to write English. But they cause many reading difficulties as well, because nine of the different spellings for /ee/ are used for other sounds too:
Treat – great, threat, react; even – ever; ceiling – veil, eider; fiend – friend, died, diet;
 hethen; keythey; machinedefine, engine; people – leopard, leotard; skihi.

In addition to making learning to read easier, reducing the 12 unpredictable spellings for the /ee/ sound to just ee, would reduce the current total of 4,219 unpredictably spelt common English words by more than a tenth and make learning to write much easier too. Even the single change of adopting ee for just the 156 words in which /ee/ is currently spelt with ea (lead, to read) would make a substantial difference.
     Completely regular spellings for /ee/ would have the additional benefit of reducing the 335 differently spelt English homophones like ‘heel/heal’ by 47. They became standardised in 1755, with the publication of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. They cause endless misspellings without serving any useful purpose. At least 2,500 other homophones get by perfectly well with just one spelling for their different meanings (bank, boot, trunk, act, play…). The US adoption of ‘practice’, for both noun and verb, has caused no problems either. The perverse English differentiation between ‘to practise’ and ‘a practice’ generates endless ‘misspellings’ (cf. to service, a service; to notice, a notice).
     Johnson was also responsible for weakening the English method of distinguishing between short and long vowels, as in ‘made, madder’ or ‘hidden hideout‘, by introducing hundreds of exceptions like ‘radish, shadow, study’. There is no good reason why his whims should continue to be obeyed and why regular consonant doubling – only after stressed short vowels in words of more than one syllable – should not become as acceptable as its current random usage.
     Children’s ‘errors’, like ‘annimal’, ‘fammily’ and ‘holliday’’, show that the original purpose of doubling is easy to grasp. It causes endless ‘mistakes’ only because it is used unsystematically. Adoption of systematic doubling would reduce the time currently needed for learning to read and write English very considerably, but it would also change the present look of hundreds of words. – If adopting completely systematic consonant doubling should be deemed too much change for one reform, it should at least be adopted when regularising irregular spellings of short /e/ and /u/. Several dozen words have no doubled consonants after their irregular spellings (e.g. many, dozen – cf. penny, buzzer).
     Some words with irregular spellings for /e/ and /u/ have surplus letters as well as omitted doubling (e.g. honey – cf. runny). They were added mainly in the 15th and 16th centuries, by printers who were paid by the line, to help them to earn more money. All they do now is to make learning to read more difficult than it could be. Surplus -e endings hinder reading progress because they undermine the use of -e for indicating long vowels, as in ‘home, alone’. They make learning to read more difficult (five – live), just like omitted consonant doubling. They should be scrapped when short vowels get regularised (e.g. done → dun, some →sum, honey → hunny).

There is much else wrong with English spelling, but some irregularities would be more difficult to regularise, because they have no clear best spelling (e.g. her, bird, turned). They also create predominantly only writing difficulties and are therefore less detrimental to overall literacy progress.
     The irregular spelling for /e/, /u/ and /ee/, inconsistent consonant doubling and surplus -e are most responsible for English-speaking countries continuing to have high levels of functional illiteracy. Improving them would be a more certain and permanent way of speeding up learning to read and write and raising overall educational attainment, than changes in teaching methods or increases in educational expenditure. Ideally, all five of those spelling flaws would get corrected. But even just reducing exceptions to e, u and ee would make a very substantial difference to learners.       mashabell@aol.com

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