Why many adults are illiterate

One in six speakers of English cannot read or write well enough for life or work after 10 years in education, because English has too many words with irregular spellings which make it too difficult for them.
       * They struggle with reading, because 69 spellings don’t spell just one sound, like [ee] in ‘deep sleep’, but several, like o in ‘only, one, other‘ and ea in ‘ear, heard, bear, heart, break‘.
       * Writing defeats even more, because over 4,000 common words have irregular spellings, like
          ‘blue, shoe, flew, through, too‘, which have to be learned word by word.
This has been confirmed by several studies. But even just taking a close look at the words that young children misread, or the words that all students repeatedly misspell, makes it clear that nearly all their reading and writing difficulties are caused by irregular spellings.
      They all impede learning to read and write to some extent, but the worst learning difficulties are caused by five groups of irregularities which stem from deliberate changes to the original English writing system.

 Irregular spellings for
  /u/  (son, some, trouble),
  /e/  (head, said, friend, any)  and    
/ee/   (speak, speech, even, believe, weird, marine, people),    
 surplus –e  endings (engine – define, margin) and     
inconsistent consonant doubling (carrot – carol;  arise – arrive).

The different spellings for 335 homophones like ‘hear/here‘ which Johnson introduced in 1755 made them even worse.
     Learning to read and write English could be made much easier by merely bringing some of the changed spellings back into line with the main English spelling patterns.


The u spelling was the first to be made irregular, by substituting o for u next to m, n, v, and w (month, oven, wonder), often with a surplus -e as well (love, some, money). A few more were added later (young, blood).   * Some are also without doubled consonants after their short vowels, e.g.  funny money.

Among, front,  Monday,    monger,  mongrel,  monk,  monkey,  month,   mother,   smotherComfort,  company,  compass, nothing,  pommel/pummel.     Sun/son,  ton/tonne,  tongue, sponge.       Come,  some/sum,   Done,  none/nun.   Won/ one.   Once.    Wonder,  worry.                        Above, dove, glove, love,  shove.         Country,  young.   Enough
*  Cover, covet, covey, covenant,  govern, honey, money, nourish, onion. 
     oven, shovel,  slov
enly. stomach. 
      Not next to  m,  nv or w: 
      Rough,  tough, slough[slou/sluf].   Brother, does,  hiccough/hiccup,  other.
       Southern,    touch.    Blood,  flood. 
*  Colour,   courage,  cousin,  dozen, double,  couple, thorough,  trouble.  

The spellings  oo-e and ou, which spell the /u/ sound in the 68 words above, are pronounced mainly as in on  home  ground’.   In addition to their use for /u/, they have several other pronunciations in 76 more words, like, ‘do, four, groups‘, which undermine their regular usage too.
    The 29 a spellings for /o/ after w and qu ( was, whatsquash) also diluted the use of the letter o.  
The irregular sounds of ‘ow‘ (how slow) and ‘oo‘ ( good, food, flood) are also confusing.
     Amending at least the 68 irregular spellings for /u/ (e.g. front → frunt), would bring a significant reduction of words which are made difficult to read by the irregular uses of o, o-e and ou, and help to make both learning to read and write quite a bit easier.   Adopting regular spellings for the /o/ sound after w and qu would help too.

The irregular spellings of short /e/ /i/ /o/ and /u/, which occur in 229 much used words, hinder the literacy progress of young children most, because they are generally first taught to read those letters in regularly spelt words,  like 
      ‘get the set’,  ‘sit in it’,  ‘hop on top’,  ‘mum must rush’.
With such words, nearly all children learn easily. But the progress of many becomes markedly slower when they begin to be taught different pronunciations
     then – she,  in – kind,  on – other,  trust – truth    for the same spellings and also different spellings
     head, said;  women, busy;  want, squash;  younger, brother   for the same sounds.

/A/ (as in ‘a fat cat sat’) is irregular only in ‘plaid, plait‘ and ‘meringue‘. They hinder learning only minimally.
       /I/ has 45 exceptions: with y (crypt, crystal… gym, hymn… symbol, system) in 37 words and 8 others ‘busy, build, built,  English, pretty,  women,  sieve,  vineyard‘.   Regular spellings for them would also make learning to read and write easier. But at least y has only two pronunciations (typical type), and mostly in words that are not very common. Their impact on learning to read is relatively small too.
       The irregular spellings of e, o and u affect more words and more often used ones.  They also have more than one irregular pronunciation (end – English, he; month – most, women; bread – great, treat).
They hinder learning much more. Making them more regular would make a big difference to learners, especially in the early stages of learning to read.   Amending just some of them would help.  Dropping the clearly surplus a from the 65 ea spellings for /e/ would already make a big difference.

Ea is used in 245 words: 152 for /ee/, 65 /e/,  28 with other sounds (break, react, wear…) and   3 pairs of different words which share one spelling (lead, read, tear).
If the 65 ea for /e/ had their surplus a cut, then ea would be left spelling mainly just the /ee/ sound, with different pronunciations in just 28 words out of 180. This simple, minor tidying up of English spelling would very clearly make both learning to read and to write very much easier for young children.
      Amending the other 13 irregular spellings for /e/ (friend, said, any) would help even more. But just making the pronunciation of ea more predictable would already help greatly.

Bread/bred,    read [red/reed],   lead [led/leed],
 bre
adth,  breast,  breath,  dead,  deaf,  dealt,  death, dread,  dreamt, head, health, 
  leant, leapt, meant,  realm,  spread,  sweat, thread,  threat,  wealth.   

Breakfast, cleanliness, cleanse, endeavour, feather, heather, heaven, heavy, instead,  leather,
measure, pleasure, stealthy, threaten, treacherous, treadmill, treasure, weather, breathylise.
      Earl, early, earn, earnest, earth, heard, learn, pearl, rehearse, search, yearn,
ocean, pageant, sergeant, vengeance.
  
    Some are also without doubled consonants  (unlike ‘jelly, teddy, penny, pepper’):
Jealous, meadow, peasant, pheasant, pleasant, ready, (already), steady, weapon, zealous
Not with ea for /e/: Berry/bury.    Any, many.     Jeopardy, leopard.   Heifer.     
          Friend, every,  said,  says,  Wednesday.
With different pronunciations in US and UK:
   Leisure, lieutenant    [leesure/lesure,  lutennant/leftennant].   

The /ee/ sound was at first spelt mainly e-e, as it still is in 86 words (e.g. even, these), but much more so in the 14th century poems of Geoffrey Chaucer (sene, seson, reson, beleve, preste, techer). They were made irregular in the 15th century, when court scribes were ordered to switch from French to English after 1430, at the end of the 100 years war between England and France.
     The spellings for /ee/ now pose one of the biggest English writing difficulties, with 12 different spellings in 459 words:  6 main ones (eat,  eel, even, police, chiefs,  seize) and another 6 rarer ones (key, me, people, ski, quay, debris).
Most cause reading difficulties too: to read – have read;  field – friend;   fever – never;   codeine – vein; marine – engine;  people – leopard;  key – they;  ski – hi; debris – tennis.  
They absorb a great deal of teaching and learning time at all educational levels. Even making just them more regular would clearly make both learning to read and write much easier, free up time for other learning and help to raise overall educational attainment.

48 words with an /ee/ sound acquired different spellings for different meanings
       with the publication Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in 1755.
       Reed/read , but read = [reed] and [red], 
bee/be,  beech/beach,  been/bean,  beet/beat,  breech/breach, cheep/cheap,  creek/creak,   deer/dear, discreet/discrete,  eerie/eyrie,  eve/eaves,  feet/feat,  flee/flea,  freeze/frieze,    jeans/genes,  Greece/grease,  heel/heal,  hear/here,  key/quay,  leech/leach,  leek/leak,   meet/meat,  need/knead, pee/pea,  peace/piece, peek/peak,  peel/peal,  peer/pier,    reek/wreak,  reel/real,  sealing/ceiling,  seamen/semen,  see/sea,   seem/seam,   seen/sceneserial/cereal,  sheer/shear, sheikh/chic,   steel/steal,  sweet/suite,   tee/tea,  teem/team,  wee/we,  week/weak,  wheel/weal.
           In the UK also:   geezer/geyser,   leaver/lever.

 In the other 363 common words the stressed, clear /ee/ sound is spelt as follows:

95 ee:    Beef, beer, beetle, between… weed, weep, wheedle, wheeze, wildebeest.
115 ea:  … bead, beak, beam… seal, season… weary, weasel… year, yeast, zeal.
 
  76 open e :  Chinese, comedian,… these, trapeze, vehicle, Venus, zero.    He, me, she.
   26 open i:  Albino… machine, magazine… police… routine, sardine… trampoline…
26 ie: Achieve, belief… field, fiend, fierce… relief, … thief, thieve, tier, wield, yield.  
11 ei: Caffeine, codeine, protein, seize, weir, weird… deceive/deceit, receive/receipt.          
8 assorted oddities: People; cathedral, secret;   pizza, ski;  souvenir; debris, quay.

             (The listing of all irregularly spelt words gives all 459 with an /ee/ sound.)                                                                  


SURPLUS LETTERS serve no useful purpose. They just make learning to read and write harder.
           Most were added in the 16th century, when printers used to be paid by the line. They inserted them mainly to fill more space and earn more money, and sometimes to make text edges neater.  Most of them were dropped again later. But many have survived. The a in ea for /e/ (bread) has already been mentioned. The other main surplus letter is -e, mostly after n, t and v (imagine, delicate, native).

Surplus -e endings do their greatest harm in learning to read, because they undermine the original English system of differentiating between ‘short and long‘ or ‘closed and open‘ vowels, as still used in hundreds of words like ‘mat – mate – matter; pin – pine – pinny’.
     The surplus –e after –in in 16 words
     undermines its regular use in the 24 words like
    combine, decline, define, divine …fine wine.

destine, determine, discipline, doctrine, examine, engine, famine, feminine, genuine, heroine, imagine, intestine, jasmine, masculine, medicine, urine

    and the regularly spelt –in endings of ‘aspirin, basin, boffin, cabin, catkin, coffin, dolphin, goblin, mandarin,  margin …  violin’.

    They are further undermined by 16 words in which -ine spells /-een/, rhyming with ‘canteen’:

chlorine, clementine, gasoline, guillotine, machine, magazine, margarine, marine, plasticine, ravine, routine, sardine, tambourine, tangerine, trampoline, vaseline .

The redundant  –e   in the  -ate   endings of 57 words also seriously handicaps learning to read.

     In 30 words the  -e is just decorative.
They rhyme with ‘acrobat‘ and ‘democrat‘ and  undermine the regularly used –ate in 68 words like
    ‘create, cremate, debate… infuriate‘:
Accurate, adequate, affectionate, candidate, chocolate, climate, considerate, corporate, delicate, desperate, extortionate, fortunate, frigate, illiterate, immaculate, immediate, intermediate, intricate, laureate, legitimate, obstinate, palate, passionate, pirate, private, proportionate, senate, temperate, ultimate, vertebrate.  

      Even trickier are the 27 -ate endings with  variable pronunciations   which   depend on context   (e.g.  advocate:  an advocat / to advocait):

Advocate, alternate, animate, appropriate, approximate, articulate, associate, certificate, co-ordinate, degenerate, delegate, deliberate, designate, desolate, dictate, duplicate, elaborate, estimate, graduate, intimate, laminate, moderate, primate, separate, subordinate, syndicate, triplicate.

      The surplus -e of  ‘definite, exquisite, granite, infinite, opposite’
hinders learning too, by undermining the regular spellings of
      ‘admit, bandit, culprit …  and   ammonite, appetite, invite …, termite, unite. 

The -ive ending has few exceptions in spelling, like ‘spiv‘, ‘improv’ and ‘satnav’.   Children can also learn for reading that
       in longer words the –e  of –ive does not show that the vowel before v is long, as in ‘five‘          (creative, decisive… massive, motive, narrative, native… sensitive, subjective), but occasionally it does:  alive, arrive, deprive, revive, survive.       

Every surplus -e after v undermines the ‘long – short’ vowel system which young children find hard enough to grasp, just like those after n and t.   The -e endings of the common words   ‘havegive, live’
clearly make it harder to learn to read  –  ‘gave, save, shave …dive, drive, jive, skive, strive, thrive…’.

CONSONANT DOUBLING  is the biggest English writing problem and causes considerable reading difficulties too.
      It was made irregular by Johnson’s dictionary of 1755.  For words of Latin origin, Johnson often chose to ignore the English system of distinguishing between long and short vowels, as in   ‘hide – hidden’ with hundreds of exceptions like  ‘hideous, video’. Students can no longer decide logically when to use doubled consonants. They must learn word by word which ones have them: rabbit – habit,  ballad – balance,  cellar – celery’.
      Omitted and surplus doubled consonants makes learning to read more difficult too. They make it less immediately obvious which vowels in longer words are stressed, which short and which long
         ‘arrow – arrive’; fabulous – fable; column – collapse’,
 which is much clearer with the systematic use of consonant doubling, as in ‘funny funeral’.
        Children’s ‘misspellings’, like ‘verry‘, ‘holliday‘, ‘fammily‘, show that the logic of doubled consonants after short, stressed vowels is easy to understand. They get flummoxed by the hundreds inconsistencies that Johnson created by undermining the ingenious and uniquely English way of showing vowel stress and length.  

          In root words of more than one syllable consonant doubling is now totally unpredictable.
567  are  without double consonants after their stressed, short vowels:
            radish, refuge,  lily, copy, study,      and undermine the logical doubling in hundreds of others, like
            madden, effort, silly, poppy, buddy.
217   have surplus doubling, (e.g. effect – cf. effort) – used for Latin grammatical reasons,
               not for keeping a short vowel short.   Only
503  root words have a systematically doubled consonant after a short, stressed vowel, like
            ladder, effort, silly, poppy, shudder.
Doubling is still used predictably (after a stressed, short vowel), only when 226 short, one-syllable words are made longer with suffixes like  -ed, -er, or –ing,   as in ‘grit – gritted, gritting, gritter’.
     (All words with omitted, surplus and systematically doubled consonants are shown in the blog which explains the whole English short and long vowel system, and exceptions to it.)

Ideally, the 44 English sounds would all have just one spelling. But even just reducing some of the worst problems explained in this blog would make learning to read and write very much easier.                                mashabell@aol.com

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