How parents make a difference

When all spellings have just one pronunciation and their number is only around 50, as in all Latin-based writing systems except English, teaching children to read is quick and easy. Almost any literate adult can do it. Pupils are taught the sounds for the spellings used by their writing system with a few simple sentences, and after a few weeks they can decipher every word of their language. If they get stuck, they can refer to a simple, totally reliable pronunciation guide, with all spellings set out on a single page, accompanied by words (and for young children with pictures too). Something like the following, for each spelling:

aapple | (picture of an apple)

ai| rain   | (picture of an umbrella)

Pupils need some practice with decoding, but they soon start to recognise most everyday words on sight and have to resort to decoding less and less often. After learning their letter-to-sound correspondences, they can improve their reading speed entirely on their own, without further help from anyone.

English-speaking children start in a similar way. But even at the beginning, they have to learn the sounds for many more spellings than in other languages, because the  44 English sounds are written with 205 spellings. Some irregular spellings present no reading problems (e.g. widen – pardon, again). Some occur in only a few and relatively little used words (e.g. rain – campaign, reign), but 133 are in very frequent usage, and learning their pronunciations is an essential part of learning to read English. But apart from their large number, the 133 most used English spellings make learning to read even harder, because half of them have more than one pronunciation, like the letter ‘a’ in ‘and – any, able, father‘. Students don’t become fluent readers until they have learnt to recognise the majority of such words as wholes.

Learning to recognise most words on sight is part of becoming a fluent reader of any language. But spelling systems with regular pronunciations enable learners to get to that stage much more quickly, and more crucially, with much less help. The literacy progress of English-speaking children is much more dependent on help at home.

Parents who listen to their children read for just 10 minutes a day when they first start to meet words with irregular pronunciations provide invaluable support. By helping them to decipher the words which trip them up, they make learning to read much easier. Praise for getting tricky words right and encouragement to keep trying despite difficulties helps too. It is much more difficult to provide such one-to-one support in a class of 25 or 30.

But English-speaking parents begin to affect their children’s reading ability long before they start school. They start to make a difference almost from the day their children are born. The help which they give with language development, by speaking and reading to them from early infancy onwards has an impact on how easily they cope when they start learning to read. Researchers from the University of Alberta who tried to identify the best predictor of future reading ability in English, and some other languages,  concluded that, ‘… in English, you need a rich home literacy environment. It’s absolutely necessary’. (Science Daily, Feb 2010).

Starting to make young children aware of English speech sounds, by repeating their first babblings like ‘da – da’ back to them, is very helpful. Equally so is encouraging them to be chatty, by talking to them as much as possible, while cooking, out shopping or walking in the park. – All playful exposure to language in early childhood helps to prepare English-speaking children for learning to read and makes it easier.

The synthetic phonics method which is currently used for teaching children to read  in most of the English-speaking world, teaches the different pronunciations of spellings like ‘ou’ in words such as ‘count, could, couple, you’. When children have difficulty decoding such words, they are advised to try and remember the different sounds for the tricky spellings and find the one which is right for that word. – This is much easier if pupils already have a good vocabulary and grasp of English grammar.

Many researchers have reported that pupils from wealthier homes learn to read more easily than those from poorer ones. But it is not financial poverty as such that holds poorer English-speaking children back. They are disadvantaged because they tend to get less help with language development and general preparation for learning to read before they start school, and also less help from home once they are at school. Better off parents are generally better informed about how they can assist their children’s learning and are also more able to do so.

Many poorer parents, for example, don’t read bedtime stories because they find it too difficult. An article in the London Evening Standard in 2011 proclaimed that, ‘One in five parents cannot read aloud’. A 2007 survey by the adult learning organisation Learndirect had found that 1 in 10 parents struggled to understand the bedtime stories they read to their children. Almost a quarter admitted to skipping passages they could not read or inventing words to cover up their problems.

Poorer parents are often also unable to help as much as they would like because they have to work unsocial shifts or are too tired from working very long hours. They may also be unable to give their children much help with early speech development, because they have only a limited vocabulary and are not very talkative. Eating together and holding conversations around a dinner table is much less common among poorer families. Such factors all help to ensure that“children from the poorest homes are almost a year behind middle class pupils by the time they start school”, as researchers keep finding. 

In short, poorer English-speaking children are educationally disadvantaged, because  learning to read, the skill which opens the doors to other learning, is exceptionally affected by their home environment and the educational help it can provide. It makes a big difference to how reading-ready children are when they start school and how well they cope thereafter. Better spelling systems make the educational prospects of all children much less dependent on how much help they get from their parents, teachers or other carers.

Main differences between English and other alphabetically written languages Average for Latin-based  writing systems   English
Sounds          40        44
Spellings          50       205
Spellings with irregular pronunciations           0        69
Words with letters which have irreg. sounds           0     2,000+
Words with some irregular spellings        300    4,000+
Time needed for learning to read      3 – 12 months     3 years+
Time needed for learning to write       1 year   10 years (at least)

Reducing school exclusions

School exclusions have recently been giving cause for concern, because excluded teenagers, left unoccupied and unsupervised, are apt to get up to no good. Knife crime and teenage drug dealing have both been linked to increases in permanent exclusions.

Schools are inclined to exclude pupils who play up, because they are under government pressure to get good SATs and exam results. But the kids who misbehave and disrupt lessons are mostly ones who are not coping with schoolwork. They lag behind their classmates either because they have learning difficulties or don’t get much educational help from their parents. Kicking them out, or ‘offloading’ them, is certainly not helping them.

Many of the current unruly and disaffected pupils became reluctant learners soon after they started school, mainly because they found learning to read and write English harder than most. Their reading difficulties made life harder for them in most other subjects too. It is difficult to learn much of anything without learning at least to read first.

Sadly, for children with any kind of learning difficulty and little educational support at home, learning to read English is extremely difficult. This fact tends to be unappreciated by people with better learning abilities and more favourable home backgrounds.

One simple and long-lasting way to help disadvantaged kids and reduce the number of pupils that heads want to get rid of, is to make learning to read and write easier. The educational prospects and life chances of weak learners who get little help with learning to read from their parents would improve greatly, if the number of spellings which make learning to read harder than need be became smaller, such as ‘bread, great, treat’ or ‘only, one, other’.

It would make the lives of teachers less pressurised and more successful too. Learner-unfriendly spellings make teaching children to read much more difficult too, not just learning to do so. A few sensible tweaks to English spelling could reduce many educational, personal and social problems in a relatively cheap and permanent way.

It’s not the fault of pupils with below average learning abilities, and parents who had similar problems, that they fail to learn to read as easily as their luckier peers and don’t become enthusiastic learners. The learning hurdles posed by English spelling are simply too high for them. They can’t reduce them. But the rest of us could give some thought to making their lives a bit fairer, even if it would mean a slight, temporary inconvenience to us.

I have seen how struggling readers can learn to read English more easily with simpler spellings.  For a while I was a voluntary reading assistant for poor readers. I decided to note down 5 – 7 words which made them stumble in each of our sessions, for the purpose of looking at them again together and for revising at home.  But next to those words, I also put simpler respellings, like ‘heer, herd, hart‘ for ‘hear, hear, heart‘. They invariably read those more easily. 

We then folded the list in half, with the normal, trickily spelt words on top, for learning at home. The children were told to look at the simpler respellings only when stumped by the customary spellings. Their reading progress  improved very noticeably.

My little experiment proved to me beyond any doubt that weak readers would all learn to read far more easily if the tricky words that keep tripping them up were spelt more sensibly in the first place. It would enable them to become independent readers and learners more quickly and with much less help than they need currently.

 

Making learning to read and write easier

Learning to read and write English is exceptionally slow and difficult, because over 4,000 common words have tricky spellings which require word-by-word memorisation. Many of them pose reading difficulties as well (e.g. shoe, flew, to – toe, sew, go). If substantial numbers of the gremlins were brought into line with the main patterns, learning to read and write could become much easier. This has been confirmed by several studies.

English-speaking countries are not in the habit of modernising their spelling like most others. It was last slightly improved between 1642-9 when Civil War pamphleteers cut surplus letters from words like ‘hadde, olde, shoppe’, to squeeze more propaganda onto a page. Other spelling changes have nearly all made it worse. There is now a great deal wrong with it,  but its worst reading and writing problems are cause by :

 irregular spellings for short e and u (e.g. head, said, friend; does, done, double),

 long /ee/ spellings (speak, speech, even, believe, weird, machine, people),

 inconsistent consonant doubling (carrot, carol; arise, arrive),

 different spellings for identical words (e.g. bred/bread, hear/here)

and surplus –e endings (refine – engine).

Correcting all of them would make learning to read and write much easier and faster. But even amending just some of them would already make a substantial difference. The confusion caused by ea for example, (to read, have read; dream, dreamt) could be much reduced by merely making the spellings of short /e/ more regular. –  Ea is used in 254 words: 156 for /ee/, 51 for short /e/ and five other sounds in 47 (e.g. tear, break, react, create, learn). If the 51 ea spellings were changed back to just e again, the clearly dominant pronunciation of ea would become /ee/, with different pronunciations in just 47 words. This would already help learners quite a bit. They would benefit even more if all 61 common words with irregularly spelt /e/ were regularised, including ‘any, many, friend, said, says, bury, heifer, Wednesday’.

Some of the irregular spellings for short a, i, o and u (e.g. plait, busy, was, some) hinder progress significantly too, because young children generally start learning to read and write with short words like ‘a fat cat sat;  sit in pit;  pot got hot’ or ‘mum must run’. But they are not all equally troublesome.  Short /a/ is irregular in just three words (plait, plaid, meringue). Exceptions to short /i/ make only seven often used words tricky (build, built, English, pretty, busy, women). The other 39 (e.g. abyss, crypt, crystal, cyclical, cygnet…) occur in less frequently used words and so don’t impede either reading or writing progress very much. The a spelling for short /o/ after w and qu in 29 words (e.g. was, want, squash, squat) is almost regular, with exceptions just in ‘wobbly, wonky, wodge, wombat’ and ‘cough, trough, laurel, sausage’. The wa and qua spellings cause some reading difficulties (e.g.  ‘swan swam’ and ‘was wagging’) but they are also not among the most serious impediments of learning.

Irregular spellings for short /u/ however are as unhelpful to learners to learners as those for short /e/. They occur in 68 words which are mostly used very often (come, some, mother, other, brother, done, nothing, tough, rough, blood, flood…) and hinder early progress in both learning to read and write a great deal. And most of them were made irregular deliberately, around 1200 years ago.

The spelling of short /e/ was also made irregular deliberately, mainly with ea, in the 15th century, when Chaucer’s regular spellings for the /ee/ sound (leve, sleve, even, beleve, reson…) were also ruined. One can only guess now why the court scribes did this, but the current 12 unpredictable spellings for /ee/ (leave, sleeve, believe, weird, police, people…). are now one of the three main sources of English misspellings. They necessitate word-by-word memorisation of irregularities for 459 words, and most of them cause significant reading difficulties as well, because they are used for more than one sound: treat – great, threat, react;    even – ever;  ceiling – veil, eider;  fiend – friend, died, diet;  he – then;  key – they;  machine – define, engine;  people – leopard, leotard;  ski – hi;  debristennis. Only the [ee] spelling which is used for the /ee/ sound in 133 words, has an almost completely regular pronunciation (keep, sheep, asleep…) and is easy for beginning readers. Consistent use of ee for the /ee/ sound, including the 47 words which now have two spellings (e.g. be/bee, here/hear), would therefore remove a very big source of both spelling errors and reading difficulties.

The adoption of different spellings for 335 identically sounding words was one of the major blows which Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 dealt to English spelling. To undo all of them would probably be too much of a mental challenge for people who have spent years learning to master them. But making a start on their abolition, with regular spellings for /ee/ (e.g. here/hear → heer), would be a good start.

Johnson wrecked English spelling even further by diluting the systematic use of consonant doubling, for differentiating between long and short vowels, as in ‘made – madder, diner – dinner’. He omitted doubling in over 500 words from Latin roots (radical, sinister). He also used doubling superfluously in over 200 other words (address, annoy), for Latin grammatical reasons, instead of showing a short, stressed vowel as in ‘adder’ and ‘annual’. He made doubling logically unfathomable in at least 1,250 words.

Omitted and surplus consonant doublings make not just learning to spell more difficult but learning to read too. They both make it harder to see which vowel is stressed and short or long: hide, hidden – hideous; arrow, arise – arrive. Doubling could easily be made regular again, by deciding to use it systematically, instead of randomly as dictated by Johnson’s dictionary of 1755. It should at least be used when amending words with currently irregular spellings for /e/ and /u/ which would remain only partly regular without it (e.g. ready → redy; honey → huny), in comparison to ‘teddy’ and ‘runny’.

Surplus letters were inserted mainly by early printers, to earn more money, because they were paid by the line. Some words with irregular spellings for short /u/ cannot be made completely regular without cutting their surplus letters as well (e.g. done → dun, some – sum, courage → currage).

It is unlikely that any of my suggestion will get dopted in my lifetime, because most people remain unaware of the many educational, social and fiscal costs which they incur. But I believe that it will happen one day. The exceptionally simple and learner-friendly Korean writing system was first devised in the 15th century but not implemented until the 20th.

145 worst words in early reading

English reading difficulties are due mainly to 69 of its 205 spellings being used for more than one sound, like o in ‘on, only, other’ or ou in ‘sound soup southern’. The irregular sounds pose decoding difficulties in around 2,000 ordinary English words. To become passably fluent readers before secondary school, pupils must learn to sight-read around 600 of them, but 145 of those are especially responsible for making the early years of learning to read English exceptionally slow. –  They would be much easier to decipher, if they obeyed the main English spelling patterns [as shown in the table below].

another,   both,   brother,   cold,   come,   coming,    do,   does,   don’t,   done,                     [anuther,  boath,  brother,  coald,  cum,   cumming,   doo,  dus,    doant,   dun ]
glove,   gone,   love,   most,     mother,   moved,    oh,   old,    once,    one,                             [gluv,    gon,      luv,     moast,   muther,    mooved,   o,    oald,   wunce,  wun ]
 only,    other,   oven,     rolled,   shoe,   some,   told,    two,   who,  women,                          [oanly,   uther,  uvven,    roaled,   shoo,   sum,     toald,   too,    hoo,   wimmen ]
word,  work,  although,  bought, brought, cough,  country,  cousin,   four,  group,           [werd,  werk,   altho,         baut,      braut,       cof,       cuntry,     cuzzin,    for,    groop ]
shoulder,  soup,   thought,  through,   tough,   wound,   you,   your,   down,  grow,       [shoalder,  soop,    thaut,       throo,        tuf,        woond,      u,       yor,      doun,   gro ]
 know,   slow,   snow,   window,   blood,   door,   broad,                                                                         [ no,        slo,      sno,       windo,       blud,      dor,     braud ]
 be,    English,    ever,   every,   eyes,   he,    key,    me,     never,    seven,                                      [bee,  Inglish,    evver,   evry,     ies,    hee,   kee,   mee,   nevver,  sevven ]
 she,   there,   very,   we,   were,   where,                                                                                            [shee,  thair,   verry,  wee,  wer,     wair]
bear,   beat,   break,  breakfast,  dream, dreamt,  great,   head,   healed,  health,               [bair,    beet,   brake,   brekfast,    dreem,   dremt,    grate,    hed,      heeled,   helth ] 
 heard,  heart,   mean,  meant,  measles,   measure,   ready,                                                       [herd,    hart,     meen,   ment,    meesles,    mesure,     reddy ]
said,   all,   any,   are,   called,   father,   have,   many,   small,   swan,                                          [sed,   aul,   enny,  ar,    cauled,   fahther,  hav,    menny,  smaul,  swon ]
 table,   want,   was,   water,    what,   caught,   daughter,   laughed,                                       [tabel,   wont,    wos,   wauter,   wot,     caut,       dauter,        laffed ]
 childish,   driven,    find,   finish,     give,   I’ll,   I’m,   live,  ninth,   river,    wild,                [chiledish,  drivven,  fined,  finnish,    giv,    Ile,    Ime,    liv,   nineth ,  rivver,  wiled ]    
field,    friend,       building,   fruit,   ruin,   busy                                                                                 [feeld,   frend,        bilding,    froot,   rooin,  bizzy ].

Also: to,  into,   could, would, should,   good, book, foot, look, took,   woman, wolf,  butcher,   full,   pull,   push,   put  [which cannot be repelt regularly because they are written with the main spellings for other sounds: no, go…  mould, moult….  food]. This is also the case with ‘this,   thing, because ‘th‘ is used for the sharp and soft /th/ sound.

The 145 words retard early reading progress worst, because they are among the most often used English words. Even quite young children know and use them. They occur repeatedly in children’s stories, and pupils begin to meet them soon after first starting to learn to read. They impede progress and start to reduce many children’s enjoyment of learning to read as soon as they begin to read real stories, when they move from phonically regular texts, written specifically for the initial teaching of reading, with phrases like ‘a fat cat sat’.

In other languages children don’t have to undergo any such transition, because none of their spellings are used for more than one sound. After spending a few weeks learning the pronunciations of the 50 or so spellings used by their writing system, they can decode all words. They don’t keep being challenged by irregularities like ‘and any’, ‘breakfast break’ or ‘you should shout’, and to learn to read roughly ten times faster than speakers of English, and with much less help from teachers, parents or other adults.

The fact that English has 205 spellings, instead of the average of 50 for other alphabetically written languages, is partly responsible for English literacy acquisition taking longer. But the main reason for the much slower progress are the 69 spellings with changeable pronunciations.  Some words, such as ‘marine’, ‘epitome’ and ‘chic’, continue to be mispronounced by many students long after primary school.

English-speaking countries would undoubtedly have fewer poor readers and less overall educational failure if they regularised at least some of  the irregular spellings in the 145 words shown above.

 

Biggest sources of misspellings

Because of the irregularities in its spelling, learning to read and write English takes roughly ten times longer than other languages with Latin-based writing systems: three years instead of three months for reading and 10 years instead of one year for writing.

English spelling has been repeatedly worsened since it was first adapted from biblical Latin in 7th century.  Instead of just 44 spellings for its 44 sounds, it now has 205. And despite having many more spellings than sounds, 69 of them are used for more than one sound (a: at – any, apron;  ai: wait – plait, said;  oon – once, only…). This makes learning to read difficult too, not just to write.

Nearly all English spelling patterns have exceptions. Some are irregular in only a few words (e.g. ‘a’ of ‘mad cat sprang’ just ‘plaid, plait, meringue’).  But two necessitate nearly as much word by word memorisation of unpredictable spellings as all others combined:   1)  The randomly doubled and not doubled of consonants which affect 1272 words, like  ‘rabbit – habit,  abridge – abbreviate;   offer – profit,  offend;   apple – chapel’  and             2) The use of 12 totally unpredictable spellings for the /ee/ sound in 459 words, as in ‘eel, eat,  these, police,  believe, weird,  secret, people,  key, quay,  ski,  debris.’

Spelling of the /ee/ sound was made irregular in the 15th century, when after nearly 300 years of French rule, English became the official language of England again. The court scribes who had to switch from French to English wrecked Chaucer’s regular spelling of the /ee/ sound, as in ‘speke, speche, preste, preche, beleve, reson …’.

They probably found the switch challenging. They may also have made English spelling deliberately more difficult, to prevent ordinary people from being able to learn to read and write too easily. When they were obliged to adopt what had hitherto been mainly just the language of illiterate peasants, they were losing their previously superior status as speakers and writers of French . They can’t have been happy about it. (Nowadays many people are opposed to making English spelling even just a bit more learner-friendly.)

The English system of consonant doubling,  for differentiating between long and short a, e, i, o and u (as in ‘mane – manner, diner – dinner), was ruined with the 1755 publication of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. He revered Latin and believed that English needed to be made more Latinate in order to become fit for scientific discourse. Most learned treatises were still written in Latin, even in the 18th century, just as Newton’s ‘Principia Mathematica’ had been in the 17th.

Johnson therefore decided that words from Latin roots did not need to conform to the English method of using consonant doubling for showing that a stressed vowel was short, as in ‘rabbit, merry, silly, collar, muddy’. He left many of them looking as if they had long vowels (e.g. ‘habit, merit, lily, column, study), as in ‘rabies, merely, silage, colon, music’.  He damaged the system even further by using doubling after unstressed vowels – to mark changes to their original Latin roots (as in ‘abbreviate, accomplish’ and ‘arrive’).

If the two worst dilutions of English spelling consistency were reversed, learning to write would become much easier. If it became permissible to spell the /ee/ sound regularly (e.g. eel, eet, eeven, poleece, peeple, beleeve, weerd, mee,  kee [quee], skee, debree) with perhaps [just a few exceptions], more than 450 words would stop being repeatedly misspelt,  and teachers would not have to keep correcting them over and over again.

Regular use of consonant doubling, after all short, stress vowels (e.g. ‘habbit, merrit, lilly, collumn, studdy’),  would make an equally big difference. Combining this with the dropping of pointless doubling ( parralel, witnes, acomodation), woud make it even better.

Amelioration of just those two big English spelling problems would already make English literacy acquisition much easier. They have caused zillions of ‘misspellings’ since becoming  enshrined in Johnson’s dictionary of 1755. They have made learning to read much harder than need be too:  frieze – friend, dried;   hear – heard, heart;  even – ever; machine – define, engine;   latter, later – lateral;  attitude – latitude….

Insane and cruel

Everybody agrees that being able to read is an essential life skill in today’s world, close behind walking and talking. Continuing to put up with a spelling system that makes this roughly 10 times harder and slower than need be is clearly not very sensible, but there are reasons why this continues to be tolerated.

When people master something difficult over several years, and before their critical faculties have even begun to develop, they tend to go along with the wishes of their elders. They then get used to the system and become opposed to changing it. I have even heard people claim that they love the quirkiness of English spelling! – A bit like prisoners who fall in love with their jailers.

Ignorance plays a big part too. Most speakers of English are not aware that learning to read English is much harder than all other alphabetically written languages. They don’t realise that in most of the world learning to read takes just a few months, instead of at least three years for moderate competence, while continuing to struggle with less common conundrums like ‘echoing, cello’ and ‘epitome’ for several years longer. Most don’t really become competent before the end of primary school, and one in six not even by then.

Pride plays a part too. Good readers get much more praise in English-speaking countries than elsewhere. Good spellers can even win lucrative prizes. This doesn’t happen when pretty much everyone learns to read in just a few months and to write well in about a year too. After WW2 US troops stationed in Germany tried to get the Germans to like spelling bees, but they just did not take off. Learning to read and write German is not challenging enough for that kind of malarkey.

How would children be kept occupied at primary school? – I have honestly had teachers ask me what they would have to teach if learning to read and write was much easier. Once something time-wasting becomes regarded as essential, clear thinking seems to become more difficult.

Nevertheless, should any English-speaking ever develop a desire to have their children learn more during their 10 or so years in compulsory schooling, they should consider making at least learning to read easier. The long time their kids currently have to spend just on learning to read leaves them with less of it for other subjects. Worse still, most subjects cannot be learned much without learning to read first.

Some people will of course claim that the relatively long time needed for learning to read English is not due to its spelling. They will come up with lots of silly excuses, like poor teaching, feckless parents, starting school too young. If u are viscerally opposed to something, it’s easy to come up with all kinds of justifications.

Anyone with even a very small brain, however, can easily see that if u can just teach children that the letter a sounds as in ‘a fat cat sat’, b as in ‘big bull’ and so on, kids have no trouble grasping it and learn to read in no time at all. Most of the world proves this over and over again.

Even the Chinese discovered, back in 1958, that teaching their kids to read with such spellings was dead easy. So they now let them learn that way first and then go on to use that systems as subtitles for learning to read traditional Chinese characters.

Anyone who has ever listened to children learning to read and paid the slightest attention to the words that trip them up, could not help but notice that they are invariably ones with daft spellings: only, once … thought, through… neighbour laughed…

If there were fewer English words with stupid spellings, English-speaking kids would learn to read quicker. It’s as simple as that.

And it’s if not as if the words with stupid spellings must be spelt that way, because English is short of sensible spellings. It has a perfectly good spelling system. But stupidly, ever since the system was first adopted, it has repeatedly been made it worse.

The /u/ sound, for example, was spelt simply as in ‘bun, run, runt’ and ‘much, mud’ until 1200 years ago. There was no good reason to mess it up with the likes ‘front, money’, ‘double, trouble’ or ‘rough, tough’. Those perversions were all adopted for thoroughly bad reasons.

While education was accessible just to the richest and cleverest, this did not matter too much. Rich gents could get secretaries to read and write for them.  It makes no sense to hang on to all spellings that clearly make learning to read much harder than need be and want everybody to become at least a bit educated.

It’s cruel too, now that we send all kids to school and make them learn to read and write. Irregularities like ‘fiend, friend’, ‘great threat’ and ‘sound soup’ are troublesome for all children. They are particularly hard on kids that are not all that bright, don’t get much help with homework outside school or have any kind of learning difficulty.

A barrier to happiness

The director of the Wellbeing Programme at the LSE, Lord Layard, suggested on Radio 4 last week that future UK Chancellors should become more focussed on promoting the nation’s wellbeing and less concerned about economic growth. He believes that happiness is much more dependent on health, personal relationships and social connections than on wealth. I agree with him but believe that the cheapest and most effective way of improving happiness is to reduce obstacles to it, instead of teaching people how to be happier.

Most European countries, and especially Finland, are more able to let their children experience happiness, rather than teach them about it. This is because they have writing systems which enable their children to learn to read and write much faster and more easily than in English. Finland can afford to give its children more time for fun and play, by not starting formal lessons till age seven, because it has a spelling system which makes literacy acquisition exceptionally quick and easy.

Nearly all Finnish children become fluent readers in their first three months at school and can write well by the end of their first school year. They don’t need to work hard at their reading and spelling throughout primary school, with much testing and retesting of literacy standards, as in Anglophone countries. Finnish pupils have no formal school tests until the age of 18. Nor are their teachers subjected to relentless blaming and shaming with Ofsted inspections and the publication of SATs scores like English-speaking ones. Their pupils are able to do well without such measures, but with a much more relaxed and confident attitude to learning.

The learning difficulties posed by the irregularities of English spelling make literacy acquisition ten times slower and costlier than in Finland. They incur more failure and misery, leave less time for play and creativity and entail many other personal and social costs and disadvantages. I am pretty certain that the main difference between countries that consistently score highly on measures of happiness, such as Holland and Finland, and the well-documented misery of Anglophones is due mainly to their writing systems.

I therefore believe that the simplest and easiest way to improve the wellbeing of English-speaking countries is to modernise English spelling, so that at least learning to read becomes substantially easier. Children get baffled, depressed and demotivated by the many English spellings that have several pronunciations, like ‘sound – southern, soul, soup’. They make their schooling harder and the life chances of many much poorer than need be. English spelling could easily be made much more learner-friendly.

I appreciate that for people who speak only English and have become used to its spelling quirks during the many years they had to spend getting to grips with them, this is not immediately obvious. But looked at objectively, English spelling has too many shortcomings, wastes too much time and effort and causes too much failure and misery

The scholar and writer John Hart described it as ‘tedious, long in learning, learned hard and evil to read’ as long ago as 1551. It has been made even worse since.  It is now the only Latin-based writing system that poses reading as well as spelling difficulties, and exceptionally many of both. It causes too much needless stress and misery . It prevents too many speakers of English from becoming successful learners and leading happy and fulfilled lives. Having a spelling system that makes an essential modern necessity like learning to read much harder to access than need be is a major roadblock to happiness.

There is currently a great boom in books about happiness, including ones for teaching  kids about happiness. Reducing the stresses and miseries which stem from irregularities of English spelling would be far more effective in making them happier.