When Rob Delaney recently asked on Twitter, “Why do they give 7 yr olds so much homework in the UK & how do I stop this? …” many people sympathised. But the TV presenter Piers Morgan thought that, “As a nation, we’re falling so far behind educational standards of countries like China, it’s embarrassing. Telling our kids to now give up on homework seems a perverse response to this”.
I explained in my last WordPress piece that I believed that the main cause of more homework for Anglophone children was the chaotic nature of English spelling. – To become a proficient reader and writer of English takes roughly 10 times longer than with better writing systems like Finnish or Korean. I also suggested that the best way to reduce homework, and to do better educationally, was to make English spelling more sensible.
Traditional Chinese characters make learning to read and write very difficult too. Yet increasingly China is starting to beat the rest of the world economically as well as many other respects. How have they managed this?
In the 1950s around 85% of Chinese were illiterate, and some of China’s leaders realised that this would have to be reduced if the country was to make economic progress. Zhou Youguang provided the solution with Pinyin in 1958.
Pinyin is a simple alphabetic writing system based on Latin, and Chinese children are now taught to read with Pinyin first. They ten go on to learn to read traditional Chinese writing with Pinyin subtitles. Since the adoption of this practice, China’s illiteracy rate has dropped from 85% to just 5%.
Apart from being used for teaching reading, Pinyin is now also used for typing on all electronic devices, and they automatically convert it into traditional Chinese writing. Before long Pinyin may well drive out traditional Chinese writing altogether. – Most schoolchildren already no longer learn to write the traditional way. Only the very brightest still do.
In Anglophones countries the level of functional illiteracy is only around 18%, but this is still rather high for developed countries. If they want to keep up with China, they should perhaps consider making at least learning to read English a bit easier too?
The English alphabet is based on Latin and does not need complete replacing. But it could certainly be made learner-friendlier. There is plenty of evidence that simpler spellings like ‘hed sed, frend’ enable children to learn to read much faster than ‘head said, read this friend’.
In 1963-4 a year-long UK study compared the progress 835 children learning to read and write English with the more regular spellings of the Initial Teaching Alphabet (or i.t.a.) and an equal number using normal spelling during their first year at school. The pupils on i.t.a. learned to read and write much faster, made fewer errors, used a much wider vocabulary and had a more positive attitude to learning. They also needed no parental help with learning to read.
The study was designed to test if spelling reform could really speed up English literacy acquisition, because in 1953 the House of Commons had passed Mont Follick’s Spelling Reform Bill. But the results were so impressive, that many schools subsequently decided to adopt i.t.a. for the first school year. – Outside school, books remained in traditional spelling, and after a year, the i.t.a. groups had to switch to it too. They ablest pupils coped with the switch surprisingly well, but the majority regressed severely.
Sadly, the i.t.a. study did not merely use more regularly spelt English. Quite a few of the main spelling patterns were changed as well. The ‘a-e’ of ‘made’ for example, was replaced by a single letter, looking a bit like ‘maed’. This displeased most parents. – Using simpler but normal spellings for helping with learning to read the trickiest traditional ones might be a better approach.
For a while I was a voluntary reading assistant for children who got no help with learning to read at home. I decided to note down 5 – 7 words which made them stumble in each session, like ‘thought, through’, and then put simpler spellings alongside them [thaut, throo], and they invariably learnt to read those very easily.
We then folded the little lists in half, leaving the normal, tricky spellings on top. The pupils were asked to take the lists home and practise reading them, but to use the simpler spellings only when having trouble remembering the pronunciation of the normally spelt words. – This helped to improve their overall reading noticeably in a very short time.
The best solution for all who learn English would undoubtedly be a proper simplification of the words that are most responsible for making learning to read exceptionally slow and laborious. But as most children now start to use electronic devices from a very young age, some computer whiz could surely at least devise a program with pop-ups which show the tricky words spelt more sensibly, if a child points at it?
There are only aroung 1,000 really bad retarders of reading progress, like ‘eat, great, bread’ and ‘plough, through, rough‘. I have already respelt them more readably. Should anyone be interested in making learning to read English easier, I would be happy to let them have them.