Spellings make a difference

Writing systems can make learning to read and write easy or difficult. Those that have only one spelling per sound, like Finnish and Korean, make both learning to read and write very easy. Most Finnish and Korean children become fluent readers in their first few weeks at school and can write pretty well by the end of their first school year.

Learning to read and write English takes roughly 10 times longer, with 1 in 6 students never managing to master either skill adequately. Sir Moser reported in 1999 that at least 7 million, or 22%, British adults were functionally illiterate.

The English spelling system is not one of the best. It uses nearly 5 spellings per sound, instead of just one. It has 205 spellings for its 44 sounds, many of which are completely unpredictable, like the endings of ‘blue, shoe, flew, through, too’. – They have to be learned one by one for at least 4,219 common words and make learning to write exceptionally time-consuming.

English spelling is made even less learner-friendly by 69 of its 205 spellings being used for more than one sound (e.g. sound, soup, southern). This makes learning to read difficult too, not just learning to spell.

Learning to read traditionally written Chinese is also famously difficult, takes many years and defeats many learners. Until a few decades ago around 85% of China’s population was illiterate. Since 1958, when Chinese schools adopted Zhou Youguangs’ Pinyin system for initial literacy teaching, this has dropped dramatically to just 5%.

Pinyin is a completely regular alphabetic writing system, based on Latin. Chinese children now learn to read with this first. It is then used for teaching them to read the traditional Chinese characters (with Pinyin subtitles) as well.

The ablest pupils go on to learn to write the traditional way too, but not all, and on electronic devices everybody writes just with Pinyin. It gets translated into old Chinese writing, if the writer chooses. Pinyin may gradually lead to traditional Chinese writing fading out altogether, because it has proved that it makes learning to read and write very much faster and easier.

Perhaps English-speaking countries should adopt something similar for helping their children to learn to read on electronic devices to start with? Perhaps someone could device a system which enables children struggling with a word like ‘through’, to click on it and see a simpler respelling [throo] pop up next to it?

I carried out a little experiment in which I provided reading aids on paper for very weak readers. They could take them home, to help them learn to read the words they kept stumbling over during reading practice at school, like

     ‘shoe,  flew,  through’

      [shoo,  floo,   throo].

            It worked very well.

The best way of helping more children to learn both to read and write English well would be to modernise English spelling. This was demonstrated by a one-year British study in 1963-4. It compared children learning to read and write with traditional spelling and control groups using the more regular spellings of the Initial Teaching Alphabet (or i.t.a). Pupils on i.t.a. learned very much faster.

Most European countries have improved their spelling systems over the past two centuries, to make learning to read and write easier. English spelling is still very much as standardised by Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in 1755. Its irregularities continue to ensure that all English-speaking countries find it difficult to reduce their relatively high rates of functional illiteracy.