Irregular spellings make learning to read and write harder and slower, because they need individual attention, after mastering basic sound to letter rules. The many exceptions to its main patterns make English literacy acquisition much slower than with all other Latin-based systems. Most English spellings have some exceptions, but five spelling flaws hinder progress in learning to read and write worst:
1. Irregular spellings for short e, i, o and u, in at least 200 common words like ‘said, busy, was, other’, instead of ‘bed, dizzy, dog, upper’, as used in 1,300 other words.
2.Unpredictable use of consonant doubling (shoddy body, very merry, arise arrive) in ca 1,275 words.
3. Different spellings for different meanings of 335 identically sounding words (e.g. it’s/its, their/there), despite 2,000+words causing no difficulties with just one spelling for their different meanings (bank, tank, mean…) and 113 sets of different words sharing one spelling (e.g. read, row, wind).
4. Surplus letters (give, imagine, promise – cf. spiv, urchin, tennis and drive, define, surprise).
5. Lack of a dominant spelling pattern for 13 sounds, because their main spelling is outnumbered by words which spell them differently. The /ee/ sound, for example, is spelt ee in 133 words, but differently in 326, thereby necessitating word by word learning of all 459 (eel – eat, even, field, police, ceiling people, me, key, ski, quay, debris).
This is also the case for 197 words with long /oo/ (food, rude, shrewd…); 194 /er/ (her, third, turn …) and 264 -en /-on/ –eon … endings (widen, pardon, truncheon, orphan, cretin, certain), as well as nine other sounds which occur in fewer words.
The irregular spellings for e, i, o and u affect fewer words than the other main flaws. But because they occur in many of the most used English words, they are some of the worst retardants of progress in the early years of learning to read and write. They undermine the regular spellings with which pupils are taught sounds and letters to begin with: ‘bed, led – head; winning, swimmer – women; got, hot – washed; much, funny – money’. All words affected by the above problems can be seen in this blog and also this.
The irregular use of consonant doubling in hundreds of longer words (poppy – copy) is unfathomable and undermines the regular doubling which is used when several hundred short words are made longer with suffixes (e.g. bag – bagged, bagging). It misleads many children and adults into logical doubling after short stressed vowels (e.g. fammily, hollidays, annimals). Such ‘mistakes’ show that the basic idea of doubling for showing short vowels is easy to grasp. It is difficult only because many words have omitted or surplus doublings (study, very, salad; annoy, arrive, erratic – cf. muddy, merry, ballad; another, arise, erase).
Different spellings for different meanings of identically pronounced words (here/hear) and surplus letters (gone, numb) are blatant abuses of the alphabetic principle, of using letters for the regular representation of speech sounds. – Heterographs like ‘meat/meet’ deliberately spell the same sound irregularly.
Silent letters spell no sound at all and do nothing except make learning to read and write harder than need be. They serve no useful purpose whatsoever.
Sounds without a main spelling (blue, shoe, flew, through, too…) also all disobey the alphabetic principle. Their spellings can all only be learned with laborious word by word memorisation.
The worst impeders of English literacy progress are irregular spellings which are used for more than one sound (mum – month, most; shout – should, shoulder). They make not just learning to write difficult but learning to read too.
The Finnish and Korean writing systems which are completely regular and have none of the flaws of English spelling enable children to learn to read and write roughly ten times faster: three months instead of three years for learning to read and one year instead of ten for learning to write.
The failure to improve English spelling for past few centuries has resulted in much educational failure as well as many costs. In addition to making learning to read and write exceptionally slow and difficult, its five main flaws also make literacy progress heavily dependent on individual help at home and children’s innate abilities. Bright children whose parents nurture their interest in learning to read almost from the day they are born, start school with a big advantage, compared to their less well nurtured or innately disadvantaged peers.
Being regularly read to from a young age, and starting to see common trick words like ‘one, two, shoe, do, does’ on the pages of simple books, makes a very big difference to how well children cope with them later. Making English spelling more systematic (by bringing substantial numbers of irregular spellings into line with the main English spelling patterns), could make learning to read and write much quicker and easier, and much fairer for parentally or innately disadvantaged children.