How reform would help

English spelling is exceptionally irregular and makes learning to read and write much harder and slower than any other Latin-based writing system. By amending some of its worst irregularities, learning and teaching to read and write could be made faster and easier, and literacy failure less frequent. It would reduce many of the disadvantages which stem from its logically unfathomable inconsistencies.

  • One in six Anglophone pupils start secondary school with inadequate reading skills and gain little from their time in compulsory education.
  • Teaching children to read and write English is harder and more expensive than in other languages, with literacy progress exceptionally dependent on help outside school and pupils’ innate abilities.
  • Because learning to read and write English takes longer, children have to start school earlier, have less time for play and creativity and are more liable to become reluctant learners.

Being able to read is essential in today’s world. It is therefore not very sensible to continue putting up with a spelling system that makes learning and teaching this skill roughly ten times slower than need be. It is cruel too, because it is worst for the weakest. Irregularities like ‘great – threat’ are of no help to anyone, but they are especially handicapping for slower learners and ones with any kind of learning difficulty, like dyslexia. Milanese professor Eraldo Paulesu studied the relationship between dyslexia and the English, French and Italian spelling systems.  He concluded that, “English dyslexics would have an easier life if their writing system was more regular”.

Nobody can learn much without learning to read first. Pupils who learn to read and write very slowly get later access to other learning, but they need more time for that too. English spelling leaves them doubly disadvantaged.  They would gain much more from their years in compulsory education, if at least learning to read English was made easier. The 1 in 6 students who never learn to read proficiently suffer most of all. The irregularities of English spelling are the reason why all English-speaking countries have a relatively long tails of educational under-achievement.

With simpler spelling systems, progress in learning to read is far less dependent on children’s home lives. In English, home circumstances and the help they get outside school make a very big difference to how easily they are able to learn to read and write. A Cambridge Review of Primary Education concluded in 2009 that conversation in the home and regular reading of bedtime stories affected reading and general educational progress more than anything else.

English-speaking parents start to make a difference to their children’s educational prospects almost from the day they are born. By talking and singing and reading to them as soon as they can sit up, they are already improving their ability to learn to read. Children who start school with a good vocabulary and grasp of grammar, find it much easier to decipher tricky words like ‘does, said, was‘.

Listening to children read for just 10 minutes a day in their early years at school is invaluable. It is particularly beneficial when learning to read moves from regular spellings like ‘a fat cat sat’ to normal stories and numerous words with irregular pronunciations (e.g. man – many;  there – here; no – do).

Most children find words with irregular spellings tricky. Being regularly listened to by an adult who helps to decipher them is enormously helpful. It is much harder to keep persevering without such help. Children who have to manage on their own, because their parents are unable to give them such help regularly, are enormously disadvantaged by English spelling.

But helping with learning to read is often stressful for parents too. On the Primary Education forum on Mumsnet many threads begin with: “Lost it again trying to help x to read – feel awful”. This is even worse for parents whose own literacy skills are not very strong and find even the reading of bedtime stories difficult.  Around 1 in 10 parents never do.

The irregularities of English spelling make the lives of teachers much harder too. It is much more difficult to teach reading and writing with spellings like ‘though, thought, through‘, than regular ones like ‘out, shout, sprout’. English literacy teaching needs to be more carefully structured and managed than with simpler writing systems. It requires specially written, graded texts and many books which move learners from simple spellings to the less regular ones in a gentle progression.

In English teachers also need to monitor reading progress carefully too, because falling behind can be difficult to remedy. English literacy teaching also needs to be more carefully tailored to individual needs, because children’s innate abilities have a big impact on how they cope with the irregularities of English spelling.

English literacy teachers therefore need more training and many more resources for it. Apart from books written specifically for the teaching of reading, along with flashcards, wallcharts and worksheets, they need more materials for monitoring progress. The support of classroom assistants is also essential. They make an enormous difference to children who have trouble keeping up with the rest of the class. They can provide the one-to one help without which many English-speaking children cannot make good progress, even with excellent whole-class teaching.

The irregularities of English spelling often incur other costs too. Students who leave school functionally illiterate, having learnt very little during their school years, often end up with poorer job prospects and needing financial help from the state throughout their lives. This can also make them more prone to turn to crime and end up in jail. In prison, their illiteracy makes it more difficult to improve their lives through education, and therefore more prone to re-offending.

Technological developments in the last century have increasingly reduced the availability of purely manual jobs. Literacy has become essential for work and general well-being. Making learning to read and write easier would bring personal and national benefits. The Coram Beanstalk organisation which provides volunteers for schools to help weak readers estimates that poor literacy now costs the UK economy £81 billion every year, apart from the many personal disadvantages which poor readers suffer. This would be proportionately similar in every English-speaking country.

English spelling makes learning to read and write exceptionally difficult, and like all difficult systems, defeats more learners than easier ones. Before the invention of Windows, computing was beyond the abilities of most people. Microsoft put IT within the grasp of nearly everyone. Modernisation of English spelling would do the same for English literacy standards.

It would greatly improve the educational prospects and life chances of the millions who currently fail to cope with its irregularities. Making English spelling as regular as Finnish or Italian would be challenging, but it could easily be made much simpler and more learner-friendly by amending some of its worst irregularities.  Its biggest flaws were nearly all introduced with  unhelpful changes made by people who gave no thought to ease of learning to read and write.

(I have also explained why English spelling needs modernising in a video. )

Harder to teach and costlier

English spelling makes learning to read and write more difficult and much more time-consuming than with other writing systems. A study which investigated how much time pupils in 13 European countries needed for rudimentary literacy acquisition found that English-speaking ones took an average of two and half years, while speakers of the other 12 languages became fluent in three to 12 months. A well-known cliché tells us that ‘time is money’. Since teaching children to read and write English takes much longer, it is inevitably more expensive too.

The difficulties of learning to read and write English, and the longer time needed for it, make the work of teachers much more difficult too. Nearly every English spelling pattern has some exceptions. For reading fewer than for writing, but both are often irregular, e.g.: get, net, set – pretty; bun, fun, run – done.  Helping children to cope with the hundreds of such inconsistencies is much harder and requires more training than with better writing systems.

It gives teachers a much bigger marking load too. A small minority of lucky individuals learn the quirky spellings of 4,000+ words like ‘pretty busy women’ (cf. bitty, dizzy, slimmer) with relative ease, simply by meeting them repeatedly in their reading. The majority become reasonably competent spellers only by misspelling them many times, having them corrected and then using the old ‘look – say – cover – write – check’ method for implanting them in their brains. With more regular spelling systems, pupils spell nearly all words ‘correctly’ from the start of learning to write. Their teachers don’t have to keep training them out of spelling logically (e.g. hed, sed, frend) and teach them to disobey the main rules with hundreds of irregular spellings like ‘head, said, friend’.

The need for the constant correction of ‘misspellings’ makes the assessment of written work more difficult too. Having to keep stopping and annotating or underlining spelling errors makes it harder to concentrate on what a student is trying to say. This applies not just to English. It adds to the workload of all teachers, because English spelling errors proliferate in all subjects and all levels of education, and all teachers are expected to correct them. Students at university learn different spellings from those at primary school, but many of them also defy logic and cause misspellings. A few of the worst gremlins (e.g. it’s/its, their/there/they/re) flumox many people right up into old age.

In addition to endless correcting of ‘misspelling’ English-speaking teachers also have to spend more time on monitoring pupil’s progress. When nearly everyone can learn to read in a few weeks, as in most of mainland Europe, there is no need to keep re-assessing it, just as nobody keeps testing children’s walking ability. It is obvious that they can do it when they start using it for exploring their surroundings. In most languages, this applies to reading too. Children learn to read in a few months, or as little as a few weeks, and then use it for other learning. There is no need for regular testing and re-testing of their reading ability throughout primary school.

In English-speaking countries, the monitoring of literacy progress is much more important, because far more children are likely to fall behind, and pupils who make very slow progress in the early years tend to end up struggling in all subjects. Some schools therefore assess children’s reading-readiness even before they start formal literacy lessons. If they are found to be struggling in the first few months, they are given extra help, because reading failure gets harder to remedy the longer it remains unaddressed. Teachers also need to see if any extra support which they provide is making a difference.

The longer time needed for learning to read and write English also creates a much greater need for resources, including human ones like classroom assistants, and more training too. Teachers have to learn how to prevent too many children getting confused and discouraged almost as soon as they start school, by meeting too many irregular spellings like ‘an – any’, ‘our – your’ or ‘here – there -were’.

 

Teachers need to acquire a good grasp of the regularities and irregularities of English spelling and understand why they must initially use mainly just regularly spelt words, such as ‘a fat cat sat’ or ‘hop on top’. They must learn how to help pupils make a gradual transition to the hundreds of irregularly spelt words, like ‘one who said you could’. They must familiarise themselves with the many available materials for doing so, like graded reading books, flashcards and worksheets. This requires far more training than for writing systems with which reading can be taught by anyone who is literate, without any training, like my grandmother in Lithuanian.

The jobs of English literacy teachers are also made harder by the continuing lack of complete agreement on how best teach it. There have been disagreements about it in all Anglophone countries for many decades, along with several changes to teaching methods. They necessitate re-training, the purchasing of new resources and learning how to use them each time education ministers decree a new direction.

Despite having to work much harder, English literacy teachers enjoy fewer rewards for their work. In most other subjects, one of the great joys of teaching is to help children understand something, or to see ‘a light come on in a child’s brain’. There is nothing to understand about irregular spellings like ‘stole – coal bowl’ or ‘blue – shoe flew’. They involve mainly just helping pupils to imprint the right look of words on their brains, rather than teaching them to understand and think. It’s more like training children to jump through hoops rather than educating them.

Many other subjects involve some rote-learning too, but not so relentlessly. They usually also provide some logical means of finding the right answer, instead of just having to consult a dictionary. In maths, for example, pupils can be taught to work out how 7 x 7 makes 49, if their memory fails them. They can be shown, with cocktail sticks, pebbles or other small objects, how the result is arrived at.

Learning some facts, like historical dates, place names or scientific terms, can be a bit tedious too, but they serve useful educational functions as well. They give children a grasp of time, the layout of our planet and the language of science. The variable letters in ‘speak, speech, cheat, chief,’ or ‘seize, these, cheeses’, have to be memorised simply because they have been enshrined in dictionaries since 1755.

The very worst part of teaching children to read and write English is recurring failure.  One predictable consequence of any hard-to-master system is a high rate of failure. When learning to use a computer involved mastering DOS (the Disk Operating System), many people failed to cope. The invention of windows put the use of computers within the grasp of nearly everyone.

Languages with simpler, learner-friendlier writing systems have a similar effect. They enable nearly everyone to learn to read and write quickly and easily. In English-speaking countries by contrast, roughly 1 in 6 children still read labouriously after seven years at primary school. Writing defeats many more. Nearly a fifth of Anglophone pupils start secondary school with literacy levels that guarantee further poor progress.

Most students manage to become adequately literate, but they have to work quite hard for it and mustn’t allow themselves to become too discouraged by their early difficulties. But no matter how hard they and their teachers try , a substantial minority of students never gets beyond the basics.

Several other skills, like playing a musical instrument or a sport, becoming a good runner, footballer or artist, are also mastered well or poorly in similar proportions to those who cope or struggle with English spelling. But because failure to learn to read and write has a very big impact on pupils’ educational prospects and life chances in today’s world, all Anglophone governments have been increasing their spending on literacy teaching in primary schools over past few decades.

They have also all been putting teachers under more and more pressure to reduce literacy failure, but without making much of a difference. The results of the annual SATs (Standard Assessment Tests) for 11-year-olds in England since 1991, just like similar ones in other English-speaking countries, have continued to show that nearly 20% of children simply cannot manage to become competent readers or writers by the end of primary school.

In the 1990s the UK government commissioned Sir Claus Moser to conduct a survey of adult basic skills in England. He reported in 1999 that around 7 million (22%) had literacy levels which were inadequate for everyday reading needs. An earlier US survey had also found that roughly 1 in 5 adults were functionally illiterate.   It seems that for as long as English spelling is allowed to remain as illogical as it often is, a substantial reduction in the 20% level of functional illiteracy remains impossible.

When something is exceptionally difficult to learn, it just keeps incurring a high rate of failure. Sadly, most people can’t, or choose not to, see the link between the irregularities of English spelling and the persistently highly levels of literacy failure. They mostly blame teachers for it instead.

Unavoidable literacy failure  

One predictable consequence of any hard-to-master system is a high rate of failure. When learning to use a computer involved mastering DOS (or the Disk Operating System), many people failed to cope. The invention of windows put the use of computers within the grasp of nearly everyone.

Languages with simple, learner-friendly writing systems have a similar effect. They enable nearly everyone to learn to read and write quickly and easily. In English-speaking countries by contrast, roughly 1 in 6 children fail to learn to read proficiently by the end of seven years at primary school, and many more than that fail to master writing. Nearly a fifth of Anglophone pupils start secondary school with literacy level which as good as guarantee disappointing progress during the whole of their education.

At the other end of the scale, the percentage of pupils who learn to read and write English easily is also around 20%. The majority reach an adequate level if they work hard for it. But a substantial minority of students never get beyond the basics, no matter how hard they try. Several other skills, like playing a musical instrument or a sport, becoming a good runner, footballer or artist, are also mastered well or poorly in similar proportions to those who cope well or badly with English spelling.

Because failure to learn to read and write has a big impact on pupils’ educational prospects and life chances in today’s world, all Anglophone governments have been increasing their spending on literacy teaching in primary schools over past few decades. They have all also been putting teachers under more and more pressure to reduce literacy failure, but without making much difference. The results of the annual SATs (Standard Assessment Tests) for 11-year-olds in England since 1991, just like similar ones in other English-speaking countries, have continued to show that around 20% of children cannot manage to become competent readers and writers by the end of primary school.

In 1999 the UK government commissioned Sir Claus Moser to conduct a survey of adult basic skills in England. He reported that around 7 million (22%) had literacy levels which were inadequate for everyday reading needs. An earlier US survey had also found that roughly 1 in 5 adults were functionally illiterate.   It seems that, with current English spelling habits, a substantial reduction in the 20% level of functional illiteracy is just not possible. When something is exceptionally difficult to learn, it makes a high failure rate unavoidable.

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.