Worst educational obstacles of English spelling

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.

Unkind to kids

A recent article in The Conversation (like many others)

tells us that school attainment is heavily linked to social class

as assessed by parental occupation, education and household income.

It shows no awareness that this applies mainly to English-speaking countries

because learning to read and write English is vastly harder than in other languages

and more dependent on the help kids get at home, from the day they are born.

How they are spoken to, how much they their parents read to them

the games they play with them before they start school

and the help they give them when they first start learning to read and write

in English all make an enormous difference.

It’s vastly harder to decipher and fathom spellings like

many men’, ‘once only’ and ‘through rough troughs

if you haven’t met them before starting school,

if you have not already spent several years half-learning them,

by meeting them in picture books,

comfortably ensconced next to mum or dad.

Learning to read and write in languages that always spell

the /e/ sound as in ‘the ten men then went…’,

or /o/ only as in the ‘pot got hot on top’ and

/oo/ just as in ‘food, mood’ and ‘brood’,

is ten times easier than with the English spelling mess.

More sensible spellings

make kids’ educational prospects much less dependent on their parents.

We could make children’s early school years much fairer,

less stressful and more enjoyable

by removing at least the very worst gremlins from English spelling.

Old spellings like ‘ytte, inne, hadde‘ look a bit daft to us now,

but we keep using ‘give, have, live‘ alongside ‘five, drive, strive’

and monstrosities like ‘through rough trough

without any thought what they do to kids.

English spelling is insane

English spelling is insane.

It’s neither great nor right to write

late straight eight and vain champaign in veins.

We keep children busy and make them dizzy

with too many swimming women and big builders of cruisers,

with friends in fields and pieces of pie

and police chiefs who seek to speak to evil cheeky sheiks.

We turn them off learning with

too much ploughing through rough stuff,

through tough troughs and rough coughs,

low brows and high boughs.

We make them waste time

without reason or rhyme

and pretend not to know how come

some score so low

and keep spelling in ways

that make children fail.

Bridging the education gap

Schoolchildren cannot learn much of anything without learning to read first. Learning to read English is exceptionally difficult. Because of this, between 18 to 20 per cent of English-speaking students still have severe reading difficulties by the end of their compulsory education. Writing defeats many more.
English spelling makes learning to read and write much harder and slower than nearly all other writing systems. This could be made much easier by merely undoing some of the damaging changes inflicted on English spelling since it was first adapted from Latin in the 7th century. The most handicapping were adoption of irregular spellings for:     short /u/  (come, once, touch),
      short /e/  (e.g. head, said, friend) 
      and /ee/  (read, believe, weird, police, people …);
unsystematic consonant doubling (with inconsistencies like ‘finish dinner’) and
surplus-e endings (e.g. have, gone, imagine ) which dilute their use in words like ‘save, bone‘ and ‘define‘.
All common words with those irregularities are shown among the 4,219 unpredictably spelt words [accompanied by respellings which show how they would be spelt if they complied with the main rules of English spelling].

Nearly all children make good progress with both reading and writing when they start school, because they are initially taught mainly with regularly spelt short words, like ‘dad met him on the bus’. If /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/ were always spelt consistentlyt like that, their reading and writing would continue to improve rapidly. It becomes markedly slower only when pupils begin to be introduced to more and more words in which some of the letters with which they first learned to read are used for different sounds, such as ‘was, he, kind, once, push’.
       Irregular spellings for a, i and o impede learning less seriously than those for /e/ and /u/ because:
      1) Short /a/ is spelt irregularly only in ‘plait, plaid’ and ‘meringue’.
      2) Short /i/ is irregular in six common words (build, built, English, pretty, busy, women).  The other 37, which are all spelt with y (abyss, crypt, syllable …), and also ‘sieve’ and ‘vineyard’ are less common and hinder reading progress much less .
      3) Short /o/ is spelt abnormally in only 33 words, mostly with a after w and qu (was, want, squash…). Only a few more recently imported English words use o for /o/ (wobbly, wombat), but wa and qua cause some reading difficulties (swan swam; was wagging) and would ideally be improved too.

Irregular spellings for /e/ and /u/ impede progress worse, because they occur in many of the tricky words that children begin to meet soon after they start learning to read. Improving at least most of them would make a clearly noticeable difference to young children’s literacy progress. They also make strong candidates for reform because most of them were made irregular with deliberate changes to the original English spelling system.
     Regular spellings for short /u/ were diluted mainly in the 9th century, with the adoption of o next to n, m, v and w (son, mother, love, wonder). This was partly because the letter v (Latin numeral 5) was at first used for four sounds (i.e. vp, vse, even, vvith).
     Spellings for short /e/ became irregular mainly in the 15th century, with the adoption of ea in 51 words (dread, head, thread) and also for /ee/ in 156 words (dream, heal, treat). The reading difficulties which this change introduced are epitomised by ‘must read’ and ‘have read’. They could be much reduced by at least dropping the surplusa from the 51 words in which ea spells the short /e/ sound.
     Adoption of regular spellings for /ee/ would also be of great help. The current 12 different spellings for /ee/ (leave, sleeve, even, believe, weird, people…) are used in 459 words and pose one of the biggest hurdles in learning to write English. But they cause many reading difficulties as well, because nine of the different spellings for /ee/ are used for other sounds too:
Treat – great, threat, react; even – ever; ceiling – veil, eider; fiend – friend, died, diet;
 hethen; keythey; machinedefine, engine; people – leopard, leotard; skihi.

In addition to making learning to read easier, reducing the 12 unpredictable spellings for the /ee/ sound to just ee, would reduce the current total of 4,219 unpredictably spelt common English words by more than a tenth and make learning to write much easier too. Even the single change of adopting ee for just the 156 words in which /ee/ is currently spelt with ea (lead, to read) would make a substantial difference.
     Completely regular spellings for /ee/ would have the additional benefit of reducing the 335 differently spelt English homophones like ‘heel/heal’ by 47. They became standardised in 1755, with the publication of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. They cause endless misspellings without serving any useful purpose. At least 2,500 other homophones get by perfectly well with just one spelling for their different meanings (bank, boot, trunk, act, play…). The US adoption of ‘practice’, for both noun and verb, has caused no problems either. The perverse English differentiation between ‘to practise’ and ‘a practice’ generates endless ‘misspellings’ (cf. to service, a service; to notice, a notice).
     Johnson was also responsible for weakening the English method of distinguishing between short and long vowels, as in ‘made, madder’ or ‘hidden hideout‘, by introducing hundreds of exceptions like ‘radish, shadow, study’. There is no good reason why his whims should continue to be obeyed and why regular consonant doubling – only after stressed short vowels in words of more than one syllable – should not become as acceptable as its current random usage.
     Children’s ‘errors’, like ‘annimal’, ‘fammily’ and ‘holliday’’, show that the original purpose of doubling is easy to grasp. It causes endless ‘mistakes’ only because it is used unsystematically. Adoption of systematic doubling would reduce the time currently needed for learning to read and write English very considerably, but it would also change the present look of hundreds of words. – If adopting completely systematic consonant doubling should be deemed too much change for one reform, it should at least be adopted when regularising irregular spellings of short /e/ and /u/. Several dozen words have no doubled consonants after their irregular spellings (e.g. many, dozen – cf. penny, buzzer).
     Some words with irregular spellings for /e/ and /u/ have surplus letters as well as omitted doubling (e.g. honey – cf. runny). They were added mainly in the 15th and 16th centuries, by printers who were paid by the line, to help them to earn more money. All they do now is to make learning to read more difficult than it could be. Surplus -e endings hinder reading progress because they undermine the use of -e for indicating long vowels, as in ‘home, alone’. They make learning to read more difficult (five – live), just like omitted consonant doubling. They should be scrapped when short vowels get regularised (e.g. done → dun, some →sum, honey → hunny).

There is much else wrong with English spelling, but some irregularities would be more difficult to regularise, because they have no clear best spelling (e.g. her, bird, turned). They also create predominantly only writing difficulties and are therefore less detrimental to overall literacy progress.
     The irregular spelling for /e/, /u/ and /ee/, inconsistent consonant doubling and surplus -e are most responsible for English-speaking countries continuing to have high levels of functional illiteracy. Improving them would be a more certain and permanent way of speeding up learning to read and write and raising overall educational attainment, than changes in teaching methods or increases in educational expenditure. Ideally, all five of those spelling flaws would get corrected. But even just reducing exceptions to e, u and ee would make a very substantial difference to learners.       mashabell@aol.com

How the worst English spellings could be improved

Irregular spelling systems make learning to read and write harder and slower than regular ones. The more exceptions a system has the harder it is to master. The English writing system has more exceptions than all others. The few spellings that are regular are sometimes used silently, without connection to any sound (e.g. debt, receipt). But some irregularities hinder literacy learning much more than others. The most damaging are the irregular spellings for short /e/ and short /u/, followed by the many variants for /ee/, surplus -e endings and omitted or needlessly doubled consonants (column, collect – college).

Below you can see 1,393 irregularly spelt common words affected by those irregularities – the ones which are most responsible for making learning to read and write English roughly ten times slower than systematically spelt languages: 61 words with  short /e/ , 68  short /u/,   326 with variants for /ee/, 146 words with surplus -e endings and  794 words with omitted or surplus consonant doubling.

The 794 words with omitted or surplus consonant doubling all have to be learned one by one, but they do even more damage by undermining the systematic doubling used in 504 words which helpt to differentiate between long and short vowels, as in ‘made madder‘. If doubling was used systematically, it would be easy to grasp, and this huge learning burden would not exist.

Amending all five major flaws in English spelling would make it much more rule-governed and much easier and less time-consuming to learn and teach. The words next to the ones with irregular spellings show how they would be spelt if they were spelt systematically, using the main English spelling patterns.

Even improving just the 129 words with irregularly spelt /e/ or /u/ would make a big difference to children at the start of their schooling, because they are mostly very common words which children know and use. If they were had regular spellings, young children would get much less muddles and put off learning in their early school years.

  1. Words with irregular spellings for /e/ in the left-hand column would look as shown on the right, if they were spelt regularly and had regularly doubled consonants as well (e.g. ‘reddy’ like ‘teddy’).
Bred/bread, breadth, breast, breath, dead, deaf, dealt,
death, dread, dreamt, head, health, led/lead, leant/lent, leapt, meant, red/read, realm, spread, sweat, thread, threat, wealth.    Breakfast, cleanliness, cleanse, endeavour, feather, heather, instead, leather, measure, stealthy, treacherous, treadmill, treasure, weather/whether. Heaven, heavy, jealous, meadow, peasant, pheasant, pleasant, ready, (already), steady, weapon, zealous.   
Berry/bury, any, many. Jeopardy, leopard. Heifer. Friend, every, said, says.  Wednesday.
Bred,  bredth,  brest,  breth, ded, def, delt,
deth, dred, dremt, hed, helth,  led, lent, lept, ment, red, relm, spred,  swet, thred, thret, welth.      Brekfast, clenliness, clense, endevour,  fether, hether, insted, lether, mesure, stelthy, trecherous, tredmill, tresure, wether. Hevven, hevvy, jellous, meddow, pezzant, phezzant, plezzant, reddy,(alreddy), steddy, weppon, zellous.   Berry, enny, menny. Jeppardy, leppard. Heffer. Frend, evry, sed, ses, Wensday.
Leisure’ and ‘lieutenant’ have different pronunciations in the UK and US.

2) With regularly spelt short /u/ the 68 words below would become:                                                            

Among, Monday, monger, mongrel, monk, monkey, month, mother, smother. Comfort, company, compass;   front, nothing,  son/sun, ton/tun, tongue, sponge. Wonder, worry. Brother, other.      Above, come, dove, glove, love, shove, some/sum.  Done/dun, none/nun.  Does.    Country, young.    Enough, rough/ruff, slough,  tough,  hiccup/hiccough,  southern, touch.  One/won, once     Blood, flood.      Colour/color, dozen, honey, money, onion, stomach, thorough, cover, covet, covey, covenant, govern, oven, shovel, slovenly.     Double, couple, trouble. courage, cousin, nourish.Amung, Munday, munger, mungrel, munk, munky, munth, muther, smuther. Cumfort, cumpany, cumpass;   frunt, nuthing,  sun, tun, tung, spunge. Wunder, wurry. Bruther, uther.      Abuv, cum, duv, gluv, luv, shuv,  sum.    Dun, nun.  Dus.   Cuntry, yung.    Enuff,  ruf, sluf,slou,  tuf,  hickup,  suthern, tuch.    Wun, wunce     Blud, flud.      Cullour/cullor (UK/US) duzzen, hunny, munny, unnion, stummac, thurru, cuvver, cuvvet, cuvvy, cuvvenant, guvvern, uvven, shuvvel, sluvvenly.     Dubble, cupple, trubble. currage, cuzzin, nurrish.

3) With regularised spellings for the /ee/ sound

119 words which are currently spelt with ea would become: Appeel, beecon, beed, beek, beem, beerd, beest, beever, beneeth, bleech, bleek, bleet, breethe, ceese, cheet, cleen, cleer, colleegue, conceel, congeel, creem, creese, creeture, deel, deen, decreese, defeet, diseese, dreem, dreery, eech, eeger, eegle, eer, eese, eest, Eester, eet, feer, feest, feeture, freek, geer, gleem, gleen, heep, heet, heeth, heethen, heeve, increese, leef, leegue, leen, leep, leese, leesh, leest, leeve, meegre, meel, meen, meesles, neer, neet, ordeel, peech, peet, pleed, pleese, pleet, preech, queesy, reech, reelly, reep, reer, reeson, releese, repeet, retreet, reveel, screem, seel, seer, seeson, seet, sheef, sheeth, smeer, sneek, speek, speer, squeek, squeel, squeemish, steem, streek, streem, teech, teek, teese, theeatre, treecle, treeson, treet, treety, veel, ween, weery, weesel, weeve, wheet, wreeth, yeer, yeest, zeel. +  Leed/led, teer/tear  
47 words which now have 2 spellings would be: Bee, beech, been, beet, breech, cheep, creek, deer, discreet, eery, feet, flee, freeze, Greece/greece, heel, leech, leek, meet, need, pee, peek, peel, peer, reed, reek, reel, see, seem, seen, sheer, steel, sweet, tee, teem, wee, week, weel; eev, eevs,  jeens,  heer, kee,  peece, seeling, seemen, serial, sheek  
78 words now with an open e would change to:    Hee, mee, shee.      Adheesiv, areena, cafeteeria, ceedar, chameeleon, Chineese, comeedian, compeet, compleet, concreet, conveen, conveenient, deecent, deemon, eequal, eera, eeven, eevil, expeerience, exteerior, extreem, feemale, feever, freequent, geenie, geenius, heero, hyeena, impeerial, infeerior, ingreedient, intermeediate, leegal, leegion, leenient, mateerial, meedium, meer, meeteor, meeter, millipeed, mysteerious, obeedient, peeriod, peeter, polytheen, preceed, preevious, queery, reecent, reecess, reegion, reelay, scheem, seequence, seequin, seeries, seerious, seerum, speecies, spheer, stampeed, strateegic, supeerior, supreem, sweed, teedious, theem, theeory, thees, torpeedo, trapeez, veehicle, Veenus, zeero.   
28 now with open i (e.g. albino):    Albeeno, aubergeen, bikeeni, clementeen, debree, fateeg, guilloteen, macheen, magazeen, margareen, mareen, plasticeen, raveen, routeen, sardeen, tamboureen, tangereen, trampoleen, uneek,  poleece, anteek, moskeeto, presteege, regeem, peeza, Vaseleen, skee, suveneer.  
26 now with ie: Acheev, beleef, beleev, breef, cheef, deesel, feeld, feend, feerce, greef, greev, hygeenic, medeeval, neece, peerce, preest, releef, releev, sheeld, shreek, seege, theef, theev, teer, weeld, yeeld.
13 with ei:   conceev/conceet, deceev/deceet, perceev, receev/receet. Caffeen, codeen, proteen, seeze, weer, weerd.                              
Oddments: Peeple; catheedral, seecret.
+ In UK also: geezer, leever (for geyzer, lever).

6) 146 words have surplus –e endings which obscure their vowel-lengthening function in words like  ‘define, bone, care, endure, advise, inflate, ignite, drive, save, survive’.

Destine,  determine,  discipline,  doctrine,  examine,  engine,  famine,   feminine,  genuine,  heroine,  imagine,  intestine,  jasmine,  masculine,  medicine,  urine,        gone, shone.
Are,  (cf. car, care). Conjure, exposure, failure, figure, fissure, injure, measure, pleasure, pressure, procedure, treasure.      Adventure, agriculture, architecture, capture, caricature, creature, culture, departure, expenditure, feature, fracture, furniture, future, gesture, lecture, legislature, literature, manufacture, miniature, mixture, nature, picture, puncture, scripture, signature, structure, temperature, torture, venture, vulture.  
Purchase,  premise, promise,  purpose.  (cf. atlas, devise, propose).  
Accurate, adequate, affectionate, candidate, chocolate, climate, considerate, corporate, delicate, desperate, extortionate, fortunate, frigate, illiterate, immaculate, immediate, intermediate, intricate, laureate, legitimate, obstinate, palate, passionate, pirate, private, proportionate, senate,       Composite, Definite,  exquisite, favourite, granite,  infinite,  opposite.         In 25 words the –ate endings are used for two different words (to deliberate a deliberate act). Advocate, alternate, appropriate, approximate, articulate, associate, certificate, co-ordinate, degenerate, delegate, deliberate, designate, desolate, dictate, duplicate, elaborate, estimate, graduate, intimate, laminate, moderate, separate, subordinate, syndicate, triplicate (cf. inflate).  
Give, forgive,  have,  live (cf.  drive, save, alive),    abrasiveabusiveadhesiveaggressiveapprehensivecomprehensive,  compulsive,  conclusive,  creativecursivedecisive,  defensive,  depressive,  derisive,  detectivedismissive,  divisiveeffusive,  elusive,  evasive,  excessive,  exclusive,  expensive,  explosive,  expressive,  extensivefugitive,  impressiveimpulsiveincisive,  inclusiveinitiative,  intensiveinvasivemassive,  motive,  narrative,  objectiveobtrusiveoffensive,  oppressivepassive,  pensive,  permissive,  perspectivepersuasivepossessive,  productive,  progressive,  prospectiveradioactive,  repulsiverespective,  responsive,  selective,  sensitive,  subjectivesubmissive,  subversive,  successive.    

5) Respellings for 574 words with currently omitted or variant consonant doubling and 219 words with surplus doubling. 

328 words merely lack doubling after their short, stressed vowels: abillity,  abollish,  abomminable,  academmic,  acaddemy,  aggony,  aluminnium,  Amerrica,  annimal,   apollogise,  aquattic,  Arrab,  arrable,  arrid,  asparragus,  astonnish,  astrollogy,  astronnomy,  athlettic,  attom,  atommic,  authorrity,  avvenue,  avverage,   bannish, bannister,  barommeter, batton,  bennefit,  billious,  boddy,  bottany,  briggand, Brittish,       cabbin,  cabbinet,  calammity,  cammera,  cannopy,  cappita,  cappital, carramel, carravan,  carrol,  cattapult,  cattegory,  cavvalry,  cavvern,  cavvity,      charriot,     charrity,  cherrish, clarrity,  clevver,  clinnical,  collony,  commedy,  commet,  commic, comparrison, connifer,  conspirracy,  continnue,  coppy,  corral,  creddit,  crimminal,  crittic, critical     dammage,  decidduous,  deddicate,  dellicacy,  delivver,  delluge,  demmocrat, demolish  depputy,  derrelict,  devellop,  devvil, dilappidated,  diplomattic,   distribbute,  domminate, dommino,  draggon,  drivvel,  drivven,      econommic,  econnomy,  eddit,  edducate,   electronnic,  ellement,  elevven,  elligible, elimminate,  emmerald,  emmigrate,  empirrical,  enammel,  ennemy,   ennergy,  eppic,  epidemmic,  eppisode,   equivvalent,   evver,  evvidence,   experriment,     fabbulous,  facillities,  fammily,  fammished,  fedderal,  fellon,  finnish,  flaggon,  florrist,  forrest,     gallaxy,  garrage(UK),  givven,  glammour,  grannary,  grattitude,  gravvity,  habbit,  havvoc,  hazzard,  hellicopter,  herrald,  herritage,  herroin,  herron,  hexaggonal,  hiddeous,  historric,   holliday,  horroscope, hovvel,  hovver,     iddiot,  immage, inhabbit,  inherrent,  inherrited,  itallic,      jagguar,  Jannuary,  javvelin,      latteral,  lattitude,  lavvender,  lemmon, lepper, libberal,  libberty,  lilly, limmit, linnear,  litteral, litterary, lizzard, lozzenge,     maddam, magnettic,  magnifficent,  majorrity,  mannage,  mannual,  mannuscript, mathemattics,  meddal,  meddical,  mellody,  mellon,  memmorise,  memmory,  mennu,  merrit,  mettal,  metropollitan,  millitary,  minneral,  minnimal,  minnimum,  minnister, minorrity, mirracle,  moddern, moddest, monnitor,  monottonous,   monnument,  morral, morallity, navvigate, nebbula,  nevver,  numerrical,  oblitterate,  oppera,  opperate,  opinnion,  orrange, organnic,  orrigin,    Paciffic, pallace,  pannic,  parrasol,  parrish,  pathettic,  pellican,  pennalty, pennetrate, perril,  perriscope,  perrish, pettal,  pitty,  plannet,  plattinum,   poettic,  pollicy,  pollish, polittical,  pollitics, poppular,  popularrity,  povverty,  prelimminary,  premmier, primarrily, priorrity, privvilege,  probabillity,   probbable,  prodduct,  proffit,   prohibbit,  promminent,  propper,  propperty,  prossecute,  provverb,  provvidence,  punnish,      quivver,         raddical,  raddish,  rappid,  ravvenous,   reallity,  refference,  reffuge,  rellic, remmedy,  revverend,  riddicule,  rivver,   rivvet,  robbin,      sallad,  sallary,  sallon,  sattin,  satturate,  Satturn,  savvage,  scavvenge,  semmi, sevven,  shivver,  shrivvel,  signifficant,   incerrity,  sinnister,  skelleton,  snivvel,  sollid, sollitary,  spanniel,  speciffic,   spinnach,  spirrit,  stattic,  sterrilise,   strattegy,  strennuous,  studdy,  supersonnic,     tallent,  tallon,  tappestry,  tellescope,  tellevision,  teppid,  tettanus,  theollogy,  therrapist,  thermommeter,  timmid,  tollerate,  tonnic,  toppic,  transparrent,  tribbute, troppics,    vallentine,   vallid,  vallue,  vannish,   ventrilloquist,  verry,  viddeo, viggorous, vinnegar, vitallity,  vollume,  volluntary, vommit,     waggon,  wizzard,  wizzened,   yetti.
  73 words do not use ck, dg, ss or zz,  as in  ‘beckon, badger, passive, buzzard’. With regular doublingthey would look as follows:     crockodile,   deckade,  deckorate,  dockument,  execkutive, fackulty, plackard,  reckognise,   reckord(n), record(v),  ridickulous,  seckond(n),second(v),  seckondary,  seckular,  vackuum,  brockoly,  hickup,  ockupye,  pickolo,  suckulent,  tobacko,     ecko,  meckanism,  checkered,  lacker,  lickor,  lickorish,           adgile,  didgit,  exadgerate, fridgid,  ledgend, ledgislate, lodgic,  madgic, oridginal,  refridgerate, redgiment,  redgister, ridgid,  tradgic,   vedgetable,      assid,  antissipate,  capassity, dessimal,   electrissity,  explissit,  glassier(UK),  munissipal,   spessimen,   velossity,  adolessent,  convalessent,  cressent,  fassinate,      clozzet,  depozzit,  dezzert,  hezzitate,  mizzerable,  pozzitive,  prezzence, prezzent, prezzident,  prizzon, rezzident, rizzen, vizzit.   
55  words are without doubled consonants after irregularly spelt short vowels.  18 with short /e/ and 21 with short /u/ have already been shown above.  The remaining 16 are: busy,  women,   chrysalis,  cylinder,  cynical,  synagogue,  synonym,  syrup,  lyric,  tyranny, typical, physics, physical       laurel, sausage.       With regular spellings and doubling they would become:   Bizzy, wimmen,    chrissalis,  cillinder,  cinnical,  sinnagog,  sinnonim,  sirrup,  lirric,  tirrany, tippical,  fizzics, fizzical,    lorrel,  sossage.  
34 words do not have the -ccle  doubling in endings, like  ‘apple, little, etc.’ couple, double,  trouble,  apostle,  bristle,  bustle,  camel,  chapel,  chisel,  drivel,  enamel,  gravel,  gristle,  grovel,  hovel,  hustle,  jostle,  level,  model,  muscle/mussel,  novel,  panel,  rustle,  shrivel,  snivel,  subtle,  swivel,  thistle,   travel,  treble,  trestle,  triple,  whistle,  wrestle.    They should be: cupple, dubble,  trubble,  apossle,  brissle,  bussle,  cammle,  chapple,  chizzle,  drivvle,  enammle,  gravvle,  grissle,  grovvle,  hovvle,  hussle,  jossle, levvle,  moddle,  mussle,  novvle,  pannle,  russle,  shrivvle, snivvle,  suttle,  swivvle,  thissle,  travvle,  trebble,  tressle,  tripple,  wissle,  ressle.  
85 words have assorted additional irregularities:  Adequate,  comparative,  feminine, frigate,  heroine,  minute(x2)  negative,  olive,  palate/palette/pallet,  primitive,  relative,  senate,   amateur,  camouflage,  catalogue, cemetery,  column,  foreign,  honest,  honour,  monarch,  monastery,  shadow,  sheriff,   scissors,  solemn,  widow, premise,   promise,  menace,  novice,  analysis,  anonymous,  anorak,  beret,  cabaret,  café,  chalet,  calendar,  caterpillar, chemical,  chemistry, civil,dynamic, elephant,  endeavour, laminate(x2),  lieutenant,  moderate(x2),  pacify, platypus,  plumber,  polythene, qualify,  quality, quarantine,   rebel(x2), refuse(x2), regular,  salmon,  Saturday,  separate(x2),  similar,  similesugartenor/tenner,  valiant, venison, verify, ,  detach.   They should be addequat,  comparrativ,  femminin,  friggat, herroin,  minnit(n,v) + minute(adj),  neggativ, olliv, pallet,  primmitiv,  rellativ,  sennat,  ammatur,  cammuflage,  cattalog,  semmetry,  collum,  forren,  onnest,  onner,  monnark,  monnastry, shaddo, sherrif,   sizzers,  sollem,  widdo,  premmis,   prommis,   mennis,   novvis,  anallisis,  anonnimous,  annorac,  berray,  cabbaray,  caffay,  challay,   callender,  catterpiler,   kemmical,  kemmistry, sivvil,dinammic, ellefent,  endevver, lamminate(v) + lamminat(adj),   leftennent(UK),  lutennent(US), modderate(vb) +  modderat(adj), passifye, plattipus,  plummer,  pollytheen,  quollifye,  quollity, quarranteen,  rebble(n) + rebel(vb),    reffuse (n) + refuse(vb),  regguler,  sammon,  Satterday,  sepparate(vb) + sepparat(adj),  simmiler,  simmilyshugger,  tenner,  vallient, vennisen, verrifye, detatch.   

219 words have surplus consonant doubling – not after a short, stressed vowel.

         Some of them have other irregularities as well (affectionate, excellent), including missing doubling (satellite).


abbreviate, accompany, accomplish, accord, accordance, accordion, account, accrue, accumulate, accuse, accustom, occur,  occurrence, cockerel, cocktail, mackerel, add/ad, odd, address(uk), affair, affect, affection, affectionate, affluent, afford, chauffeur, differential, diffusion, effect, efficient, effluent, effusivegiraffe, graffiti, offence, offend, offensive,  official, officious, paraffin, sheriff, sufficient, aggravate, aggressive, egg, alliance, allotment, allow, allowance,  allowed/aloud, ballistic, balloon,  bull, bulldoze, cell/sell, collage, collapse,  collect, collection, collide, constellation,  controlled, excellent, hello, illegal, illegible, illiterate, illuminate,  illusion, illustration, installation,  intellectual, jewellery,  llama, marvellous,  parallel, pastille, roller, satellite, swollen, tonsillitis, traveller(UK), wholly, accommodation, ammunition, command, commemorate, commence, commission,  commit, commodities, commotion, communication, communion, community,  commuter, immaculate, immediate,  immense, immersion, immortal, immune, programme, programmer, recommend, anniversary, announce, annoy, annul,  connect, Finn/fin, inn, mayonnaise,  personnel, questionnaire, savannah,  tyranny, appal, apparatus, apparent, appendix,  applaud, applause, appliance, apply,  appoint, appreciate, apprehensive,  apprentice, approach, appropriate(adj), appropriate(vb), approve, approximate(adj), approximate(vb),  hippopotamus, opportunity, oppose,  sapphire, supply, support, suppose, arrange, array, arrest, arrive, barricade,  correct, correlation, correspond,  curriculum, err, erratic, hurrah, interrupt,  irregular, irrigation, purr, serrated, surrender, surreptitious, surround, terrific, torrential, verruca, abscess, assail, assassin, assassinate,  assault, assemble, assert, assessment,  assessor, assign, assist, assistant, associate(n), associate(vb), assort,  assume, cassette, compass, congress, cypress, dessert, embassy, essential,  fission, fortress, gross, guess, harness, lasso, mattress, moose/mousse,  necessarily, necessary,  possess, possessive, possibility,  recess, witness, attach, attack, attain, attempt, attend,  attention, attorney, attract, attribute, battalion, butt/but,  cigarette, omelette, palette, silhouette,  pizza
abreeviate, acumpany, acumplish, acord, acordence, acordion, acount, acrue, acumulate, acuse, acustom, ocurr, ocurrence,  cocrel, coctail, macrle, ad, od, adress(uk), afair, afect, afection, afectionat, afluent, aford,  shofer, diferential, difusion, efect, eficient, efluent, efusiv,  giraf, grafeety, ofence, ofend, ofensiv,  oficial, oficious, parrafin, sherrif, suficient, agravate, agressiv, eg, aliance, alotment, alow, alowence, aloud, balistic, baloon,  bul, buldoze, sel, colage, colapse,  colect, colection, colide, constelation, controled, exelent, helo, ileegal, iledgible, ilitterat, iluminate, ilusion, ilustration, instalation,  intelectual, jewelry, lama, marvelous, parralel, pastil, roler, sattelite, swolen, toncilitis, travvler(UK), holy, acomodation, amunition, comand,  comemmorate, comence, comission, comit, comoddities, comotion, comunication, comunion, comunity,  comuter, imackulat, imeediat,  imence, imersion, imortal, imune, program, programer, recomend, aniversary, anounce, anoy, anull,  conect, Fin/fin, in, mayonaise,  personell, questionair, savanna,  tirrany, apaul, aparatus, aparrent, apendix, aplaud, aplause, aplience, aplye,  apoint, apreeciate, aprehensiv,  aprentice, aproach, apropriat(adj), apropriate(vb), aproove,  aproximat(adj), aproximate(vb),  hipopottamus, oportunity, opose,  saffire, suplye, suport, supose, arainge, aray, arest, arive, baricade,  corect, corelation, corespond,  curickulum, er,erattic, hurah, interupt,  iregguler, irigation, pur,  serated, surender, sureptitious, suround,  teriffic, torential, verooca, abces, asail, asassin, asassinate,  asault, asemble, asert, asesment,  asessor, asine, asist, asistent,  asociat(n), asociate(vb), asort,  asume, caset, cumpas, congres,  siperes, desert, embacy, esential,  fision, fortres, groce, ges, harnes,  lasoo, matres, mooce,  necesarrily, nessesary,  posess, posessiv, posibillity,  reeces, witnes, atatch, atack, atain, atempt, atend, atention, atorny, atract, atribute,batallion, but, sigaret, omlet, palet, silooet,  peetsa

       In addition to the above irregularities, several dozen words have needlessly doubled  -ff, -ll, -ss  (puff, well, fuss )  at the end of short words. They have many exceptions too (if, us, rough, yes) and are confusing young children     (doll – roll – stole,   shall – call – crawl).

Lowering barriers to reading

Reducing the worst irregularities of English spelling

English spelling is in need of reform because it makes learning to read and write too slow and difficult. It entrenches educational underperformance and inequality, because it leaves literacy acquisition too heavily dependent on home background and help from parents. But after centuries of putting up with a shambolic system, the main aim of reform should now best be just to make learning to read easier.  Spelling ability is becoming less important, because most adults now write only on electronic devices which automatically correct the majority of mistakes. On mobiles phones, writing has become largely just a matter of recognising the right word and tapping on it. Reading remains essential, for education, life and work.

Learning to read English could also be made easier with much less change to the English spelling habits than learning to write. It could be greatly speeded up by merely undoing some of the worst changes inflicted on it since it was first adapted from Latin in the 7th century by:

Reducing exceptions to short /e/ (e.g. head, said, friend),  short /u/ (come, once, touch)
and  /ee/ (speak, even, believe, weird, people …),  
Reverting to sensible consonant doubling (without inconsistencies like ‘finish dinner; announce annual’)
and  dropping surplus -e endings (gone, have) which undermine their sensible use (bone, save).

All common words with the above irregularities [along with respellings which show how they would look if spelt systematically] can be seen in chapter 11, “Amendments which would help learners most”, in my blog English spelling and its effects, entitled .

One of the strongest reasons for reforming English spelling is to make the early school years less difficult and demotivating. Its irregularities make the lives of young children much harder and less enjoyable, and much more dependent on help from adults, than in other languages. And one of the biggest causes of this are the irregular spellings for a, e, i, o and u in around 200 much used words, like ‘said, any, other’. Any reduction in their number would be helpful. 

Nearly all children make good progress with both learning to read and write when they first start, because they are mostly taught only with regularly spelt short words, like ‘dad met him on the bus’. If /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/ were always spelt like that, their reading and writing would continue to improve rapidly. It becomes markedly slower only when they begin to be introduced to words in which some of the letters with which they first learned to read are used for different sounds, such as ‘was, he, kind, once, push’.

The irregular spellings for a, i and o do not impede progress as much as those for e and u because: 1) Short /a/ is spelt irregularly just in ‘plait, plaid’ and ‘meringue’.  2) Short /i/ is irregular in only six common words (build, built, English, pretty, busy, women). The other 39 are less common and hinder learning much less (abyss, crypt, syllable, synchronise, system).  3) Short /o/ is spelt abnormally in only 33 words, mostly with a after w and qu (was, want, squash…). Only a few more recently coined words use o (wobbly, wombat), but wa and qua cause some reading difficulties (swan swam; was wagging) and would ideally be improved too.

The irregular spellings for /e/ and /u/ obstruct progress worst of all, because they occur in many of the tricky words that children begin to meet soon after they first start school. Improving at least most of them would make a clearly noticeable difference to young children’s literacy progress. They also make strong candidates for reform because most of them were made irregular with deliberate changes to the original English spelling system.

The spelling of short /u/ was diluted chiefly in the 9th century, with the adoption of o next to n, m, v and w  (son, mother, love, wonder). This was partly because the letter v (or Latin number 5) was back then used for four sounds (i.e. vp, vse, even, vvith). Spellings for short /e/ became irregular mainly in the 15th century, with the adoption of ea in 51 words (dread, head, thread) and for /ee/ in 156 words as well (dream, heal, treat). The reading difficulties which this change introduced are epitomised by ‘must read’ and ‘have read’. They could be much reduced by at least dropping the surplus a from the 51 words in which ea spells the short /e/ sound.

Adoption of regular spellings for the /ee/ sound would be of great help too, to both young and older learners. The current 12 different spellings for /ee/ (leave, sleeve, believe, these, weird, police, people…) are used in 459 words and pose one of the biggest hurdles in learning to write English. But they cause many reading difficulties as well, because nine of the 12 different spellings for /ee/ are used for other sounds too:

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.

Reducing the 12 unpredictable spellings for the /ee/ sound to just ee, would reduce the current total of 4,219 unpredictably spelt common English words by more than a tenth and make learning to read much easier too. Even adopting ee for just the 156 words in which /ee/ is currently spelt with ea (lead, to read) would make a substantial difference. Completely regular spellings for /ee/ would have the additional benefit of reducing the 335 differently spelt, labour-intensive English homophones like ‘heel/heal’ by 47. They became standardised with the publication of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in 1755, although they hardly ever serve any useful purpose. At least 2,500 other homophones get by perfectly well with just one spelling for their different meanings (bank, boot, trunk, act, play…). The US adoption of ‘practice’, for both noun and verb, has caused no problems either. The perverse English differentiation between ‘to practise’ and ‘a practice’ generates endless ‘misspellings’ (cf. to service, a service; to notice, a notice).

Johnson was also responsible for weakening the English method of distinguishing between short and long vowels, as in ‘made, madder’ or ‘hidden hideout’, by introducing hundreds of exceptions like ‘radish, shadow, study’. There is no good reason why his whims should continue to be obeyed and why regular consonant doubling – only after stressed short vowels in words of more than one syllable – should not become as acceptable as its current random usage. Children’s ‘errors’, like ‘annimal’, ‘fammily’ and ‘holliday’’, show that the original purpose of doubling is easy to grasp. It causes endless ‘mistakes’ only because it is used unsystematically. Adoption of systematic doubling would reduce the time currently needed for learning to read and write English very considerably. But unfortunately, it would also change the present look of hundreds of words. If adopting completely systematic consonant doubling should be considered to be too much change for one reform, it should at least be adopted when regularising irregular spellings of short /e/ and /u/. A few dozen of them have no doubled consonants after their irregular spellings (e.g. many, dozen – cf. penny, buzzer).

Some words with irregular /e/ and /u/ have surplus letters as well, along with omitted doubling (e.g. honey – cf. runny). They were added mainly in the 15th and 16th centuries, to help printers earn more money, as they were paid by the line. All they do now is to make learning to read more difficult. Surpluse endings hinder reading progress because they undermine the use of -e for indicating long vowels, as in ‘home, alone (e.g. bone – gone, five – live), just like omitted consonant doubling. They should at least be scrapped when their short vowel spellings get regularised (e.g. done → dun, some sum, honey hunny).

There is much else wrong with English spelling, but some irregularities would be more difficult to regularise, because they have no clear best spelling (e.g.  her, bird, turned). They also create predominantly only writing difficulties and are therefore less detrimental to overall literacy progress (e.g. ‘pardon, certain, urban, truncheon’).

The irregular spelling for /e/, /u/ and /ee/, inconsistent consonant doubling and surplus uses of –e are most responsible for English-speaking countries continuing to have high levels of functional illiteracy. Improving them would be a more certain and permanent way of speeding up literacy acquisition and raising overall educational attainment, than changes in teaching methods or increases in educational expenditure. Ideally, all five irregularities would get corrected. But even just making the uses of e, u and ee more regular would make a very substantial difference to learners.

Repairs which would help learners most

One problem which is at least partly responsible for preventing modernisation of English spelling is the large number of its irregularities. It has become so unsystematic that it is no longer immediately obvious which spellings are rule-governed and which not. It was not until the 1950s, when Paul and Jean Hannah devised the first computer program for identifying main and variant spellings, that this became easier.

They concluded that half of all English words contain unsystematic spellings. In the late 1990s I used Microsoft Excel for locating regular and irregular spellings in words which pupils can be expected to have met by age 16. In the 7,000 words which I analysed, I found 4,219 with one or more unpredictable spellings.

The difficulties of identifying regular and irregular spellings led most earlier reformers, from John Hart in the 16th century to Bernard Shaw in the 20th, to propose the adoption of a completely new English spelling system. Most current members of the English Spelling Society also still favour the phonically simplest solution, of just one spelling for all the 44 sounds.

Theoretically this is possible. The current 205 spellings offer plenty of choice, although not quite enough, despite their vast number. – The short /oo/ sound of ‘foot, put, could’ has no spelling of its own (cf. boot, cut, shoulder), and the soft and sharp /th/ sounds of ‘this thing’ share the same spelling. – But 40 sounds could easily be left with just one easily readable spelling, such as:      a, ai, air, ar, au,     b, ch, d, e, ee,      er, f, g, h, i,           ie,  j, k, l, m,     n, ng, o,  oa, oi,     oo, or, ou, p, r,   s, sh, t, u, ue,   v, w, y, z, si.

This would however change the appearance of written English quite dramatically. The start of this post, for example, would end up looking something like: [Wun problem wich iz perhaps at leest partli responsibl for preventing moderniezaishn ov Inglish speling iz the larj number ov its iregularitees. It haz bicum soa unsistematic …]

The alien look of most earlier reform proposals was probably at least partly responsible for their failure to find favour. Webster’s original scheme for the US was rejected too.  Only a small number of his changes, designed to make some American spellings slightly different from UK ones, have ended up in US dictionaries (center, labor, supervize).

Learning to read and write English could however be made much easier without altering any of its main spelling patterns. It could be much improved by merely undoing some of the worst changes introduced over the centuries. The literacy progress of beginners especially, could be made much faster by merely reducing exceptions to:                          the spellings of e, i, o and u (head, women, want, some),                                                      /ee/ (speak, speech, even, believe, weird, people …),                                                         omitted consonant doublings (funny – money) and                                                         surplus letters (gone, have).

The spelling of short /u/ next to n, m, v and w was first made irregular with o  (son, mother, love, wonder) in the 9th century, when the letter v (or Latin number 5) was used to spell four sounds (i.e. vp, vse, even, vvith). Now that the sounds of short /u/, /v/ and /w/ (double vv) have different spellings, the use of o for /u/ does nothing but make learning to read more difficult.

The 15th century introduction of ea, for both short /e/ and /ee/ (bread, head; to lead, to read) in 51 and 156 words, created even worse reading and spelling difficulties. They could already be much reduced by at least dropping the surplus a from the 51 words in which ea spells /e/ (head, meant  → hed, ment).

The most detrimental part of irregular English spellings is to make the first two school years much harder than need be. And the biggest cause of this are the irregular spellings for short vowels, in around 200 very much used words like ‘said, any, other’. Any reduction in their number would be of great help to pupils at the elementary level, but especially irregular spellings for /e/ and /u/.

Nearly all children make good progress at the start of learning to read and write, because they are usually at first taught only with regularly spelt short words, like ‘dad met him on the bus’. – If /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/ were always spelt like that, their reading and writing would continue to improve rapidly. It becomes markedly slower only when pupils begin to meet more and more words in which same letters spell different sounds, like ‘was, he, kind, once, push’.

Short /a/ is spelt irregularly just in ‘plait, plaid’ and ‘meringue’. Exceptions to short /i/ make only 6 common words tricky (build, built, English, pretty, busy, women). The other 39 occur less often and do not obstruct early learning significantly (abyss, crypt, cyclical… sieve.)  The irregular use of [a] for /o/ after w and qu (was, want, squash…) in 29 words is almost predictable. It is spelt regularly only in a few words like ‘wobbly, wombat, wonky’, but wa and qua cause some reading difficulties (swan swam; was wagging).

The irregular spellings for /e/ and /u/ hinder early progress much more, because they occur in many of the tricky words that children meet soon after starting school. Improving at least most of those would make a clearly noticeable difference to their  literacy learning.

Adopting the even bigger change of regular spellings for the /ee/ sound would also be of great help, to both young and older pupils. The 12 different spellings for /ee/ (leave, sleeve, believe, these, weird, police, people…) are used in 459 words and pose one of the biggest memorisation burdens in learning to write English. Nine of the 12 different spellings are used for other sounds as well and cause reading difficulties in addition to spelling ones:  treat – great, threat, react;     even – ever;    ceiling – veil, eider;               fiend – friend, died, diet;   he – then;  key – they;  machine – define, engine;    ski – hi;  people – leopard, leotard.

Adopting ee for all the different spellings for /ee/ would clearly help learners immensely. This amendment alone would reduce the current total of 4,219 unpredictably spelt common English words by more than a tenth. Even adopting ee for just the 156 words in which /ee/ is currently spelt with ea (lead, to read → leed, reed) would make a substantial difference.

Regular spellings for /ee/ would also help to reduce the labour caused by differently spelt homophones like ‘heel/heal’ which are an endless source of English misspellings. – At least 2,500 other homophones get by perfectly well with just one spelling for their different meanings (bank, boot, trunk, act, play…). The US use of ‘practice’, for both noun and verb, causes no problems either, while the English differentiation between ‘to practise’ and ‘a practice’ is continually ‘misspelt’.

The different spellings for 335 homophones became standardised in 1755, when Samuel Johnson published his authoritative dictionary.  Johnson was also responsible for weakening  the English method of distinguishing between short and long vowels (mad, madder – made). He made the system unpredictable, with hundreds of exceptions like ‘radish, shadow, study’.

There is no good reason why his whims should continue to be obeyed. Consonant doubling could easily be used consistently instead. Children’s ‘errors’, like ‘annimal’, ‘fammily’ and ‘holliday’’, show that its original purpose is easy to grasp.

Should repairing irregular /e/, /u/ and /ee/ and inconsistent consonant doubling together be deemed too much change for one reform, systematic doubling should at least be adopted when amending irregular uses of e, i, o or  u. Several dozen words have irregular vowel spellings and omitted consonant doubling (e.g. many, women – cf. penny, swimmer). Some words with irregular /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/ have surplus letters as well as omitted doubling (honey – runny). A few have surplus letters instead of doubling (ready – teddy).

Surplus letters were added mainly in the 15th and 16th centuries. Printers often did this to fill more lines to earn more money. They now serve no useful purpose whatsoever. Surplus –e endings especially, undermine the use of -e as a marker of long vowels (home, alone). They undermine the whole short-long vowel system, as well as make make learning to read more difficult. They should at least be scrapped when their short vowels get regularised (done, some).

There is much else wrong with English spelling, in addition to the irregular spellings for /e/, /u/ and /ee/, unpredictable consonant doubling and surplus letters. But some irregularities would be harder to amend, because they have no clear best spelling (e.g. her, bird, turned, early). Quite a few create only writing difficulties, like ‘er, ir, ur’ or the many irregular spellings of vowels in unstressed endings, such as ‘pardon, certain, urban, truncheon’. They are much less detrimental to overall literacy progress. They also get efficiently corrected on the electronic devices which most adults now use for writing.

The five deliberately imposed irregularities (for /e/, /u/, /ee/, doubling, surplus -e) are the main reason why all English-speaking countries continue to have high levels of literacy failure despite repeatedly spending vast sums and much effort on ameliorating them. Reducing them would be a more certain and permanent way of speed up learning to read and write and reduce overall educational failure. But changing old habits invariably entails some discomfort. It tends to get embraced only when continuing to cling to them begins to seem as too costly.

Sadly, most English-speaking adults are not aware of the harm that their irregular spellings do. After completing their education, most people don’t give much thought to the ins and outs of English spelling, unless they become schoolteachers. Even parents of young children don’t lose much sleep over them. And so generation after generation of schoolchildren is obliged to keep wasting a great deal of time on needless and often stressful rote-learning which could be put to much better use instead.

 

Should English spelling be reformed?

The irregularities of English spelling make learning to read and write harder and slower than with other Latin-based writing systems. This was firmly established by a large-scale study which investigated the speed and ease of literacy learning in 13 European countries (Seymour et al in 2003, Brit. Journal of Psychology). This was acknowledged by Sir Jim Rose in his 2006 UK review of ‘The Teaching of Early Reading’ “It is harder to learn to read and write English because the relationship between sounds and letters is more complex than in many other alphabetic languages”.

Yet despite understanding that English literacy problems are due mainly to the irregularities of English spelling, Jim Rose recommended that the best way of raising English reading standards was to use more phonics. A 2005 symposium on the teaching of reading held at the University of Cambridge which had examined the same evidence had concluded in  instead that:  “Countries with deep orthographies might possibly begin to consider the political and societal feasibility of implementing orthographic reforms.”

Suggestions for reforming English spelling have been around since the 16th century, since William Tyndale, living in hiding in Belgium and Germany, had translated the New Testament into English in 1525 and published the first book that nearly every English adult wanted to read. Educators began to notice the difficulties of learning to do so. One of them was the lexicographer John Hart (1501-74). He found it obvious that this was due to  ‘the faultes of our writing, which cause it to be long in learning, and learned hard and evil to read’ . He and several other prominent intellectuals of the time therefore began to call for modernisation of English spelling  (Cheke, Smith, Bullokar, Mulcaster).

But the difficulties of learning to read suited the Church of England which controlled all English education. It abhorred Tyndale’s aim of enabling every ploughboy to read the bible for himself.  It declared him a heretic, and after tracking him down near Brussels had him burned at the stake for his audacity in 1536.

The 47 scholars whom King James appointed to produce the 1611 authorised bible made no attempt to improve English spelling. They changed some of Tyndale’s spellings, to hide the fact they were merely amending his work, rather than producing their own translation. They left English spelling no better than before.

English writing was made slightly less cumbersome during English Civil War  of 1642-8. Because its pamphleteers wanted to cram the maximum of propaganda onto a single page, they made 100s of words shorter. They cut many of the surplus letters which early printers had inserted to make them longer, such as ‘worde → word,  hadde → had, sawe  → saw’.

Samuel Johnson’s definitive dictionary of 1755 then made English spelling worse than ever, by returning many words back to their Latin roots. He was as opposed to making English spelling more regular as the church authorities and said so repeatedly in the long preface to his big opus. He helped to bury the idea of reforming English spelling for the next century.

From around 1850 onwards however, several spelling reform groups formed on both sides of the Atlantic, supported by luminaries like Mark Twain, Lord Tennyson and Charles Darwin. One of the biggest was the Simplified Spelling Society, forerunner of the still surviving English Spelling Society. It was set up in London in 1908, by the Newcastle shipbuilder George Hunter, with generous financial aid from the US steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

The Spelling Society enjoyed considerable success. It was supported by National Union of Teachers and the playwright Gerge Bernard Shaw. In 1952 the House of Commons passed a Spelling Reform Bill. Unsurprisingly, it was not passed by the Lords. But during the next 10 years, it led to the setting up of a year-long study to investigate if English spelling really impeded literacy. The research was carried out in 1963-4, by the London Institute of Education and the National Foundation for Education Research. It compared the progress of 835 pupils taught to read and write with traditional spelling and the same number using the much simpler Initial Teaching Alphabet (or i.t.a.).

The study found that the i.t.a. classes learned better and faster and showed much greater enthusiasm for learning. It made it abundantly clear that spelling reform could make a big difference to learning to read and write English. But by the time the results came out, the political climate in the UK had changed. Helping the disadvantaged had become much less of a priority than it had been after WW2. The spirit of we are all in it together had become replaced by monetarism. The idea of making literacy learning easier, to help predominantly the poorest and weakest, ceased to appeal. It became fashionable to blame poor literacy standards on poor teaching instead.

After publication of the Rose review in 2006, phonics has become the main literacy teaching method, not just in England, but all English-speaking countries. Gradually it is however becoming clear that it too has failed to make a noticeable difference to standards, just like other approaches. There is also growing awareness that Finland and Korea, the two countries which regularly come near the top of international educational league tables, both have exceptionally simple writing systems. So perhaps the idea of modernising English spelling needs revisiting?

Why reading skills are not improving

Since 2007 primary teachers in England have been obliged to use phonics for teaching young children to read and write. They risk failing their Ofsted inspections if they don’t use one of the government-approved synthetic phonics courses.

The use of phonics has increasingly become regarded as the best means of improving reading standards and reducing persistent educational underachievement in all Anglophone countries, especially for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds or with learning disabilities. It is however becoming clear that this has failed to make much of a difference. Roughly 1 in 6 pupils, or around 18%, still leave primary school with the reading ability expected of an average 7-year-old and have trouble coping with secondary education.

Phonics tries to teach the relationships between sounds and letters, and how to decode the sounds of single letters and longer spellings (or graphemes) in reading, and how to encode them in writing https://www.tes.com/news/problem-phonics-eyfs-and-how-solve-it.  It usually starts with making children aware that words consist of discreet sounds, as in C-A-T,  SH-I-P  and  F-I-SH, which become blended together (cat, ship, fish). This works well when the relationships between sounds and letters are predominantly one-to-one, as in most Latin-based writing systems.  In most countries phonics enables children make rapid progress in both reading and writing. Most Finnish children, for example, learn to read fluently in a couple of months and write well by the end of their first year at school. English-speaking pupils learn to read and write much more slowly. Children of average ability take around three years to achieve basic reading fluency, but many need much longer. Nearly one in five are still far from proficient by age 11, after seven years at primary school. ,

To become fluent a fluent reader and proficient writer of English is harder and takes much longer, because the relationships between English sounds and letters are frequently not one-to-one. Many spellings have more than one pronunciation, like o in ‘wobble – woman, women, wonder, who’; and most sounds have more than one spelling (stop – swap, cough, sausage). Anglophone students have to shoulder a much heavier literacy learning burden than in languages with more regular writing systems.

Teachers can invent various clever means and materials to help pupils cope with the learning load, like synthetic phonics courses, but they cannot lighten it.  Around 2,000 English words continue to pose decoding difficulties and make learning to read much harder than in most other languages. At least 4,219 quite common, non-specialist words have unpredictable spellings which must be learned word-by-word.

This learning load remains too heavy for about 1 in 6 children, and is the main reason why in the UK alone around 170,000 pupils still start secondary school each year with inadequate reading and writing skills. Other English-speaking countries have proportionally similar numbers of students with literacy problems. The irregularities of English spelling continue to prevent an effective reduction of them, regardless of teaching methods or how hard pupils and teachers are made to work.

     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 sounds           0       69
Words in which some letters  have irregular pronunciations           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)

But not all words with decoding difficulties impede literacy progress equally. The worst are 100-150 tricky words which most hinder the reading progress of beginners. Their irregular sounds undermine the main letter-sound relationships that children learn first. Knowing only the main pronunciation of their spellings does not enable learners to decipher all their sounds. They make the early years of learning to read English exceptionally dependent on one-to-one help from adults. Until pupils have learnt to sight-read most of the words shown below, they keep being tripped up by them and their reading stays slow and laborious.

The pronunciation of  o and o-e in 100s of words like ‘Dot got hot’  and ‘home alone’ is undermined by:  Another,   brother,  other,  mother,    both,   cold,   do,   does,   don’t,  shoe,  most,   oh,   old,    once,   only,  to,  into,  rolled,   told,  two,   who, wolf,  word, work. Come,  coming,   done,  glove,  love,  gone,  moved,  one,  oven,  some,  women, woman.      
Ou and ow of  ‘Shout out loud sound now are irregular in:                                                         Could, should,  would, wound,   you,   your,  although,  bought,  brought, coughcountry,  cousin,   four,  group,     shoulder,  soup,   thought,  through,   tough.          Grow,   know,   slow,   snow,   window.  
E, ey, e-e   of ‘Then the men wentand ‘they slept here, are irregular in:                                     Be,  English,  every,   eyes,   he,    key,    me,     never,    seven,    she,                                                     there,   we,   were,   where,  very (merry).  
Ea of  ‘Near the beach have different pronunciations in:                                                            Bear,  break,  breakfast,  great,   head,   health,   heard,  heart,  meant,  measure,   ready.
A and au of ‘A man ran, then paused’ are irregular in:                                                                             Any,  also,  many,     table,     want,     was,   water,    what,       laughed.                       
 I  of  ‘Pip sits with his sister’s children’ is different in:                                                                             Childish,   find,   I’ll,   I’mkind,  ninth,    wild.

Several other variable pronunciations retard reading progress considerably too (bus – busy,  roads – abroad, food – good). The irregular sounds in the words above are worse, because they begin to confuse children soon after they start of learning to read. They keep reappearing in all normal stories, i.e. ones which are not written specifically for the teaching of basic phonics and deliberately avoid them.

All spellings with irregular pronunciations impede the effectiveness of phonics for learning and teaching to read English so some extent. The ones above are most responsible for making the early years of English-speaking pupils much more difficult and bewildering than in countries with more regular writing systems.

Teachers have always used some phonics. It became the most widely used method during the past two decades largely as a result of Dianne McGuinnes’s 1998 book  Why children can’t read. She had discovered that in most countries teachers use nothing but phonics for the initial teaching of reading and writing. This led her to conclude that the persistently high rate of literacy failure among Anglophones was due mainly to insufficient use of phonics. She failed to notice that English spelling is vastly less phonemic than all other alphabetic writing systems.

The many unsystematic English spellings limit the usefulness of phonics for teaching reading and writing. Good progress depends heavily on memorisation and lots of sustained practice and getting one-to-one help at home in the early years at primary school. Being reading-ready at the start of primary school is also more important than in other languages. Anglophone children who have not been regularly talked to and read to from early infancy and get little educational support from their parents, or have learning disabilities like a weak visual memory or dyslexia, are far more disadvantaged than speakers of other languages. That’s why 1 in 6 keep failing to become adequately literate.

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. )