An unhelpful abuse of letters

English spelling is exceptional in two ways:                                                                                          1) It has more spellings per sound than any other Latin-based writing system,  with 205 often totally unpredictable spellings for its 44 sounds  (e.g. bed – head, said, friend, any, Wednesday),  which makes learning to write very time-consuming.                         2) Unlike any other Latin-based system, it causes reading difficulties as well as spelling problems, because many of its 205 spellings are used for more than one sound,                                       e.g. ‘ea’ in ‘treat, threat, great’.                                                                          Reading difficulties are a bigger overall educational handicap than writing ones, because:                                                                                                                                                    a) Inability to read impedes progress  in all subjects, not just English.                                   b) It makes learning to spell English much more difficult too, because reading is                      the main way of imprinting the right look of irregular spellings on our brains.                c) Electronic devices and speech recognition software now correct most spelling errors, but learning to read remains as difficult as before.

Altogether, 69 of the 205 English spellings have more than one pronunciation, but some have variable sounds in very few words, like ‘ai’, just in ‘said, plaid’ and ‘plait’. The main causes of English reading difficulties are the irregular uses of 16 spellings, erratic consonant doubling and surplus -e endings. The most handicapping of those are the irregular uses of  ea,  o,  o-e  and ou, because they cause decoding difficulties in large numbers of much used common words. For example:                                                                                eat, great, bread;   on, only, once, other, who;   bone, done,  move,  women;                           sound, soup, couple, should, shoulder, cough.                                                              The other significant retardants of English reading progress are irregularly used:

  a (and – any, apron, father),    ch (chat – ache, machine, choir),                                                    ei (veil – ceiling, height, heir),   ie (field – friend, died, diet, sieve),                                              g (get – gentle),   oo (boot – foot, flood),   ow (how – low),   qu (quick – queue),                            –se (please – grease),   u (cut – put, truth),  ui (build – juice, suite),                                             inconsistent consonant doubling (hole, hollow – holiday,  holly  – wholly)                         and  surplus –e endings  (bone – gonesave – have).

Learning to read English could be made much easier by at least dropping surplus -e endings and reducing the use of ea, o, o-e and ou for more than one sound. This would already make learning to read English substantially easier and improve the literacy levels of Anglophone countries much more than any of the other costly initiatives that they have tried over the last century:                                                                                 blaming teachers for reading and writing failure and making them work harder,               putting children and parents under more pressure with increased testing,                           lowering the school staring age,                                                                                                       employing more classroom assistants,                                                                                           forcing schools to spend more time on the basics and less on play and creativity.

None of those strategies have produced any measurable long-term improvements. All English-speaking countries still have 1 in 6 pupils leaving school with inadequate reading and writing skills. This is likely to continue for as long as learning to read English is allowed to remain as difficult as it is.

Yet just a few well-aimed amendments to English spelling could improve matters in a very short time. If for example, just the needless use of ea for short /e/ was ended by making the spelling of short /e/ regular (hed, sed, bred, brekfast, breth), at least the early stage of learning to read would already become much easier.

Currently ea is used in 257 words: in 156 for /ee/, 64  for short /e/ and for several other sounds in 35 (tear, break, react, create). If the 64 ea spellings for short /e/ were amended to e, the clearly dominant pronunciation of ea would become /ee/ (with just 35 exceptions to 156). This would make the remaining 191 words with ea much easier to decipher.

There is no good reason for continuing to use ea for the /ee/ sound either. The ee spelling for /ee/ which is used in 133 words has only one pronunciation and is much easier to read (keep, sheep, weep…). Adopting ee for all  412 words with an /ee/ sound, including the 47 which currently have two spellings (e.g. be/bee, here/hear, meet/meat) would make both learning to read and write English very much easier, because most of the different spellings for /ee/ have more than one pronunciation:                                                     fiend – friend, died, diet;  ceiling – veil, either;   ski – hi;                                                                 even – ever;  he – the, then;  machine – define, engine.

Making just the spelling of the /ee/  sound regular would already make learning to read and write English much easier. Its 459 totally unpredictable spellings all have to be learned word by word and are responsible for 11% of all English spelling problems.



How Johnson worsened English spelling

The spellings of most English words still obey Johnson’s dictionary of 1755. It was a major achievement but wrecked the regularity of English spelling more than anything else. He probably didn’t deliberately try to make learning to read and write English exceptionally difficult. He did it by trying to force English spelling into a Latin mould.

He still regarded English as an inferior language, despite editing Shakespeare’s plays, and despite the advances made by science after scientists started to write their treatises in English instead of Latin. He continued to believe that English was unlikely ever to become fit for intellectual discourse and still used Latin for his own poetry.

He damaged English spelling in three main ways:                                                                        1. Made consonant doubling  incomprehensible  (ballad – salad).                                        2. Adopted irregular spellings for many endings and prefixes (-en/-on/-an,  in-/en-).        3. Chose different spellings for different meanings of 335 homophones (here/hear).

He made the English system of showing when a, e, i, o and u are long or short, as in  ‘mate – matter,   legal – ledger,   bite – bitten,   cope – copper,   cute – cutter’,  almost totally unpredictable by:                                                                                                                               a) not using consonant doubling in 544 words from Latin roots                                                        e.g.  ‘balance, merit, hideous, copy, study’,    unlike                                                                                ‘ballot,  merry,  hidden, floppy, muddy’.                                                                                   He even dropped doubling from Shakespeare’s  ‘cittie’ and ‘scoller‘.                       b) using doubling needlessly in 223 words to indicate Latin grammar changes                              (e.g. ‘apply’, because in Latin it had the prefix ad  – ‘adplicare’),                                instead of after a short, stressed vowel as in ‘apple’.

He diluted the regular English spellings of many endings, like –er and –en and prefixes like in– and de- (potter, fatteninjure, devote) by changing some of them to their earlier Latin or French patterns:  doctor, scholar; abandon, certainenclose, divine.

He undermined the consistency of English spelling still further by deciding that 335 homophones needed different spellings for their different meanings,  (such as ‘its/it’s, their/there, to/too/two’). Yet he also left 113 sets of different words sharing one spelling (have read – must read).

The main effect of adopting different spellings for identical words is to make it impossible to have a regular spelling system. Sadly, spending many years learning the ‘correct’ different spellings for the 335 identical words ends up making people believe that they are essential, and never considering that 2,500+ other homophones get by perfectly well with just one spelling for their different meanings (mean, lean, bank, tank, rank, found, sound, ground…).

I have examined Johnson’s impact on English spelling and have also read a great deal about him. – He was undoubtedly very clever, but had little empathy for ordinary mortals. He cared even less about young children’s learning and how his spelling choices affected them.

To learn more about Johnson and other wreckers of English spelling read my  blog    or see  my video.


How China improved literacy

When Rob Delaney recently asked on Twitter, “Why do they give 7 yr olds so much homework in the UK & how do I stop this? …” the TV presenter Piers Morgan thought that, “As a nation, we’re falling so far behind educational standards of countries like China, it’s embarrassing. Telling our kids to now give up on homework seems a perverse response to this”.

I doubt that Piers Morgan has ever heard of the big factor, perhaps even the biggest, which has helped China to improve its overall educational attainment beyond recognition.

Traditional Chinese characters make learning to read and write very difficult, and in the 1950s around 85% of Chinese were illiterate.  Some of China’s leaders wisely realised that this would have to be reduced if the country was to make economic progress. And in 1958 Zhou Youguang provided the solution with Pinyin.

Pinyin is a simple alphabetic writing system based on Latin, and Chinese children are now taught to read with Pinyin first. They ten go on to learn to read traditional Chinese writing with Pinyin subtitles. Since the adoption of this practice, China’s illiteracy rate has dropped from 85% to just 5%.

Apart from being used for teaching reading, Pinyin is now also used for typing on all electronic devices, and they automatically convert it into traditional Chinese writing. Before long Pinyin may well drive out traditional Chinese writing altogether. – Most schoolchildren already no longer learn to write the traditional way. Only the very brightest still do.

In Anglophones countries the level of functional illiteracy is only around 18%, but this is still rather high for developed countries. If they want to keep up with China, they should perhaps consider making at least learning to read English a bit easier too?

There is plenty of evidence that simpler spellings like ‘hed  sed, frend’ enable children to learn to read much faster than  ‘head said,  read this friend’. A year-long UK study in 1963-4 for example compared the progress 835 children learning to read and write English with the more regular spellings of the Initial Teaching Alphabet (or i.t.a.) and an equal number using normal spelling during their first year at school. The pupils on i.t.a. learned to read and write much faster, made fewer errors, used a much wider vocabulary and had a more positive attitude to learning. They also needed no parental help with learning to read in addition to the teaching they received at school.

The study was designed to test if spelling reform could speed up English literacy acquisition, because in 1953 the House of Commons had passed Mont Follick’s Spelling Reform Bill. But the results were so impressive, that many schools subsequently decided to adopt i.t.a. for the first school year. – Outside school, books remained in traditional spelling, and after a year, the i.t.a. groups had to switch to it too. They ablest pupils coped with the switch surprisingly well, but the majority regressed severely.

Perhaps Anglophone countries should copy the Chinese and use simpler spellings alongside the tricky ones in the early school years. – For a while I was a voluntary reading assistant for struggling readers who got no help with learning to read at home. I decided to note down 5 – 7 words which made them stumble in each session, like ‘thought, through’, and then put simpler, easily decodable spellings alongside them [thaut, throo].

We then folded the little lists in half, with the normal, tricky spellings on top. The pupils were asked to take the lists home and practise reading them, but to use the simpler spellings only when having trouble remembering the pronunciation of the normally spelt words. – This helped to improve their overall reading noticeably in a very short time.

The best solution would undoubtedly be a proper simplification of the words that are most responsible for making learning to read English exceptionally slow and laborious. But as most children now start to use electronic devices from a very young age, some computer whiz could surely at least devise a program with pop-ups which show the tricky words spelt more sensibly when a child points at it?

Altogether, around 2,000 quite common English words pose some decoding difficulties, but the really bad ones, like ‘eat, great, bread’ and ‘plough, through, rough‘ come to just a few hundred. I have already respelt them more readably, should anyone be interested in making learning to read English easier.  I would love to help.

Too much homework?

The comedian and actor Rob Delaney started a Twitter storm recently by asking, “Why do they give 7 yr olds so much homework in the UK & how do I stop this?” Who knows more about this madness & can help me?”

The flood of responses indicated that many other people agree that the amount of homework young UK children get is excessive or even a total ‘waste of time’. But there were some supporters of homework too. The Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan thought, “As a nation, we’re falling so far behind educational standards of countries like China, it’s embarrassing. Telling our kids to now give up on homework seems a perverse response to this”.

Our kids are not the only ones that are made to work hard from an early age.  Americans, Canadians and Australians do too. And the blame for this lies entirely with English spelling, because it makes learning to read and write English exceptionally hard and slow.

To become a proficient reader and writer of English takes much longer than with all other alphabetically written languages. Finnish in particular. Finnish kids learn roughly 10 times faster, because they have one of the world’s simplest, most regular and most learner-friendly writing systems. That’s why they also don’t even start formal lessons until age 7 and get hardly any homework at primary level. Yet they regularly beat the rest of the world in educational comparisons.

Written English looks like other alphabetically written languages, because it uses letters. But it’s only partially alphabetic, because its use of letters often obeys no rhyme or reason.  – Nearly all 44 English sounds are spelt in several ways, like the /ee/ sound in ‘speech, speak, shriek, these, police…’. They necessitate word-by-word memorisation of irregularities for at least 4,219 words. Most other languages have some irregular spellings too, but not nearly as many as English.  They are also more rule-governed and  don’t have silent letters, as in ‘have, doubt’ and ‘bomb‘.

The main difference between English spelling and other writing systems, however, is that 69 of its 204 spellings are used for more than one sound (e.g. an – any, apron; on – only, once; eat – great, bread). – That is why English-speaking children the world over get homework almost as soon as they start school.

At the start of learning to read, children learn the main sounds for the 73 main English spellings, with the likes of ‘a fat cat sat’ or ‘ship, shop’ and ‘station’. They start with ‘phonics’.

But quite a few English spellings don’t have a main sound (e.g. roughly, thought, through). Because of them, to become even just moderately fluent readers, Anglophone kids have to learn to recognise around 700 much used tricky words by sight (e.g. ‘head said any Wednesday would…’), in addition to phonics. Until they can sight-read most of the common tricky words, their reading tends to stay hesitant, and they find it difficult to make sense of what they read.

To overcome those hurdles as quickly as possible, schools set reading homework from very early on. Spelling homework follows soon after and continues till the end of school, because learning to spell English is many times harder than learning to read it.

Schools try to get children to master those skills as fast as they can, because reading and writing are crucial for other learning. They try to get parents to help too, because the best way to learn to read English is with lots of one-to-one reading aloud to an adult who can help out with tricky words that children commonly stumble over, like ‘cried, friend, fierce’. It’s hard for teachers to give enough individual reading help to all children in a class of 30. That’s why they set reading homework.

Learning to spell the hundreds of words, like ‘head said any’, takes much time and practice at home too. Help and encouragement from parents makes a huge difference to that as well.

Because my first three languages were Lithuanian, Russian and German, which all have quite regular spelling systems, I did not need to spend much time on learning to read and write in my early years. I did not start to learn English until the age of 14, in 1958. Its spelling came as a big shock.

I have therefore been convinced ever since that if English spelling was made at least a bit more sensible – if it was simplified enough to make at least learning to read substantially easier – the need for homework at primary school would shrink dramatically. Anyone who would truly like to see young children get less homework should do their bit to help bring about improvements to English spelling. It causes too much misery. It also leaves English-speaking countries with much lower overall educational standards than they should have as highly developed nations.


Reading Wars still going strong

I recently came across an article by Emily Hanford which gives an account of the American reading wars. Similar disputes about how best to teach reading have been waged in all English-speaking countries for many decades.

After presenting statistics about the persistently poor US literacy standards, Hanford gives us her views on their causes, but tells us first that “virtually all kids can learn to read — if they are taught the right way”. But this is apparently largely not happening, because:

  1. The prevailing approaches to reading instruction in American schools are inconsistent with basic things scientists have discovered about how children learn to read.”
  2. Most teachers nationwide are not being taught reading science in their teacher preparation programs”, because many deans of education either don’t know the science or dismiss it and therefore “The pre-service teachers … at these institutions fail to receive the necessary training.”

She informs us that, “Writing is a code humans invented to represent speech sounds. Kids have to crack that code to become readers”, and according to her ‘reading science’ has ‘discovered’ that: Children don’t crack the code naturally. They need to be taught how letters represent speech sounds …  the ways that sounds and letters correspond …the relationship between sounds and letters.” And best way to do it is with “explicit and systematic phonics instruction.

She concedes that, “phonics isn’t enough. Children can learn to decode words without knowing what the words mean. To comprehend what they’re reading, kids need a good vocabulary, too. That’s why reading to kids and surrounding them with quality books is a good idea.”

I would like to explain why phonics provides a good start, but in English, it is at best merely a very minor part of becoming a fluent reader. –  Learning to read English is not like learning to read other alphabetically written languages, because English does not have a proper ‘writing code’.

Written English looks like other alphabetically written languages, because it uses letters, but it uses them very unpredictably, which makes it impossible to teach children a code that they can use with confidence for learning to read and write. – Nearly all 44 English sounds are spelt in several ways, often very many, like the /ee/ sound in ‘speech, speak, shriek, these, police…’. They all have to be learned word by word.

Most other languages have some unpredictable spellings too, although not nearly as many as English. But English is totally different from all other alphabetically written languages in using 69 of its spellings for more than one sound (e.g. an – any, apron; on – only, once; eat – great, bread). To become moderately fluent readers, children must learn to recognise around 700 of the most used of such tricky words by sight. It is only when they can read those instantly, without still having to try and decode them, that they become independent or ‘free’ readers – free from the need for regular help.

Phonics is useful for words like ‘a fat cat sat’ or ‘get the net set’, but insufficient and too laborious for ‘any able father’, ‘heard near heart’ or ‘though thought through’. Until children have learnt to sight-read such words without hesitation, their reading remains laborious.

The spellings with irregular pronunciations are the main reason why all English-speaking countries have almost identical proportions of children who struggle with learning to read, or never become proficient. It is also why those who do not get regular one-to-one reading help at home, when they first start to learn, make very slow progress and rarely catch up.

It is not poverty in itself, or being in care, that impedes children’s educational progress. They are disadvantaged by not getting enough individual help in the early school years, because their parents don’t have the ability, time or energy to give it. And because reading is the most essential prerequisite for nearly all other learning, their reading difficulties handicap the whole of their schooling, .

After a brief grounding in phonics, the best way to become a fluent reader of English, is regular reading aloud to an adult, who sits and listens and helps out with words that are not entirely decodable, like ‘friend, should shoulder’. Teachers know this and encourage parents to play their part, because it is very difficult to provide daily individual reading support to a class of 30.

If all English spellings could be reliably decoded like ‘keep sleep deep’, teaching children to read would be much easier.  Phonics lessons at school would then be enough to turn children into independent readers, as in other alphabetically written languages.

While English spelling remains as it is, phonics can provide no more than a good beginning. To become a fluent reader takes much time and effort after phonics. That’s why even courses which are sold as ‘phonics’ are never as phonic as in other languages. – They don’t just teach the “the ways that sounds and letters correspond” or “the relationship between sounds and letters”. After a few weeks, they start to introduce words with alternative pronunciations, e.g. ‘only one other‘ after ‘on, often, ox’.

They expose children to pronunciations other than the main one with little groups of words, over and over again, to help them to recognise them on sight, and eventually the majority learn to do so. But it takes many encounters, and without regular reinforcement at home, a very long time, with some pupils continuing to struggle throughout their school days and thereafter. – Teachers try to do the best they can with the erratic spelling system they are lumbered with, but it makes their job extremely challenging.

Reading science is of minimal help, because nobody has yet discovered a method for teaching the tricky words that succeeds reliably with all learners. Progress depends heavily on a child’s abilities as well as getting enough individual help.

The best solution to the problem would be to make English spelling more sensible. When spellings have regular pronunciations, the best way to teach reading is blindingly obvious and nearly all children learn to read easily in a few months, even if they are not especially bright or get much help at home. There are no recurring disputes about how to do it.

The irregularities of English spelling make the teaching of reading exceptionally difficult, defeat many children altogether and cause endless arguments about teaching methods.

Teenage mental health

Academics have started to look for the causes of the increase in mental health problems among teenagers, as in this article.

As a mother and grandmother I could not help but notice how the school lives of both primary and secondary pupils have been made increasingly more stressful with the introduction of SATs and league tables over the past 25 years.  I would like to remind people what led to their arrival and intensification, starting in 1991.

At the end of the 1980s Many politicians had become increasingly concerned about the UK’s poor literacy and numeracy levels, as reported by various surveys. Poor literacy worried them most, because it is difficult to impossible to learn much of anything without learning to read and write first. Even maths becomes more and more difficult for pupils cannot read questions or understand written explanations.

At first, SATs were intended just to establish exactly how bad things were. The introduction of league tables and Ofsted rating schools from ‘outstanding’ to ‘failing’, according to their SATs results, has increasingly turned them into an instrument for putting teachers under pressure to make their pupils work harder. This led to everyone becoming progressively more stressed and worried by them.

It has also led to many of the things that made school more enjoyable, such as sport, music, art and drama, being drastically reduced. Year 6 especially has become devoted mainly to SATs practice from September onwards in many schools.

We know that too much work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. What is less acknowledged is the misery that overwork can also cause. Even less attention is paid to the effects of being made constantly aware that you are not doing well.

The pupils who don’t perform well in their SATs and leave school with few GCSEs, are made conscious of their lack of success from a young age, and have it reinforced throughout their schooling. This does nothing for their self-esteem or mental resilience. Even pupils who do relatively well, have been made much more aware that some do better.

The saddest thing of all is that the UK’s literacy standards, which led to the introduction of this insane measuring and shaming, remain just as bad as they were before the arrival of SATs and league tables. – One in six pupils still leaves school functionally illiterate. – All that extra pressure on teachers and kids has been for nothing.

English illiteracy is not a problem that can be cured with just working harder. Around 20% of English-speaking children and adults, in all Anglophone countries, fail to become functionally literate, simply because the irregularities of English spelling make learning to read and write too difficult for them. They have above average trouble learning to read because of the variable pronunciations of 69 English spellings, like ‘o’  in ‘only, one, other, won, woman, women, womb’. They have even greater problems with memorising umpteen unpredictable spellings for one sound in at least 4,219 common words, like ‘blue, shoe, flew, through, to, you, too’.

The only way to improve English literacy standards is to make learning to read and write easier, by making English spelling more sensible. But spelling reform is a complete no-no for many.

It has, however, become very clear that the stress, which pupils and teachers are put under by SATs and league tables cannot remedy this. So let’s at least stop making pupils more miserable than need be with too much pointless testing.

A practice / to practise

Several thousand English words have silly spellings, like ‘friend, said, head’, but the British differentiation between ‘a practice’ and ‘to practise’ is one of the silliest. American English abolished it decades ago, saving countless spelling ‘errors’, without causing any difficulties to anyone.

In British English the ‘practice/practise’ spellings continue to cause endless ‘misspellings’, particularly on school reports. – Perhaps the distinction has been kept mainly to provide an assured source of Schadenfreude to picky pedants?

The differentiation is totally needless. – We don’t use different spellings with ‘to’ and ‘a’ for ‘notice, pause, rise’ or ‘go, play, work’. So why the special treatment for ‘a practice / to practise’? – I can think of no other reasons than to make learning to read and write more difficult, and to provide entertainment for some very sad people.

Giving schoolkids a hard time must have been a major consideration for most of the early fixers of English spelling. The first spelling lists and dictionaries were created mainly by private tutors to the rich. – Making learning to read and write difficult was a good way of ensuring long job security for them.

The main fixer of modern British spelling, however, was the failed schoolmaster Samuel Johnson, with his dictionary of 1755. His attempt to run a private academy in Lichfield flopped before the end of its first year. He then tried to earn a living as a writer for a posh men’s magazine. When that did not go well either, he decided to become a lexicographer.

He was even quite good at coming up with amusing definitions for words,  which made his opus popular. But he made a bigger hash of English spelling than all the other fixers before him. The notion of using just one spelling per sound, or having spellings that obey some logic, appears to have been totally alien to him.

Apart from the ‘a practice/ to practise’ distinction, he made most ‘-is/ –ce, –se …’ endings completely unfathomable: tenis, office, promise, purchase, carcass, witness, lattice, lettuce …’.

He excelled in making learning to write English as baffling and time-consuming as possible. In addition to the ‘-is/ -ice, -ise …’ fiasco, he also made the spellings of hundreds of other endings unpredictable and requiring word by word learning:  flatten – abandon, truncheon, villain; father – doctor, nectar, amateur … .

He made consonant doubling totally incomprehensible: ‘arise – arrive’, ‘shoddy – body’, ‘bus – fuss’.

It is also due mainly to him that 335 words have ended up with 684 spellings, depending on their meaning, like ‘there/their’ and ‘by/buy/bye’; along with 113 sets of completely different words perversely sharing one spelling, e.g. ‘to minute in minute detail’ or ‘to lead like a lead balloon’.

According to Shakespeare, “the evil that men do lives after them”. This has certainly been true of Samuel Johnson. Like Tony Blair, he was not all bad. But the harm he did has far outweighed all his good deeds.