The educational standards of English-speaking countries would be much higher if their students did not have to spend so much time on learning to read and write. – English spelling is very irregular and makes both learning and teaching to read and write exceptionally difficult and slow. Writing systems that use just one spelling per sound, like Finnish and Korean, make learning to read and write much easier.
Ideally, English would have just 44 spellings for its 44 sounds, instead of 205. But reducing the current 205 spellings to just 44 would change the look of English writing very drastically. Perhaps I am too pessimistic, but I believe that most people would find this too shocking.
I am inclined to think that a small number of changes, which are guaranteed to make a noticeable difference to young children’s progress in learning to read and write, would meet with more acceptance. And once their worth has been established, further changes are likely to get a better chance of being considered as well.
Some irregular spellings impede overall progress in learning to read and write much more than others. The very worst are those that most confuse young children and put many of them off school and learning from a very young age.
Among those are the 63 irregular spellings for short /e/ and 68 for short /u/. Improving the likes of ‘head, said’ and ‘young, brother’, would already make the start of learning to read and write much easier. And it should be remembered that both used to be almost completely regular before the adoption of ‘o’ for /u/ next to v, w, n and m, as in ‘love, wonder, month’ and ‘ea’ in ‘head, read, thread’.
Ideally all words with short /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/ would be spelt as in ‘bad, bed, big, dog, bun’, as they are is 466, 301, 421, 357 and 308 words each. The Irregular spellings for short /a/, /i/ and /o/ are less harmful, because they affect only 7, 45 and 32 words. More importantly, only 22 of them occur in high frequency words that pupils are likely to meet in their early reading, or need to use in their own writing: Plait, aunt, laugh, have; build, built, busy, English, pretty, women; was, want, wander, wash, wasp, watch, what, swan, swap, squash, cough, sausage.
Of the 63 irregular spellings for short /e/, 50 are among the most used English words: Bread, breast, breath, dead, deaf, dealt, death, dread, dreamt, head, health, leant, leapt, meant, readx2, spread, sweat, thread, threat, wealth. Breakfast, feather, heather, instead, leather, measure, pleasure, treacherous, tread, treasure, weather. Heaven, heavy, jealous, pleasant, ready, (already), steady, weapon. Leopard. Any, many, against, said, says, berry/bury. Every, friend, Wednesday.
Short /u/ is irregular in 57 common words: Brother, Monday, money, monkey, month, mother, other, smother. Come, some/sum. Comfort, company, compass, stomach. Nothing. Son/sun, ton. Among, front, tongue, sponge.
Done, none/nun. Honey, onion. Won/one, wonder. Once. Above, cover, dove, glove, government, love, oven, shove, shovel.
Country, nourishment, young. Enough. Double, trouble. Blood, flood. Rough, tough. Cousin, dozen. Colour, does. Southern. Courage, thorough. Worry. Touch. Couple.
+ Monger, mongrel, monk, pommel, covet, covey, covenant, slovenly. slough, Hiccough [hickup].
Having to learn irregular spellings for over 100 very common words at the very start of their education is an obvious major impediment to progress and enjoyment of learning for many children. Making them regular would already help a great deal.