Acceptance of English spelling

English spelling is irregular, but most people are not concerned about its inconsistencies and have trouble understanding why they bother me so much. – The main reason for my never-ending exasperation with English spelling is probably not meeting it until the age of 13,  after Lithuanian and Russian.

In both of those languages, letters are used pretty much as the inventors of the alphabet intended. – They have only a few more spellings than sounds and no spelling has more than one pronunciation, unlike English with 205 spellings for its 44 sounds and 69 spellings used for more than one sound (e.g. ou in sound – soup, southern).

When learning to read Lithuanian and Russian, students learn to sound out their 32 and 33 spellings, such as  ‘T – O – M’  or ‘M – U – CH’, and can then reliably decipher any word. There are no silent letters as in ‘bomb’, or bewildering oddities like ‘comb’ and ‘tomb’, and learning to read is very easy.

In Lithuania children start school in the term of their 7th birthday. When I did, my grandmother taught me to read Lithuanian in just a couple of weeks. For several reasons, I started school two months later than my classmates. They could therefore already read by the time I joined them, and I needed to catch up.

My grandma had another reason for wanting to teach me to read. – Her eyesight was failing, and she was hoping that I would soon start reading bits from her daily paper to her, and I was able to do so in less than a month.

I was very keen to learn English. I had read a Lithuanian translation of Hamlet in the summer holidays before upper school (and starting English) and loved it. I was hoping that I might be able to read it in the original before long. But that expectation bit the dust as soon as I became acquainted with English spelling. – I found its irregularities shocking and was reluctant to accept that any writing system could be so unsystematic.

Again and again, learning to read some words proved of little help with deciphering others: man – many; laid – said;  our – your. Learning to read kept being a matter of remembering how the teacher pronounced the words, and my brain kept silently screaming, “But that’s not how letters are supposed to work!”

But I was only 13, and English was not my language. And although our teacher agreed that English spelling was insane, we just had to get on and learn it.

I became fluent in the end, when I came to England, but I could not stop wondering from time to time why English-speaking people, and especially parents of young children, continued to put up with it. – Why didn’t they clamour for at least some of the irregular spellings to be made more sensible? And how could teachers bear to see pupils having a hard time with learning to read and write, year after year, and not call for change?

I eventually came to understand that they don’t, because they are so used to the system that they are unable to see anything wrong with it. – After gradual introduction to it from early childhood, followed by 10 to 15 years of endless spelling tests, they have come to regard it as perfectly normal.

Furthermore, because very few speakers of English become truly proficient in other languages, the majority don’t know that English spelling is very different from nearly all other writing systems. They don’t realise that English spelling is extraordinarily irregular and makes learning to read and write exceptionally difficult.

Most speakers of English also have no real idea of how English spelling became irregular. – They don’t realise that most of the words with currently weird spellings were earlier spelt more sensibly, such as ‘hed, sed, frend’ by the poet Chaucer (c. 1343 – 1400).

Because I started to learn English relatively late, became fluent in it alongside three other languages and acquired a reasonable command of French and Spanish, with a smattering of Italian, I kept being made aware of how abnormally learner-unfriendly English spelling is. Becoming a teacher of German and English, along with some Russian and French, in the UK, made this even clearer.

What being a teacher also led me to realise is  that English spelling is especially disadvantageous to children from an underprivileged home background.  – Having parents who don’t, or can’t, nurture their children’s language development and love of reading before they start school, and who don’t help them with learning to read thereafter, is a much greater educational disadvantage in English than with better spelling systems.

Having a relatively weak memory is also a much bigger educational handicap in English than in other languages, because both learning to read and write the language involves exceptional amounts of memorisation. Since those skills are essential for other learning, English spelling dooms the educational prospects of less able learners especially badly.

I have tried to explain this to native speakers of English,  in books and the blogs and and some Youtube videos,  but not very successfully so far. I will keep trying.

Reading not good enough

Poor reading standards have been a concern to governments of all English-speaking countries for a long time. In the UK there have been several commissions looking at the problem over the past century and producing hefty reports: Newbolt 1921, Bullock 1976, Moser 1999, Rose 2006.

According to Professor Topping from Dundee the problem persists. Having surveyed pupils’ reading habits, he is worried that secondary pupils are not reading enough hard books, with many of them still reading at the level of 13-year-olds by the time they take their GCSEs at 16. Which probably means that they have trouble understanding their exam questions.

The concept of reading ages is entirely an English thing, determined by the fact that around 2,000 relatively common English words are not entirely decodable, like ‘only one other’. -To become fluent readers, children have to learn to recognise them on sight. They gradually build up their stock of them, year by year at primary school, until even the likes of ‘echoing, marine’ and ‘epitome’ stop making them stumble.

Unfortunately, many children never quite reach that level, even by the secondary stage. For them, reading remains a tedious chore. Pushing themselves to read harder books is utterly beyond them.

In languages in which letter and letter strings always have just one pronunciation, as in all European languages other than English, there are no reading ages. When there are no gremlins like ‘plough through rough’ to baffle children, learning to read is just a matter of learning the sounds of all the spellings used in their language, with the likes of ‘a fat man ran’ or ‘nation, station, carnation’.

With writing systems that don’t tolerate disruptive spanners like ‘many’ or ‘ration’, most children learn to read pretty well in about 3 months. And that’s it. There is nothing beyond simple sounding out. Once they have learned this, children can read anything and improve their fluency by themselves. They don’t need to keep turning to an adult (for roughly 3 years) and asking for help with words they get stuck on.

If we want more of our students to become moderately competent readers and informed citizens, and even more so if we want them to progress to enjoying difficult books, we should modernise English spelling and make learning to read easier. It is ridiculous to keep adhering to spellings like ‘only, once, other’ and ‘treat, great, threat’ which make learning to read English roughly 10 times slower than with better writing systems and keep wondering why so many students don’t read well or enjoy it.

English spelling was last changed in the 1750s by Samuel Johnson, but entirely for the worse. Unless it is made more learner-friendly, we will keep getting disappointing reports on poor reading standards, from all Anglophone countries, again and again.

Spellings make a difference

Writing systems can make learning to read and write easy or difficult. Those that have only one spelling per sound, like Finnish and Korean, make both learning to read and write very easy. Most Finnish and Korean children become fluent readers in their first few weeks at school and can write pretty well by the end of their first school year.

Learning to read and write English takes roughly 10 times longer, with 1 in 6 students never managing to master either skill adequately. Sir Moser reported in 1999 that at least 7 million, or 22%, British adults were functionally illiterate.

The English spelling system is not one of the best. It uses nearly 5 spellings per sound, instead of just one. It has 205 spellings for its 44 sounds, many of which are completely unpredictable, like the endings of ‘blue, shoe, flew, through, too’. – They have to be learned one by one for at least 4,219 common words and make learning to write exceptionally time-consuming.

English spelling is made even less learner-friendly by 69 of its 205 spellings being used for more than one sound (e.g. sound, soup, southern). This makes learning to read difficult too, not just learning to spell.

Learning to read traditionally written Chinese is also famously difficult, takes many years and defeats many learners. Until a few decades ago around 85% of China’s population was illiterate. Since 1958, when Chinese schools adopted Zhou Youguangs’ Pinyin system for initial literacy teaching, this has dropped dramatically to just 5%.

Pinyin is a completely regular alphabetic writing system, based on Latin. Chinese children now learn to read with this first. It is then used for teaching them to read the traditional Chinese characters (with Pinyin subtitles) as well.

The ablest pupils go on to learn to write the traditional way too, but not all, and on electronic devices everybody writes just with Pinyin. It gets translated into old Chinese writing, if the writer chooses. Pinyin may gradually lead to traditional Chinese writing fading out altogether, because it has proved that it makes learning to read and write very much faster and easier.

Perhaps English-speaking countries should adopt something similar for helping their children to learn to read on electronic devices to start with? Perhaps someone could device a system which enables children struggling with a word like ‘through’, to click on it and see a simpler respelling [throo] pop up next to it?

I carried out a little experiment in which I provided reading aids on paper for very weak readers. They could take them home, to help them learn to read the words they kept stumbling over during reading practice at school, like

     ‘shoe,  flew,  through’

      [shoo,  floo,   throo].

            It worked very well.

The best way of helping more children to learn both to read and write English well would be to modernise English spelling. This was demonstrated by a one-year British study in 1963-4. It compared children learning to read and write with traditional spelling and control groups using the more regular spellings of the Initial Teaching Alphabet (or i.t.a). Pupils on i.t.a. learned very much faster.

Most European countries have improved their spelling systems over the past two centuries, to make learning to read and write easier. English spelling is still very much as standardised by Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in 1755. Its irregularities continue to ensure that all English-speaking countries find it difficult to reduce their relatively high rates of functional illiteracy.