Cultural child abuse

How can they do this to their own kids?” was the question that started to plague me from the moment I first encountered English spelling in 1958, at the age of 14, after Lithuanian and Russian. –  I could imagine that there might be some weird logic behind making learning to read write English difficult for foreigners. But your own children?

I realised that irregular pronunciations like ‘man – many,  on – only’ would be less of a reading problem if u already knew the language. – Words alongside the tricky ones and their context can help with deciphering them.

As a foreigner I had no such help. I just had to remember what the teacher told us. – This made reading aloud in class a very uncomfortable experience. I was constantly keeping half an eye on the teacher to see if I was getting it right or wrong.

It was also clear to me from the start, however, that when it came to learning to spell, already knowing English would be no big advantage. Memorising irregular spellings like ‘blue, shoe, flew, through, too’ is hard for native speakers too. Such gremlins just have to be learned word by word by everyone.

Starting to learn to spell such words long before the age of 14 makes it a little easier, as does constantly seeing words on road and shop signs from a young age. Being read to and looking at books from early infancy makes a difference too. – But having to learn spellings quirks for thousands of words, still makes learning to spell English very difficult for native speakers too, in comparison with languages that are spelt more regularly.

What I have come to understand since 1958, however, is that being immersed in a system, makes it very difficult to view it objectively and see anything wrong with it as an adult. English-speaking children are not consciously brain-washed by their teachers to accept English spelling as good. It simply happens to them in the course of their schooling. – Their teachers were trained to accept the system without question too, just they are. They merely do the same to their pupils.

Even during training, teachers are hardly ever made aware that English spelling is uniquely irregular and makes learning to read and write exceptionally difficult. It is certainly never suggested to them that it could be improved to make literacy learning and teaching easier. – They get taught what is believed to be the best way of teaching reading and writing, at the time. The difficulties of teaching children to read and write English have led to endless disputes about, and changes in, teaching methods.

Changing your perception of something that is culturally conditioned is very difficult. – To nearly everyone who has not grown up in a country where FMG (female genital mutilation) has been practised for centuries, the custom seems barbaric. Yet many still see nothing wrong with it.

Seeing something wrong with our own long-established habits just does not come easily. – The caning of pupils now seems brutal to nearly all of us, yet most people found it acceptable until quite recently, just like sending children down mines and up chimneys in earlier times.

Because I did not meet English spelling until the age of 14, after first learning to read and write with two vastly more regular systems, its irregularities struck me as ludicrous as soon as I came across them. Going on to learn German, followed by French, Spanish and a bit of Italian kept confirming for me that English spelling is exceptionally learner-unfriendly. Becoming a teacher of English in England in my 30s and noting the words which pupils kept misspelling, and the ones which they still misread even at secondary school, left me even more certain that the irregularities of English spelling pose big and costly educational handicaps, and make the workload of teachers much heavier too.

I have been trying to explain this in various ways for a few decades now, but with little success so far. Most people who had to spend 10 – 15 years learning the thousands of English words with irregular spellings and have come to grips with them, find it impossible to believe that this might have been a pointless waste of time. They close their minds to the intellectual abuse done to them as much as to what is being done to children now. – And so, generation after generation gets put through the same ordeal, with nobody stopping to consider how much better educated everyone could become, if they did not have to learn 10 closely typed pages of common words with irregular spellings, and if fewer letters had changing sounds, like ‘o‘ in ‘only, one, other’.

My seeing that English spelling is insane and needs to be improved, while others are unable to believe what I am saying, often makes me feel like the kid who saw that the emperor wore no clothes.

But I am not giving up hope. The easy Hagul script for Korean, which enables Koreans to learn to read and write exceptionally easily, was not fully adopted until 1946. Its was first created back in 1444. I feel certain that English spelling is bound to be improved one day too, and that I must keep drawing attention to its iniquities.

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.