Difficulties of learning to read and write English (by Masha Bell)


The author says : “Because of the many irregularities, English-speaking children take roughly 10 times longer to learn to read and write than in Finland, Estonia or Korea which have completely regular spelling systems.” 

Please note that the author of this article has compared English language with mainly other European languages. Had she known the Sanskrit language and its script namely Devanagari, which has word pronunciation and word writing directly related to each other purely on phonetic basis, she would have realised how poor even the European languages are compared to languages like Sanskrit.

वास्तविकतः निव्वळ संज्ञापनाचे साधन/हत्यार/उपकरण (tool) म्हणून तपासले तर इंग्रजी ही अत्यंत अत्यंत अनियमित किंबहुना स्वैर असे व्याकरणाचे आणि शब्दलेखनाचे नियम असल्यामुळे  शिकण्यास अतिशय कठीण आणि नवशब्दनिर्मितीच्या दृष्टीने दुर्बळ भाषा आहे. ती शिकण्यासाठी इतर भाषांच्या मानाने कितीतरी अधिक पटीने विद्यार्थ्याची बौद्धिक आणि शारीरिक ऊर्जा फुकट जाते.

इंग्रजांच्या अधिकाराखालील गुलामगिरीत दीर्घ काळ घालवल्यामुळे आणि मेकॉलेप्रणीत शिक्षणपद्धतीत पुरेसा बुद्धिभेद केला गेल्यामुळे, भारतीयांना आपल्या भाषा ह्या गावंढळ आणि खालच्या दर्जाच्या व इंग्रजी भाषा ही मात्र अत्यंत उच्च दर्जाची भाषा असे वाटते. जगातील सर्व भाषांमध्ये इंग्रजी हीच एकमेव ज्ञानभाषा आहे आणि इंग्रजीशिवाय ज्ञानप्राप्ती शक्यच नाही असे भारतीयांना वाटते. परंतु वस्तुस्थिती अशी आहे की इंग्रजीवर अनावश्यक भर न देता स्वतःच्या भाषेतच शिक्षण घेणार्‍या देशांनीच भारतापेक्षा कितीतरी अधिक प्रमाणात शिक्षणाचा प्रसार, संशोधन, नोबेल पारितोषिके इत्यादी गोष्टी आणि एकंदरीत सामाजिक प्रगती साधलेली दिसून येते. ह्यासाठी जपान, इस्रायल, कोरिया, चीन, सर्व युरोपीय दे इत्यादींची उदाहरणे पाहता येतील.

इंग्रजी भाषा ही एक संज्ञापनाचे साधन म्हणून किती भयंकर आहे, ते खालील लेखात वाचा.

– अमृतयात्री गट

Difficulties of learning to read and write English

by Masha Bell

Learning to read and write English is more difficult and takes much longer than in other alphabetically written languages because of English spelling.

        1)  It is more complex, because many sounds are spelt differently in different positions of words,  e.g. ‘out – now’, ‘ship – station’.

2) It is more irregular. – Many of the 205 spellings for its 44 sounds are completely unpredictable and have to be memorised word by word, e.g.  /oo/ in ‘blue shoe flew through too;

69 spellings are also used for more than one sound, e.g. [o] in ‘on, only, once, other, women’

Because of the many irregularities, English-speaking children take roughly 10 times longer to learn to read and write than in Finland, Estonia or Korea which have completely regular spelling systems. 

Nearly all Finnish children learn to read fluently in three months, i.e. by the end of their first term at school. English speaking pupils need an average of three years to reach the same level fluency, with many taking much longer. Roughly 1 in 5 still need considerable help after six years at primary school. Some remain functionally illiterate for the rest of their lives.

Learning to write English moderately well takes an average of 10 years, because more than 4,000 quite common words contain some unpredictable spellings like ‘friend, said, Wednesday’, which have to be memorised word by word. Becoming a really proficient speller of English takes around 15 years, right up to the end of higher education, although even quite a few graduates still misspell quite often. The erratic use of  

consonant doubling (woollen – wooden),

different spellings for identical words (its/it’s)

and the irregular spellings of unclear vowels in word endings (obstinate – infinite)

never stop tripping up most adults from time to time.

The majority of Finnish pupils can write confidently by the end of their first school year, because the Finnish spelling system uses just 38 letters and letter strings for its 38 sounds. It has no irregular or unpredictable spellings. Cases of doubt are resolved not by racking your brain or  consulting a dictionary but by working them out, using reliable sound-to-letter rules which can be set out on a single page.

Skills which are difficult to learn self-evidently absorb more learning time than easy ones. They are also more difficult to teach and tend to result in more failure. They incur other costs as well. Teachers need more training, but finding a teaching method that works reliably well with all pupils is more difficult too. There is far more debate and disagreement about literacy teaching in Anglophone countries than in ones with simpler spelling systems.

The recurring debates about English literacy teaching are often referred to as The Reading Wars. They have been raging in all English-speaking countries for at least a century. They began soon after the introduction of general education in developed countries around 1870, because governments wanted to measure the effects of expenditure on it and brought in regular testing.

The tests started to reveal, as they do still, that roughly 1 in 5 English-speaking children have very weak reading and writing skills by the end of their education. And almost invariably, this has been blamed on poor teaching or wrong teaching methods. Only very occasionally have there been studies which have investigated how the regularity and learner-friendliness of different spelling systems correlates with ease or difficulty of literacy acquisition, such as the cross-European research by Seymour et al published in 2003.

Learning to read and write English could undoubtedly be made much easier by modernising English spelling and reducing the learning burden which its inconsistencies impose. I have made some suggestions for it. But as most literate English-speaking adults are very firmly attached to the current system and unaware of the harm and the costs which its irregularities incur, there is little hope of English spelling being improved any time soon.

It does however still seem worthwhile to me to try and improve understanding of how the inconsistencies of English spelling affect learning. – Knowing what makes a skill difficult to learn helps with tackling it. More crucially, greater awareness of the foibles of English spelling and their impact on literacy acquisition would help to put debates about how best to teach children to read and write on a more rational footing. It would enable teachers to take a more dispassionate approach to literacy teaching. It would also make it easier for them to evaluate new teaching materials.

All schemes for young children deal well enough with the phonically regular aspects of English spelling, such as ‘a cat sat’, ‘rain, train, strain’ or ‘ship, shop, shut’. Where they differ is in how well they tackle the tricky words which cause the majority of learning and teaching difficulties, such as ‘you, young, your’.

When governments change their advice on literacy teaching, as they often do, and many publishers produce new schemes, schools often end up buying several new courses simply because they are unable to assess their likely effectiveness without trying them out at great expenditure in the classroom first. Greater awareness of the English spelling inconsistencies which most impede learning would make them more able to do so.

Also, if parents were more aware of how the vagaries of English spelling affect learning to read and write, they would undoubtedly become less anxious about how they can best assist their children’s progress. Currently many get worried about doing harm if they are not using the same methods as their children’s teachers. They tend not realise that what matters most is simply the amount of teaching a child needs and receives, rather than any particular teaching method.

Some children learn to read with minimal teaching. Their innate abilities enable them to learn to read and to spell words like ‘thought, through’ and ‘though’ with surprising ease. Others can do so only after meeting and writing them very many times, as I experienced with my own two children.

With more regular spelling systems, the abilities and disabilities that children are born with, or which they lack, make much less of a difference to how readily or slowly they learn to read and write than they do in English. Its irregularities give some children a much harder time than others, simply because of differences in their brain wiring. Even very bright children can take a long time to learn to read and write, if their brains find the lack of logic in English spelling hard to cope with, or because they are not blessed with a very good visual memory.

Children who struggle with learning to read and write English, simply need more help, regardless of teaching method. It’s mainly a matter of patient perseverance.  It’s a bit like different runners having to cover the same distance. When the learning route is extremely short and easy, as in Finnish, all participants complete it in much the same time, with only minor variations. For an exceptionally long and difficult course, their native talents, disabilities and stamina have a much bigger impact on the time they need for completing it.

A little about me.

In 1995 I had to retire from 20 years of teaching English and modern languages because of chronic throat problems. This coincided with a renewed interest in literacy standards by both politicians and the media. Disappointing test results were suddenly causing widespread alarm, and the main cause was believed to be poor teaching.

Having learned to read seven languages, and to write five of them quite well too, I was fairly certain that the inconsistencies of English spelling were chiefly responsible for the relatively high levels of literacy failure in all English-speaking countries. But during my first attempts to explain this to others, I realised that even I did not know exactly what or how much was wrong with English spelling, or what had caused it to become so erratic. Apart from a few vague notions, like the ‘great vowel shift’, I had little idea of what exactly had made English spelling so shambolic.

Just like other teachers and parents, I had taught children to read and write with some basic phonics, followed mainly by correcting their mistakes. My overall awareness of the English spelling system and its imperfections was no better than anyone else’s. I was shocked by my ignorance. I was even more surprised that this information was not readily available. I therefore decided to establish exactly how regular and irregular English spelling was, what made it so and how this related to teaching and learning.

Before I could analyse the English spelling system, I needed a list of the most used English words, or a core English vocabulary which most schoolchildren can be expected to have come across by age 16. I compiled this from several ‘essential’ reading and spelling lists and also digital word frequency listings, and collected 7,000 words (give or take a few, because some quite different English words share one spelling, e.g. ‘wait a minute’ and ‘minute detail’). Despite my efforts not to omit any common words or to include rarely used ones, and having my list checked by several friends and relations, those 7,000 words are probably still not the absolutely definitive core English vocabulary. I am however pretty certain that any 16-year-old who knows the meaning of those 7,000 words and can use a substantial proportion of them has a good command of English.

I first published the results of my research into English spelling in the book Understanding English Spelling in 2004, but I then discovered that I could make them available for free by blogging.

Revised in December 2016

Posted 30th September 2015 by Masha Bell

The original article is available at : http://improvingenglishspelling.blogspot.in/

Labels: 205 spellings for 44 sounds an exceptionally complex and irregular spelling system


A PDF copy of the article is available Here.

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