English literacy acquisition is harder and slower, and thereby more expensive

It is easy to understand that learning to read and write with a spelling system that uses 185 graphemes must take longer than doing so with a mere 50. It is therefore not surprising that a cross-European team led by Professor Philip Seymour from Dundee university which investigated literacy acquisition rates in 13 languages concluded in 2003 (British Journal of Psychology): "Children from a majority of European countries become accurate and fluent in foundation level reading before the end of the first school year. ....The rate of development in English is more than twice as slow." Establishing exactly how much more time English-speaking children need for learning to read is difficult, because of individual learning differences, and the effect of different teachers. But we are unlikely to be far off the mark by guessing that a spelling system which uses three times more graphemes than others, is going to make the learning of basic letter-to-sound rules correspondingly slower. A longe time needed for learning to read and write means less time for other subjects.

Difficult-to-master systems invariably also result in higher failure rates. Not many people could learn to use computers with the old DOS operating system. The difficulties posed by the inconsistency of English spelling are similar to those posed by early computers. They prevent millions from ever becoming competent readers or spellers, with devastating effects on their lives. They reduce their employment prospects and exclude them from the mainstream of life.

Literacy teaching is more difficult

When all spellings have reliable sounds and the total number of spellings used is only 50 or fewer, as in all European languages other than English, teaching children to read requires very little training. Almost any literate adult or child can do it. Because English uses 185 spellings, 69 of which have variable sounds, English literacy has to be taught by well-trained professionals.

Because of the teaching difficulties, there is also still much disagreement about how best to teach English literacy. Since the 1950's, ever since all English-speaking countries began to monitor literacy standards more carefully, and have invariably found them disappointing, there has been much expensive but unprofitable research into different teaching methods, along with costly support for struggling pupils.

The educational prospects of weak English-speaking pupils are worse than in other languages

Even children of average ability take longer to learn to read and write English than their contemporaries in other languages, but the weakest Anglophone pupils need an extremely long time to achieve even moderate literacy. Until they do so, they cannot learn much else. Other spelling systems give all pupils readier access to wider learning.

Initial English literacy acquisition is hard enough, but catching up is even harder. This explains why most well-intentioned and expensive initiatives to improve inadequate adult literacy skills have brought disappointing results, with particularly serious consequences for the rehabilitation of offenders.

Poor literacy skills undoubtedly help to land many prisoners in jail in the first place. They also handicap efforts to prevent re-offending. To what extent criminality is a direct result of illiteracy may be hard to calculate precisely, but according to a recent report by the Scottish prison service, 50% of prisoners are functionally illiterate: http://news.stv.tv/scotland/150989-fifty-per-cent-of-male-scots-prisoners-are-illiterate/

Education is the proven best way to prevent re-offending. In countries where the literacy rates of prisoners are generally higher, improving their education while behind bars is also much easier. The poor literacy skills of many English-speaking offenders make this more difficult and repeated returns to jail more likely, with very high social and economic costs.


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Did You Know:

• Ask your friend what Y-E-S spells. They won't have any difficulty saying yes. Then ask what E-Y-E-S spells. It's easy when it's written down, but surprisingly difficult when it's spoken. See a YouTube video of this.

• Who has not heard i before e, except after c. A University of Warwick statistician put it to the test. He plugged a list of 350,000 English words into a statistical program to see if the math checked out. It didn't.

• When Adam met Eve for the first time, he said Madam, I'm Adam. This is a palindrome — a phrase or sentence in which the letters, words or even lines read the same in either direction. Adam hoped to impress the most beautiful woman in the world, but she more than matched him by replying simply, Eve. Not bad given that writing, and therefore palindromes, and English ones in particular, had not yet been invented! More palindromes, and a wonderful palindromic poem.

• How would you pronounce ghoti? Pronounce it like this:

and you get ... fish! Thanks to Charles Ollier for writing this in 1855 — and for showing that English spelling has been ludicrous for quite some time.

• One of the arguments in favour of keeping English spelling unchanged is to show the etymology of words. For example, the silent s in island shows the link to the Latin insula. But island actually derives from the Old English íglund, not from the Latin at all. More examples at Mental Floss.


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​Spelling reform is not a new idea!

Benjamin Franklin "The same is to be observed in all the letters, vowels, and consonants, that wherever they are met with, or in whatever company, their sound is always the same. It is also intended that there be no superfluous letters used in spelling, i.e. no letter that is not sounded [...]"  Franklin proposed a spelling scheme with 6 new letters. (Franklin 1806 p359)

Theodore Roosevelt "It is merely an attempt [...] to make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic." Theodore Roosevelt promoted the Simplified Spelling Board's gradual reform (see Twain below). (Roosevelt 1906, p3)

Mark Twain "It is my belief that an effort at a slow and gradual change is not worth while. [...] It is the sudden changes [...] that have the best chance of winning in our day. Can we expect a sudden change in our spelling? I think not. But I wish I could see it tried. [...] By a sudden and comprehensive rush the present spelling could be entirely changed and the substitute spelling be accepted, all in the space of a couple of years; and preferred in another couple. But it won't happen, and I am as sorry as a dog." (Twain 1997, pp208-212)

Page editor: N Paterson. Contact by email or form.