Why English Spelling Is So Bad

Posted by on July 5, 2012 in blog | 0 comments

The first sentence of a recent Bridge column by Phillip Alder states, “Kenneth Grahame, a Scottish author who wrote ‘The Wind in the Willows,’ said, ‘The strongest human instinct is to impart information; the second strongest is to resist it.’” I hope that is not true of you, dear reader.

Human beings have the perfect right — and the ability — to believe whatever they choose. As you know, people often believe whatever they choose in spite of the facts. It is in the short term best interests of education officials and teachers, as well as politicians, to believe that the teaching of reading in America is as good as it should be. But with the present extent of illiteracy, solving the problem of illiteracy is now more crucial than ever. Education officials, teachers, politicians, and the media can ignore the proven facts in the most thorough and statistically accurate study of U.S. adult literacy ever commissioned by the U.S. government (available free at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93275.pdf and verified by the 2006 report http://nces.ed.gov/NAAL/PDF/2006470.PDF).

People can disbelieve negative reports about education because there are other reports that show the situation is not as desperate as the aforementioned reports show. This is because the reports they want to believe use a much smaller database and much less rigorous statistical methods. There is even a book written by someone who is part of the education establishment claiming that there is not a crisis in the teaching of reading. My book, Let’s End Our Literacy Crisis, Revised Edition, carefully analyzes all of the arguments in the book and thoroughly debunks all of them, point by point. By carefully choosing which statistics are included and by limiting the data to sufficiently short time spans, the author thinks he is disproving the existence of a very real literacy crisis in America.

If you carefully limit the “facts” you will consider, you can prove almost anything. My book compares education data from the 1700s and 1800s with that from the 1900s to the present and examines the differences in the American culture in those eras to reach a much more accurate assessment of the true results of teaching students to read.

John Corcoran’s book, The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read, points out that many school teachers are in denial of their lack of ability to teach every student to read. He states that although none of his teachers ever heard him read aloud correctly in the classroom, they all seemed to not notice that he could not read. He graduated from high school unable to read. (Recent newspaper reports have stated that more than one million students graduate from high school every year in the U.S. who cannot even read their diploma.) He even got into college on an athletic scholarship.

Although Corcoron's book states that he is not advocating it, he graduated college by cheating and by having his fraternity brothers help him cheat. He then got a job as a school teacher in California and taught for many years. One day, as he was trying to read a new, simple, children’s book to his pre-school daughter by making up a story based upon the pictures, his wife who thought he could read heard his attempts to read the book and learned that he could not read at all. He then felt pressure, as a middle aged man, to get help from a tutor and at long last learn to read. It took Corcoron more than a year of tutor training and then additional years of self study to bring himself to a college level of learning, after which he wrote his book.

Parents who see reports of the lack of success in teaching reading often think that it does not apply to their children. This is because they want to believe that their children are getting a good education. As a result they will take pride in the school their children attend and believe that it is better than the failing schools in reports they see. Or they will see reports from educational and political sources claiming that “progress is being made.” These beliefs, however, may not be backed up by the statistics.

The truth of the matter is that, as former U.S. Education Secretary Dr. William Bennett states in his books, The Devaluing of America and The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, little if any progress in teaching reading has been made in the U.S. public schools. Statistics on literacy in the 1700s and 1800s (for all except the slaves who usually were uneducated) show that the literacy rate was higher than it was after the 1920s when the “whole word” method of teaching began. To a large extent, the whole word teaching method came about as both students and teachers objected to the very successful but boring and lengthy rote memory drills used previously. The objection came as a host of new distractions — both pleasurable and disheartening — began in the 1920s, as will be explained later. There have been few, if any, improvements in the teaching of reading which have had any overall statistical significance since the 1920s.

The Difficulty in Learning to Read English

Since most people reading this blog learned to read as children, they may think that changing the way we spell our English words is too radical a change. This is because they have long ago forgotten (or pridefully ignore) the difficulty they had in learning to read. Their eyes glide effortlessly over a multitude of traps for beginning readers. This is also because they do not understand how easy it will be to learn to read NuEnglish, the spelling system that Literacy Research Associates, Inc. and NuEnglish, Inc. (two non-profit educational corportions) are proposing and how easy it will be to implement it into our culture. If everyone could see the difficulty that beginning readers have, however, they would quickly agree that something must be done to make learning to read English as easy as it is to learn other alphabetic languages.

That is the purpose of this blog.

Solving the problem of English functional illiteracy by making the spelling simple, consistent, and logical is the only way to make our students the equal of students in other alphabetic languages. As it is, U.S. students are two years behind students of other alphabetic languages of the same age. As Dr. Rudolph Flesch states on pages 76-77 of his book, Why Johnny Can’t Read,

“Generally speaking, students in our schools are about two years behind students of the same age in other countries. This is not a wild accusation of the American educational system; it is an established, generally known fact. . . .

What accounts for these two years? Usually the assumption seems to be that in other countries children and adolescents are forced to study harder. Now that I have looked into this matter of reading, I think the explanation is much simpler and more reasonable: Americans take two years longer to learn how to read—and reading, of course, is the basis for achievement in all other subjects.”

Why Some Students Do Not Learn to Read English

There are many reasons why any one particular nonreader cannot read English. Arranged in no particular order, some of these reasons may be:

  • The nonreader or his parents or friends place little importance on learning to read;
  • The nonreader is far more involved in numerous activities than in spending the time needed to learn to read, as explained below;
  • The nonreader goes to school hungry, frightened (over gang violence or classmates who bring weapons to school, for example), worried over problems at home or with schoolwork, or embarrassed (about failing to read aloud properly in class or about his old, ragged clothing, for example);
  • The nonreader has poor eyesight, poor hearing, or learning problems;
  • The nonreader doesn’t like the teacher, or the teacher is not effective at teaching; or
  • The teaching methods or textbooks used are not effective in teaching students to read.

In today’s world, besides all of the school and societal problems which hinder learning, there are many fun, but time-consuming activities, interfering with learning, which did not exist in simpler times — before the twentieth century. Some of these pleasurable activities include movies, television, musical concerts or recordings, video movies and games, newly developed sports, profitable full- and part-time jobs, and gang and other youth activities. There are also many negative influences today that were much less prevalent in simpler times before the twentieth century. Some of the more obvious are: new gang activities, new drugs, and more broken homes due to relaxed laws concerning divorce in the twentieth century.

Like the items in Pandora’s Box, once these time-consuming or distracting activities have been loosed upon society, they cannot be taken back. It will be extremely difficult to get students to spend the long hours learning to read that were spent in more simple times. This is especially true if — due to teaching methods inferior to the memorization and dull drill used in prior centuries — the student is having difficulty learning. In this case, it will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to persuade the student to spend time on an unpleasant and difficult activity rather than a multitude of readily available pleasant activities.

One or more of these reasons will apply to almost every student. There is only one hindrance to learning that affects every student: the spelling of words. This is also true in other languages, but only in English is the spelling such a hindrance to learning. If students of other languages encounter problems that various experts are blaming for U.S. illiteracy, it may slow their learning. They will still learn much faster than U.S. students because they do not have the added burden of overcoming the inconsistencies, lack of logic, and undependable sound-to-symbol and symbol-to-sound correspondences that are a part of English spelling. Note that symbol-to-sound and sound-to-symbol correspondences are mirror images in languages other than English, as will be explained later.

The Foundational Cause of English Illiteracy

Our confusing spelling system is the foundational cause of illiteracy. Whatever corrections are made to the educational system — even if it could be made perfect — there will still be students who cannot become fluent readers without extensive tutoring unless spelling is made simple, logical, and consistent. Why Our Children Can’t Read by Dr. Diane McGuinness gives a thorough, scientific explanation of the logic behind written languages. It explains the extreme difficulty of learning the English spelling system because of its adoption of so many words (and usually their spellings) from about 350 other languages.

Although the ideal spelling system uses symbols for syllables, this is completely unworkable with English. With its many consonant clusters, there are tens of thousands of different syllables. Few people can effectively use more than about 2,000 language symbols. Languages that cannot use symbols for each syllable must therefore use symbols for every sound and students must be able to recognize and separate these sounds to learn to read. Since English does not use one symbol for only one sound and one sound may be represented by more than one symbol, learning to read English requires the sight-memory of every word added to the reading vocabulary — and re-learning of the seldom-used words over the years that are forgotten.

Why Learning to Read English Is So Difficult

A phoneme is the smallest sound in a language or dialect that is used to distinguish between syllables and words. A grapheme is a letter, letter combination, or symbol used to represent phonemes, syllables, or words. If a language does not hold strictly to a one-sound/one-symbol (phoneme/grapheme) correspondence, numerous problems occur. For example, a student may see a letter or letter combination when trying to read a word and — if the letter or letter combination represents more than one phoneme — not be able to recognize (read) the word, unless the word can be recognized by the context. The mirror image of this is that students may want to write a word they hear the teacher pronounce. If there is more than one letter or letter combination to represent a phoneme in the word, they do not know which to use, unless they have memorized which is “correct” spelling.

If there is not a strict phoneme/grapheme correspondence in a spelling system, there is no guarantee that if a certain grapheme represents a certain phoneme in a word (when reading), this phoneme will be represented (spelled) by this grapheme in a different word. There are far more ways of spelling a sound in English than there are ways to pronounce a letter or letter combination used in English. Even though there are at least 294 graphemes (single letters or two-, three-, four-, or five-letter combinations to represent a phoneme) in English, the worst of these have ten different pronunciations. Even though there are only 38 sounds to be spelled, the worst of these can be spelled in at least sixty different ways. This will be explained more fully later.

The number of phonemes in a language or dialect ranges from eleven in Rotokas (Indo-Pacific) and Mura (Chibchan) to 141 in !Xu (Khoisan). In a study of 317 languages, the number of vowel phonemes ranged from three to forty-six (a mean of 8.7); the number of consonant phonemes ranged from six to ninety-five (a mean of 22.8) (from page 165 of David Crystal’s book, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language). The number of phonemes in English varies depending upon which phonemes are considered both unique and essential. Some linguists may include as many as forty-five in their listing.

It can be demonstrated that only thirty-eight phonemes are needed for efficient communication in English. The average number of phonemes for the known languages of the world is about forty-five.

Before 1755, our English words evolved as an amalgamation of the words — and spelling — of the original Celtic language and seven other languages: Icelandic, Norse, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, German, Danish, and Norman French — the language of every nation that occupied the British Isles between the first and the eleventh centuries. Prior to the mid-1700s, English people spelled words as they sounded. However, no one had settled upon a standard way of spelling the sounds (or more specifically: the phonemes). The common people, and even such authors as Shakespeare, might spell a word two different ways in the same paragraph. It was an awkward but easily readable system.

Publishers wanted to standardize the spelling as a way to improve the quality of published work and to simplify the task of typesetters. Dr. Samuel Johnson was a scholar chosen by the publishers to standardize the spelling. According to Dr. Thomas Lounsbury, in his book, English Spelling and Spelling Reform, Dr. Johnson knew little about the pronunciation of words as related to their spelling and even less about the derivation of words. His dictionary was published in 1755. Although it was not the only dictionary at the time, it was well received by Johnson’s peers, who also knew little about the relation of pronunciation to spelling. It was also accepted by the publishers — it met their need for standardization.

Johnson’s dictionary came to be accepted by later dictionary publishers as the authoritative work on the subject of the correct spelling of words — based not so much upon its technical merit as upon its acceptance by his peers and the publishers. But instead of standardizing the spelling of the sounds (or phonemes), as in other languages and as logic demands, Johnson froze the spelling of the words; he listed a specific order of letters to represent each word. In many — if not most — cases, the letter order chosen was that used in the language of origin.

As a result, English words are not the same as almost all other alphabetic languages. They are logograms, more like Chinese writing. Chinese words are represented by certain strokes in a certain position. English words are represented by certain letters in a certain order. If you use the logical criterion that every phoneme must be spelled with one specific grapheme, only about 20 percent of English words are phonemic. There is absolutely no way, however, to know if a specific word is spelled phonemically or not. There is not even one English spelling rule without exceptions — and some of the exceptions have exceptions!

So the spelling Dr. Johnson devised was difficult to learn from the start. As you know, the pronunciation of words changes with time. So what was bad in the mid-1700s is much worse now. Henry Hitchings, in his book, The Secret Life of Words, states that English has now adopted words (and usually their spelling) from about 350 languages! The grapheme-to-phoneme correspondence is now quite undependable.

My next blog will be, in effect, attacking our spelling. There may be an unconscious urge to become defensive when someone “attacks our mother tongue.” A public elementary school teacher discussing English spelling said, “English is a beautiful language.” I am sure, however, that if she asked a beginning reader or a person coming here from another country trying to learn English spelling, they would not think English is very beautiful.

Here is the most important point to remember, however: you or I did not invent our ridiculous spelling, so we should not feel the need to defend it. Instead of being defensive, relax and enjoy the next blog. Our spelling is fully deserving of all the scorn we can heap upon it. These two blogs are just a small portion of the facts showing the desperate need for English spelling reform. No one knows how many facts you must see before you are convinced that our ridiculous spelling must be corrected. One thing is certain: if you carefully, honestly read Let's End Our Literacy Crisis, Revised Edition, available as a free e-book on our home page, you will be convinced of the need for spelling reform (unless you take this statement as a personal challenge, rather than a statement of how people who carefully, honestly read the book will react).

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