Anyone Can Read Now
The extent and seriousness of English functional illiteracy exceeds your worst NIGHTMARE,
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5. English Spelling Confuses Everyone
There are many reasons why any one student does not learn to read fluently: for example, poor eyesight or hearing; learning difficulties; or inadequate teaching methods, reading textbooks, or teachers. Also, pleasurable activities that did not exist in simpler times diverts the students' attention away from improving reading skills outside the class-room — things like music on radio, iPods, and in rock concerts; programs and movies on TV and DVDs; video games and the internet; and new athletic and school activities. Negative influences that were much less prevalent in simpler times also divert students' attention — things like bullying in school, drugs, gang activities, worries over events in the home such as divorce which is more prevalent in the twentieth century as a result of "no fault divorce." There is only one thing that affects every student, however: the ridiculous English spelling. Our confusing, inconsistent, illogical 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 logical and consistent. Parents of school-age children often serve as tutors, otherwise tutors are needed for adult illiterates willing to admit they need help learning to read. Most of us learned to read as children and have forgotten any difficulties we had — our eyes glide easily over a multitude of traps for new learners.
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 their spellings) from 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 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 English Spelling Is So Difficult to Learn
As usually used in English-speaking countries, the word spelling refers to a specific, unvarying sequence of letters to represent a word. 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 (one phoneme/one 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 or a word in their speaking vocabulary for which they know the pronunciation. 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 learned which is "correct."
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. Students in languages other than English do not have this problem to any appreciable extent.
Why English Spelling Is So Chaotic
To help you understand the truth of how bad English spelling really is, we must explain why English spelling is so bad. The English language, by the 1700s, was a conglomeration of words from eight different languages, the original Celtic, modified by inclusion of words from the language of every nation that occupied England up to that time: Norse and Icelandic (languages of the Vikings), Latin, Anglo-Saxon, German, Danish, and French. In England in the early to mid 1700s, everyone spelled the words the way they sounded to the writer. In other words, they used the letters that were in use at that time to represent the phonemes in the word. The problem was that no one had made a decision about which grapheme everyone should use to represent each phoneme. Writers — even such notable writers as Shakespeare — might spell a word two different ways in the same paragraph. It was an awkward but workable system.
By the mid 1700s in England there were quite a few foreign typographers working for the publishers, since typography was more common in Germany, the birthplace of the printing press, and in other places, than in England. The publishers quite obviously wanted to standardize the spelling, not only to improve the quality of their printed materials, but also to make typesetting easier for their typographers, many of whom were unfamiliar with many English words. By the mid 1700s there were a few dictionaries, but none of them were widely accepted. The publishers commissioned Dr. Samuel Johnson to prepare a dictionary, which he did. His dictionary was published in 1755 and was widely accepted by the publishers and the public, but linguists will tell you that Johnson made a serious linguistic mistake. His dictionary dictated one spelling (certain specific letters in a certain order) for each word, rather than dictating one grapheme for each phoneme, as is the ideal for a truly alphabetic language. In short, Johnson froze the spelling of the words instead of freezing the spelling of the phonemes.
As a result, English spelling is not a true alphabetic language. It is more of a logogramic language. In the same way that Chinese writing uses certain strokes in a certain shape and position to represent a word or part of a word, English writing uses certain letters in a certain order to represent a word.
A perfect spelling system is a one grapheme to one phoneme correspondence. What made Johnson's dictionary so confusing is that he tried to use the spelling of words as they were spelled in their language of origin. Quite a few of the words originated from languages different than what Johnson believed they did. As you know, the pronunciations of many words changes with time. What was bad in 1755 is much worse now. In addition, according to Henry Hitchings' book, The Secret Life of Words, the English language now has words that have been adopted from 350 other languages — and usually their spelling, as well!
Why Spelling Is Even More Difficult to Learn Than Reading
If you think learning to read English is difficult, consider spelling English words! Two phonemes (H as in hat and TH as in then) have only (!) four spellings, but most of them have many. The U as in nut is spelled at least sixty different ways! If that is not nutty, please tell me what is.
In short, there are more ways to spell a phoneme than there are pronunciations (phonemes) that a certain grapheme represents. These two relationships are mirror images of each other in other languages.
Roughly 20 percent of English words are spelled phonemically — if you use one consistent spelling of each phoneme in the 10,161 most common words. This is based upon Dewey's study as reported in his book, Relativ Frequency of English Speech Sounds. Claims that English is more than 20 percent phonemic are true only if more than one spelling of the phonemes is allowed. The problem is that you must learn which words are phonemic, the same as you must learn the spelling of unphonemic words. There is no dependable way of knowing which words are spelled phonemically.
Also, hundreds of words have alternate pronunciations and alternate spellings. The alternate spellings have no necessary relationship to the pronunciation either. To be intellectually honest, anyone objecting to spelling reform by defending the frozen spelling we now use would also have to defend a far more extensive reason for confusion in word meaning as related to spelling: using the same spelling for thousands of words with the same sound but with more than one meaning! The words set and up, for example, have dozens of meanings.
When I recently brought up the subject of spelling reform with an English elementary school teacher, she said she was not interested in spelling reform. She said, "English is a beautiful language." I wonder if young children trying to learn to read think English is a beautiful language. I wonder if immigrants — who speak a language with such a simple spelling system that you can put onto a 3 x 5 card all the information you need to pronounce any written word you see in their native language — would think a language that has NO invariable spelling rules is beautiful!
English spelling is so inconsistent, illogical, and confusing that it should not be defended. Much of what is considered a defense of English spelling is, in truth, a counterattack against the ideas that attack it. Or we assume it can't (or won't) be changed. Since most of us do not want to be bothered with too much change in our lives, we simply dismiss it from our minds. Also, if we learned it as a child, we assume other people can, too. So we give it little thought other than when we have to look up a spelling in a dictionary. Speakers of most other languages do not have to use a dictionary — they know the spelling if they know the pronunciation.
If you couldn't read, and if you discovered these facts about our spelling, you probably would be upset to say the least. You would be upset to find that you had needlessly blamed yourself for your present state, as most illiterates do. Are you upset to find that more than 93 million people — almost one-half of the adult population of the U.S. — are affected? You probably are if you understand how seriously it affects the functional illiterates and how much money their illiteracy is costing each of us — and how widespread English functional illiteracy really is around the world.
Professor Julius Nyikos of Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, did a very extensive study of all the different ways of spelling forty English phonemes. (Depending upon which "expert" you listen to there are as many as 44 total phonemes in English. NuEnglish, the spelling system advocated by Literacy Research Associates, Inc. and NuEnglish, Inc., proves that people can easily learn to read anything if they learn only 38 English phonemes.) He reported his findings on pages 146-163 of The Fourteenth LACUS (Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States) Forum 1987 in an article titled "A Linguistic Perspective of Functional Illiteracy."
His study showed that if "practically all dictionary words" from six desk dictionaries (not unabridged) are included, there are 1, 768 ways of spelling forty English phonemes (this is an average of 44.2 spellings per phoneme: 1,768 divided by 40) — and 1,120 ways if only "words classified as common" are included. Not only must we use an average of 44.2 spellings for each phoneme, there are at least 367 single letters or specific combinations of 2, 3, 4, or even 5 letters (graphemes) which we can use to spell each phoneme.
Julius Nyikos was born and raised in Hungary at a time when it was rare for children to have preschool training in any facet of literacy. Yet without exception, he and his classmates became proficient readers of Hungarian in first grade. Building on the basis of literacy skill in Hungarian, at the age of ten he and all his classmates learned to decode Latin in one week and German in less than one week. They could accurately sound out any word in the language. As a result of having no hindrance from the writing system, the students went from simple decoding to proficient reading with relative speed and efficiency.
During his university years, Nyikos majored in German and Finno-Ugric Hungarian linguistics and developed a keen interest in the comparative study of spelling systems. He had studied the English language for four years in high school. He observed the lack of logic in English spelling — a radical departure from writing systems he knew. It took years to fully master English. He came to the United States in 1949, but it took two years of intensive immersion in English to re-enter his field of foreign language teaching. As both a linguist and a learner, he observed the needless complexity of English spelling, particularly as he added Finnish to his linguistic repertoire: he learned to decode Finnish in just a few classes.
His LACUS article is a very scholarly and persuasive defense of his belief that functional illiteracy in English is primarily due to the spelling. As a result of our spelling "non-system," as he calls it, no method of teaching can be completely successful. He quotes the National Academy of Education's Commission on Reading (Anderson, et al., 1985) as saying, "It is unrealistic to anticipate that some one critical feature of instruction will be discovered which, if in place, will assure rapid progress in reading." This is because they did not consider spelling reform — the one critical feature that will assure rapid progress in reading.
Spelling English words correctly is even more difficult than learning to read. This is especially true since a person can recognize (read) a word without being able to remember its spelling later. Writers must know every spelling variation and its application to each individual word in order to correctly spell every word they want to write.
How We Must Learn English Spelling
As Kenneth Ives states on pages 25, 80 and 81 of his 1979 book, Written Dialects N Spelling Reforms: History N Alternatives,
Most Americans are surprised to learn that pronunciations are usually omitted from foreign language dictionaries. They are not needed because the spelling adequately represents the pronunciation. They are even more surprised to learn that students of other languages do not have spelling classes throughout most of grade school, as our students do. "As explained by a Spanish student: 'In Spain the teacher tells us the sounds of the letters and then we can write or read anything we can say.' " (Edward Rondthaler and Edward J. Lias, Dictionary of simplified American Spelling, 1986, pp. 25, 80, 81)
Page four of M. M. Dougherty's 1967, Instant Spelling Dictionary states that comprehensive spelling rules are included. Then page 258 states, "Since English is a mixture of words from many languages, there is no set of rules that will cover the spelling of all English words."
Edward Rondthaler of the American Literacy Council points out, "A 1986 round table of British linguists called by eminent scholars to discuss the underlying pattern of English spelling concluded, not surprisingly, that only one rule in our spelling is not watered down with exceptions: No word in English ends with the letter V." (from a personal letter to the author dated August 12, 1988) Since Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary lists the words rev and spiv, there are therefore NO invariable English spelling rules. If you cannot learn to spell by rules, then you must learn by memorization and repetition. Many inconsistencies could be highlighted, such as the different sounds of the double Cs in occasional and accident (pronounced like K and like KS, respectively) or the double Gs in egg, exaggerate, and suggest (pronounced like G, J, or GJ, respectively). Perhaps the most impressive English spelling inconsistency is the following:
Three of the OUGH graphemes in this sentence have alternate pronunciations in the words they are used in, but OUGH in these words can correctly be pronounced twelve different ways! Furthermore, if the word trough is made plural, there are six correct pronunciations of that word alone! And by adding the letter b, c, d, f, h, j, l, m, p, r, d, t, or w before the ough, you can form thirteen words, two of which are now obsolete (mough and pough) and one (jough) is a Manx word, the form of Gaelic spoken on the Isle of Man. Fough, jough, mough, and pough are found only in the Oxford English Dictionary.
How many different ways could we pronounce the eight remaining if we remove trough, thoroughly, nought, and shough? (The first three have more than one pronunciation; the last is common only in Scotland.) According to the laws of statistics, when there are eight pronunciations, any one of which can be used in eight different words, there are eight to the eighth power (in other words, 8 x 8 x 8 x 8 x 8 x 8 x 8 x or 16,777,216 ways of pronouncing the eight words. This is assuming we haven't learned the one "correct" pronunciation of each of these eight words. As Ives states,
Comparative Difficulty of English vs. Other Alphabets
Noah Webster argued against the effort to freeze spelling in the introduction to his 1806 English dictionary. On page vi he states,
Some linguists may consider this an overstatement, but English is by far the most inconsistent and illogical of the alphabetic spelling systems and therefore the hardest to learn.
Noah Webster's advice on spelling was ignored, and destruction of the benefits of an alphabet has continued. After 159 years of the type of changes Webster warned of, linguistics scholar Samuel Noory stated:
English may be less complex than Chinese writing, but it is more confusing, at least for some students. The reason is that Chinese students learn strictly by memory, but English students occasionally see some logic in English spelling and therefore look for similar logic elsewhere. Failure to find logic in English spelling is confusing and frustrating. Ives tells of a significant study by Rozin in this regard:
Note, however, that this was a short-term test probably using less than the 2000 symbols (Chinese characters) which Dr. McGuinness, has proven is the usual practical limit of symbols that can be learned.
The Complex Logic Our Spelling System Requires
This section gives a brief explanation of why learning to read English is so difficult. A more complete explanation can be found in chapters 1-7 of Dr. Diane McGuinness' 1997 book, Why Our Children Can't Read. These chapters refer to numerous studies in the last fifteen to twenty years proving the difficulty of learning to read English. Chapter 7 explains the types of logic involved in understanding English spelling. All students must learn to read English by learning every individual word by rote memorization or by repetition, but learning is especially confusing for those children who are too young to understand the complex logic involved.
There are tens of thousands of different syllables in English. Unlike other languages, which have few syllable patterns, according to Dr. McGuinness, English has sixteen different syllable patterns (C = consonant phoneme, V = vowel phoneme): CV, CCV, CCCV, CVC, CCVC, CCCVC, CVCC, CVCCC, CCVCC, CCVCCC, CCCVCCC, CCCVCC, VCCC, VCC, VC, and V. This is complicated by the fact that each consonant phoneme can be spelled with graphemes of as many as four letters and the vowel phonemes can be spelled with graphemes of as many as five letters. A common example is the single-syllable word "strengths" which has the CCCVCCC pattern. The three consonants before the vowel are each single-letter graphemes. The first two consonant phonemes after the vowel are each spelled with two-letter graphemes (NG and TH) and a single-letter grapheme (S). Some people pronounce this word with only the second phoneme after the vowel spelled with a two-letter grapheme (N, TH, S).
There are two or more syllables in most English words. (McGuinness p. 78) Each syllable can have any of the sixteen patterns. If each vowel and each consonant in these syllables always represented the same sound (one-to-one mapping, an "equivalence" relationship), there would be nothing in the logic of these syllables that would be beyond the abilities of most four- or five-year-olds, but they do not.
English spelling also has one-to-one mapping where one phoneme is represented by one digraph (two letters) — since there are not enough letters to represent all the phonemes. Almost half of English sounds are represented by digraphs. (McGuinness, p. 158) But the real confusion comes since there is also one-to-many and many-to-one mapping, i.e., one phoneme is represented by many different graphemes (for spelling), and one grapheme represents many phonemes (for reading). This requires a type of logic that most children do not develop until they are eleven or twelve years old.
As a result, to learn English spelling, children in kindergarten and grades one through four must be taught to read in carefully controlled steps, building types of logic they do not understand upon a logic they do understand. Until they are eleven or twelve years old, it is usually a waste of time to try to get them to understand the logic — they just have to be helped to memorize (or learn by repetition) the spelling of new words. The types of logic required for one-to-many and many-to-one mapping are (1) the logic of "classes" (categories where objects or events that are similar are grouped together) and "relations" (where objects share some features but not all features, e.g., all poodles are dogs, but all dogs are not poodles) and (2) "propositional logic," which involves combining both the classes and relations types of logic. This requires the ability to think of the same item in more than one combination at the same time. These combinations require the use of relational terms such as "and," "or," "not," "if—then," and "if and only if" in formal statements of propositional logic. The problem of digraphs can be stated as:
Whether or not the student can understand the logic of a letter or a combination of letters being thought of in two different ways at the same time, no student of any age can learn English spelling by logic — English spelling is inconsistent and therefore illogical. They must learn each new word in their reading vocabulary one-at-a-time by rote memory or by repeated use.
What Does All This Mean to Us, Today?
Perhaps Sir James Pitman sums it up best:
You have, no doubt, heard the saying, "A picture is worth a thousand words." Please try to visualize the following "word picture." Imagine that you are a lawyer preparing a legal brief and you can't remember how to spell an important word that you need. You can't guess at the spelling well enough to find it in the dictionary and your computer spell checker can't help you. You have been struggling for ten or fifteen minutes to find the spelling and your deadline for preparing the brief is approaching. It is after normal office hours and everyone except your law partner has gone for the day. Your partner walks past your office and greets you, intending to keep walking. You say,
"There is a word here that I can't spell."
He casually says, "Look it up," as he walks past your door sipping a cup of coffee.
In total frustration you shout, "How can I look it up if I can't spell it?"
This outburst from someone who is normally so calm and quiet startles your partner. He jerks his hand and spills coffee all over the front of his shirt. You apologize profusely. He understands your frustration, forgives you, and hurries off to the executive lounge to change his shirt. What do you do now? You still do not know how to spell this important word for your legal document.
We may have clues, by comparing with words we know, but we will not know until we consult a dictionary — IF we can guess the spelling well enough to find it!
Pages 73, 76-77 of Frank C. Laubach's book Teaching the World to Read states
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