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English Spelling Inhibits Education

Notes on the Difficulties of English Spelling/Reading - from my collected emails

 by Tom Zurinskas 

"It is estimated that two and one-half years are lost in the student's studies because of our chaotic [English] spelling." [Frank C. Laubach, "Teaching the World to Read" (New York: Friendship Press, 1947), pp.103, 108.]

"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." [Rudolph Flesch, "Why Johnny Can't Read" (New York: Perennial Library, 1983), pp. 76-77.] 

-Pike and his cohorts reported that they could teach both Spanish and an Indian language that used a similar writing system in 2 months.  This was reported by UNESCO in 1939. Laubach literacy teachers in over 200 highly phonemic written languages report that three months is all the time required for an illiterate to learn to read a newspaper. 

I don't think we should be lowballing the amount of time that it takes most illiterates to achieve literacy. The minimum length of time is 90 days at 2 hours per day or 180 hours. Pike and his associates quoted a lower figure (less than 3 months) in literacy classes in Central America in 1939. This was written up by UNESCO. However, we want a figure that will work with teachers without 4 years of linguistic training. The point has to be made that this is the figure (3 mo.) has been used by Laubach Literacy for languages that had highly phonemic writing systems similar to Italian. 95% of the languages have a phonemicy rating above 80%. So there is no reason to presume that one could not learn a phonemic code for English in the same amount of time and be able to read newspapers transcribed into this code.

 -Kalmer, Tomás Mario. [2001] Illegal Alphabets and Adult Biliteracy: Latino Migrants Crossing the Linguistic Border, Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc,, N. J. Reviewed in JSSS31 2002/2  Laubach taught literacy classes in 300 languages and concluded that 95% of them, those with highly phonemic writing systems, could be taught to read and write their language in 3 months or less. The only writing systems he had problems with was French and English. English had the worst spelling system in the World. What this meant was that a task that normally took less than 3 months took five times that long.  

- According to Dewey [1971] the writing system used for English spells 41 sounds over 561 different ways. The average phoneme is spelled over 14 different ways. The writing system, however, is not a chaotic as these statistics suggest because (the top) five different spellings account for 85% of the dictionary spellings for a given phoneme or significant speech sound.  

-The traditional writing system spells the 41 sounds of spoken English 561 different ways in a 72, 000 word dictionary. Many of these words are rarely used. The 1000 most frequently used words are spelled about 300 different ways. By some counts, this can be reduced to 200 ways. Over 85% of the spellings in English are spelled one of five different ways. Readers do not have to know more than 200 different spellings of sounds to make sense of most of what they read. Theoretically, the traditional English writing system should take 5 times as long to learn as the ideal writing system. There are no ideal writing systems, but 95% of them, according to Laubach, are highly phonemic. If the ideal is 100% phonemic, then Finnish and Korean [Hangul] are in the high 90's. Italian and Spanish in the high 80's. Making adjustments for irregularities in other writing systems, English is hypothetically 4 times as difficult as most other writing systems. This is about what is observed in many cross cultural comparisons where 2nd year students in Italy, for instance, perform at the level of 6th year students in England and America.  

-About one third of Finnish children come to school already knowing how to read. 

- By Joanne Laucius 2010, George Georgiou, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta who has studied reading acquisition in different languages. Kindergarten and primary students who learn to read Greek, Finnish or Italian will do so twice as quickly as those learning to read English or French. The school system has nothing to do with the difference, said Georgiou. It's because the relationships between letters and their sounds in English and French are so inconsistent. "The English language has 44 sounds. In order to represent these in print, you need 1,100 letters or letter combinations. Finnish has 24 letters and 24 sounds," he said. "Compared to kids who are learning Finnish or Greek or Italian -- these kids are mastering reading three months after the introduction of these letters -- it might take three years to master English reading." 

- Need to point out that Paulesu’s big study of dyslexia shows that English speakers have twice the number of dyslexics as Italian. The reason he says is that English is far less phonetically spelled. 

Note that truespel phonetics provides a” phonetic spelling notation” based on US English that solves this problem for learners.. See http://justpaste.it/truespelnow