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Why is it that one in five children fails to learn to be functionally literate in English? This has long been so, in both the UK and US, for this proportion of children as they go to secondary school, and as adults.
By contrast, children do not have this difficulty in learning to read in other European languages. In Spanish and Italian, for instance, there is no word for dyslexia.
It is an important issue as English increasingly becomes the global language with every more children learning it. So what causes this problem, and can it be solved?
If we look way back, we see that English lost its genders for objects that it had before the Norman Conquest. At that time, in Old English, the moon was masculine, for instance. It also lost the inflections for nominative, accusative, etc, at the end of words. These went in the period after 1066, but when English came to be written again, three hundred years later, they had gone.
There seem to be two ways in which English can be difficult for learners, as shown in a study by Philip Seymour of Dundee University. The first is the ‘syllabic structure’ where English is complex because it has so many consonant blends (such as str- in strong, and –mp in lamp), unlike languages such as Italian and Japanese, which mostly have just CV (consonant-vowel) syllables. This syllabic complexity can be taught, of course, and teachers do not talk of it being a major problem.
The other difficulty for learners is referred to as ‘orthographic depth’. This refers to the irregularity of the spelling, with complex rules and no rules. Three languages stand out for irregular spelling: Danish, French and English, with English being the worst of all. It is largely a result of the mongrel heritage of the English language, with the language of the early Anglo-Saxons added to from Scandinavian, French, Greek and Latin, and others, along with their different spelling rules.
It does seem as if it is the irregular spelling of English that is the main cause of failure in learning to read. Not only is learning to read much easier in languages with simpler spellings but also learning to read is also easier when English is taught with reformed and simpler spelling. This was true with the initial teaching of the alphabet, a method taught in up to 10% of UK primary schools in the 60’s and 70’s.
It is not just the difficulty in learning to read that is the problem; it also takes longer. The simplest European language, for both of the factors mentioned earlier, was found to be Finnish. Children there make remarkably swift progress, which is often put down to their education system, but which may also be due to the simpler spelling of Finnish.
At the same time, there does seem to have been progress in mitigating for the irregularity of English spelling. This can be seen in the changes from 30 years ago. Looking at academic papers from that time, and a high proportion of English words were classified as irregular, based on the limited view of one letter describing one sound, and so accepting only short vowel spellings as regular. At that time children were taught the sounds of the language from chanting the alphabet. Mostly, letters were taught by their names, although some textbooks, and some teaching also taught the short vowels.
Nowadays the teaching of digraphs is seen as essential, as is the teaching of the sound of each letter, rather than just its name. This is key to synthetic phonics teaching. Such teaching does seem to be having a profound effect on illiteracy levels, although no definitive research has been seen as yet. However it is known that such teaching lifts all children, whatever their social background, and whether English is their first language, with boys doing as well as girls. It is common now for teachers to find they have no children at the end of their first year at school who have a reading age below their actual age.
The increasing teaching of grammar and spelling in the primary years is very likely to enable further improvements, through the teaching of more spelling rules and patterns. Such teaching is now part of the national curriculum in the UK, and the Common Core State Standards in the US. It will never overcome the illogical legacy of English spelling, but it does mean that we can expect far fewer children to fail.