A Smarter Beginning 

Why is Learning to Read English So “Tuff”?

February 8, 2014 / by Susan Sirigatti

caught-reading_lWe all know children who found learning to read English difficult. They may be our own children. They may be other children in our family. They may be a friend’s children or classmates of our children. The strange thing is that when I speak to people from other countries about the difficulty many English speaking children have in learning to read, they’re shocked. They tell me children in their countries generally don’t have this problem. Furthermore, fewer children have dyslexia in non-English speaking countries. Why? It can’t be that English speaking kids learn more slowly nor can it be that their genetics make them more prone to dyslexia. So what is it?

 English Speaking Children Lag Behind

 Why do English speaking children lag behind children in non-English speaking European countries in learning to read? The most obvious reason is that English is harder for children to learn to read than other European languages. But why is it harder? And why are more English speakers diagnosed with dyslexia?

 The answer is one we don’t hear about often in relation to learning to read. It has to do with the difficulty of English spelling and with the many initial and final consonant clusters. Consonant clusters are groups of consonants without a vowel such as the “spl” in the word “splash” and “sts” in “bursts.” A study was reported in the British Journal of Psychology (www.lyddansk.dk/sites/default/files/Foundation_literacy_acquisition_in_European_orthographies.pdf)  comparing the length of time it took for children in fifteen European countries to acquire “foundation literacy.” The study tested the recognition of familiar words, the matching of sounds to letters, decoding and other things. The findings were that “…readers of English require 2 ½ or more years of literacy learning to achieve a mastery of familiar word recognition and simple decoding….” This is in contrast to the one year of learning required for most of the other European languages. This means that what takes speakers of, for example, Italian and Greek one year to learn takes English speakers 2 ½ years. That’s quite a difference.

 How Does English Spelling Cause This Disparity?

 Remember all the spelling quizzes those of you in English speaking countries took for many years in school? That doesn’t happen much in most non-English speaking schools because their languages are easier to spell. There is a mostly consistent relationship between the letters on the page and the sounds they represent. For example, children in Italy learning to read the words for the numbers one through four, uno, due, tre, quattro, read the words pronouncing the sound for each letter and these sounds do not vary from word to word. Each individual letter is always pronounced and it’s always pronounced the same way with only a few exceptions. This consistency of relationship of the letters with the sounds they represent requires a single mental process (see link above).

 Now let’s look at how the first four numbers in English, one, two, three, four, are read. In “one,” the first sound of the word is “w” although there is no “w” to be found. Just to make it a little more difficult for a beginning reader, the pronunciation of the similarly spelled word “on” has only the sound of the “n” in common. Looking at the word “two,” we find that there is a“w” but it’s not sounded. This is in complete contrast with the word “one” where “w” is sounded but not written. To make it more complicated, “two” is pronounced exactly like two other words which are spelled differently: “to” and “too.” Moving on, we come to the word “three” which isn’t too difficult once the child knows how to read the “th” letter combination which is different from the “t” alone. But let’s look at the word “four.” To start, the “u” is not pronounced and the word sounds just like another word, “for.” At least as confusing, however, is that “four” looks like the word “our” but is pronounced totally differently. In fact, it’s pronounced like “hour” where you see but don’t sound the “h.” This is a lot to digest, especially for a child learning to read, and we’ve looked at only four simple words!

 Letters and Their Sounds Less Consistent in English

 In short, English shows much less consistency in the relationship between letters and their sounds than Italian and most other European languages. This requires what the foundation literacy study calls dual process learning rather than single process learning. (Danish and French also take longer to learn to read although not as long as English.) Dual process learning is more complicated because it requires the use of more cognitive skills than learning using single processing. In addition, English contains more initial and final consonant clusters. This explains why, as the data suggest, it takes twice as long to learn how to read.   Perhaps it’s also why more English speakers are diagnosed with dyslexia than speakers of other languages where dyslexia doesn’t show up so noticeably and where it affects reading less (www.4therapy.com/conditions/learning-disorders/dyslexia-poses-bigger-challenge-english-speakers-2347).

 Implications for Teaching Children to Learn English

 “Learning to read and write [English] fluently is particularly tricky….” (www.bostinno.streetwise.co/channels/which-languages-are-hardest-to).So what does this mean to us?  Should we start teaching children to learn to read at an earlier age to make up for the longer time it takes? Many parents may already be doing this. Should schools take into greater consideration the child’s stage of cognitive development before beginning to teach that child to read? Should we delay the teaching of reading, as some already do, until children are more ready to handle the difficult task?

 What do you think? I’d love to know.

 P.S.  Here’s an amusing poem by Lord Cromer that can be found at www.spellingsociety.org.


When the English tongue we speak.
Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Will you tell me why it’s true
We say sew but likewise few?
And the maker of the verse,
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse?
Beard is not the same as heard
Cord is different from word.
Cow is cow but low is low
Shoe is never rhymed with foe.
Think of hose, dose, and lose

And think of goose and yet with choose
Think of comb, tomb and bomb,
Doll and roll or home and some.
Since pay is rhymed with say
Why not paid with said I pray?
Think of blood, food and good.
Mould is not pronounced like could.
Wherefore done, but gone and lone -
Is there any reason known?
To sum up all, it seems to me
Sound and letters don’t agree.

Photo credit: John-Morgan/Foter/CC BX 

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