A Smarter Beginning 

The Problem With English

February 19, 2014 / by Susan Sirigatti

Learning to Spell "Phamous"

Learning to Spell “Phamous”

What!? There’s a problem with English? How could this wonderful language with so many words, probably more words than in any other language, be a problem? It’s the spelling. (See my last blog article, “Why is Learning to Read English So ‘Tuff’”?) Unfortunately, this leads to difficulties in learning to read. In fact, it takes most children an average of two and a half years to learn to read English as compared to one year to learn to read Spanish or Italian. Remarkable when we consider that the English language is used by an estimated 1.8 billion people, about 1/3 of the world’s population. Nevertheless, it “has the WORST letter-to-sound and sound-to-letter ratios of all Western languages.”(www.reforming-english.blogspot.co.il).

Consider this. Most teachers and parents in non-English speaking countries don’t have such strong concerns about their children learning to read and write as in English speaking countries. Consider, too, that literacy is harder to acquire in English than in most other languages because the problem with English spelling makes learning to read and write it so much more difficult. If less time and effort had to be spent on learning to read, one wonders about all the other things that that time and effort could be spent on.

Here’s a poem that makes the point in an amusing way:

Phoney Phonetics

One reason why I cannot spell,
Although I learned the rules quite well
Is that some words like coup and through
Sound just like threw and flue and Who;
When oo is never spelled the same,
The duice becomes a guessing game;
And then I ponder over though,
Is it spelled so, or throw, or beau,
And bough is never bow, it’s bow,
I mean the bow that sounds like plow,
And not the bow that sounds like row -
The row that is pronounced like roe.
I wonder, too, why rough and tough,
That sound the same as gruff and muff,
Are spelled like bough and though, for they
Are both pronounced a different way.
And why can’t I spell trough and cough
The same as I do scoff and golf?

Why isn’t drought spelled just like route,
or doubt or pout or sauerkraut?
When words all sound so much the same
To change the spelling seems a shame.
There is no sense – see sound like cents -
in making such a difference
Between the sight and sound of words;
Each spelling rule that undergirds
The way a word should look will fail
And often prove to no avail
Because exceptions will negate
The truth of what the rule may state;
So though I try, I still despair
And moan and mutter “It’s not fair
That I’m held up to ridicule
And made to look like such a fool
When it’s the spelling that’s at fault.
Let’s call this nonsense to a halt.”

So here is my question. In order to make learning to read English easier and to raise the literacy rates, should the spelling of English be reformed? I’d love to hear what you think.


Photo credit: marusin/Foter/CC BY-NC

Poem attributed to Vivian Buchan, NEA Journal 1966/67, USA, published in Spelling Progress Bulletin Spring 1966 pdf, p6. Reprinted from Education Horizons.

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