Study recommends dropping ‘surplus’ letters to simplify spelling

READ it and weep — or should that be reed it and wepe.

The tricky English spelling system is one of the worst in the world and is making it harder for children to learn to read.

Research unveiled at the weekend shows that children face 800 words before they are 11 that hinder their reading because of how they are spelt.

Monkey, asparagus, spinach, caterpillar, dwarf, banana, handkerchief, pliers, soldiers, stomach, petal and telescope are among a long list of words that cause confusion because of letter combinations that are usually pronounced in a different way.

Examples of words with the same pronunciation but different letter combinations include to and two; clean and gene; same and aim; day and grey; kite and light and stole and coal.

If that wasn’t tricky enough, words that look alike but sound different with combinations of ‘ea’, ‘ee’ and the letter ‘o’ also cause trouble — eight and height; break and dreamt and move and post.

And the letters ‘ough’ can be pronounced in a number of different ways — cough and plough.

This “phonic unreliability” in at least 200 offending words could be fixed by simply dropping surplus letters such as the ‘i’ in friend or the ‘u’ in shoulder, according to the study The Most Costly English Spellings.

It was presented by literacy researcher and former English teacher Masha Bell at Saturday’s conference of the Spelling Society in England.

“English has an absolutely, unspeakably awful spelling system,” she said. “It is the worst of all the alphabetical languages.

“It is unique in that there are not just spelling problems but reading problems. They do not exist anywhere else.”

In Finland, where words are more likely to be pronounced as they look, children learn to read fluently within three months, she said.

But research in England has shown that it takes three years for a child to acquire a basic level of competence.

Children with dyslexia and those from disadvantaged families, who are less likely to be read to regularly by their parents, find it particularly difficult.

Ms Bell said a simplification of the spelling system would transform literacy results but added that people are resistant to change.

However, the parliament in Portugal, where the spelling system is also thought to be complicated, voted to reform and simplify it.


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