Masha Bell: A long-standing but curable problem with our education system

Wednesday 07 April 2010 00:00
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Unprecedented increases in educational spending under Labour have produced disappointing results. There is a reason for this, and why neither of the other parties is likely to do any better – unless they implement a measure that the House of Commons voted for in 1953: spelling reform.

Nobody can learn much of anything without learning to read and write first. English spelling is so irregular that it makes the acquisition of those skills exceptionally difficult. The most effective way to raise educational standards is therefore to reduce English spelling irregularities in order to make the learning and teaching of literacy easier and faster.

Everyone admires the consistently superior educational performance of the Finns. If we used just one spelling for each of our speech sounds and never allowed a spelling to have more than one sound, as they do, we could do just as well. We don't, because we tolerate the use of 185 often entirely unpredictable spellings for our 44 sounds, such as "leave, sleeve, believe", and allow 69 of them to spell more than one sound too, such as the "a" in "and any apron". One in two English words contain some unpredictable letters, and half of those have letters with irregular sounds.

Because of this, rudimentary literacy acquisition in English takes the average child roughly three years, while in Finnish it can be accomplished in just six months. The simplicity and regularity of Finnish spelling also creates much less need for literacy remediation and reduces literacy failure.

When something is easy to learn, more people manage it. Few could learn to use computers when it required mastery of the DOS operating system. The simpler windows system instantly put computing within the grasp of additional millions. Improvements to English spelling would make a similar difference to learning to read and write English and enable more pupils to derive benefit from their schooling. Currently, one in six 11-year-olds cannot read well enough for the needs of secondary education. Our money spent on it and their time in it are therefore largely wasted. English spelling inconsistencies debar too many children from fulfilling their educational potential and leave many more unable to use the language well.

Masha Bell is author of 'Understanding English Spelling' and 'Rules and Exceptions of English Spelling'

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