Peter Daniels and William Bright · The World's Writing Systems

The English writing system

A question that arises which proponents of phonics have to keep coming back to challenge over and over again is whether the writing system is truly phonic. Many words, it is alleged, contain ‘unphonetic spellings’. A moment’s pause for reflection will persuade any right-thinking person that this is baloney. As I never tire of reminding anyone who confronts me with this nonsense, all words are comprised of sounds and all sounds have been assigned spellings. Ergo, there are no ‘unphonetic’ words; however, complex they might seem to the layperson.
Daniel and Bright’s strictures on the subject are illuminating. From the outset, their scholarly tome The World’s Writing Systems, makes explicit that experts on the subject of the writing systems of the world’s languages are in total agreement about one important fact: that writing systems represent the sounds in languages.
Furthermore, Daniels maintains that writing, or ‘the marks that record the languages of the documents produced by civilizations…must be studied’. Moreover, and despite claims to the contrary, while all human infants learn their own language(s) naturally, ‘no infant illiterate absorbs its script with its language: writing must be studied’. 
To claim, therefore, that some people learn to read and write as naturally as they learn to speak is simply a fiction. People who make such a claim are suffering from amnesia – and I’m not being flippant. It is a fact that, after the age of seven years or thereabouts, our memories of early childhood rapidly deteriorate to the extent that we can remember very little of what happened in the early years.

At some point, whether it is simply that someone reading to a young child slides their finger under the words – thus, of course, making explicit, in some way, that the squiggles on the page represent sounds and words – or, more likely, the other thousand and one interventions that take place in the life of a child growing up in a literate society, a child needs to learn the alphabetic principle. If the interventions are insufficient or incoherently presented, it is highly unlikely that a child will become literate; whereas, even in the teeth of a degree of inconsistency of presentation, given adequate resources, another child may well scramble through the complexity of cracking an opaque code.

Of course, it is much better for everyone concerned if the child is presented from the off with a coherently structured system showing how the sounds of the language are related to those squiggles on the page, which Daniels defines as ‘a system of more or less permanent marks used to represent an utterance in such a way that it can be recovered more or less exactly without the intervention of the utterer’. He also, from the outset, dispenses with the idea that pictograms, the representation of things through the medium of whole images, were the precursors of writing systems. They were not and, what is more, there is no evidence to support such an idea! This is because, among other things, writing systems have to include numerous things that cannot be embodied by pictures. These would include not only such things as abstract nouns and verbs but also the complexities of the language, such as verb inflections and morphophonemic elements of the language.  ‘It is,’ Daniels asserts, ‘thus necessary for a writing system to represent the sounds of a language.’
Most scholars also agree that numerous early lexical texts unearthed by archaeologists and studied by philologists were manuals for the teaching of writing. This would ensure the structured transmission of the system from generation to generation and that the method of instruction was passed on along with the practical knowledge of the script. It would seem that this would constitute an excellent idea to return to en masse within the teaching profession.
Daniels and Bright are in no doubt: ‘It is … generally agreed that strategies for teaching reading that do not incorporate the study of phonics (correspondence between spelling and sound) are at least inefficient, and probably ineffective as well.’

6 thoughts on “The English writing system

  1. The English Writing System describes how writing is not simply ancillary to other aspects of language but importantly to almost everything we do, from signing our wills to sending a text message.

  2. Few "phonics" skeptics today reject Daniels' definition of writing or even the "Alphabetic Principle." But the English Language is more than and different from a "principle" (that written symbols and spoken sounds are related.)

    Daniels quotes Chomsky & Halle, "English orthography turns out to be rather close to an optimal system for spelling English." The "system for spelling English" is the "Alphabetic Code," not the Alphabetic Principle.

    There is more to communication than the Alphabetic Code, but teaching children how to handle the Code so that they can "recover an utterance without the intervention of the utterer" is both the beginning and the end of formal reading instruction.

    If the "recovered utterance" has no meaning to the reader, that's a matter of spoken comprehension/understanding, not written/reading comprehension. And therein lies the confusion.

    Psychologists have contributed to the confusion, by defining reading as "extracting meaning from text. "Meaning, of course, is the crux of communication, but comprehension/understanding resides in what the reader brings to the text, not in the text.

    Instruction that confounds "comprehension" and the "writing system" is deleterious in at least three important ways.

    –It fails to recognize that children at a very young age have sufficient spoken language capability to be taught how to handle the English writing system.

    –It teaches faulty means for handling the writing system and then blames any reading failure on the child rather than on the instruction.

    –It fails to teach students concepts and principles apart from the writing system that are useful in their own right and that also expand the capability the student brings to the table in encountering a text.

    Unfortunately, the term "phonics" fogs rather than clarifies these matters, even when it is modified as "linguistic," "synthetic," or "systematic." Misguided skeptics can accept "phonics" as one element of reading instruction, but then contend that other methods/techniques are also pertinent–giving rise to the prevailing popularity of "Mixed Methods"/"Balanced Literacy", and the long-drawn-out "Reading Wars."

    Although children and citizenry would be well-served by down-playing "phonics" and up-playing the "English Writing System," there is a quicker and easier way to teach all children, with few exceptions how to read.

    The Phonics Screening Check, mandated for use in England in Year/Grades 1 and 2, is actually an Alphabetic Code Test, suitable for individuals of any age. Any individual at any age who can read all 40 items on the test does not need any further formal instruction in reading per se.

    The application of the Screening Check is analogous to the application of the visual screening check for auto drivers. The "meaning" in driving is getting from one place to another, but if you can pass the screening test you can see well enough to drive, and you can "go any place you want to go." Similarly, a child (or any other individual) who can pass the Alphabetic Code Test is able to read "any text they want to."

    How do we get all kids to pass the Check? Very simple. Teach them how to handle the English writing system. Which brings us back to the beginning of the blogpost. Thank, John!

  3. Hi Dick and thanks very much for your comment on The Literacy Blog.
    I do keep looking at the reference to Chomsky et al and meaning to seek out the paper and how they justify their view.
    I don't necessarily agree with you when you write that you think few phonics sceptics reject Daniels's definition. I'm constantly surprised by the number of academics who do. For an example, see this:;
    and this:
    On all other matters, though, I agree with you wholeheartedly.
    In the meantime, I hope you are well.
    !Un abrazo muy fuerte!

  4. Here is what Chomsky and Halle say:
    English orthography turns out to be rather close to an optimal system for spelling English. In other words, it turns out to be rather close to the true phonological representation given the nonlinguistic constraints that must be met by a spelling system, namely, that it utilize a uni-dimensional linear representation instead of linguistic appropriate feature representation and that it limit itself essentially to the letters of the Latin alphabet.

    The thing is, "phonology," the study of sound systems in language, and "orthography," the study of written language, are over-kills in reading and reading instruction. We use approximations of phonemes rather than phonemes per se. And we use correspondences with letter combinations to approximate the pronunciation of written words, with the pronunciation depending upon the dialect of English we speak.

    These Correspondences are what constitute the English Alphabetic Code. There really can't be any more dispute about the Alphabetic Code than there can be about the Periodic Table of Elements. The marvel of the Code is that it permits wide variation in dialects by allowing few variations in spelling. So, although speakers of dialects other than our own "sound odd" to us, we have no difficulty sharing both spoken and written communication.

    Rather than arguing about "Phonics" and "irregularity," we should all join in awe at the marvelous invention our fore-bearers have given us. But to think that will happen in the near future is wishful.

    What we can do, is look at the results of the Screening Check at the school and classroom level. The LEA and National results tell us that there is a lot of variation and that "too many" children are not being taught how to handle the Alphabetic Code. But we don't know what programmes and protocols successful teachers and schools are using. So we aren't really doing anything either to stop the tis-taint reading wars or to learn how to "eradicate dyslexia."

    The "data" have been and are being collected. With all the talk of the importance of "evidence" and all of the verbal skirmishing about "phonics," it's astonishing that the evidence has as yet gone unnoticed.

    It's not just a matter of the Screening Check. The consequences of unintended mal-instruction will be transparent in what children are unable to read, comprehend, spell, and in other social and psychological manifestations.

  5. Rudolf Flesch and Denise Eide say that English is 98% phonetic, more or less. They get to this number by conceding every debatable point.

    But I think this blog post makes the more profound point that EVERY English word stands for sounds and is therefore phonetic.

    I wrote a piece a few years back called "Is English a Phonetic Language? Of course! 100%." (On CanadaFreePress.) I thought this was a better tactical position. If you try to be nice to the Whole Word crew, they'll claim that English is only 20% phonetic.

    I try to explain to them that a genuinely non-phonetic word would be something like QG7R pronounced "shuffleboard." Now, THAT is a non-phonetic word.

    But English doesn't have any such words!

  6. Thank you, Bruce, for your comment. As you will have seen, I have promoted it to a full blog posting and linked the posting to your piece, 'Is English a Phonetic Language?? Of course! 100%', which I enjoyed very much.
    I hope people read or re-read what you have to say because you provide more much needed ammunition to our armoury in the fight against the whole language misleaders.

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