In spite of having written on this issue a number of times before (here, here and here), after reading Nathaniel Swain’s piece in The Conversation ‘Trying to change English’s complex spelling is a waste of time’, I feel moved to say more on the subject.
Essentially, Swain is quite right! The trouble is that, although he demonstrates how complex a spelling system we have in English, he doesn’t provide an answer to how we go about teaching it. And, as we see right from the start of his article, he falls into the misunderstanding that so many commentators fall foul of: he doesn’t understand the orientation of the sound-spelling system.
His eleven-year-old students sighs when asking ‘[h]ow can the same letters make* so many different sounds?’ The answer is that letters don’t make sounds; humans do! You may think that this is a trivial point. It isn’t! And it affects not only the way in which we teach but also the degree of success we are likely to have in teaching beginning readers to become literate.
As Peter Daniels and William Bright, two experts on the world’s writing systems insist: writing systems were invented to represent the sounds in language. People learn to speak naturally. In fact, we are primed for speech and quickly learn to articulate the speech sounds we use in our community, be that community monolingual or multilingual. Furthermore, we don’t have to send children to school to learn to speak. What isn’t natural is learning to read and write. This is because the writing system was invented to represent the sounds in our speech. It is this fact that should be the starting point for our teaching of reading and spelling.
When we say to young children that the squiggles on the page, or spellings as I prefer to refer to them, stand for the sounds in our everyday speech, we have immediately a reason or a logic for learning how the system works. The orientation also steers us away from confusing young learners. As Swain maintains (correctly), there are around forty-four sounds in Australian English, as there are in English English. If those forty-four sounds provide us with an anchor for our teaching, we will be less inclined to confuse children with inessential and/or wrong information.
Here’s how the English alphabet code works:
Letters are symbols (spellings) for the sounds in the language.
We spell those sounds with one, two, three or four letters (e.g. d o g, sh o p, s igh t and
w eigh t).
There are multiple ways of spelling the sounds in English (e.g. we can spell the vowel sound /ee/: s ee, t r ea t, b r ie f, sh e, k ey, h a pp y, s k i; and we can spell the consonant sound /n/: n o t, f u nn y, kn ow, gn a t, g o ne, pn eu m o n i a).
Many spellings also represent (stand for) more than one sound (e.g. the spelling ocan be /o/ in ‘hot’, /oe/ in ‘no’, /oo/ in ‘to’, and /u/ in ‘son’.
If we view these four elements as being fundamental to our conceptual understanding of the whole domain of sounds and spellings and recognise that they are generalisable across the whole domain, we don’t need to talk about such things as ‘silent letters’ (because all letters are silent!), or ‘hard c’ and ‘soft c’, or even long vowels and short vowels. There are sounds and there are spellings and we need to teach them from simple to complex, along with the skills needed to access them.
Of course, with this degree of complexity, unlike, say, Spanish or Italian, it’s going to take some time to learn such a system. At Sounds~Write, we reckon on three years, but then that is three years well spent and what you have at the end of it is 90% plus children able to read and spell more than well enough to be able to contend with any aspect of the curriculum thereafter.
What the English Spelling Society doesn’t seem to realise is that to ‘fix’ spelling, you have to decide on a single accent on which to pin it. The variation in English accents will inevitably mean that whatever the Society comes up with will not represent how many people talk. Our present system not only allows for this, it also allows for, in English, the vast number of:
heteronyms – words with the same spellings but with different meanings and different pronunciations (e.g. ‘row’ and ‘row’);
homophones/heterographs – words with the same sound but different spellings and different meanings (e.g. ‘pour’, ‘paw’, ‘pore’, and ‘poor’, though this doesn’t work for all accents of English);
homonyms – words with the same spelling and the same sound but with different meanings (‘bank’).
The current spelling system is also very well suited to the variety of Englishes across the world. For this, we have, amongst others, Dr Johnson to thank. As Diane McGuinness put it in her Why Children Can’t Read, ‘It was as if he [Dr Johnson] tied the English language to a stout oak tree to which all the dialects of English are connected by shorter or longer pieces of rope’.
Finally, I do want to say that where I agree with Swain completely is in his contention that, in the main, most pupils aren’t currently benefiting from evidence-based literacy tuition. For that to happen, we need not to change the spelling system but to ensure that teachers are properly trained to understand how to teach the one we have.
* My emphasis
Daniels, P.T, and Bright, W., (1996), The World’s Writing Systems, OUP
 McGuinness, D., (1997), Why Children can’t Read, Penguin.
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