The Atlantic has a new article, by Luba Vangelova, out that digs into the difficulty of the English language is a really accessible way.
Adults who have already mastered written English tend to forget about its many quirks. But consider this: English has 205 ways to spell 44 sounds. And not only can the same sounds be represented in different ways, but the same letter or letter combinations can also correspond to different sounds. For example, “cat,” “kangaroo,” “chrome,” and “queue” all start with the same sound, and “eight” and “ate” sound identical. Meanwhile, “it” doesn’t sound like the first syllable of “item,” for instance, and “cough” doesn’t rhyme with either “enough,” “through,” “furlough” or “bough.” Even some identically spelled words, such as “tear,” can be pronounced differently and mean different things.
Think about that for a minute. 205 ways to spell 44 sounds. No wonder it’s hard to learn to read. I remember this as I listen to my kiddos try to “sound out” the words like their teacher tells them to. Listening to them reminds me of how much I HATED SPELLING BECAUSE I DIDN’T GET IT. This from a kid (me) who was tearing through her mom’s mystery novels by age 8 and read my way through the sci fi collection in the local library by starting with Asimov.
By contrast, languages such as Finnish and Korean have very regular spelling systems; rules govern the way words are written, with few exceptions. Finnish also has the added bonus of a nearly one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters, meaning fewer rules to learn. So after Finnish children learn their alphabet, learning to read is pretty straightforward—they can read well within three months of starting formal learning, Bell says. And it’s not just Finnish- and Korean-speaking children who are at a significant advantage: A 2003 study found that English-speaking children typically needed about three years to master the basics of reading and writing, whereas their counterparts in most European countries needed a year or less.
Again, think about that. Finnish children learn to read in 3 months. It takes English-speaking children 3 years. These are the sorts of things that we need to constantly remember when so many kids are struggling. Maybe it isn’t the kid. Maybe what we’re doing isn’t developmentally appropriate. Maybe those nations to whom we constantly compare ourselves don’t even have “reading levels” because kids can figure out words on their own the first time. Maybe the English language is ridiculous.
Worth reading the whole thing! And using with parents/principals who want to know why you aren’t sending home spelling words.