Take a closer look at the words students find difficult to access, and you’ll see that a majority of them contain one or more letters with variable pronunciations, such as the “o
” of o
ften; in o
ther; or the “ough
” in though
. Sure, in the very early stage of learning to read, some children have other problems, such as reversing the letters “b” and “d,” or difficulty blending the sounds of letters into words. But the most common stumbling block tends to be the phonic irregularity of many English graphemes.
If all English graphemes had just one pronunciation, like the “ee” of kee
p, Anglophone children would learn to read much faster than they currently do. Instead of needing an average of three years to become proficient readers, they would require merely one, as users of other alphabetically written languages do (Seymour et al, 2003, British Journal of Psychology).
In the 1960s and ’70s, the schools which experimented with the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA)—a more regular spelling system for English—found that nearly all pupils were fluent by the end of their first school year. Nearly all learned to write quite confidently in one year, too.
Unfortunately, children had to leave the utopia of ITA at the end of their first school year and switch to normal spelling. For the ablest readers, this caused only a minor setback. They were quickly steaming ahead again. Changing from regular to irregular spellings was very detrimental to the progress of the weakest learners, the ones whose poor literacy progress tends to cause most concern. Perhaps prolonged use of regular phonics, before exposure to common irregularities, has the same effect on some children now?
Just over half of all English words contain some unpredictably used letters (cu
uple). Half of those pose reading difficulties as well, particularly the most used ones (o
r—cf. bone, go, our).
Helping children cope with phonic inconsistencies is the hardest part of English reading instruction. For the majority of children, parents are the main providers of this help, by patiently listening to them read on a regular basis and gently helping them to access the words they keep getting stuck on, such as shou
After umpteen encounters with such words, children eventually learn to read them as wholes, on sight, just as they do when learning to put names to faces. But for pupils who don’t get much help with learning to read at home, who have to make do with just what they get at school, those words are much more troublesome.
Their difficulties made me look for a way of making them a little less dependent on one-to-one help at school. Working as a voluntary assistant with struggling six-year-old readers, I did not merely help them to access the words they found tricky. I noted down all the ones which tripped them up in their remedial lessons with me.
The words differed slightly between individuals. One girl, for example, kept getting exceptionally stuck on the word “father.” Mostly, the same few dozen words with irregular spellings (e.g. grou
ld) were causing problems for all of the weaker readers, and for very obvious reasons.
This led me to test how the children would cope with them when they were respelt more simply (groop, soop, tuch, brake, bred; frend, feeld). Finding that they could read them easily, I began to use such respellings for helping them to learn to read the tricky words at home.
I would fold a sheet of paper in half and write down the words which stumped them in one of our lessons as a column. I then opened up the sheet and respelled them more simply opposite. For example:
|thought ||thaut |
|believed ||beleevd |
|through ||throo |
|washed ||wosht |
|said ||sed |
|people ||peepl |
|could ||cuhd |
I respelled them using the main English spelling patterns for those sounds, but this was impossible for words like could; because the short /oo/ sound has no unique spelling of its own (put, foot, woman, would—cut, root, wobble, wound). I therefore spelt it , and the pupils had no difficulty learning that stood for short /oo/.
I gave them the sheet, with never more than seven words, to take home for revising in their own time. They were instructed to try and read them with their correct spellings and to use the respellings only for checking that they were getting them right, or to help them out if they could not do so.
Their reading quickly improved noticeably. One girl kept asking why we could not spell like that all the time, since it made reading so much easier, and I used to reply that that was a very long story. But if it was up to me, we would be amending at least some of the spellings which cause predictable reading difficulties for nearly all children.
Chinese children learn to read with the Roman alphabet first. They then learn to memorize the difficult Chinese pictograms with the aid of alphabetic subheadings, until they can dispense with them. Using simpler respellings for tricky English words is a similar method—and one we can use to help struggling readers cope with them as best we can.
Masha Bell is a retired English teacher and independent literacy researcher. She’s the author of the e-book SPELLING IT OUT: THE PROBLEMS AND COSTS OF ENGLISH SPELLING (2012). You can visit her on the web at www.EnglishSpellingProblems.co.uk.
[The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the International Reading Association or its Board of Directors.]
© 2012 Masha Bell. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.