While I agree with Greg Brooks in his piece in the Guardian yesterday, where he argues that changing English spelling simply won’t work, the way in which his argument is couched seems to contradict the initial message.
There are, as he points out, forty-four or so sounds – it depends to some extent on accent – in the language; and, although I have never counted them, he states that there are five hundred sound-to-spelling correspondences if you count all the infrequent ones. I have to say that this figure seems unnaturally high and doesn’t take into account the redundancy factor.
He then goes on to tell us that there are ten ways to spell the sound 'e'. He's right! Though in the context of his discussion, which is to do with the problems in teaching the sound-to-spelling system to children in school, there is just one spelling of 'e' (the letter e) you'd teach to reception-aged children before, shortly afterwards, adding two more, the ea and the ai spellings of 'e' in words like 'bread' and 'said'. After that, you’d bring in the rest of the spellings of 'e' in the context of the subject curriculum or as they come up in the round.
When it comes to the issue of spellings representing more than one sound, Greg Brooks is not clear about how the writing system works. He says that we pronounce the letter a in various ways, as if letters somehow mysteriously have sounds of their own. Even in the phonics community, this a point not always well understood. However, if children think that letters 'make' sounds, instead of representing sounds that we make in our speech, they may never get to understand the fundamental logic of the writing system: that letters are symbols for sounds. So, Brooks has got the thing back to front here. It should be that the letter a, like many spellings, represents more than one sound. In the word 'mat' it is 'a'; and, in the word 'baby', it is 'ae'.
Brooks is also less than explicit on a couple of other things: for example, the spelling a in 'about' and in 'village' are both schwas, or weak vowel sounds.
Apparently, according to Brooks, spellings in the words ‘should’ and ‘enough’ are ‘absurdities’. Why? The spelling oul for the way most people in the south of England pronounce the oo in ‘book’ only occurs in a small number of words and isn’t difficult to teach or learn. In ‘enough’, what is the problem with the sound ‘u’ being represented by the spelling ou or the sound ‘f’ by gh? After all, we have the words ‘cousin, ‘young’, ‘couple’ and ‘trouble’ and then there’s ‘tough’ and ‘rough’, which contain the gh spelling of ‘f’.
Moreover, to say that there’s not a ‘high level of illiteracy in the UK’, as Brooks claims, is simply disingenuous. It’s probably true that there are relatively few people who cannot read or write at all. However, there are huge numbers of illiterates, as defined by the OECD and various other bodies, including the Moser Report. And, where is the evidence for his claim that there are ‘also’ (Methinks he does contradict himself here!) low levels of literacy in countries with transparent orthographies?
Brooks ends his piece by suggesting we make the task of learning to read and write English ‘less difficult’, though he doesn’t say how. So far, his drift has been that we shouldn’t change the spelling system but then he flips about to a ‘Oh go on then - but only a bit!’ position.
What can we do to make sure that children become properly literate? Train the teachers to understand how the writing system works, and then get them to teach children in school from simple to complex, by which I mean:
- teach them one-to-one correspondences and give them lots of practice in blending, segmenting and manipulating sounds in words;
- teach them that a sound can be spelt with two-letter spellings; after that teach a limited number of ways of spelling a sound;
- then teach that many spellings represent different sounds;
- and finally teach them how to put all the above together in polysyllabic words and how to recognise schwas or weak vowel sounds in polysyllabic words. Simples!