If you are a parent or teacher of a child who is learning to read, you may have some idea of how long it takes to learn to read English. Due to the way students must presently learn to read, all but the most brilliant students need at least two years to learn enough words so that they can continue to increase their reading vocabulary after reading instruction in school ends. Other than remedial reading instruction, often lasting until the first year of college, most reading instruction in American schools ends after third or fourth grade.
Do you have any idea of how long it takes to learn to read most other languages? Dr. Frank Laubach spent almost his entire adult life — more than 40 years — teaching thousands of students around the world how to read in languages other than English. He taught in more than 300 languages. He prepared reading primers for 313 languages and even invented spelling systems for 220 unwritten languages. He very carefully documented his teaching experiences in his books, Teaching the World to Read and Forty Years With the Silent Billion. Dr. Laubach stated in his books that he could teach students to read fluently in less than three months in 98% of the languages in which he taught. Even more amazing, he stated that he could teach his students to read fluently in from one to twenty DAYS in 95% of the languages in which he taught!
Was Dr. Laubach’s ability to teach students to read so quickly because he carefully chose only very simple languages in which to teach? What was Dr. Laubach’s explanation for his remarkable success? He stated that he could teach his students to read quickly because — without carefully choosing simple languages — 98% of the languages in which he taught spelled nearly all of their words the way they sound! He stated on page 48 of his book, Forty Years With the Silent Billion, “If we spelled English phonetically, American children could be taught to read in a week.”
All those who resist change (as almost everyone does who is not thoroughly convinced of the benefits of making a change) will resist spelling reform in English by claiming that it takes more than two years to learn to read English because English is a difficult language. What do the expert linguists say about English? Several respected scholars have stated emphatically that the difficulty in learning to read English is not due to the language itself. For example, Axel Wijk and Sir James Pitman state that English grammar and syntax is easier than most other languages. (See pages 56-57 of Alphabets for English, ed. W. Haas, or page 64 of Alphabets and Reading by Sir James Pitman.) In most European languages, for example, students can learn to read in less than three months. The truth is that 80% or more of English words are NOT spelled the way they sound. As a result, the ONLY way to learn to read English is to add each new word to your reading vocabulary one-at-a-time by rote memory or repeated use.
Two reading education researchers, Bob Cleckler, a retired Chemical Engineer, and Gary Sprunk, who has a Masters Degree in English Linguistics, have developed a perfectly phonemic spelling system called NuEnglish. A phonemic spelling system is one in which the words are spelled the way they sound. In NuEnglish, unlike any other known spelling system, there is a one-to-one correspondence between phonemes and graphemes. A phoneme is the smallest sound in a language or dialect used to distinguish between syllables or words. A grapheme, in alphabetic languages, is a letter or a specific combination of letters used to represent a phoneme. Based upon the proof provided by Dr. Laubach’s lifetime experience in teaching reading, our website, http://LearnToReadNow.org, is the only PROVEN way to permanently end English illiteracy.
For all those who proudly proclaim, “I learned to read. I am no genius. If I can learn to read, so can everyone else.” and for all those who say “Our mother tongue is a beautiful language. Leave it alone!” please allow me to challenge you to read the remainder of this blog which presents the perversity of English spelling in a way that you have undoubtedly never seen it so factually displayed.
- FOR READING: there are at least 26 single letters, 184 two-letter graphemes, 131 three-letter graphemes, 22 four-letter graphemes, and 4 five-letter graphemes, for a total of at least 367 graphemes when only 38 graphemes are needed. Only five single letters (B, K, P, R, and V) and 212 of the multiple letter graphemes represent only one phoneme. The other 150 graphemes (367 minus 217) each represent from two to eight phonemes. When all of the different phonemes that these 367 graphemes represent are totaled, these 367 graphemes represent an average of just under two phonemes each.
- FOR SPELLING: There are at least 1680 spellings of the 38 phonemes, for an average of at least 44 spellings each (1680 divided by 38). It is at least this amount because Professor Julius Nyikos of Washington and Jefferson College, who discovered this shocking statistic, made a study of six standard desk dictionaries. If he had used an unabridged dictionary, he would have found even more. See pages 146 to 163 of The Fourteenth LACUS Forum 1987, published by The Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States in Lake Bluff, Illinois.
- All 26 letters of the alphabet are silent in some words with no reliable way of knowing whether a letter is silent or not in a word.
- All but H, Q, U, W, X, and Y are doubled in some words and not in others, with no reliable way of knowing whether a letter is doubled or not.
- Some phonemes are not spelled in some words. For example, you cannot be sure you are pronouncing the word “spasm” correctly without know which vowel should be between the S and the M.
- The phonemes are not spelled in the correct order in some words. For example, if the E in the word “little” is properly to represent the phoneme U, as in the word “nut,” it should be between the T and the L.
- No one can realistically be expected to learn to read by using English spelling rules. Every spelling rule has exceptions, and some of the exceptions even have exceptions! A computer programmed with 203 English spelling rules was able correctly to spell only 49% of a list of 17,000 common English words. Few, if any, humans can do better.
- Page 78 of Dr. Diane McGuinness’ book, Why Our Children Can’t Read, lists the sixteen syllable patterns of vowel and consonant phonemes that each syllable can have: (C = consonant phoneme, V = vowel phoneme): CV, CCV, CCCV, CVC, CCVC, CCCVC, CVCC, CVCCC, CCVCC, CCVCCC, CCCVCCC, CCCVCC, VCCC, VCC, VC, and V. Each syllable can have any one of these syllable patterns, regardless of the pattern of any other syllables in the word. This is greatly complicated by the fact that each consonant phoneme can be represented by graphemes of as many as four letters and each vowel phoneme can be represented by graphemes of as many as five letters. A common example is the single-syllable word “strengths” with the CCCVCCC pattern in which the three phonemes before the vowel are each represented by a single-letter grapheme and the first two phonemes after the vowel are each represented by two-letter phonemes (NG and TH) and a single-letter phoneme (S). Some people pronounce this word with only the second phoneme after the vowel spelled with a two-letter grapheme (N, TH, S).
- On pages 156 to 159 of her book Why Our Children Can’t Read, Dr. McGuinness explains why the lack of logic in English spelling is a serious problem for students. English spelling has many-to-one (many phonemes can be represented by the same grapheme) and one-to-many (one phoneme is spelled with many different graphemes) mapping of the phoneme-grapheme correspondence. Before the age of twelve years old, most students cannot understand the principles of logic. Regardless of the students age, however, English spelling cannot be learned by logic — there is no reliable logical connection between the phonemes and graphemes in the words. The types of logic required for one-to-many and many-to-one mapping are (1) the logic of “classes” (categories where objects or events that are similar are grouped together) and “relations” (where objects share some features but not all features, e.g., all poodles are dogs, but all dogs are not poodles) and (2) “propositional logic,” which involves combining both the classes and relations types of logic. This requires the ability to think of the same item in more than one combination at the same time. These combinations require the use of relational terms such as “and,” “or,” “not,” “if—then,” and “if and only if” in formal statements of propositional logic. English spelling requires the understanding that a letter or a combination of letters must often be thought of in two different ways at the same time. The problem of digraphs can be stated as:
If an h follows the letter t, then say /th/ (thin) or /th/ (then); but if any other letter or no letter follows the letter t, then say /t/ (top, ant).
- It does not take a rocket scientist to know that it is much easier to learn the spelling of 38 phonemes with only ONE spelling each and how to blend them into words than it is to remember the spelling of at least the 20,000 or more words required to become fluent readers. Although many people have speaking vocabularies of more than 70,000 words, very few people have reading vocabularies that large. With a perfectly phonemic language, if you know how to pronounce a word you also know how to spell it, and your reading and speaking vocabularies are identical. With a perfectly phonemic language, you do not waste the space in your brain with ridiculous spellings that could be used for much more valuable information. Also, with a perfectly phonemic language, you do not have the problem that people frequently have at present: forgetting the spelling of a word that you have not used for a long time — which often happens when you need the word the most.
- The most devastating fact about present English reading: The ONLY way to learn to read English is to add each new word to your reading vocabulary one-at-a-time by rote memory or repeated use. In this way, English is more like Chinese writing than alphabetic languages. In the same way that certain strokes in certain positions represent a Chinese word, certain letters in a certain order represent words in English.
- Because of the great difficulty in learning to read imposed upon all but the most brilliant students, and especially upon the many immigrants in our midst, no one should proudly resist an attack upon the written version of “our mother tongue.” Although it is not common knowledge, all reasonable objections to spelling reform have been THOROUGHLY disproven. (See the last chapter of “English Spelling and Spelling Reform,” by Thomas Lounsbury, LL.D., L.H.D., which is available for free download at http://NuEnglish.net/books.htm.) Although spelling reform has never been attempted in English, more than 32 nations larger and smaller than the U.S. and both advanced and developing nations have successfully implemented spelling reform.
- Present English spelling is so bad, in fact, that at least two educational psychologists, Frederick Atherson Fernald, Ph.D. and Abraham F. Citron, Ph.D., claim that teaching children to read present English spelling damages the brain and amounts to child abuse! See http://NuEnglish.net/articles.htm.
In short, English spelling is so bad that a provable 48.7% of U.S. adults are functionally illiterate —they can read no more than about a thousand simple words they learned in the first three grades in school and as a result cannot read well enough to hold an above-poverty-level-wage job. (See our http://LearnToReadNow.org for proof.) Here are some of the reasons people do not know the seriousness of functional illiteracy in English. The media essentially ignores the problem. Illiterates are very good at hiding their illiteracy. There is a certain amount of natural separation between literate and illiterate people. Most families have more than one employed adult, and a literate employee can pull the family above the poverty line. Most low-income families receive help from government agencies, other family members, friends, and charities.