End Illiteracy in English

The problem of English functional illiteracy is a very real nightmare, but the solution is easier than you would ever dare to dream.

The Only Proven Solution to Our Educational Problems

Before I begin, there are two problems in reading this blog. Problem one: You may have doubts that some unknown (non-celebrity) blogger can really present a proven solution to the serious U.S. educational problems. Your curiosity may keep you reading just long enough to confirm your suspicion in this age that many have called “The Age of Skepticism.” Can you spare 12 minutes from your busy schedule for something of importance to at least 600 million English-speaking people — including yourself? That is how long it will take to read this entire blog. Problem two: You may think that even if this blog does present a proven solution to the problem, you personally cannot do anything to help solve the problem. Like many other people, you may believe that it is not your problem — you believe it should be (and hopefully will be) solved by the “experts:” the educational and political authorities.

Despite these problems — whether or not you believe it — here are the facts. Dr. Frank Charles Laubach spent almost his entire adult life teaching thousands of adult illiterates around the world how to read. He taught in more than 300 alphabetic languages other than English. He prepared reading primers in 313 languages and even invented spelling systems for 220 languages that were unwritten. His books, Teaching the World to Read and Forty Years With the Silent Billion, document a truly amazing fact about the languages in which he taught. He was able to teach adults to read fluently in from one to twenty days in 95% of the languages and in less than three months in 98% of the languages! His books never mention being unable to teach any of his students to read fluently.

Dr. Laubach was able quickly to teach his students to read fluently because 98% of these languages had an almost perfect phonemic spelling system. A perfect spelling system has only one grapheme for each phoneme. In alphabetic languages, a grapheme is a letter or digraph (two letters) that represents a phoneme, syllable or word. A phoneme is the smallest sound used to distinguish between syllables or words in a language or dialect.

Teachers will tell you that reading is the foundation of nearly all learning. Students need fluent reading ability for class work, homework, and testing in almost every subject. Why then do almost half of Americans never become fluent readers? Analysis of a report released by the U.S. Department of Education in April 2002 titled Adult Literacy in America proves this is true — and the follow-up report released in 2006 confirms it. The answer is very simple: English is not an alphabetic language. English is more like Chinese writing that uses specific shapes in specific positions to represent a word. English uses a specific combination of letters in a specific order to represent a word.

Apologists for the present method of teaching reading will tell you that most English words are phonemic. That is true only if you allow more than one spelling of the phonemes. Some apologists will even go to the extreme of calling English “a beautiful language” and will defend our “mother tongue” against all attacks — despite the difficulty that beginning readers and especially immigrants have in learning to read. The truth is that if each of the 38 English phonemes that are needed to learn to read are allowed only ONE specific spelling, only about 20% of English words are phonemic. More than one spelling of the phonemes requires a huge amount of memorization when some of the phonemes can be spelled in as many as more than 60 ways and the spelling of each phoneme varies from one word to the next.

The problem is that there is absolutely no way of knowing which words are phonemic and which are not (other than memorizing 20% of about two million English words). It is easier just to learn to recognize, by sight, the spelling of every word in your reading vocabulary — which is EXACTLY what every reader of English MUST do! Almost every American can read about a thousand simple words they learn by memory in the first three grades in school. In order to be a fluent reader, however, one must be able to recognize the spelling of 20,000 words or more. Many fluent readers have reading vocabularies of more than 70,000 English words. Recognizing a word by its spelling and its context is much easier than remembering that spelling when trying to write the word.

Professor Julius Nyikos of Washington and Jefferson College did an extensive study* of six standard desk dictionaries. He found 1,768 ways of spelling 40 phonemes! If he had used unabridged dictionaries he would have undoubtedly found even more. Other apologists for our present spelling will say that you can learn to read using spelling rules. The truth is that there is not even ONE spelling rule that does not have exceptions. 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. Can we honestly expect the average human to do better?

Adding to the difficulty of learning to read is the fact that English has more consonant clusters than many other languages. English spelling has consonant cluster of two or three letters. As a result there are sixteen different patterns for spelling syllables: (C = consonant phoneme, V = vowel phoneme): CV, CCV, CCCV, CVC, CCVC, CCCVC, CVCC, CVCCC, CCVCC, CCVCCC, CCCVCCC, CCCVCC, VCCC, VCC, VC, and V. There are five consonant phonemes spelled with digraphs (CH, SH, TH, ZH, and NG) and the TH grapheme represents two different phonemes (as in thin and then). In addition, each vowel phoneme can be spelled with as many as FIVE letters. (There are at least four vowel phonemes spelled with five letters. The most familiar is the word weighed, in which the letters EIGHE all represent the same vowel phoneme as in the word wade.) Each syllable in a word can have any one of these patterns. Most English words have two or more syllables. If each vowel and each consonant in these syllables always represented the same sound (one-to-one mapping, an “equivalence” relationship), there would be nothing in the logic of these syllables that would be beyond the abilities of most four- or five-year-olds, but they do not.

English spelling also has one-to-one mapping where one phoneme is represented by one digraph — since there are not enough letters to represent all of the phonemes. Almost half of English phonemes are represented by digraphs. In traditional English spelling there are also three-, four-, and even five-letter graphemes representing a single phoneme. More than half of all English phonemes are spelled with graphemes of two or more letters. But the real confusion comes since there is also one-to-many and many-to-one mapping, i.e., one phoneme is represented by many different graphemes (for spelling), and one grapheme represents many phonemes (for reading). This requires a type of logic that most children do not develop until they are eleven or twelve years old.

There are two types of logic required for one-to-many and many-to-one mapping. Type One is 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). Type Two is “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. One example of 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 is usually a waste of time to try to get students less than about twelve years old to understand the logic — they just have to be helped to memorize (or learn by repetition) the spelling of new words. We do not realize the difficulty of learning to read English — especially when compared to languages with a phonemic spelling system — because most of us learned to read as a child and have long since forgotten (or proudly dismiss) the difficulty. Our eyes skip easily over a multitude of traps for beginning readers.

Based upon his many years of teaching students of phonemic languages to read fluently, Dr. Laubach 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.” Although present educational and political authorities may have a financial interest in believing that this is overly optimistic, it would be a mistake to discount Dr. Laubach’s findings and his advice. With our present inconsistent and illogical spelling, most U.S. students require at least two years to become fluent readers — and almost half of the students never become fluent readers. Statistics prove that almost half of adults never read an entire book after they leave school. If English spelling were as simple and logical as most other languages, the better students could learn to read in one week and all but the most mentally challenged students could learn to read in less than three months — for many (if not most) students, much less than three months.

Literacy Research Associates, Inc. and NuEnglish, Inc., two non-profit educational corporations, have developed and perfected a perfect phonemic spelling system such as Dr. Laubach recommended. It is a spelling system called NuEnglish, which has ten beneficial characteristics that no other known proposed spelling system can claim. Adoption of this spelling system is the only proven way permanently to end English functional illiteracy. More than 93 million adult Americans can read only about a thousand simple words they learned in the first three grades in school. They read so poorly that they do not like to read and seldom attempt to do so. They read so poorly that they cannot hold an above-poverty-level-wage job. Although they can read about a thousand words, they are functionally illiterate. Along with an estimated 500 million English-speaking adults around the world who are also functionally illiterate in English, they desperately need our help to avoid the problems, pain, and suffering their illiteracy causes — at least 34 different types of serious physical, mental, emotional, medical, and financial problem that we would consider a crisis if we had to endure them. Our end English functional illiteracy website gives the details of the problem, proving that 48.7% of U.S. adults are functionally illiterate, proving that 31.2% of these functional illiterates are in poverty, and proving that they are more than twice as likely to be in poverty because of their illiteracy as for all other reasons combined. Our website also explains the details of how functional illiteracy causes serious problems not only for the illiterates but also for every other U.S. citizen and for our nation.

When you learned that we are proposing spelling reform, you may have thought of one or two reasons why we should not change the spelling. Numerous respected scholars, however, have thoroughly debunked every reasonable objection to spelling reform — not only in the last few years but even as far back as 1909, when Thomas Lounsbury, LL.D., L.H.D., professor emeritus of English at Yale University wrote his book, English Spelling and Spelling Reform. Dr. Lounsbury presented a devastating attack against our present English spelling and against objections to spelling reform. In 1909, however — unlike today, there were a multitude of manual labor jobs that did not require literacy. Furthermore, Dr. Lounsbury harmed his cause by not proposing a specific spelling system.

Numerous scholars have also presented details of the benefits of making the spelling of our words as easy to learn as those of other languages. It does not take a genius to know that it is much easier to learn the spelling of 38 phonemes — and how to blend them into words — than to memorize the spelling of twenty thousand words. By learning to read quickly, English-speaking students can — at long last — compete with students in other languages by studying most subjects about two years earlier. The award-winning breakthrough book, Let’s End Our Literacy Crisis, Second Revision, which is available at no cost or obligation on our end English functional illiteracy website (at the bottom of the left-hand column), lists the disproven objections to spelling reform and lists the benefits of making our spelling consistent and logical.

There are roughly 600 million people around the world hoping you can help them escape from English functional illiteracy. If you consider yourself to be a compassionate person, all you need to do to begin the process of ending illiteracy in English is to help publicize the solution to their illiteracy. I have been passionately working on this problem for 27 years, and I KNOW — as an absolute fact — that what I am proposing will not only solve the problem but will also be much easier than you or almost anyone else may believe — until the facts are honestly evaluated. As a result, I am humbly asking that you tell at least three people about this blog who have not seen it yet. When enough people know the seriousness of the problem and how easy the solution will really be, the problem will be solved. To believe otherwise is to underestimate the human will to help ourselves, despite all the naysayers and all those who oppose change — even change for the better.

* Nyikos, Julian, “A Linguistic Perspective of Functional Illiteracy,” The Fourteenth LACUS Forum 1987 (Lake Bluff, Illinois: Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States, 1988), pp. 146-163.

** Hanna, Paul R., et. al. Phoneme-Grapheme Correspondence as Cues to Spelling Improvement. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Office of Education, 1966.

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