Why Learning to Read English Is Difficult

By Bell, Masha | NATE Classroom, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Why Learning to Read English Is Difficult


Bell, Masha, NATE Classroom


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It is now almost universally accepted that roughly one in five children in all English-speaking countries still don't read well by age eleven. Exeducation secretary Estelle Morris suggested recently that ministers and others involved in running the education system should start asking themselves why other countries were doing better.

An unusual start

I did not start to learn English until I was 14 and am more surprised by the ease with which many pupils become fluent readers, rather than by the difficulties which affect relatively few. If you have to learn to read English with a minimal or nonexistent vocabulary, as most foreigners do, the experience is a nightmare. But English-speaking children who have only a small vocabulary when they start school must find learning to read their native tongue nearly as difficult as I did.

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I can still remember the shock and horror of my first English lesson, when our teacher explained that we would not be able to learn to read English by simply learning the sounds of letters and decoding words the way we had in Lithuanian and Russian. In English, identical letters or letter strings often have different sounds, such as 'I/it' or 'go/to'. We would initially have to annotate many words with pronunciation aids, such as one[wun], two[too], to help us cope. If we went on to study English to a higher level, we would even need to learn the International Pronunciation Alphabet for this.

English reading problems

The 32 letters of the Lithuanian alphabet all have totally reliable sounds. Russian is nearly as dependable. With such systems, learning to read takes just a few weeks. You learn the brief list of letter-to-sound correspondences with the help of a few sentences and then keep improving your decoding speed, until you recognise all common words instantly. Decoding unfamiliar ones is also never a problem. My husband who is in his early sixties recently tried to acquire some holiday Spanish. He was reading with little hesitation after just one month.

When one letter can have several sounds, such as the o in 'on, only, once, other, woman, women, move', learning to read is entirely different. I can perhaps best illustrate the difficulties this causes with some Russian spellings which my pupils used to find tricky to start with. The English letters p and y spell the English r and long oo sound in Russian. This makes reading words like 'ypok' [oorok]--lesson--quite difficult for Anglophone beginners. They are predisposed to pronounce the English-looking letters the English way (ipok).

Children who first learn to chant the short o sound for the letter o (as in 'hot dog') often have a similar problem when they meet 'only, once, other, woman, women, move'. They would like to pronounce them with the sound they first learned for o, as one of my pupils recently kept doing with 'oh', sounding it out as a short o, followed by h. The 37 English graphemes with several possible sounds, from 'man/many' to 'gently/apply', all have the potential to cause this difficulty.

The final aim of learning to read, in any language, is to recognise most common words by sight, instantly, without decoding, like familiar faces that we can readily put a name to. With reliable letter sounds, this stage is reached more easily and much faster, and most crucially, with little need for individual help. Without phonic inconsistencies like 'people/leopard/leotard' or 'great/treat/threat', children don't keep getting stuck and frustrated if nobody can assist them. After brief initial instruction, they can access the sounds of words by dint of their own efforts. English spelling makes this harder and more time-consuming.

Why most teachers don't appreciate the difficulties

When I first became a teacher of English in Dorset and we were discussing the Bullock report, I was quite surprised to find that the majority of teachers did not seem to appreciate that English reading and writing problems were due mainly to the inconsistency of English spelling. …

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