Is English spelling irregular?


I think that English is highly irregular, but when I said so in my first Staffrm piece, John Walker disagreed:

“The real problem is training teachers to understand how the English orthographic code is structured conceptually, how the spelling system relates to the sounds of the language ... To the untutored, the English spelling system looks random and chaotic…” 

I had met the same view in the book ‘Every English Teacher’, published in 1974, which I was given when I started to teach English and German in girl’s grammar school in 1976. It claimed that English spelling

“may seem to be quite without rhyme or reason, but close analysis has shown that the writing system is in general regular” and “not the confusion it is widely thought to be”.

I was somehow failing to understand the system, although my spelling was better than of most of my grammar school educated colleagues. - I did not have to rewrite reports because of spelling mistakes nearly as often as they did. The English ‘O’ level results of my classes were above average too, despite my habit of frequently drawing attention to the insanities of English spelling.

I concluded that my failure ‘to get’ English spelling had to be due to me not having started to learn the language until the age of 14 (in 1958, in Soviet Lithuania). Some colleagues suggested that I would find English spelling less puzzling if I had done Latin and French, as they all had.

I was not prepared to learn a dead language to understand modern English spelling, but I was willing to give French a try. Despite being in my 30’s, I passed my ‘O’ level with grade A. But even that did not stop me thinking that English spelling is pretty chaotic.

While I was working full-time, with a long daily commute and bringing up my own children, I did not have the time or energy to let the impenetrability of English spelling preoccupy me too much. In 1995 however, I had to stop teaching because of throat, nose and ear problems.

This happened to coincide with a sudden intense media interest in poor literacy standards. Captains of industry were outraged by them too. And totally unbelievably to me, everyone was blaming teachers for them. I felt a bit like the kid who saw that the emperor was naked. I felt like shouting, "Why don’t you just take a good look at English spelling?!”

But I also realised, that despite teaching English on and off for over 20 years, I did not know EXACTLY HOW IRREGULAR English spelling was. I could find any book that really explained it either. So I decided to investigate it myself. I then wrote a book too, before discovering that blogging allowed me to present my findings for free for all to see: englishspellingproblems.blogsp...

I plan to say a bit more about my findings over the coming weeks.  

Author Profile

Masha  Bell

Masha Bell

Retired teacher of English and modern languages, now literacy researcher and writer

22 stories


Barbara Terziyski Barbara Terziyski @barbarat 10 months ago
Interesting! I learnt some English spelling rules when teaching EFL in Bulgaria. I also "enjoy" responding to student complaints about how annoying irregular verbs in French are by giving English examples.
Lena Carter Lena Carter @lenabellina 10 months ago
Those who dismiss what my mum says do need to understand exactly how hard she has worked on this, how much she has researched and how driven she is by principles of social justice and equity. She loves to be challenged but equally her knowledge and passion for understanding the issues need to be acknowledged.

I am incredibly proud of what she has achieved.
Masha  Bell Masha Bell @mashabell 10 months ago
Wow! A million thanks for saying that, Lena.
The kids who have a hard time learning to read and write have been the ones who have mainly motivated me to bring some clarity to the reading wars. But so has the unfair blame teachers get for the equally high levels of literacy failure in ALL Anglophone countries.
Emma Burden Emma Burden @emmajb 10 months ago
I absolutely agree. I work with 95% EAL students and have done for 4 years now. I often hear the refrain 'the spelling makes no sense!'

Of course we can teach rules but the history behind knife, the pronunciation of photo and the difference between hopping and hoping are a minefield for English learners. They'll get there of course but trying to add context to these spellings has been useful for the students and fascinating for me!
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