In need of improvement

#literacy

The current English spelling system was not God-given. Devised by monks in the sixth century, it has been changed many times since. Sadly, nearly always for the worse.

It now makes both learning to read and write exceptionally slow and difficult. The research with i.t.a. proved that if English spelling was improved, English literacy acquisition could become much faster and easier, as I explained in an earlier piece.

Other European, Latin-based writing systems never became as irregular as the English one. Partly, because they were only developed after 1522, when Martin Luther started the trend of translating the Bible into native languages. Most of them have since been repeatedly improved, to make literacy acquisition easier.

English and its spelling were both nearly killed off by French after 1066. The new English and its spelling that began to emerge around 1350 underwent many changes, like several times before (See englishspellingproblems.blogsp...), and mostly for the worse too. It could be changed again - to make it more learner-friendly. 

Most speakers of English are probably not aware that the English language is one of the world's simplest, but that its spelling makes learning to read and write it exceptionally difficult. - They began to become habituated to its absurdities from a very young age, and then had them drip-fed to them during the whole of their schooling.

Nevertheless, a few individuals noticed its learning difficulties centuries ago. John Hart, for example, wrote in 1551 that ‘our writing causes it to belong in learning, and evil to read’. But with his dictionary of 1755, Johnson damaged it even further - more than all the other meddlers between them.

Since 1755 English spelling has been treated as immutable and defended with myths, such as that:

   It is not really all that bad.

   With a bit of effort, everyone can master it.

   It is more regular than may at first appear.

   Some irregularities need preserving, as sources of historical information. 

   On the whole, it is best not to meddle with it.

None of the above claims are based on any evidence. 

I think English spelling is in dire need of reappraisal. It gives too many children too bewildering a start to their schooling, and makes them and their teachers work much harder than need be. It wastes too much time and effort. 

English spelling was created and has been reshaped entirely by men. Proposals for reforming it have come mainly from men too, and have mostly been too  drastic. The majority (including those by Benjamin Franklin and Bernard Shaw) have called for the adoption of a completely new spelling system, rather than merely improving the current one, as other countries have done. 

English spelling is not all bad, as I have explained in several of my posts. - We could make learning to read and write much easier, by merely bringing more order to some of its most chaotic areas. - I have started to outline some possibilities in improvingenglishspelling.blogs...

One thing is certain: the task needs more than one brain, and both male and female ones. - It was partly Johnson’s arrogant insistence on making his spelling choices entirely by himself alone, that English spelling ended up so shambolic. 

What bothers me especially is its unfairness. - Its irregularities are most detrimental to children who already have other disadvantages, such as learning difficulties or parents who are unable or unwilling to help. For them learning to read and write is unconscionably difficult and time-consuming, and they would be the main beneficiaries of improvements to English spelling.

Author Profile

Masha  Bell

Masha Bell

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

22 stories

Comments

Emma Burden Emma Burden @emmajb 2 weeks ago
This is great Masha! Thanks. It is so hard to teach when there are so many exceptions and also it's so difficult to apply. Also, I've just watched a video you have on youtube for my Masters in Education and Applied Linguistics- thanks for your help. You were recommended in my independent study section on morphology!
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