The main reason for the reading and writing problems, which are so commonly found in English-speaking countries, is the complex nature of written English. English has a very complicated alphabetic code, so complicated in fact, that it is often referred to as having an ‘opaque’ code.
Alphabetic languages, such as Hindi, German, Spanish, Italian and Finnish, have very simple alphabetic codes. The sound-symbol relationship in these languages is easy, in coordination and reliable, which is why they are known as ‘transparent’ alphabetic codes. Learning to read (decode) and write (encode) in these languages is not a problem.
Due to the English alphabetic code complexity, it is important to teach the code carefully and thoroughly, for the simple reason that it is not so easy to deduce.
What makes the English code so complex?
Many problems with the English alphabetic code have originated from the influence of other languages. For example,
the digraph ‹ch› has three sounds in English-
(a) the <ch> sound as in chest, church, chips, rich, chop;
(b) the /k/ sound as in Christmas, chemist, architecture;
(c) the /sh/ sound as in chef, machine, champagne.
English spellings are also be problematic.
♦ One reason related to the unpredictability of English spellings is that the first English dictionary was printed a long time ago. Since then, the spelling of English words has remained much the same, even though the pronunciation of many of these words has changed over the years.
♦ Digraphs cause added complexity –
Another reason why the spelling of English words can prove problematic is that the English language has more sounds (phonemes) than there are letters to represent those sounds. The accepted number of sounds in English is 44, and yet there are only 26 letters. This is because some sounds are represented by two or more than two letters, which are known as digraphs, like, /ai/ in train, /ou/ in doubt, loud, /sh/ in ship, shin, /igh/ in light, right, /eigh/ in eight, etc.
Digraphs representing sounds would not be a serious problem if there were just one digraph for each sound. Unfortunately, there can be many ways of representing a single sound. For example, look at the following nine alternative ways of representing the long /a/sound. (Even this long list is not comprehensive; there are more spellings of the long /a/, but fortunately these are very rare!)
1. ai – rain, frail, daily
2. ay – say, play, crayon
3. a-e – date, name, lemonade
4. a – apron, angel, change
5. ei – feint, vein, veil
6. ey – they, grey, obey
7. eigh – eight, neigh, sleigh
8. et – ballet, sorbet, buffet
9. ea – great, break, steak
All this means that, instead of having 44 letters and letter combinations to represent the 44 sounds of English, there are roughly 170+ alternative ways of representing the sounds. For some children, this amount of learning is easy, but for others it is quite a challenge. Consequently, the alphabetic code needs to be introduced very carefully. It just needs to be taught with greater care; teachers should progress from the simple to the more complex skills, ensuring that all children master enough of the code to enable them to read and write fluently by the time they are about eight years old.