spelling“The amount of time and energy devoted to learning to read and write could have been spent learning other things…”

A nice reminder from The Atlantic about how hard the English language is to read and write. It’s easy for many to forget that the nature of English language today makes it much hard than other languages to master. We know many bilingual individuals who are dyslexic – but have the greatest challenges in English rather than their native language. This fact was also striking: “A 2003 study found that English-speaking children typically needed about three years to master the basics of reading and writing, whereas their counterparts in most European countries needed a year or less.”

Sam Winston, artist with dyslexia

Sam Winston, artist with dyslexia

From the article:

“Unlike many other languages, English spelling was never reformed to eliminate the incongruities. In a sense, English speakers now talk in one language but write a different one.

As a result, there’s no systematic way to learn to read or write modern English—people have to memorize the spelling of thousands of individual words, file them away in their mental databases, and retrieve them when needed. A small percentage of people excel at this skill, but for most children in English-speaking countries, learning to read and write their native language is a laborious and time-consuming exercise.”

The article reinforces the harsh penalty that comes with not being fluent either as a reader or writer in English:

“That wouldn’t matter so much if we were talking about something recreational, such as juggling. But literacy is integral to modern societies. Schools have consequently endeavored to teach children how to read and write at younger and younger ages, but Bell says that’s problematic because children mature and learn at very different rates. It also steals time away from more developmentally appropriate activities for young children.

There’s a spill-over effect, too: Being judged for not being adept at spelling can undermine children’s self-confidence, lead people to give up on reading, and ultimately restrict their overall academic achievement and employment prospects. Ultimately, about one out of every five English speakers are functionally illiterate, meaning they “cannot read or write well enough for everyday literacy needs,” Bell said. Maybe they’ve learned enough to cope with simple items such as menus—but they still struggle with deciphering lengthy prose passages and reading important documents such as medicine warnings.”