English is a patchwork language, full of words adopted from people who conquered Britain and people who Britain conquered. It’s heavily influenced by Greek and Latin vocabulary, embraces new words coined all the time and includes a multitude of words absorbed from myriad sources. As the language expanded, new phonemes were added that had to be represented using the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet.
In the English language, 14 letters of the alphabet represent one sound only. The other 12 letters can represent up to seven different sounds each. Take the letter ‘u’: it’s used to represent the sounds /uh/ (as in ‘up’), /yoo/ (as in ‘use’), /oo/ (as in ‘put’), /oo/ (as in ‘fruit’), /ih/ (as in ‘busy’), /w/ (as in ‘quick’) and /eh/ (as in ‘bury’).
Traditional Latin languages such as Italian and Spanish are phonetic: they have a corresponding number of phonemes and letters. A reader can look at a word written in Italian or Spanish and know how to say it.
English isn’t phonetic. It has almost twice as many phonemes (between 42 and 45) as letters (26), depending on the definition of a phoneme (for example, some people consider the long ‘a’ sound, /ay/, a singular phoneme, while others consider it comprises two existing phonemes, /eh/ and /ih/). In English, there’s little correspondence between how words are spelt and how they’re spoken.
English spelling contains two-way ambiguity. First, many phonemes can be spelt in multiple ways. For example, the long /ee/ sound in ‘me’ can be spelt ‘e’, ‘ey’, ‘ee’, ‘ei’, ‘ea’, ‘i’, ‘ie’ or ‘y’. This kind of ambiguity results in words that are spelt differently but sound exactly the same (homophones). For example, ‘steel’ and ‘steal’, ‘ate’ and ‘eight’, ‘night’ and ‘knight’.
Second, many letters and letter combinations can represent multiple phonemes. For example, the letter ‘a’ represents its standard phoneme /a/ (as in ‘at’) plus at least four other phonemes (as in ‘ate’, ‘wash’, ‘any’ and ‘about’). This ambiguity results in different words that are spelt the same way but pronounced differently (homographs). For example, ‘bow’ represents three words, two rhyming with ‘cow’ and the other with ‘show’.
Homographic ambiguity is common in English and particularly challenging for emerging readers. It means there’s more than one way to decode a word, which can lead to all kinds of errors when reading.
Pairs of letters, or digraphs, such as ‘ou’ and ‘th’ are also used to represent some of the extra phonemes in speech. Again, there are multiple ways to pronounce digraphs, which adds further complexity to written English. Although some spelling patterns help with learning pronunciation, there are many more exceptions.
And that’s not all. English applies segments of sound or speech (syllables) inconsistently as well, reflecting patterns that have evolved over time. Anyone who has studied Shakespeare might guess correctly that the word ‘converged’ was once pronounced with three syllables, and only uses two in Modern English. But how would an emerging reader know that ‘converged’ has two syllables while ‘converted’ has three?
The English language is also full of letters that are silent in some words but spoken in similar contexts, like the letter ‘g’ in ‘sign’ (silent) and ‘signature’ (spoken). It would be impossible for an emerging reader to predict how ‘chasm’, ‘know’, ‘debt’ and ‘thought’ are pronounced without guidance.
Conventional methods of learning English involve students memorizing multiple rules and thousands of exceptions just to be able to read everyday words. For those who struggle with reading for any reason, these inherent complexities cause great difficulties.
This is an excerpt from a short book written by the founders of Readable English, Ann Fitts and Chris Stephen, titled “Readable English: Why Learning To Read English Is So Hard And How To Make It Easier”. You can access the entire book from the Readable English website.