May 6, 2015 by libroshombre
The Atlantic Monthly is such a good magazine that I subscribe to it, even though I can read it, and even check it out, at our public library. The reason is Atlantic has such well-written, informative and in-depth articles that really grab my attention. A case in point is “How Spelling Keeps Kids From Learning “ by Luba Vangelova. Published last February, this article points out that “written English is great for puns but terrible for learning to read and write” due to its innumerable inconsistencies. “Adults who have already mastered written English tend to forget about its many quirks,” Vangelova wrote. “But consider this: English has 205 ways to spell 44 sounds. And not only can the same sounds be represented in different ways, but the same letter or letter combinations can also correspond to different sounds.”
A study by the English Spelling Society found that of the 7,000 most common English words, 60% had one or more unpredictable letters. Finnish, by comparison, has few exceptions to its straightforward spelling rules. Finnish has “a nearly one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters, meaning fewer rules to learn. So after Finnish children learn their alphabet, learning to read is pretty straightforward – they can read well within three months of starting formal learning … 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.” “In countries like Finland, children continue to improve their vocabulary and use of language,” Vangelova wrote, quoting the study, “but because they spell by rules rather than by imprinting the right look of words on their brains, they can spell any word, regardless of whether they have met it before or not.”
English is so hard that it engenders a greater proportion of functionally illiterate citizens, who “cannot read or write well enough for everyday literacy needs … Maybe they’ve learned enough to cope with simple items such as menus, but they still struggle deciphering lengthy prose passages and reading important documents.” Three-fourths of welfare recipients are functionally illiterate, as are over 60% of the prison population. “All in all, according to the Literacy Project Foundation, illiteracy costs American taxpayers about $20 billion a year.”
Changing pronunciations and the introduction of foreign words caused many of English’s inconsistencies, but a major reason for them dates from the 1400s and the birth of printing. The first English-language printing press was run by Belgians who didn’t speak English, and the first Bibles were printed by other equally ignorant European printers. These guys were paid by the line, so they found ways to pad things a bit, like adding extra letters to words. That’s why “frend” became “friend.” Then Samuel Johnson’s great Dictionary of 1755 came out with loads of alternate spellings of words, Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary contained all sorts of Americanized spellings, and no one never got around to reforming all the differences.
So learning English is daunting, but it’s absolutely mandatory for most pathways to successful living. Teaching reading and writing is a delicate and difficult process, too. Drilling kids to read doesn’t work, but inspiring them to read certainly does. “Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift,” as Kate DiCamillo said. But that takes teaching time that’s too often spent in training students how to take standardized tests. Dry, repetitive, formulaic reading instruction actually diminishes students’ability to recall details of what they’ve read, according to a ScienceDaily.com article, “Learning By Repetition Impairs Recall of Details.” Meanwhile, fostering the joy of discovering the world through the printed word produces readers and productive, contributing citizens. It’s a no-brainer.
So why are elected officials so quick to embrace draconian slashing of education and library budgets? That sort of thinking is foolish and shortsighted, and, as a direct result, our state and communities will become poorer in day-to-day living skills, employable workforce, future prospects, and overall quality of life. “Reading is important,” children’s author Tomie de Paola noted, “because if you can read, you can learn anything about everything and everything about anything.”