The Spelling Society’s Guide To Better Spelling

Why is English spelling so difficult?

With a few exceptions, such as Chinese and Japanese, most modern languages adopt the alphabetical principle for their writing systems. That means that a letter or letter combination stands for a particular sound. In certain languages such as Spanish and Italian, we can usually predict the pronunciation of a word from seeing the spelling as well as predict the spelling of a word from hearing it pronounced (so called “two way phonemicity”). With most other languages you can at least predict the pronunciation from the spelling, even if the sound can be represented in more than one way (eg French). Unfortunately, good old English, for all its many pluses (one gender, simple plurals, few inflexions etc) suffers from a “double whammy” when it comes to spelling – not merely can’t you predict spelling from pronunciation but you can’t always predict pronunciation from spelling. This is because English has many different ways of representing the same sound AND has some letter combinations as well that can represent more than one sound. Understanding this fundamental problem will help you to understand the difficulties your child may be facing – as indeed you probably did in your youth!

Most children in the English Speaking World do eventually learn to master spelling more or less satisfactorily. But they tend to take up to three years longer to complete this process than those speaking other languages (at massive cost to the educational budget and therefore the taxpayer), and an unacceptably high proportion (about 23%) never master the process at all causing all kind of social problems. Of course we don’t want our child to be one of these, do we – which is why the Spelling Society has caused this booklet to be published.

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