Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Diabolics 101

Troy Coulterman
[Project Unspell is proceeding apace. Meanwhile, here is a guest post by Claire about her firsthand experience teaching people to read in write using the “diabolical” English orthography. Teachers like her, who have the knowledge and the skill to achieve superior results, are few and far between. The average results are abysmal: it takes upwards of eight years of formal instruction for native English speakers to achieve adequate literacy, and as many as ten for non-natives. Many of them never make it. Meanwhile, it takes a year or so to achieve the same results given almost any reasonably designed orthography. The opportunity cost to society of English spelling is absolutely staggering. But help is on the way: Unspell is specifically designed to be learnable “by osmosis.”]

Twelve years ago I was shocked to find I had no idea how to teach anyone to read and write. For most people this would be no reason to panic. But it was for me because I was in my final year of teacher training. Incredibly, I’d spent nearly four years in the education faculty of an Australian university and no one had mentioned the mechanics of the English writing system, where it originated and how to teach it. This omission seemed even more bizarre when I later discovered that English is one of the hardest languages to learn to read and write.

So instead of being taught something useful, I had to read scores of academic articles about how to create a language-rich classroom in which to immerse my students. All this richness and immersion was somehow meant to help children “emerge into literacy” provided they were “exposed” to truckloads of print. In other words, learning to read and write would occur via osmosis with little or no instruction from me.

Despite this ludicrous premise, it didn’t immediately occur to me that this osmosis theory is bonkers. So I went along with the charade until it hit me that our writing system is a human invention that needs to be taught. Like driving, for instance. A car is a human contrivance in need of a driver to navigate it around the landscape. Yet no one seriously expects a learner driver to “emerge into driving” by standing on a street corner and being “exposed” to traffic. Learner drivers need direct instruction on how to handle a car and no one is idiotic enough to suggest otherwise.

And yet, when it comes to teaching one of the world’s most fearsome orthographies, we seem to think the less instruction the better. And even when we do give instructions, they’re often wrong or misguided. This is a disastrous way to approach a complex written language and the functional illiteracy rate in English-speaking countries attests to this. 

Strangely, this pedagogical boondoggle did not occur in the education faculty’s mathematics department. I have no recollection of anyone arguing that children “emerge into numeracy” provided they are “exposed” to lots of numbers. Instead, it was made clear that mathematics is a human invention that needs systematic instruction. Consequently, I was taught how to teach our number system.

Anyway, after I stopped panicking I figured that if I was going to teach children to read and write a difficult writing system, then I was going to have to do it properly. Luckily, I encountered a book by Geoffrey and Carmen McGuinness called Reading Reflex. It taught me the structure of the English written language, where it originated and how to teach it. It also confirmed what I suspected – that reading and writing need careful and systematic instruction, especially with an orthography as diabolical as ours. And the thing is, children can learn to read and write English provided those who teach them know what they’re dealing with. The trouble is, many of us don’t. Because we’re not trained to deal with it.

Here’s what we’re dealing with: A code. An alphabet code we inherited from the Romans, who, inspired by the Ancient Greeks and the Phoenicians, created it by listening to the sounds of their language and devising a symbol to represent each of these sounds. Consequently, if the sound-based nature of this alphabet code is misunderstood, then written English is not taught in the way it was designed. The result: lots and lots of people who can barely read and write.

So it makes sense to teach it well. But nothing makes much sense in our society, so the teaching of reading and writing makes little sense either. Frankly, I’m amazed anyone reads and writes at all given the poor training teachers receive and the haphazard way literacy is taught.

Something else I didn’t learn at university. A writing system like English is called an opaque alphabet code. This means we have more than one symbol for each sound and more than one way to read and write each sound. This contrasts with transparent alphabet codes like Italian, Spanish and German where there is mainly one way to read and write each sound. It’s no surprise, then, that this makes transparent codes easy to teach and learn.

And, believe it or not, English itself was once a transparent code. Here’s the sad story:

Once upon a time, English had a perfect written language. It was easy to read and easy to write. One sound equalled one way of reading and writing it. English was as near to phonetic written perfection as you can imagine. Two Dark Age luminaries were responsible for this linguistic marvel. The first was an Anglo-Saxon king and the second, an Irish bishop. Astonishingly, in the wilds of Northumbria in 635 AD, King Oswald and Bishop Aiden created a writing system we now know as Old English. Somehow it managed to survive centuries of Viking mayhem before finally meeting its Waterloo at the Battle of Hastings when the Norman-French army defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Harold II in 1066.

Old English then suffered such a calamitous decline that I’m thankful King Oswald and Bishop Aiden never lived to see its fate. This is because English has gone from a near-perfect writing system to a bizarre creature that needs to be wrestled to the ground. Where once it was delightfully easy to read and write, it is now a mad jumble of multiple spellings for the same sound and multiple ways to read the same sound.

Of course, the Norman-French weren’t the only ones responsible for this linguistic farrago. As I’ve already said, the Vikings had already done their best to obliterate Old English with their raids on libraries and monasteries, but early Medieval English priests, judges and scholars also joined the fray and threw Latin and Greek spellings into an already heady mix of Anglo-Saxon, Danish and Norman French.

The upshot of all this Norman invading and Viking pillaging and nerdy Latin/Greek obsession is that English ended up with no less than five languages and their orthographies layered over one another: Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Norman French, Classical Latin and Greek. No wonder modern English is so tricky to read and write.

Anyway, several years after I graduated, I felt confident enough to start my own remedial reading and spelling business. I had no shortage of pupils, all of whom were doing their best to make sense of a written language that made no sense to them whatsoever. At their first lesson, I told them about English and how it had once been easy to read and write. I then told them about King Oswald and Bishop Aiden. I also suggested that they blame at least some of their spelling woes on the Vikings and the Norman French and the medieval scholars and judges and priests. 

It was at this point that their faces softened. Finally, they could relax. It wasn’t their fault. They were not stupid. They were just stuck trying to understand a writing system that had strayed a long way from King Oswald’s and Bishop Aiden’s original, magnificent creation. For theirs was a linguistic masterpiece that, had it survived, would make the lives of countless children and adults less miserable and throw people like me out of a job.


Reading Reflex, McGuinness, C. & McGuinness, G., Simon & Schuster, New York, 1999.

Early Reading Instruction, McGuinness, D.,The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2004


Professor Diabolical said...

...Don't forget all the borrowed words!

Wherever English met foreign cultures (and in the age of empire, this was everywhere) they incorporated the words they found wholesale, like "Succotash" or "Tsunami". For more fun, they may--or may not--have retained the original spelling.

Glenn said...

Couldn't have said it better myself. Excellent short history of our written language!

Rita said...

The Distar system of teaching phonetics is quite effective. Designed for use with learning disabled, but works fine for other kids as well. Sorry to see the the anti-phonetic crowd penetrated beyond the American school systems.

HoHoFoo said...

I feel so sorry for you and all English speaking people :(

In Finnish it´s so simple. One alphabet means just one phonetic sound with just couple of regular exceptions.

I played with my kids with alphabet blocks, teaching them what alphabet means what sound and making some short words.

My daughter remembers when she learned to read. She saw a gas station sign ESSO from the car window and understood what that meant. And since age of four both my kids read and they have read a lot...

How about that you could change just writing the words to correspond to phonemes?

Dmitry Orlov said...


The trouble is that English spelling is antiphonetic: almost any vowel letter or combination can represent almost any vowel sound. Phonics is a system of putting lipstick on a pig.

Michael J. Petro said...

That was interesting. Thanks.

I feel a certain chagrin - I think that some of us, for whom the "mastery" of English came early and easily, are the same that would believe in the "osmosis" thing.

(To put "mastery" in perspective - English is my first and only language. So I'm not exactly bragging.)

Kabo said...

Maybe it might be wise, for reasons of analytical clarity, to distinguish two "directions" of opacity:

1. Several possible signs for/ways of writing the same sound.
2. Several possible ways of reading out the same sound.

English is opaque in both these directions, whereas French is mainly opaque in the first direction. That is, given how a French word is pronounced, it is difficult guessing how it should be spelled ("tant" and "temps" are pronounced the same way), but given how it is spelled, pronunciation can be fairly straightforwardly read off.

An example of the reverse state of affairs can perhaps be found in the old Norse runic writing system, where the number of signs is less than the number of sounds, and a given spelling hence corresponds to several possible pronunciations. More recent examples can probably be provided by the polyglottal among us.

One thing to note is that it is mainly the first direction of opacity that constitutes a problem for teaching children. The second direction presents more of a problem for adult second language learners, who often encounter words in their written form first, especially if they learn by taking a course.

James R. Martin said...

I'd like to see an example, or some examples, of English writing of the sort that is easy to read/write.

squizzler said...

I like the concept of a "better" alphabet but wonder if there is duplication of effort. Dmitry have you tried to work with Paul Vandenbrink whose alternative system Revised Shaw is here: http://www.shawalphabet.com


Dmitry Orlov said...

Actually, it's the other way around. Ability to pronounce arbitrary text based on a set of rules is the key to quickly learning to read, while multiple spellings of the same word only slow down learning to write.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Shavian is quite horrible. I based my design on quite a lot of research, then carefully optimized it. It is not a random collection of squiggles, which is what Shavian is.

Unknown said...

Designed for use with learning disabled,but works fine
my daughter remembers when she learned to read.
Excellent short history of our written language!
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HoHoFoo said...

James R. Martin said...

I'd like to see an example, or some examples, of English writing of the sort that is easy to read/write.

Tseims R. Maatin sed...

Ai'd laik ty sii ön ixämpl, oor sam ixämpls, of Inglish wraiting of thö soort thät is iisi ty riid/wrait.

This is example by using Finnish alphabets :). English alphabets differs how they are listed as sounds...

HoHoFoo said...

Finnish ä is like a in "sad mad ad" and a is like a in car.

Finnish ö is like ir in girl without r sound, o is like o in dog.

Dmitry Orlov said...

HoHoFoo -

There are a few problems with your example. One is that it looks like a foreign language; another is that it is, according to the English sense of esthetics, ugly; the third is that enough exposure to it, and one's spelling is sure to go to pot, because it interferes with it. This is why Project Unspell does not use the Latin alphabet but a different set of symbols, which don't look like any known thing, but are carefully optimized for English, and use a completely separate perceptual mechanism.

HoHoFoo said...


Yes. I couldn't agree more with all your three points.
But this was just an example.
Good luck for your project...

Dave said...

I have a PhD from Princeton in English but I've never really learned to spell. I started asking my son how to spell things when he was about age nine. I figured the whole point of English was to make jokes and double en..(Liam, how do you spell en...?) entendres. A whole language based on misunderstanding is kind of poetic. On the other hand, I've never done very well with women, and I think it might have something to do with this. Oh dear, they're going to make me spell something just to post this. Liam?