Why is English spelling such a headache?

Some languages have a ‘transparent’ phonic code. Take Italian or Spanish: the phonic code is simple and consistent. Once you have mastered the sounds for the letters of the alphabet, you can read and spell. The graphemes (written spellings of a sound) are reliable as they always represent the same sounds! Why is learning to read and spell English such a headache?

The English language has many ‘loan words’.

Those are words borrowed from other languages. Many words in English come from French, German, Latin, Greek and Saxon. They have added to the wonderful richness of English, but also made it far more complicated.

Unfortunately, when many of the words were adopted, they kept the spellings from their language of origin. Take the word ‘knight’, for example: it comes from German. The word ‘beauty’ comes from French.

This created three main difficulties for pupils learning to read and spell English:

1. A sound can be spelled by one, two three or four letters.

For example: cat, ship, night, through

2. There are lots of spelling alternatives for both vowels and consonants.

Take the vowel sound /ee/: sheep, bean, thief, receive, me, funny, key, ski

Take the consonant sound /n/: sun, funny, knife, gnome, gone, pneumatic

(You can see the spelling alternatives in these free downloadable charts.)

3. A spelling can represent different sounds.

Take the spelling ‘ou’: you, out, cough, tough

That’s why English spelling is such a headache!

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