What is it that is different about written English?
The English Alphabet makes a phonetic representation of our spoken language. That is, each letter represents a sound. So the letters 'c', 'a' and 't' spell 'cat'. This simple model is all that is needed in some languages but it holds true for only a part of English.
The spoken language is an amalgam of many sources representing phases of external influence in England's history. The original Celtic has been overlaid with words from Roman Latin (and Greek), Viking Scandanavian, Angle and Saxon Germanic and Norman French along with influences from other Western European regions. More recently English has incorporated words from most of the world's languages. Add to this the changes that inevitably occur over hundreds of years of use and strong regional accents and we end up with a rich but complex language. The Alphabet has to reflect this.
Some of the complexities that arise in English spelling:
- there are 26 letters but there are 43 sounds
- along with the 43 main sounds there are a number of other sounds and features in the oral language
- the letter names ('ay', 'bee', 'see' etc) do not reflect the sounds the letter represents
- most letters represent more than one sound and most sounds are represented by more than one letter
- syllable structure is not always obvious
- combinations of letters represent some sounds ('th', 'sh', 'oy', 'ou'), again not necessarily uniquely
- suffixes, prefixes and word endings sometimes change the patterns for the base words
- there is much inconsistency between the spoken language and its spelling
One extreme example is the spelling of the sound 'or'. The 13 ways are:
war, door, bore, soar, raw, taught, thought, dinosaur, four, for, pause, water, always
The two stages of development
Many children learn the basic alphabet and sight words (is, it, the etc) in their first year. They learn this through familiarity and pattern recognition. They often don't develop a strong connection between the spelling and their speech. Typically at this stage children do not analyse or break down the words to their components.
Some children strike a 'complexity barrier' as they develop a greater understanding of the range of the English language. As the complexity increases they meet many different ways of spelling a sound, multisyllable words and different sounds for the same spelling. Children are unable to memorise all the combinations and options that English contains. If they lack the analysis tools to identify and categorise what they are dealing with they will be limited in their confidence and ability with written English.