The irregular, hybrid nature of English spelling is probably the longest-standing cause of strife in education. Its effect appears to be international - studies of reading around the world show a consistently higher proportion of weak readers in English than in other languages.
The real problem with irregularity in English is that it hits hardest in the early stages of learning to read. While analysis of the language shows irregularity running at 15 to 25 per cent of all words, the proportion of irregular words children meet in reception and infant classes is higher. If we define irregularity as letters not representing the sounds they indicate most frequently, the Department for Education and Skills' list of 45 high frequency words for the reception year has 14 irregular words, and there are 45 irregular words in the high frequency list for Year 2. This very high rate - 28.5 per cent - comes when children's knowledge of regular patterns is not yet established and is a major obstacle to learning to read, but no one has yet tackled it.
In his interim review of early reading, published last month, Jim Rose argues that irregularity makes systematic teaching of phonics "even more crucial, because children are highly unlikely to work out this relationship (between sounds and letters) for themselves". He also points out that the national curriculum treats phonics "as essential subject content, and not as a method of teaching". This does not tackle the issue of what the child should do when the alphabetic code does not work as we expect.
To take a simple example, the logic that enables us to read the word "can"
does not help us at all with the middle section of "could". There is a logic to the spelling - to find a completely illogical word, such as Shaw's famous "ghoti" spelling for fish, you have to make it up (gh as in laugh; o as in women; ti as in motion). But English is governed by a fuzzy logic.
Often letters work in combinations that have to be interpreted, or they are derived from different codes, such as Old English, French or German, that a child can't be expected to understand.
It is much more regular in consonants than vowels, which are more often affected by the switch of a word from one language to another, and by changes in pronunciation or usage over time that are not fully reflected in spelling. The latter is a particular problem in the high frequency words for Year 2, only one of which, "people" is clearly from French (peuple). It results in anomalies such as the spelling of the first personal pronoun as I, with just one letter, while the spelling of the second personal pronoun, which could equally well be spelled with the letter u, requires three.
Attempts at spelling reform have not worked, and are unlikely to, if only because English is so strongly established internationally that no one has the authority to reform it. Even Webster's modest changes two centuries ago have not been accepted everywhere, on no other grounds than that they are American. The lateral thinking of the Initial Teaching Alphabet, which tried to impose stricter logic by inventing new letters, ran into a completely new set of problems, and has almost, but not quite, disappeared.
So, if we are stuck with fuzzy logic, how do we present this to children so that they can understand it? The answer is to explain that the writing system is logical some of the time, but not always. This can and should be done in a way that children can understand in terms of their own experience. Do children behave well all the time or some of the time? Are the adults they knew always in a good mood or just usually? If we were more than 1,000 years old, as English is, wouldn't we have a few wrinkles?
These ideas help us avoid pretending to children that the language is more logical and regular than it is, and bring it into line with the rest of what they know of life. It then becomes possible to teach the regular and recurring patterns in language, and to use them in word-building, without straining against the illusion that they always work, or getting frustrated when they don't. And then more of our children will be able to experience the benefits of English spelling and grammar, with its freedom from inflections, gender agreements, and funny hat-shaped accents that show where letters used to be 350 years ago.
John Bald is a literacy and languages consultant