Educational failure has been written into the script

13th December 2002 at 00:00
The headline "Absence of phonic irritation aids the playful Finns" (November 22 ) was spot on. "Phonic irritation" is the main reason why English-speaking countries have the "long tail of underachievement".

There is a clear correlation between inconsistent spelling systems and functional illiteracy. Finland is well-known for its easy spelling code and exceptionally high rates of literacy.

The link between spelling systems and literacy rates is also confirmed by a closer look at Denmark and Sweden.

These countries educate their children in very similar ways: allowing infants to learn mainly through play and delaying formal schooling until seven. Yet many Danish pupils leave school unable to read, while in Sweden this problem is far less common.

Danish and Swedish are similar languages - but they have very different spelling systems. Danish spelling is highly unpredictable, like Swedish used to be before it was made more learner-friendly. This explains why nearly all Swedish pupils learn to read and write with little effort, while many Danish ones struggle.

English spellings have changed a great deal over the past 500 years. But unfortunately, the chief purpose of the changes was to make English look more like Latin or to make English spellings conform to Latin spelling rules.

Young children would find learning to read and write much easier if we still spelt many words as Shakespeare did, e.g. hee, mee, shee, wee.

The English language survived centuries of Norman rule predominantly in the mouths of peasants. It continued to be despised by the higher orders and the educated elite long after it became the official language of Parliament and the courts from 1430 onwards. Scholars continued to debate and to write in Latin until the middle of the 17th-century.

They felt that only by making this uncouth mongrel language of Shakespeare conform to Latin spelling patterns and grammar could it be made acceptable for intellectual use. What fools learned folk sometimes be.

Masha Bell is a prematurely retired teacher of English and modern languages.

Letters, 24

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