Phonic hell So that's why we can't spell
If you are reading this, then the system worked for you. But what should be done to make reading easier for the three-out-of-ten seven-year-olds who fail the national curriculum reading test and the one-in-five who have still not mastered it by the age of eleven?
Masha Bell believes that the biggest obstacles to the reading progress of pupils in key stage 1 are a mere 230 words that contain graphemes with several possible pronunciations, such as in read, learn and wear. Mrs Bell first learned English at 14 when she left the Soviet Union to live in Germany. She was already fluent in Lithuanian, Russian and German.
She went on to become a secondary teacher in Dorset, teaching English and modern foreign languages. But she noticed that few of even her brightest pupils could write fluently at the age of 11. Her children, who later studied at Cambridge university, took longer to become literate than she had done in Lithuanian, German or Russian.
After leaving teaching, Mrs Bell went to work for the Simplified Spelling Society. This enabled her to discuss the way our words are written with English speakers throughout the world. Her own experiences and research forced her to conclude that inconsistency of spelling is the main reason English is so difficult to master. She undertook a four-year comprehensive analysis of the spelling system and its vagaries, The result is her book, Understanding English Spelling.
"Pupils in this country start their school lives with a disadvantage, and that is the orthography of the English language," she says. "The spelling is unpredictable and illogical and it is time we seriously considered reforming the way some words are spelt. We try to teach phonics, but the truth is many words have to be learned by sight and memory because phonetic rules don't apply."
However, educationists have mixed views on her theory. Dr Ros Fisher, senior lecturer in education at Exeter university, says: "It has to be said that spelling does not change at the same rate as the spoken word. But it is not the whole story.
"Countries such as Finland, Greece and Spain do better at the initial stages, where there is a straight correlation between letters and phonemes, but when children get beyond the decoding stage, things even out. In English, we have 26 letters and 44 phonemes, of course."
Dr Fisher says that the phonic route to spelling is not the only one.
English also has a morphological structure. Learning how to spell sign, for example, means that a reader can build on this to spell signature or even resignation. A basic structure has been created that can be built on.
"Simplifying spelling would mean we had to reprint books on a huge scale,"
she says. "Then there is the regional variation. Take the word castle: it is pronounced carsel in Surrey and cassel in Manchester."
Dr Fisher believes that more attention should be paid to the reading experiences that children bring to school. "They know how to recognise their favourite cereal packet even if they do not have a middle-class bedtime story," she says.
Barry Sheerman, chair of the all-party Commons education select committee, which has investigated the effectiveness of the literacy strategy in primary schools, says: "The reading problem is common across Europe, and is not a problem exclusive to us.
"The basic problem is that teachers are not trained to teach reading. The Department for Education and Skills comes out with different methods and advice but meanwhile teachers (in training) are taught very little about child development or teaching children how to read. It is as though they will somehow absorb this in the classroom or on the way there.
"The committee listened to some very interesting information about synthetic phonics and how it worked for people from less traditional backgrounds, but you have to remember that many of the people who came to us had a commercial interest.
"The answer lies in teaching teachers all the methods of learning to read and them applying the appropriate one. There is clearly a need for further research about phonics."
Sandra Potest..., of the Regional Language Network for Yorkshire and the Humber, which works with schools and communities to promote language learning, has some sympathy with Mrs Bell's beliefs. She says: "It is quite obvious that simplification of spelling would help enormously with reading.
It certainly worked in Germany. Germany, Austria, Switzerland and other countries with German speaking inhabitants officially adopted spelling reform in 1998.
"As a linguist, I know that English is a difficult language to teach and to learn. This type of modification would make it much simpler, particularly for people learning English as a second language."
She argues that simplification would be particularly useful because it would help learners get off to a good start with the language. "It is nonsense to say it would be too difficult to organise this - Germany, Austria and Switzerland managed it," she says.
25 WORDS THAT CONFUSE THE YOUNG
Masha Bell has chosen a list of 25 words that she believes are particularly unhelpful in the teaching of basic phonics.
If they were amended, she argues, we could turn far more children into successful and enthusiastic readers and writers.
She says that if anyone points out that respelling "read" as "red" and "great" as "grate" conflates the heterographs "readred" and "greatgrate", they should remember that all heterographs are "an artificially created, totally unnecessary difficulty".
(You can visit bars, eat many bars of chocolate, bar one, be called to the bar, be put behind bars.).
On the other hand, the 101 words in English such as read, lead, row, bass and minute cause much reading trouble and, in Mrs Bell's view, we should be clamouring for them to be got rid of if we want children to learn better.