Simplicity spells success

8th November 2013 at 00:00

Pasi Sahlberg, along with the many people who have been trying to discover the cause of Finland's consistently superior educational performance, seems unaware of one significant fact: Finnish has one of the world's simplest spelling systems ("'Superstars' won't save the day, expert claims", 1 November). Finnish uses just 38 totally reliable spellings for its 38 speech sounds. This enables students to learn to read and write very easily and exceptionally fast, and to move on to other learning shortly after starting school.

English spelling lies at the opposite end of the range. The 44 English sounds are spelled with 205 graphemes, many of which are totally unpredictable (leave, sleeve, believe, ravine and so on). Worse still, 69 spellings have more than one pronunciation (treat, great, threat), which makes learning to read exceptionally difficult and time-consuming. These difficulties impede overall educational progress and incur higher teaching costs. They also cause more literacy failure and handicap both students and teachers in English-speaking lands.

Masha Bell, Independent literacy researcher, former English teacher and author of Rules and Exceptions of English Spelling.

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