Sound points to start

23rd December 2005 at 00:00
The expensive research by professors Solity and Vousden, which has rediscovered the 100 key words in reading, is a perfect example of Anglo-Saxon reading research constantly retracing the same steps. It also helps to explain why 80 per cent of all reading research across the world comes from Anglophone countries.

Nearly all primary teachers have been aware of those key words since 1962, when Murray and McNally first published Key Words to Literacy and the Teaching of Reading. They have been an integral part of reading schemes ever since and, if we take a closer look at those words, we can immediately understand why both teaching and learning to read and write English is uniquely difficult.

In other European languages, learning the key words is a natural starting point. Foundation level literacy amounts to mastering no more than a one-page compilation of words which illustrate all the letter sounds and which invariably contains common key words. This then serves as a reference for all further reading. That's how I learnt to read Lithuanian, Russian and German as a child, and French, Spanish and Italian as an adult.

In English, both learning to read the 100 most commonly used words and learning to read in general are much more problematic, because so many words contain phonic and spelling inconsistencies.

To save young children from such confusing phonic contradictions, any reading course that tries to introduce children just to phonic words at the beginning must avoid at least 35 words out of that 100, especially the 27 with highly unphonemic spellings (are, be, because, come, could, do, have, he, into, live, look, me, once, one, other, put, said, she, some, there, to, today, two, was, we, were, you).

It would not be difficult to improve the phoneticity of most of those 35 words. Just dropping the obviously redundant letters in "are, have, live, were" and "you" would already make learning to read much less confusing.

The patterns of "care, dare; gave, save; drive, alive; mere, here; out, thou" would then immediately stand out more clearly.

All six-year-olds who have mastered their basic phonics can suggest simple ways of improving most of those too, as the psychologist Gwen Thorstad established in 1995. They would, for example, spell "be, me, he, she" and "we" as the King James Bible of 1611 mostly did (bee, mee, hee, shee, wee) - as their first attempts at free writing, before they learn to spell "properly", often demonstrate.

But even improving just 14 of the tricky key words would already remove substantial barriers to progress, because learning to read the 100 key words would then teach children more about basic letter to sound relationships than is possible now. Initial phonics teaching would also become much simpler, because phonic reading schemes would no longer need to avoid quite so many high frequency words at the beginning.

Most people are rightly reluctant to consider drastic changes to English spelling. But could we not at least reverse some of the early scribal habits which have made the first steps in learning to read English so much harder than need be?

Masha Bell Author of Understanding English Spelling

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