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Learning to read and write

Unpicking history

If Gallileo was right on the point that the alphabet is the greatest invention in human history, involving at least eight great minds over 5,000 years, it is hardly surprising that some children struggle with learning to read and write, especially when the alphabet is used as inconsistently as it is in English, with 500 or so graphemes.

For English-speaking children, learning to use the alphabet means linking:

  • A phoneme, in the case of most consonants, ‘said’ with a following UH vowel, known as ‘schwa’, and in the case of the five vowel letters in hit, wet, hat, hut, hot, for a system which lacks a single letter for the sixth of these vowels, the one in put and look;
  • The various diphthongs like those in hay and high, digraphs as in thin and path and shin and wish, affricates as in chin and John, and doubled letters for single sounds, as in hammer and sorry;
  • The marginally different system for a hundred or so ‘functors’, those words whose only role is in relation to one or more other words or the sentence as a whole, two using different letters for the commonest vowel in the language – in the and a, and the system of contractions, written with the apostrophe, as in wouldn’t and would’ve;
  • In many cases, the relation between the position of a letter in the word and a given phoneme, as see and mess, or affecting only one of the vowel letters, A, E, I, O or U, in the case of ‘silent E’;
  • A number of other exceptional cases, some very common, often with only a single exemplar, like the short E sound in bury (exceptional also in having only one R), in contrast to merry, ferry, wherry, Jerry, Derry;
  • The geometry of a letter in terms of lines and curves or parts of a circle;
  • The way the letter is formed by hand (always starting at the top, sometimes initially moving leftwards, as with lower case A and capital S and O), often with a stroke joining one lower-case letter to the next;
  • The familiar letter name (which proponents of Systematic Synthetic Phonics refuse to countenance). By an alternative, older approach, the more inconsistent the system the more useful it is to have a name for whatever is used inconsistently, in this case letters.

With 44 sounds in most ‘standard’ varieties of English today (on many counts) and only 26 letters, there are a number of fudges – as for the vowel in foot and put. The familiar letter names make it much easier to describe what is happening in all the 300 or so ‘special cases’ – like ‘silent E’.


Acoustically, human speech is a continuous stream with no separation between the words or speech sounds, other than in pauses. There are clues about the words and syllables from the prosody or rhythm, the changing levels of stress and the rises and falls of the intonation. But where the individual sounds begin and end is not well-defined at all.

The unpicking

Obviously, the unpicking of history is only the very first step in learning to read and write. Teachers have found clever ways of squeezing the long, complex, and difficult, historical process into perhaps 100 hours of teaching. But the obvious difficulty of this is not swept away by the slogans of ‘Systematic Synthetic Phonics’. It is possible to systematise the commonest relations between letters and sounds, known as ‘graphemes’. But this only works for an arbitrary set. The U in bury, the EIGH in eight, the N’T in wouldn’t, and the almost 500 other such cases have to be taught as exceptions.

I still remember the teacher who came to teach me for one day while I was off school for nine months with tuberculosis. He seems to have unpicked for me what had been a mystery of literacy in English for the preceding two years of school. He opened a book for me in the most literal of senses.