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Learning to read and write

The process of learning to read and write a language like English has to start by unpicking part of the process by which alphabetic writing was invented over some 5,000 years. The history involved some giant leaps, each one hundreds of years after the last. So necessarily this was the work of a series of scholars, all building on the work of others before them.

It is often noted systems of writing were invented separately in China and Central America. But that is true only of the first step –representing a word by a symbol. The whole history of writing with an alphabet is a much more complex process. And it only happened once. That gives an idea of how difficult that history really was.

For some children reinventing that history is n0ot easy. It wasn’t easy for me. I still remember my utter confusion at being told that three quarters of a circle drawn in the air had something to do with the first sound in the word cat There were things called letters. And they could be read in order. But the same principle did not apply to the word the. Why not? I asked. Two and a half years later another teacher explained things a different way. I still remember the day.

Unpicking history

With the exception of four clever letters, not conventionally taught first, the alphabet is essentially a set of abstract and arbitrary representations of speech sound, subject to a four-or-five way relation between:

  • The sound
  • The position in the word;
  • The letter;
  • The way the letter is formed by hand;
  • The letter name (set aside by many schemes).

This relation has to be unpicked in order for the learning process to happen. The unpicking should not be under-estimated.


Acoustically, human speech is a continuous stream of sound with no forcible separation between the words. There are clues about the words and syllables from the prosody, the rises and falls of the intonation from syllable to syllable. But where the individual sounds begin and end is not well-defined at all.

After 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 extraordinarily long, complex, and difficult, historical process into just a few words. But the difficulty of this is easily underestimated, particularly by the vendors of commercial schemes. The difficulty is not removed by the notion of phonics, useful as it is not to lose sight of the relation between the sound of B and the first letter in bee. By a consistent phonics, bury and berry should both be written beri. But even with that sort of consistency, there is still an irreducible problem for learners of English spelling in the fact that English has an inventory of around 44 phonemes, only 26 unaccented letters to write them, and between 300 and 400 relations between letters and sounds, known as ‘graphemes’.