Systematic phonics

English language complexity

The alphabet is the visual code for representing oral language. Learning how to crack this code would be much simpler if there was just one letter for every sound (or phoneme). But there are almost twice as many phonemes as letters, and each letter is used to represent several sounds in different contexts – note for instance the ‘t’ in ‘nation’, ‘native’ and ‘nature’.

English has a ‘deep’ orthography unlike say Finnish, German or Greek. The point is that the relative inconsistency in mappings of letters and sounds makes learning to read English much harder than learning to read many other languages. Some words in English, for example ‘people’, ‘yacht’ and ‘choir’, represent no pattern in the language in that there are no other words with similar sound-letter mappings or, put more technically, they have no ‘orthographic neighbours’ and must be learned as distinct patterns. A whole word approach therefore is relevant for such words. This highlights the inadequacy of using just one teaching method.