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Mark Ellse: Why do so many children struggle at school? English is a fiendishly hard language

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“High Hill is one of the most desired areas in Borchester and indeed surrounding area’s and is only a stones throw away from the market village of Ambridge…”

To spare blushes, the location details of the above quotation have been redacted but thus runs the description of a recently advertised property. Immediately, from this description we know something about the writer. The omitted possessive apostrophe in stones may be a slip but combined with the greengrocer’s apostrophe in area’s shows that the writer likely doesn’t know the difference between possessives and plurals.

How does one react? It would be easy to use something like this as an example of the failure of British education. One could decry modern teaching methods and the dumbing down of school examination. Or pick an OECD survey to show that the UK is low down an international literacy league table. (Not all OECD surveys do.) But a truer picture needs more thinking about than such a knee-jerk reaction and is actually more interesting.

As Shaw said in his preface to Pygmalion: “The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. German and Spanish are accessible to foreigners: English is not accessible even to Englishmen.”

Languages vary in difficulty. At one level Chinese is the easiest language to learn to read because decoding is a simple matter of memory. The symbol for rén, man, looks like a man and any two-year-old can recognise it and ‘read’ it. Italian is unbelievably easy, so phonetic that it is a dream to teach. German is difficult to write accurately because its case endings defeat even many natives but its spelling is phonetic, so reading and spelling are easy. French spelling is harder with irregularities like ville, fille, fil and fils.

But English tops the list of difficulty. Its syllables are complex with a wide range of consonant clusters at both ends and its orthography (system of spelling rules) is more complex than any other language. English has hundreds of spelling rules and so many exceptions whereas Italian’s fifteen rules are always obeyed. An astute primary teacher once said to me “I feel that I have to apologise to the children that I teach for the difficulty of the English language.” This feeling is echoed by all of us who have taught English to children of a wide ability range.

For most languages it takes between three months and a year for children to recognise 90 per cent of common words. But children learning the few hard languages lag behind. French children are a year behind. English children are worst off – two years behind the rest. This is nothing to do with education, simply a measure of the difficulties of learning a particularly hard language. Shaw’s suggestion was “The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast.” There was probably more chance of this happening in Shaw’s day than now.

Of course, bright children will learn to read and spell with facility. But there is a significant proportion of children who not only fail to master English, they even fail to acquire a basic grasp. For them, access even to a rudimentary education, is limited by a barrier that education itself cannot overcome. Unlike their Italian equivalent who can turn those symbols on the page into something recognisable after a year, the below average English child is struggling at the age of 11 and will never acquire functional reading.

Weak children not only need more education than bright children, they have a greater barrier in the way: they are slower at acquiring the literacy that gives them access to the very education they need. Books, reading material in general, even the internet, the very bases of education, will always be a barrier. English is the hard intelligence test that no child can avoid in school. When they reach school leaving age some will show, in their letters of application and the way they speak at interview, that they have high ability. The moderate English skills of the one who drafted the opening paragraph of this post are clear. And for those with low ability, their literacy, just as apparent, will reflect their low intellectual ability.

Over the last couple of decades, secretaries of state for education have sought the ‘holy grail’ of education. Sometimes their quick fix has involved a change in teaching method, for instance a preoccupation with phonics. At other times the suggested solution is a change of structure: academies and free schools, for instance. Perhaps intensive phonics, the new ‘wonder drug’ of literacy, may indeed effect improvements. Personally, I doubt it. Phonics has always been used to teach children even though ‘look and say’ has drifted in and out of fashion. We should be wary of celebrating any educational revolution for a good while: the only real test of whether an educational improvement has taken place comes thirteen years down the line when the education secretary who initiated it is long forgotten.

There are harsh realities with which education must contend: children are of different abilities; the English language is fiendishly difficult and, of itself, intrinsically divisive. Educational outcomes will be different – markedly so – and will strongly reflect ability, whatever teaching method or educational system we use. Such a view is an anathema to the egalitarian spirit of the age. If education is to do what it could do, we need to accept how things really are, not how we would like them to be.

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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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