Reading English is harder

The U.S. showing on that international reading test is better than you might think, writes Dan Willingham. Learning to read English is a lot harder than learning to read most other languages — including Finnish. English has a “deep orthography.” Finnish is “shallow.”

His conclusion:  “Early elementary teachers in the US are doing a good job with reading despite teaching reading in a language that is difficult to learn.”

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  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    I’m not a linguist, but I’ve been exposed to French, Latin, Spanish, and Vietnamese. All of them have far fewer exceptions to “rules” and far fewer irregular verbs.
    Got to mean something because it can’t mean nothing.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      What you have described is regularity of grammar.

      Which would make learning the *language* easier, but doesn’t mean that learning to read a language that one already can speak easier. The grammar could be regular, but the sound letter mappings could be very complicated (e.g. sometimes you use f, sometimes ph … the *sounds* would be identical, but learning how to spell could be challenging).

      English spelling is much less regular than, say, Finnish … *BUT* it is much more regular than most people think. There *are* rules that cover lots of spellings that appear irregular. The problems are:
      (1) English has more rules for spelling than many other languages, and
      (2) We don’t teach those rules as much as we used to. For a while with “Whole Language” we stopped teaching spelling rules at all.

  2. I think teachers (at least where I live) are doing a pretty good job teaching children to sound out words, read with fluency,etc. What I don’t see children able to do (especially in the poorer schools) is answer questions that extend what they have learned,show comprehension, connect to (perhaps nonexistent) background knowledge and just generally show those higher order thinking skills.
    I think it is a combination of parents not regularly asking questions while reading to their children (or not reading with their children) as well as schools not teaching background knowledge and asking children to think about what they are reading.

    There also seems to be a heavy focus on ‘reading skills’ and not on content. I have been at meetings at my daughter’s school and the principal won’t be saying anything one can object to and yet I feel as though the focus is on all the wrong things.

  3. Genevieve – Studies of children raised by deaf-mute parents show no evidence of any effect of a lack of verbal communication with their parents. Such children generally acquir normal linguistic competency despite their parents inability to speak.

    • I am not looking at any studies but, at risk of using a specific example and overgeneralizing, I once spent some time on a pretty complex matter with a woman whose 10-year-old daughter acted as her ASL-to-speech interpreter. The child’s vocabulary and oral language skills were way beyond those of her peers, I expect because she had to frequently process complex words and phrases and at ten had several years of experience facilitating communication between adults at an adult level.

  4. Let’s not confuse reading fluency, reading of words in isolation and reading comprehension.

    What G is saying is an accepted feature. It is possible to read appropriately, at a fluid rate but not understand it.

    This brings about a whole other list of problems.

  5. Thanks for writing this one up! I mentioned it in a comment earlier this week and it really gave me a lot to think about in terms of just how hard English language acquisition can be!

  6. I’m also with G on this one; some ES schools/teachers may be doing a good job teaching decoding, but some schools/teachers are still using “balanced literacy” and too few schools are using well-written classic literature, rich content across the disciplines and explicit instruction in grammar and composition. It’s likely to be that way in “good” schools and even more likely in schools where kids depend wholly on the schools for background academic knowledge and skills.