The term “phonics” is frequently used interchangeably with reading instruction, so it’s understandable that many people believe English can be reliably “sounded out.” Ever since alphabets were first invented, alphabetic languages have used letters to represent the sounds in words. The easiest alphabetic languages to learn are those, such as Italian, that use one grapheme (a single letter or a letter combination) for each phoneme (the smallest sound unit in a language). As the grapheme/phoneme relationship becomes less direct, learning to read a language becomes more difficult. English, because of its origins has developed a very complicated spelling system that is far less regular than other Latin based languages.
As neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene notes:
“One may wonder why English sticks to such a complicated spelling system. Indeed, Italians do not meet with the same problems. Their spelling is transparent: every letter maps onto a single phoneme, with virtually no exceptions. As a result, it only takes a few months to learn to read. This gives Italians an enormous advantage: their children’s reading skills surpass ours by several years, and they do not need to spend hours of schooling a week on dictation and spelling out loud. Furthermore, dyslexia is a much less serious problem for them.” 1
The Department of Education claims that 50% of the words in English can be sounded out – a figure that is commonly cited. Even if this is correct, students are still left with a written language in which decoding using phonics has no better than a coin-toss odds of success. This makes sounding out a very challenging guessing game. But the reality is that those who have studied English phonology have found that the actual percent of words that can be reliably sounded out is closer to 20%. Here are some of the findings from scholars who have studied the issue:
The 50% figure comes from a 1966 study conducted by Professor Paul Hanna which was funded by the US Dept. of Health, Education & Welfare. The results were published in a paper entitled Phoneme-Grapheme Correspondences as Cues to Spelling Improvement. 10 Hanna studied 17,310 words selected from the Thorndike-Lorge Teacher's Word Book of 30,000 Words (omitting foreign words, trade names, slang, and rare words) and used Merriam-Webster dictionary pronunciation guide to create 203 phonics rules that were put into a computer.
Using these rules, Hanna input whole words and the computer achieved 49% spelling accuracy. However, citing this result to claim English is 50% phonetic is highly misleading for multiple reasons: 1) Hanna reached this number by allowing more than one grapheme per phoneme. If you allow only one grapheme per phoneme, English is only 20% phonetic. 2) Children are not computers and cannot memorize 203 rules. 3) Even if half the words were phonetic, children would still have no way of knowing which word is spelled phonetically and which is not. Imagine teaching arithmetic and telling children that 2+2=4 fifty percent of the time.
English has evolved over the course of millennia, without any central planning. Words from Germanic Anglo-Saxon (woman, Wednesday) and Old Norse (thrust, give) were mixed with words from the Latin (annual, bishop), and Norman French (beef, war). Science, technology and the Enlightenment added words, often based on Greek (anthropology, phone, school), and wars and globalization added even more, like “verandah” from Hindi and “tomato” from Nahuatl (Aztec) via Spanish. Words from other languages typically carry their spelling patterns into English. So, for example, the spelling “ch” represents different sounds in words drawn from Germanic (cheap, rich, such), Greek (chemist, anchor, echo) and French (chef, brochure, parachute).
That English spelling is highly irregular is simply a fact teachers and students have to deal with. That’s why, throughout history, a veritable who’s who of English speakers have promoted the idea of reforming English spelling. These include Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, Andrew Carnegie, Charles Dickens, John Milton, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Darwin, and Isaac Asimov, etc. But the spelling reformers have yet to succeed, and to this day English spelling is incredibly challenging for children (and adults).
It’s because English spelling is so difficult to master that English is the ONLY language that has “spelling bee” competitions and a pronunciation guide in the dictionary.
English spelling is so irregular that dreaming up hypothetical spellings for words has become a kind of pastime. For example, Professors Dorothea Simon and Herbert Simon found that the word “she” could be spelled 36 different ways (the “sh” sound can be spelled 9 ways - TI, SH, CI, SSI, SI, C, CH, T, S - and the “e” sound in 4 ways E, EA, EE, IE). 11 And in what is probably the most famous example of orthographic gymnastics, in 1855 publisher Charles Ollier spelled the word fish as “ghoti” – taking gh from rough, o from women and ti from nation. (This example is frequently misattributed to George Bernard Shaw.) 12
But while these examples are amusing, just consider how confusing it must be for a child first learning the written language. To get an idea of how complicated learning to “sound out” English is for a beginning reader, consider this one sentence where the very common “ea” vowel combination can be pronounced 13 different ways.
Put simply, if phonics worked as it should, the word would be spelled “foniks.” So while kids do need to learn how our written language represents our spoken language, the use of explicit phonics instruction to teach them to read with fluency and comprehension will always be very challenging for students.
1“Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention” by Stanislas Dehaene https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/6719017
2“Relative Frequency of English Speech Sounds” by Godfrey Dewey https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674419193
3“A Linguistic Perspective of Functional Illiteracy” by Julius Nyikos Published by the Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States, Volume 14 https://www.lacussquare.org/
4“The Utility of Phonic Generalizations in the Primary Grades” by Theodore Clymer https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ540711
5“The Truth About Vowels” by Robert L. Hillerich https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED089252
6“Why Our Children Can’t Read” by Diane McGuinness https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/700291.Why_Our_Children_Can_t_Read_and_What_We_Can_Do_About_It
7“Is there a causal link from phonological awareness to success in learning to read?” by Anne Castles & Max Coltheart https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14711492/
8“The National Reading Panel's Meta-Analysis of Phonics Instruction” by Donald Hammill & Lee Swanson https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2006-22028-003
9“Reconsidering the Evidence That Systematic Phonics Is More Effective Than Alternative Methods of Reading Instruction” by Jeffrey S. Bowers https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10648-019-09515-y
10“Phoneme-Grapheme Correspondences as Cues to Spelling Improvement” by Paul Hanna & others https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED128835
11Alternative Uses of Phonemic Information in Spelling” by Dorothea P. Simon & Herbert A.Simon https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED063295
12“Ghoti” by Ben Zimmer https://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/27/magazine/27FOB-onlanguage-t.html