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Why Is English Such a Challenge to Read and Write?

Why Is English Such a Challenge to Read and Write?

It doesn’t take long teaching a child to read and spell to realize how difficult and arbitrary the English language can be. So words make little sense and follow no identifiable pattern. Partly, the difficulty is because English borrows words from other languages and adapts them to fit our phonetic and spelling rules. 

Unfortunately, in the end, English is just tricky. Why is English so challenging? Such a fascinating question!

Let’s compare English with Spanish.

Spanish has one additional letter than English, the letter ñ, as in mañana (“tomorrow,” pronounced “mon YAWN uh”) for a total of 27 letters in their alphabet.

Spanish has 30 sounds. There are 27 letters that each make a sound, as well as the sounds ch, ll in tortilla, and rr, which is a trill.

By contrast, English has one less letter, but those 26 letters make 44 sounds. Why so many sounds?

The Many Consonant Digraphs in English

Vowels each make several different sounds, and digraphs are where two letters combine to make one sound provide a seemingly endless supply of different sounds. 

Some of these are dramatic, like sh, ph, th, and ch. These combine to create something completely unexpected. Luckily, sh and ph just make one sound. 

The digraph th makes two: both with and without vocalizations. This makes the difference between thanks and these. However, ch gets crazy and makes three sounds: as in child, chef, and Christmas.

Additionally, some digraphs add an extra letter for no apparent reason, like wh, as in white, which could just be spelled wite without much loss, or ck, as in black. Why not blac? Or blak? Some instructors also add ng to the list of consonant digraphs, but this one includes both sounds, as in sing. So why include it?


Because the research proves that copywork is integral to helping students learn to read quickly and easily, the Happy Cheetah Reading System starts with handwriting, then moves to phonics, where students learn the connection between sounds and the written letters.


Let’s Not Forget the Vowels

And that’s not counting the vowel digraphs like ai, ae, or ay, and so on!

Then there’s monophthongs and diphthongs, too.

A monophthong, from the Latin mono, for one, and phthong, for sound, is a vowel that makes one pure sound. My name, Amy, has a pure long a sound at the beginning and the long e sound at the end.

Most vowels are like this.

But some words have a diphthong, where a second vowel creeps in like coin, oil, or loud. The vowel sounds aren’t singular, even though they don’t have two complete, distinct sounds.

So two vowels next to each other might be a digraph, as in steak. The two might be a digraph, as in boys. Or they might be two monophthongs hanging out next to each other, as in radio, triage, or violin.

So that’s complicated.

Writing All Those English Sounds

Here’s an even crazier thing: the 44 sounds in English have a full 250 or so different ways of writing those sounds!

Think about it — the long a sound is spelled many different ways:

  • a by itself, as in acorn
  • digraph ai as in train
  • digraph ae as in steak
  • digraph ay as in play
  • a_e as in cake
  • eigh as in eight
  • digraph ei as in vein
  • digraph ey as in they

And it gets worse than that!

Even using that same list above, those letter combinations do not always say long a!

  • The ey and ei sometimes say long e, like in journey or protein.
  • The eigh sometimes says long i, as in height.
  • The ae sometimes says long e, as in algae, or either short e or long i in aerie.
  • And, of course, a by itself is usually a short a, as in cat.

In short: there are 250 ways to spell 44 sounds, and the same combination of letters can often make more than one sound.

You could write ghoti to spell the word fish if you use the gh in laugh, the o in women, and the ti in partial.

No way! (Or would that be no whey? Or know weigh?)

It’s worse than a jigsaw puzzle because at least with a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces stay the same! (Imagine a jigsaw puzzle that kept changing patterns and shapes as you were trying to build it!)

Struggling Makes Sense

So if your children are struggling to learn to read, it makes sense. English is complicated.

There are many poems to emphasize just how crazy the English language is. 

Here is a part of one, “The Chaos” (look! Two monophthongs hanging out together!) by Gerard Nost Trenité. (Several versions are floating around the internet — this is one.)

Billet does not rhyme with ballet,

Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.

Blood and flood are not like food,

Nor is mould like should and would.

Banquet is not nearly parquet,

Which exactly rhymes with khaki.

Discount, viscount, load and broad,

Toward, to forward, to reward,

Ricocheted and crocheting, croquet?

Right! Your pronunciation’s OK.

Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,

Friend and fiend, alive and live. . . .

Finally, which rhymes with enough —

Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough?

Hiccough has the sound of sup.

My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

Have Patience for Those Learning English

So whether it is your youngest child or someone learning English as a foreign language, have some patience. As non-dyslexic native speakers, we roll through these absurdities of English without a second thought, but for many, it can be annoying and confusing. 

It’s important to remind ourselves of the challenges learning to read and write English can pose, and be patient with those struggling to learn.

Why is English a challenge to read and write?

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