Important Background Facts on the Written English Language

Essential to Effective Reading Instruction


There are several important facts we need to understand about our wonderful English language.   


1. English is a phonetic language with a phonetic alphabet: English is a phonetic language, meaning words are made up of sounds blended together. English words consist of various combinations of 44 sounds. The alphabetic characters, the 26 different artificial black squiggly marks, are the way we show this phonetic language on paper. The printed letters and combinations of letters represent specific sounds. The linguistic fact is written English is a phonetic alphabet, not a pictograph or other symbolic writing system. In linguistic history, written phonetic alphabets replaced pictographs precisely because there were too many words to represent by pictures. Written English is a phonemic code. When the complete code is known, the vast majority of English words are decodable. In addition, even irregular words are mostly decodable. To read, we need to translate or decode these black squiggly marks back into the sounds that blend to form specific words.  Decoding the sounds is the essential foundation for proficient reading. The more advanced skills in fluency and comprehension are dependant on first mastering phonetic decoding.


2. Written English is NOT simple. It uses a complex code: Unfortunately, English phonetic writing is not restricted to a simple one-to-one relationship between one specific printed symbol and one unique sound. English contains numerous complexities. The 26 written symbols and combinations of these symbols represent 44 sounds. There is overlap where a sound is represented by more than one symbol (/k/ can be written ‘c’, ‘k’, ‘ck’ and in a few words the Greek ‘ch’). Specific symbols often represent more than one sound (c=/k/ & /s/; o= /o/, /oa/ & /u/). Symbols combine to represent different sounds than the individual components (t=/t/ h=/h/ but th=/th/). Many combinations of symbols represent multiple sounds (ow=/ow/ & /oa/; ea = /ee/, /e/ & sometimes the unexpected /ay/). Some symbols influence and modify other symbols creating new sounds (w+a; a+l; the r-controlled vowel combinations). English also contains some irregular words that at least partially do not follow the phonemic code. An finally to top it off, English language has incorporated and assimilated components of Greek, Latin, German, French, Spanish, Native American and other languages. While these contributions add to the richness of English, they do complicate reading.  To read proficiently the student needs to learn these complexities.


3. Reading is a complex artificial skill: Reading our complex artificial system of recording the English language on paper is absolutely NOT a part of natural biologic development. While speech is a natural biologic process, reading our man-made arbitrary system of artificial black squiggles is not innate.  All components of writing and reading our language are contrived. For example, even the basic left-to-right directional processing of print is not natural. Think about it. In the natural world, the best way to gather information is to look all over. In contrast, to read English you must process the alphabetic symbols in an artificial, straight-line, left-to-right manner. Other languages apply up-to-down or right-to-left processing rules. While we obviously use our biologic functions of vision and hearing to read, there is nothing natural about learning to read. Because reading is not a biological developmental process, children do not necessarily acquire these skills. Like all complex learned skills, reading it is best taught step-by-step with practice and mastery of individual steps before moving on to advanced skills.


4. Children are naďve about how reading works and can easily end up on the incorrect track: It is important to realize not only is reading unnatural but children are often naďve about written language. Much of what skilled readers take for granted is NOT evident to children. Think about it from a child’s point of view. Printed letters are simply black abstract squiggles. Usually the least interesting thing on the page of a children’s book is the print. Adults glance at a page and come up with a terrific story. Many are not aware of how our reading system functions with printed letters representing sounds blended into the words of our language. Therefore, children easily adopt incorrect strategies which lead to reading difficulty. Reading instructional programs that are incomplete, include incorrect reading strategies, contain potentially misleading information, fail to teach all necessary skills or teach skills using analytical, embedded, implicit and other indirect instruction methods are ineffective with many children. It is true that some children figure out the necessary process and become good readers under any reading program. However, many do not learn and develop serious reading difficulties. If the child gets on the “wrong track” on their approach to reading, they face serious and persistent difficulties. The reason some children fail while others succeed has nothing to do with intelligence or ability, but rather with how different children learn and process information. Many children struggle with reading simply because they miss acquiring necessary skills. It is risky to leave it to chance for students to acquire the complex skills necessary for proficient reading on their own.


Additional articles, information, and resources on teaching students to read proficiently are located on the Free Reading Information page of the Right Track Reading website.



This article was written by Miscese Gagen, a mother with a passion for teaching children to read proficiently by using effective methods. She is also a successful reading tutor and author of the reading instructional programs Right Track Reading Lessons and Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons. The purpose of this article is to empower parents and teachers with information on teaching children how to read. We CAN improve reading proficiency, one student at a time!  More information is located at ~ Copyright 2007 Miscese R. Gagen