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Our Lovely Written Language


How it got started

How it ended up

The building blocks of reading and writing

A little story to finish


How it got started


English is a vast language.  We have a huge number of words at our disposal.  It has been around a long time.  It's origins are in a different language called Old English.  Many other languages became mixed up with Old English in a kind of language soup - more than 100 of them in fact.  The main ones were Greek, Latin, Germanic, French and Norse.


The spelling of ordinary words was not standardized until 1755, when Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language was published.  Before that, and even afterwards, spelling varied from place to place and from person to person.  William Shakespeare spelt his name differently on different documents.  This was not unusual.  People used English spellings to write French words they had borrowed, or Latin spellings to write English words, or whatever seemed to work on the day.  Most people who could read and write were multi-lingual in earlier times.  Our written language is full of the stories of wars and conquests, scholars and religions and ideas - because these are the things that changed our language - both spoken and written.


Unfortunately this beautiful, rich soup has left us with a bit of a complicated system for writing words.  Sometimes people say English is the most difficult language to learn to read and write, but I don't think this is true.  Imagine learning a language where every single word had its own symbol.  Now that really would be a massive memory task!


It turns out that 92% of English words are spelt according to the rules and patterns.  Only 8% of words are non-phonetic.  But you have to know the rules and patterns to understand this.  And it has to be said, some of the rules and patterns are a bit confusing.


The basic idea of spelling goes all the way back to the Phoenicians, more than 3000 years ago.  They devised symbols to represent sounds in speech, though oddly enough, they left out the vowel sounds.


Next the Greeks got hold of their idea.  They made up some new symbols so that vowel sounds were included in the Greek alphabet.


From there the alphabet passed from language to language, and eventually to Britain's shores.  One of the problems was that English used sounds that some other languages didn't use - ch for instance.  Perhaps they should have made up some new symbols for these sounds, but they didn't.  Instead they used combinations of letters to represent them.


Of course, people spoke English differently all over Britain - just as they do today - so when they spelt words, they spelt them the way they said them in their particular area.  There was no such thing as 'the Queen's English' in those days.


Writing was done with a quill, often on vellum (calf leather).  It was difficult, slow, expensive, and if you made a mistake you had to start again.  No wonder they shortened up a lot of common words to make it a little quicker.


In the 1400s printing presses came into being.  Type setters were paid by the letter.  So it's not surprising that the printers happily added extra letters to words at that time.



How it has ended up


It depends which experts you ask, and how many hairs you want to split, but for practical purposes there are 

  • about 23 vowel sounds  (voiced)

  • about 23 consonant sounds (mostly unvoiced)


  • The 26 letters of our alphabet are used to write 33 sounds.  Some letters have more than one sound, and some sounds have more than one letter.  

  • Some sounds can't be written with a single letter, so combinations of letters are used.

  • Altogether there are about 100 letters and letter combinations (graphs) used for writing the sounds.

  • And after all this, there is one sound we make in English that doesn't have a symbol!  (It is the sound you hear in the middle of the word leisure, or at the start of the name Zsa Zsa Gabor - if you remember the beautiful actress)


There are about 13 key rules and patterns, plus a few more that help with higher level words.


You don't have to learn all of these graphs and rules off by heart, and clearly, most people don't. The thing is, most people pick up the general idea without actually knowing they have done it.


Here's a rule:  When the vowel sound is short we write ck on the end.  If we write ke on the end it makes the vowel sound long.  If the vowel sound is written with two letters we just write k on the end.  

Most people don't know that rule, or even that there is a rule about this stuff.  But they can still spell words like flack, ruck, Spock, dork, stark, spook, drake, bloke, nuke - without ever having learnt them in a spelling list.


When you can hear/detect all of the sounds in words, your brain does a lot of the work without you even knowing it is happening.  Rhyme, patterning and all sorts of skills swing into action with surprisingly little teaching.


Even so, the more you know, the easier it is to understand and predict spelling, and to work out unfamiliar words in reading.



The building blocks of reading and writing


So, the first and most important skill is learning how to detect each of the individual sounds that make up words.  


Children also need to know:

  • how to enunciate the sounds - say them clearly

  • how to write the sounds

  • how the alphabet works

  • how to detect syllables in words

  • how syllables help us to spell and read words

  • the key spelling rules and how to use them

  • how to deal with words that are rule-breakers

  • how to decode unfamiliar words in reading

  • how to build a bank of sight words for reading

  • how prefixes and suffixes work

  • verbs, adjectives, nouns and other strange beasties

  • plurals

  • yesterday, today and tomorrow words - tense and how we use it

  • how punctuation works

  • how titles, sentences and paragraphs work

  • why we use apostrophes in some words - contractions and possessives

  • how to improve memory

  • how to improve printing

  • how to use a dictionary - skills that work, including spell checker

  • a range of higher literacy skills including comprehension, deduction, inference, essay planning, essay writing, figures of speech, learning for exams and much more.




The magic of Literacy


A very long time ago, when people in Britain lived in tribal villages and the English had not yet arrived from the Continent, traders would sometimes venture there from far, far away lands.  The traders were from the lands we would now call The Middle East.  They came for furs and tin and walrus ivory and other valuable treasures.


Anyway, these fellows from the south had magic.  They could tell each other their thoughts by making marks.  They could make the marks on stuff called paper, or even with a stick in the dirt.  The performance of this special magic was evidently a very powerful type of spell.  And to this very day, we still say we spell when we write words to share our thoughts.


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