Monday, 16 July 2012

How complex is English?

Following on from yesterday's short post about dyslexia and music, and the idea that learning music is easier than English language & literacy because it is more logical, I took to the web to find out more about how English compares with other languages. The Economist has an interesting overview on the subject, contending that English isn't that complex set against languages from far and wide.

I also happened upon this detailed comparison between English and Spanish which provides the following information:


26 letters
42 - 44 phonemes
27 letters + conditional rules
50% of words are irregular and not readily decodable according to set rules


27 letters and 3 digraphs (rr, ll, ch)
22 - 24 phonemes
7 conditional rules
99% of words are readily decodable according to set rules

This is particularly interesting for me in my own work as I know of two students within my setting who have a history of speech and language delay and present with dyslexic-type difficulties - yet, relatively speaking, they have excelled at Spanish. 

This is initially surprising because there is a understandable line of thinking (often put forward by the students themselves) that would suggest if a student cannot master their native language at the same pace as peers then a foreign language will be even more problematic. However, these two particular students are both quite literal ('black and white') in their thinking and maybe the more logical structure of Spanish is more suited to them than English?

Finally, looking around the web I was surprised to find out other major world languages including the Germans, French and Spanish have public bodies which attempt to 'regulate' their language - the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibun, the L'Académie Française and the Real Academia Española, respectively. However, before we get envious, I also found this 'A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling' by Mark Twain which satirises any similar attempt to proactively make English easier to read and write:
For example, in Year 1 that useless letter "c" would be dropped to be replased either by "k" or "s", and likewise "x" would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which "c" would be retained would be the "ch" formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform "w" spelling, so that "which" and "one" would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish "y" replasing it with "i" and Iear 4 might fiks the "g/j" anomali wonse and for all. Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez "c", "y" and "x" -- bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez -- tu riplais "ch", "sh", and "th" rispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld. 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Dyslexia and Music

The BBC News website published a short article yesterday, 'My three dyslexic sons and music', about the experience of three brothers with dyslexia - and how they found music to be both a strength and a barrier-breaker in terms of literacy development.

The reasons given for this breakthrough is firstly, that this may simply relate to their particular make-up and environment rather than the often cited 'dyslexic special talent' theory - and secondly, that music has a more logical structure than language, particularly so the English language.

The big message here is that dyslexia is not simply about focusing on what a person cannot do, but about also understanding what they can do.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Slow Reading

On one of the walls of our Learning Support classrooms there is a poster quoting Joseph Addison, "Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body." - accompanied by a picture of a weightlifter trying to hold up an oversized dumbell. I think this pretty much sums up the work our team has undertaken in this area within school over the past two years - and by that I don't just mean using up blu-tack!

I guess I am somewhat of a traditionalist in the way I approach reading with my students, many of whom experience wide-ranging reading difficulties. I take the simple (though hopefully not simplistic) view that they need to keep practising reading, keep plugging away at it - albeit in a supportive, encouraging environment (click here for a quick practical example of what I mean by this). I also take the view that whilst we have to recognise the nature of reading is changing in this new Information Age (moving to one in which scanning and skimming predominates), there continues to be a need for students to develop at least basic functionality in 'the art of slow reading'.

Reading Skellig by David Almond recently with a Y8 group has re-affirmed this as I've watched the students really consolidate and enrich their burgeoning reading skills (and concentration skills, and social skills, and so on) by taking over 2 hours each week to simply sit and read with one another - and then engage in some great discussions about the story's many themes and questions. It's what we've been working with them on for two years, often in a quite dry technical sense, and this has proved a fitting end of the year. As a side note, it's also directed me towards looking further into P4C (Philosophy 4 Children) as a possible way of raising the thinking skills of National Curriculum Level 3 English students towards the demands of Level 4 and above.

But slow reading is not just something we need to continue to engage students in. Certainly I have noticed that as the time between my university years and the present moment increases, and as my working life becomes more demanding, I read less books from cover to cover. Instead I tend to rely heavily on the internet and 'toedipping' into a range of sources. There are of course benefits in this method in terms of the ground covered and time saved. But as with Skellig, setting aside a few hours each week to read and reflect on a powerful book - such as Toxic Childhood by Sue Palmer or The Starfish and The Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom - remains equally beneficial in terms of really taking on board new ideas which than then be used to shape practice. Not forgetting the added benefits to maintaining well-being and performance, as with our students, that this brings.

And so, with these thoughts in mind, this weekend I have taken the time to create four recommended reading lists using Amazon's Listmania:
I've also added Barrington Stoke books to the links section of this site as, to date, these have proved the most successful collection of books in terms of progressively increasing reading skills amongst students who experience persistent difficulties in this area - usually via 1-1 paired reading sessions or small withdrawal groups.

Any suggestions on other good reads would be appreciated - simply leave a comment...