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Why Is English So Hard to Read?

This article is part 9 of 10 in the column Simple Words

Learning to read does not happen as naturally or at as young an age as learning to speak.

Children need to intentionally work on literacy to master this skill. In addition, English is filled with inconsistencies, and these make the language more difficult for children with dyslexia to decode or encode.

If you are like the majority of native English speakers, you might not even be aware of these inconsistencies while you speak. But when it comes to reading and writing, these inconsistencies make English a tough language for learners and users.


What are these inconsistencies in English?
  • There are 26 letters in the English alphabet but 44 phonic sounds.
  • There may be several different ways to pronounce a letter (the a in apple, car, and ball or the c in cat and ceiling).
  • Letter combinations can create new sounds (chsh, and ea).
  • One sound can be represented by up to four letters (apple, phone, plateau, and eight).
  • Combinations of letters can also have various pronunciations (chair versus chorus, eagle versus earth)
  • There are also exceptions that do not follow any rule (gel and get)

Unbelievably, English has 1,120 ways to create 44 sounds, which makes it a puzzling language. Do all languages have this many inconsistencies? Definitely not! English and French are the toughest languages. Others, such as Italian, Hungarian, and Finnish, are more phonetic. For example, in Italian only 33 combinations of letters create the 25 sounds. It is much easier to decode and encode a phonetic language, so many children with dyslexia still manage to learn to read and write in phonetic languages without interventions.

No wonder its inconsistencies make decoding English a challenge! When you understand what makes reading difficult, you can support your child by providing the right tools. Evidence-based multisensory language training, such as programs using Orton-Gillingham methods, can ease the challenges of learning to read and write, especially for children with a language-based learning difference.

Cigdem Knebel

cknebelCigdem Knebel is the founder of Simple Words Books, a parent of a dyslexic child, and author of Sam Is Stuck, a chapter book for young dyslexics. She believes that all children love to read—they just need to find that right book for them.

Her mission is to help young dyslexics, and reluctant and early readers with fluency, comprehension and, most importantly, self-confidence. She accomplishes this by publishing fiction books, and reading and phonics practice resources with the skills of young dyslexics in mind.

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