2e: Barriers to Letter Acquisition

Look at the letters to the left. Why might a student find these symbols confusing?

Research has established that children acquire literacy at differing rates, but are there features intrinsic to English that create barriers for all children learning to read and spell?

Yes, English does indeed have several features that make it more difficult than other alphabetic languages. First, and foremost, English is an alphabetic language which means each letter in the alphabet is an abstract symbol assigned to a specific sound. There is no inherent connection between the letter shape and the sound it represents. It is understandable that children who have not yet learned the English alphabetic system might consider these symbols abstract, random, overwhelming in number, and possibly boring! Until they understand how these letters are used to represent the sounds (phonemes) used in spoken English, letters are confusing. The graphic below illustrates some of the other problems inherent in learning to read and spell English.

Despite the confusion that children may experience when they begin to learn the English alphabetic system, it is a more efficient way of teaching someone to read than the alternative of learning each word by sight! In fact, as complicated as English may seem, approximately 87% of English words are phonetically regular when reading (Hanna, Hanna, Hodges, & Rudolph, 1966). Only 23% of words need to read by sight (memorized) or inferred by clues in the text. Meaning, if you have learned the basic system of sound-symbol correspondences, you will be able to read most new words by decoding (sounding out) them using the letter symbols (graphemes).

Here are a few other reasons why teaching the alphabetic system supports reading and comprehension:

  • Systematic and explicit phonics instruction develops fluency (i.e., automatic, rapid decoding of words).
  • There is a high correlation between fluent decoding and comprehension.
  • Learning how sounds map to letters supports later learning of the six syllable types that are used in multi-syllable words.