Here's the basic information: the English language has 44 sounds; but unless you studied linguistics in college, you don't know what they are. Nobody does. That's 90% of the problem. 

By contrast, the English alphabet has only 26 letters.  We borrowed it from the Romans. Our alphabet was never meant for English and it was never modified to fit the English spoken language.  (It works great for Latin.)

Spoken English has 20 vowel sounds but our alphabet has only 5 written vowels?  We're missing 75% of our vowels.  We're also missing a bunch of other letters.  No wonder it's hard for kids to learn how to read.

Reading is actually a very straightforward activity.  There are six fundamental steps to reading a phonetic written code.  They are:

1) Understand that language is made up of a fixed number of unique sounds (called phonemes);

2) Associate each sound with a sound symbol (a letter or combination of letters);

3) Blend sound symbols together and speak them in sequence to form a word;

4) Associate meaning with the word;

5) Blend words together to form sentences;

6) Associate meaning with the sentences.

It's really that simple.  There are no hidden or mysterious skills that a person must learn in order to read.  We make it harder than it actually is.

However, there is one caveat, and that is this:

Steps 2 and 3 (above) work well when a written code is phonetic, meaning when there's a one to one correspondence between letters and sounds (each sound has its own symbol). However, when a code is NOT phonetic, when it's missing vowels or other symbols, as in the case of English, steps 2 and 3 become a stumbling block that can prevent more than half of the entire population from mastering this basic life skill.

Such was the case with the ancient writing systems of Hebrew and Arabic.

Here's the story:

The ancient Arabic and Hebrew writing systems were originally created without vowels.  Big mistake. People had a hard time learning how to read and they mispronounced important names in the Bible and Quran. It took many years to learn how to read and most of the population was illiterate.  Reading was reserved for the high priests and clergy.  About a thousand years ago during the Middle Ages, before written English even existed, some creative language scholars invented a patch to fix the broken Arabic code that, by then, was already thousands of years old.  The Hebrew scholars followed suit.  The patch that was created was a special set of vowels called diacritics that were written above and below the original text.  You've probably seen or heard of this.  

The key takeaway is that the diacritics added back the missing data so people could actually read without making mistakes and without beating their heads against a wall trying to decipher a broken code.  It was a beautiful, simple solution to an elegant, but fundamentally flawed writing system.

Fast forward about 1,000 years.  The most successful education system among all western nations is Finland's; and, the Finnish written code is considered to be one of the most precise phonetic codes in the world with a direct one to one correspondence between written symbols and spoken sounds?

America's students rank 24th in reading among developed nations and 35th in math. But even THESE numbers are misleading.  Only 46% of our students are proficient readers.  If you got a 46% on a test in high school you wouldn't care if you were 24th or 124th.  The fact is, you failed and you failed miserably; so let's not sugar coat the problem any more.  Our kids can't read, they can't read math books and they can't do word problems in math.  They can't read history books and learn about history.  They can't read English books and learn grammar.  They can't write!  They can't fill out job applications or medical forms.  They can't do online research.  They can't send and receive emails and function in a workplace where information is everything.  We've failed our kids miserably and it's got to STOP.

In Finland, kids don't even start formal education until they're 7 years old, yet, within a short time they have a near 100% literacy rate among students. This didn't just make us wonder whether our education crisis was somehow related to our broken, "quasi-phonetic" written code; it convinced us that we had stumbled upon the "smoking gun."

Next>