Is English a Phonetic Language

Reading text is a fundamental aspect of US culture – if not the world. It was claimed by the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy that nearly half of the US population had inadequate reading and comprehension skills.


Our story begins with the 1890s US senses. These statistics stated that 98% of the US population including servants, blacks, and the poor could adequately read. This I contrast with the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy report.

So, I’m not alone when it comes to reading or writing text. Why is it so many people like me cannot effectively read?

Dyslexia - a disorder characterized by reading difficulties. Problems may include deficiencies in spelling words, reading quickly, writing words, sounding out words, pronouncing words when reading aloud and understanding what one reads.

Lexical - of or relating to words or the vocabulary of a language as distinguished from its grammar and construction. It is the phonetic interpretation of the meaning of a word, a phrase, and a sentence. 

What causes dyslexia?

It is believed to be caused by the interaction of genetic and environmental factors. In some cases, dyslexia can develop due to a traumatic brain injury, stroke, or dementia, which they call "acquired dyslexia". However, did half the US population develop brain damage or are we suddenly genetically predisposed to lacking the ability to learning English? No, the real underlying mechanisms of dyslexia results from ambiguities, inconsistencies, and incongruities within the brain's language processing; meaning how the student was taught English.

In June 1969 when I graduated from high school, I could barely read much less spell most words. The educational system blamed this on the belief I had significant vision loss. Strangely enough, I did make it through a 4-year college in computer Science.

It wasn’t until I became motivated in 1997 to make an assertive effort to reteach myself English. At the time I fell for a university professor of English literature who eventually broke it off with me because of my illiteracy. I fought vigorously to prove her wrong. Even though we never got back together, I subsequently did significantly improve my reading and writing skills.

At the suggestion of a friend who home schooled her children, I went to our local department store and purchased a phonics book for young children. It was my studies in computer science that led me to the understanding as to why I was – and still am dyslexic. It has to do with how my brain stored printed language words as they relate to speech.

Since the inception of the language, English was taught from a phonetic perspective rather from a symbolical view. Even though English has significant numbers of inconsistencies, it is a phonetic language. All languages including Chinese are considered phonetic. Language by definition is phonetic.

The reason English has so many exceptions is we have many words that were, shall we say, obtained from other languages. The reason, the English were conquerors of many cultures, hence the eclectic British empire. In their conquests, they acquired and added words to the language that were not phonetically correct, which also explains the hideous numbers of homonyms – words that sound the same but mean different things – sea & see, saw & saw, so & sew. Then there are the countless synonyms.

With all that aside, how was I taught to read?

Because of the convolution of spazzed-out parents and educators over my vision loss and me doing very poorly in adjusting to preschool, I was sent to what they called “special school.” There I was exposed to the SRA Reading Labs theology as well as these so-called new ideas of teaching reading.

EDL Tach-X V-45-P Film Strip Projector

This involved learning words via the above hideous machine, a filmstrip projector that had a kind of variable timed shutter that would momentarily flash a projection of a word on a screen for a preset period of time – maybe a tenth of a second.

In the late 1950s, it was believed children who were taught words as symbols (sight reading or see and say) would be able to read much faster than learning words phonetically. It was theorized that the mind would take more time in assembling a word phonetically syllable by syllable rather than seeking the whole word. What they didn’t realize was the unconscious mind could assemble a word as fast or faster than searching among hundreds of thousands of words in the brain for that symbolic word. Because English is phonetic, it is much more conducive to read phonetically (the same as we speak) rather than relating a single symbol to a meaning and the sound of that word. Sight reading also negates word relationships where phonics naturally has a relationship to parts of words.

As a consequence of being taught using the sight and say method, I had difficulty in memorizing the thousands of words required for me to learn each year. As for my siblings, they were taught English phonetically. They have no problems with reading.

Definition of phonetic - representing the sounds and other phenomena of speech. of or relating to spoken language or speech sounds. Phonetics broadly deals with two aspects of human speech.

  • Production: the ways humans sequentially make sounds, and
  • Perception: the way speech is understood.

Phonics - A method of developing basic elementary skills of reading and spelling based on the phonetic sounds of parts of words.

Sight Reading – memorizing whole words as individual symbols.

We as Americans speak phonetically. However, most Americans who were born after 1970 were taught sight reading, memorizing whole words; something in the neighborhood of 240,000 words.

What is the difference between the two methodologies?

If we take a tiny slice from my old Webster’s New American Dictionary Deluxe Addition c1966, and we represent these few words in both a list as well as a tree structure, we see where we can look-up and determine the sound and the spelling of words from both.

In computer terminology, the above two methodologies are stated in terms of algorithms. The first one is an Indexed Sequential Access Method (ISAM). The second is a B-Tree Access Method (BTAM).

ISAM is a method of searching an index for records in computer files of data such that records can be retrieved sequentially or randomly by the use of one or more keys in a list.

BTAM is a self-balancing tree data structure that maintains sorted data and allows searches sequentially as well as access randomly in logarithmic time. The keys are fragmented and related to each other by pointers.

ISAM – In computer technology, these key words are related to records in files by way of what are called pointers. An Index entry (in this case, an English word) will include a pointer to a record in another data file – in our case, the word’s definition as well as its sound.

BTAM – Each element of the tree points to both another element as well as the element’s sound. The last element points to the definition.

This is a very simplistic explanation of a B-tree structure. In reality, there are a number of components that have been left out of this example.

B-trees were invented by Rudolf Bayer and Edward M. McCreight while working at Boeing Research Labs. The purpose of the development was efficiently managing indexes of lists of document pages in large random-access files. The basic assumption was that indexed lists would be so voluminous that only small chunks of the data could fit into main memory. Meaning, when storing English words as individual symbols, the Indexes become significantly massive when compared to B-Trees. This is because many words share redundant syllables.

Basically, I was initially taught to memorize words in huge lists scattered around in my brain with little to no relationships to their meanings. My brothers and sisters were taught something similar to phonetics thereby developing a greater ability to relate words to their meanings and sounds. As a consequence of being taught using the sight and say method, I had difficulty in memorizing the thousands of words required for me to learn each year. As for my siblings, none of them have any problems with reading.

Note. We do not know exactly how the brain stores language and its components such as syllables, words, sound, etc.  All we know is the current methods of teaching English are obviously not working.

Another horrible machine that was used on me was something called a Controlled Reader.

EDL Controlled Reader

It is a machine that projected on a screen in front of the classroom a filmstrip with a short story imprinted on it, the projector passes the film through line by line at a certain rate. Each line could be set to be scanned by way of a moving window. As the reader improved their skill, the machine could be easily adjusted to increase the speed.

Lines could be displayed in their entirety, or a window would move across each line at a set rate pushing the reader to read faster.

The EDL Words per Minute Controlled reader was developed by EDL (Educational Developmental Laboratories) which was part of McGraw Hill Inc, of Huntington, New York. It was designed out of a research program to help readers increase their reading speed. This is one of the devices developed out of a study dating back to 1931 that EDL did with 39 universities testing eye movement related to reading speeds. The company is still a part of Taylor Associates named after the founder’s family.  They designed and built the Visagraph and developed the Reading Plus for the web.

It's ironic that between 1980 and 2003, so many people never developed adequate reading skills. It’s also a fact that by 2003, huge numbers of students were taught sight reading, the memorization of whole words. Note, this downturn occurred during a time long before the widespread use of the internet and mobile devices.

The book Professor Phonics Gives Sound Advice Sister Monica Foltzer OSU (Sisters of Ursuline Cincinnati) is unique in that it contained the only totally organized phonics system.

As a young religious nun, Sister Foltzer was distressed by her student’s difficulties with reading. After extensive research on how to help children overcome their struggles, she was struck by one teacher’s comment about students having a higher success rate when taught the difference between long and short vowel sounds.

Inspired by this comment, Sister Foltzer created worksheets for her students. Instead of using the “sight- say” method, she presented vowels and consonants in a logical hierarchy, and when tied together with five simple vowel rules, it resulted in a complete relational unit in the child’s mind.

Note. In the 1950s, first grade students were taught to read English from books with large print. This was not because young students had poor eyesight, rather because large fonts made it much easier to point to words with a finger by a person teaching the student reading, as well as the student themselves.

It was in the 1960s when the movement to methodologically teach phonics was gaining momentum. Sister Foltzer realized the time was ripe for sharing her work on a larger scale. With two fellow sisters, Professor Phonics Gives Sound Advice was published in 1965. Used throughout the U.S., by 1975, it was already in its fifth printing.

Adapting her work from teaching children to teaching adults English as a second language, Sister Foltzer had much success – first using it with religious sisters who were refugees from Cuba.

For more than 10 years, Sister Foltzer was the Director of the Intensive Phonics Workshops at Xavier University and gave lectures throughout the US.

Today the book is no longer being published. Used copies of the book are sold on eBay for over $100.

Sound out the word…

Yes sister, I’ll continue trying.

S April 1st, 2022