Unspell


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There is a situation that every parent dreads: being called into your kid's school, and being told that your kid isn't keeping up in reading. Quite a bit of the time your kid might end up getting diagnosed with dyslexia, or ADHD, or some other popular syndrome. This can happen to any parent anywhere in the world, but it is many times more likely to happen to a parent in the English-speaking parts of the world. Finnish and Turkish kids learn to read in half a year, Russian and German kids learn to read in a year or two, but English-speaking kids take eight years to learn to read at the eighth-grade level, which is really not very high, and many of them fail to achieve it. In all these non-English-speaking countries, there is no concept of "grade level": a kid learns to read, and goes ahead and reads anything. How well a kid understands the reading is another question, but the mechanics of reading disappear pretty quickly. And, in all these non-English-speaking countries, many times fewer kids are diagnosed with some syndrome that precludes them from learning to read adequately.

The reason for this is simple: English spelling was frozen sometime in the 17th century. Since then, the spoken language evolved, but the written language hasn't. In essence, written English is a dead language, like Latin or Classical Greek: nobody knows how to speak it. Simplest words have changed their sound: the word "one" (1) reflects how it once sounded; the word "only" still retains the original sound. In a sane system, "one" would have been changed to "wun" a long time ago, but written English has no ability to change.

As a result, to learn to read English, kids have to remember, for each word, how it sounds and how it's written. There are no rules at all, and there are 300 or so "major patterns" that are helpful in learning how to sound out words, but even if you learn to follow these 300 rules there is no guarantee that you won't mispronounce any words, so you still have to memorize each one. If a word is unexceptional, then you still have to memorize the fact that it is unexceptional.

Not surprisingly, not all kids are up to this weird task, and about half of them struggle with it at some point. This has nothing to do with intelligence, and perfectly smart kids often find that they can't memorize random combinations of Latin characters fast enough to keep up. The good thing is, for almost all kids, their ability to do this improves as they mature: after about age 10 learning English spelling becomes much less of a problem. The question is, How do we get kids to read in the meantime?

This is where Unspell can be very helpful. Since it records speech sounds directly, with each sound corresponding to a specific symbol, there is very little to learn. A dozen lessons, each accompanied by a fill-in-the-blanks exercise, contained in the book Unspeller (a slim book with big text and lots of pictures) is enough to get most kids reading and writing unspelled English—even kids that have been declared to be dyslexic, or challenged, or some other currently fashionable euphemism is for “failing at teaching kids to spell before they are ready.” And then these kids can go ahead and read Alice in Wonderland, Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island, and learn to love fat books full of print instead of hating and fearing them. When the time comes, they will still learn spelled English, but at an age when their minds are ready for it.

What's more, learning Unspell will help them learn spelled English. Cognitive scientists have determined that there are two ingredients that are vital to learning to read with ease. They are called "phonological awareness" and "the alphabetic principle." Phonological awareness simply means knowing all the sounds that make up your language and distinguish one word from another. The alphabetic principle is the idea that there is a given symbol always indicates a certain speech sound, and vice versa, no exceptions. English violates the alphabetic principle (just think of the sound of the letter "s" in "some", "raise," "sure" and "Asia") and that is not at all helpful in achieving phonological awareness. Unspell fixes both of these problems automatically: in learning it, you simply can't avoid achieving full phonological awareness and grasping the alphabetic principles. And once kids have these vital ingredients, they can't help but sound out every word they see, and even if they do it incorrectly at first, they will still have a much easier time memorizing it. This is because our linguistic memory is phonological memory: it is geared to remembering spoken words, not written ones. This should make obvious sense: spoken language is an evolved human trait, and is hundreds of thousands of years old; written language is quite recent and completely artificial.

And so, should you be called in to school and told that your kid has trouble keeping up in reading, now there is something you can do about it: teach your kid Unspell. Any adult can do it, no special training is needed, it won't take much time out of your busy schedule, and it can actually make for a fun family activity. And then, to your surprise, your kid will pick up an unspelled book, and start reading. A few page-turners later, and your kid will be sold on the idea that reading is fun.