Unspell


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Compared to other countries (all other things being equal) young students in English-speaking countries exhibit all of the following traits:

• They are far more likely to have trouble learning to read and write
• They take much longer to master the written form of their native language
• They are far more likely to be diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD or some other syndrome

Whereas students in most other countries become proficient readers within a year or two, in English-speaking countries the process takes years and sometimes is never completed satisfactorily. It has come to the point that many, if not most, college-educated adults could not survive professionally without a spell-checker.

All of these problems result from the attempt to teach them a dead, unpronounceable language at a young age. Written English is a dead language, written down haphazardly in the 17th century, and never updated. Since then, the spoken and the written languages diverged wildly, to a point where now it has become necessary to memorize both the sound and the spelling of just about each word. There are no rules, just a large collection of patterns, almost none of which is without exceptions.

English spelling becomes less and less problematic the older one gets (up to a point) and the more educated one becomes. It creates great difficulties in the first half of K-12, far less so in the second half, and I have never met a foreign-born Ph.D. candidate who had much trouble with it. It seems rather a waste of time to try to teach it to kids younger than 8 or 10. But they should be reading by then, shouldn't they?

The problem is in finding a way to teach kids to read quickly, so that they can go on and read anything they want rather than limiting them to carefully graded materials that avoid unfamiliar words that they do not yet know how to pronounce. The solution offered by Unspell is to teach them to read using a simple, logical, streamlined system first, so that by the time they are forced to tackle English spelling, at whatever age, they are already proficient readers and relatively well-read. Other approaches, such as Phonics, pretend that English spelling is logical and follows rules, and teach these rules based on hand-picked examples that obey them. But English has no rules; it has patterns, hundreds of them, and hardly any are without exceptions. These approaches are better than the old "look and say" system, which forces kids to memorize strings of symbols without attaching any consistent phonetic values to them. But this does not solve the problem; Unspell does.

Unspell can be taught by any English-speaking adult without any special preparation or training. The instructional booklet, Unspeller, is useful for kids of any age; kids even as young as 3 like looking at the pictures of animals and learning their names. The book contains 12 lessons, each with a fill-in-the-blanks exercise, which take anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour to go through. After that, the student becomes able to read any text, even one full of unfamiliar words, and pronounce each one correctly. It may be slow going at first, but speed comes with practice.

The scientific rationale for teaching Unspell is as follows. 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 "supper", "using," "sugar" and "usual"). 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.

Unspell has not yet undergone rigorous testing, but early results are very promising: even students who were previously diagnosed as dyslexic and remained unschooled as a result picked it up easily and started using it to read and write. Since the set of symbols Unspell uses is mostly disjoint with the Latin alphabet, combining the two systems does not lead to confusion. The potential upside of incorporating Unspell in a program of primary education is tremendous, while the downside is the cost of a small booklet and a few hours of instruction. Even if they do not go on to use Unspell on a regular basis, learning Unspell has significant positive side-effects: the kids learn the alphabetic principle and phonological awareness, plus the names of a large number of animals.