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Why English-speaking students struggle so much with spelling
The English language spelling system is notoriously difficult to learn to read and write because of the different combinations of letters to produce the same sound. - photo by Shelby Slade
Many people were spellbound as they watched the newest Scripps National Spelling Bee champions Gokul Venkatachalam and Vanya Shivashankar correctly sound out scherenschnitte and nunatak in order to gain the prestigious 2015 title.

This is the eighth year in a row a child from a South Asian family has won. This year, seven of the 10 finalists in the Bee were of Indian descent, Moni Basu reported for for CNN.

One reason Basu suggests for their success is the emphasis parents place on education and how much they practice spelling English words with their children, even though the children may not always see the advantage.

"It's for your benefit," one father told Basu he explains to his daughter. "Learn the root, the origin of a word. If you go through this at an early age you will grow as an individual and succeed in life."

As students between the ages of 9 and 15 participate in the intense spelling battle which occurs once a year, its impossible not to notice how many words they are asked to spell which most English-speaking adults have never even heard of before.

The English language spelling system is notoriously difficult to learn to read and write because of the large variety of letter combinations used to produce the same sound.

A 2003 study found that it took English-speaking students three years to master the basics of reading and writing in their language when it only takes European children one year to do so, Luba Vangelova reported for The Atlantic.

Theres no systematic way to learn to read or write modern English people have to memorize the spelling of thousands of individual words, file them away in their mental databases, and retrieve them when needed, Vangelova said. A small percentage of people excel at this skill, but for most children in English-speaking countries, learning to read and write their native language is a laborious and time-consuming exercise.

The current system of spelling is based on a much more logical system from Old and Middle English but was convoluted and corrupted over time by accidental introductions of misspellings, like bisy to busy, as books were being printed, Vangelova reported. However, English never was fixed to catch these errors.

In a sense, English speakers now talk in one language but write a different one, Vangelova said.

Some have proposed changing the English spelling system to make it easier for people to learn, but any changes may still be a long way off.

To help move the process along, Dmitry Orlov developed Unspell, which breaks down English spelling into groups of sounds that would make words be spelled the same way they sound, Vangelova reported.

While Orlov has seen some interest, he is working on testing it on a wider level. He said he sees the program as a way to prepare students to learn how to spell, read and write in conventional English, according to Vangelova.

The difficulty of spelling also accounts for the rise in the use of text speak and the acceptance of new spellings of common words like thru and lite, Harvey Morris reported for The New York Times.

In a review of Does Spelling Matter? by Simon Horobin for The New Statesman, Simon Heffer wrote that spelling, while important, doesnt directly correlate to intelligence.

(Horobin) is right to argue that the ability to spell correctly is not a sign of intelligence we all know some truly bovine people who can spell perfectly and some allegedly brilliant ones who cant, he said.
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