Literacy in the United Kingdom has fallen below the level found in other European nations due to a confusing spelling system.

The English spelling system is ‘absolutely, unspeakably awful’. The findings of new research indicate that children face 800 words by the age of 11 that hinder their ability to read due to the way they are spelled.

The long list of words that baffle children includes monkeys, asparagus, spinach, caterpillars, dwarfs, bananas, handkerchiefs, pliers, soldiers, stomachs, petal and telescopes, all of which contain letter combinations that are commonly pronounced differently.

‘English has an absolutely, unspeakably awful spelling system,’ said Bell, a former English teacher and author of the book Understanding English Spelling. ‘It is the worst of all the alphabetical languages. It is unique in that there are not just spelling problems but reading problems. They do not exist anywhere else.’

Bell argued that the spelling system was a huge financial burden on schools and was to blame for poor literacy results compared with the rest of Europe. In Finland, where words are more likelyto be pronounced as they look, children learn to read fluently within three months, she said. In the UK, academics have found that it takes three years for a child to acquire a basic level of competence. The tricky spellings make English particularly difficult for children with dyslexia and those from disadvantaged families, who are less likely to be read to regularly by their parents.

In the research Bell highlights examples of words that have the same pronunciation but different letter combinations. Examples include to and two; clean and gene; same and aim; day and grey; kite and light; and stole and coal.

Then there are those that look alike but sound different with the combinations of ‘ea’, ‘ee’ and the letter ‘o’ causing most trouble. Among the words falling into that category are eight and height, break and dreamt, and move and post. The letters ‘ough’ can also be pronounced in a number of different ways.

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100 of the most difficult words

Orange, foreign, rhinoceros, properly, vomit, tambourine, tournament, tourist, heaven, engine, exquisite, opposite, advertisement, gnarled, rigid, risen, sinister, spinach, video, vinegar, tie, wheelie, quiet, science, crier, pliers, soldier, Monday, mongrel, monkey, courage, magic, manage, palace, four, journey, gnash, gnaw, gnome, ghastly, guard, miracle, miserable, pigeon, pity, prison, month, mother, nothing, once, smother, son, sponge, tongue, wonder, almost, both, comb, ghost, gross, most, only, post, programme, deny, reply, July, obey, caterpillar, chapel, damage, dragon, fabulous, family, famished, garage, glacier, habit, hazard, hexagonal, imagine, panic, radish, miaow, powder, cauliflower, plant, pyjamas, raft, rather, salami, task, vast, kiosk, kiwi, machine, encourage, somersault, swollen, souvenir.

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