Orthography is a broad term that refers to the spelling, punctuation, spacing, and special features of a language. According to Freeman and Freeman (2014), “One reason that spelling gets so much attention in schools is that English spelling is complex” (p. 149). This is due to its roots in German, French, Latin, and Greek, as well as centuries of evolution. In fact, a study of children across 14 European countries who were learning to read using a relatively consistent orthography (spelling system) could read with at least 80% fluency and accuracy by the end of first grade. Contrast this with 34% fluency and accuracy among English-speaking children by the end of first grade. A cross-linguistic comparison of English, Spanish, and Czech was conducted to determine factors that might influence early reading growth (Caravolas et al., 2013).
The ability of English-, Spanish-, and Czech-speaking children to read in their respective language is largely determined by phonemic awareness, knowledge of letters, and rapid automatized naming (RAN). RAN is a measurement of a person’s ability to quickly name items on a page. The 523 children who participated in this study began with similar reading abilities and were assessed six times from kindergarten through second grade. The results of the study corresponded with the authors’ hypothesis: children who are learning to read in English, which has a relatively inconsistent orthography, experience a slower growth rate than children learning to read in Spanish or Czech, which have a more consistent orthography. Letter knowledge seems to be more of a factor in determining initial reading ability in English than it does in Spanish and Czech. In other words, if children have weak letter knowledge prior to formal reading instruction, they will experience a slower rate of growth compared to their peers with greater letter knowledge. The authors of the study also concluded that whether a child is a “good” reader or a “poor” reader is well established by the end of first grade and that this is unlikely to change (Caravolas et al., 2013).
There are several takeaways from this study. Learning to read in English is more difficult due to its relatively inconsistent orthographic system. Also, English-speaking children entering kindergarten without strong letter knowledge experience slower reading growth compared to their more knowledgeable peers. Most critically, however, is that children who are considered “poor” readers by the end of first grade are more likely to remain so. This underscores the importance of early literacy skills even prior to formal instruction.
Caravolas, M., Lervåg, A., Defior, S., Seidlová Málková, G., & Hulme, C. (2013). Different patterns, but equivalent predictors, of growth in reading in consistent and inconsistent orthographies. Psychological Science, 24(8), 1398–1407. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612473122
Freeman, D.E., & Freeman, Y.S. (2014). Essential linguistics: What teachers need to know to teach ESL, reading, spelling, and grammar, (2nd edition). Heinemann.