This is the second in a series of posts giving brief insights into why students studying English as a foreign or second language may not be succeeding in their studies. Hopefully these posts will inspire teachers to ask questions, research and discover more.

How different and deep is the writing system?

When ESL / EFL students seem to be struggling or progressing slowly, perhaps check how different the writing system of the target language is from their native language. One reason why your foreign language or second language students may be having difficulty with learning a foreign or second language is that the English writing system (orthography) is new and different for them. Another reason maybe within the target language itself and its ‘orthographic depth’ which affects its transparency. What does all this mean? Read on.  

Deep And Transparent Languages?

The number of different alphabetic systems that have developed world-wide means that the orthographic system of languages have differing levels of ‘deepness’ or ‘transparency’.

The ‘deeper’ the language, the larger the distance between the letter and its sound.  There will not be a one-to-one letter phoneme correspondence. The system will be less phonetic and new readers will have greater difficulty learning how to decode words and spell. Examples of languages with deep orthographies are English, French, Hebrew and Arabic.

For instance, in English the alphabet has 26 letters and approximately 100 sounds. This means a one-to-one correspondence cannot exist between most letters letters and sounds. A number of letters and letter combinations must represent more than one sound. When this is the case, EFL and ESL students have to learn that certain letters represent more than one sound and that certain sounds are represented by numerous letters and letter combinations.

If, however, a language has 26 letters and 26 sounds, meaning that one sound is represented by one letter, then the writing system or orthography would be classed as ‘shallow’ or ‘transparent’ and the alphabet and the orthographic / writing system would be much easier to learn so reading skills should develop relatively quickly. Examples of languages with shallow orthographies are Italian and Finnish.

How many ways can you write the sound /sh/?

The English orthography is deeper than the Spanish orthography which is fairly transparent. In English, there may be only 26 letters in the alphabet but there are over 70 letters and letter combinations representing the more than one hundred sounds used in the English language. The Spanish alphabet has 27 letters and under 40 sounds and, therefore, almost has a one to one correspondence between its letters and sound system.

The letter ‘e’ in English represents at least nine different sounds by itself or combined with another letter:
egg,  me,  rocket,  pollen,  bacteria, Europe,  rescue,  genre,  deity

Consider, for example, the sound /sh/ in English. Think of how many ways you can represent this sound in written form. There are at least 12. Try to think of them.

Spelling difficulties

Check the complexity of the writing system

The Orthographic Depth Hypothesis proposes that the orthographic depth of each language may influence the pace a student acquires reading and spelling. 
This is not the same as the Orthographic Dependent Hypothesis discussed in the last post which looks into what degree the characteristics of a person’s first language influence positively and negatively their reading acquisition and writing skills in a second language.

So, be familiar with the writing system you are teaching and its transparency – or depth. Its complexity could be slowing down your students’ learning. It is also important to find out your students’ native languages. You may discover your students’ native language is a shallow or transparent and they are struggling with the orthographic depth of the English language. 

The /sh/ solution

As for the sound /sh/ here are a few examples of how it is represented in English:
sheep,  machine,  station,  pension,  musician,  sugar,  profession, conscious, ocean,  anxious,  moustache,  assure

What can you do now?

Carry on getting the informative benefits from this series and read:

Is Lack of Native Linguistic Proficiency Causing Second Language Struggles?

Free Resources

If you are interested in finding out more about how to quickly and easily recognise and help struggling students and check if your lessons are ‘memory friendly’, join other teachers and professionals and check out any supporting free how-to-guides and resources. Enjoy!

Copyright Lesley Lanir. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

Disclaimer: Content on this site is for educational purposes. If you re-use any content please include original source and copyright information.

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