Teach your grandchildren to unspell words so they can read

Did you know that English-speaking children typically need about three years to master the basics of reading and writing, whereas their counterparts in most European countries need a year or less?

Glancing through official statistics about Australians’ literacy levels is intimidating. Adults, males, females, technology-related, variations by age, state of residence. Whew!

With young grandchildren who are eager readers – good parenting there and good teachers – I was interested when I came across a site about a new program called Unspell. That sounds a really negative thing, un-spell. But it’s not.

According to the English Spelling Society in America, 60 per cent of the 7,000 most common English words have one or more unpredictably used letters and that’s what makes learning to read and spell English so hard.

Adults who have already mastered written English tend to forget about its many quirks. But consider this: English has 205 ways to spell 44 sounds. And not only can the same sounds be represented in different ways, but the same letter or letter combinations can also correspond to different sounds. For example, “cat,” “kangaroo,” “chrome,” and “queue” all start with the same sound.

Ad. Article continues below.

Basically, the only way to learn to read English is to memorise both the spelling and the pronunciation of many thousands of words – a task that calls for more rote memorisation than just about any other task in which humans regularly engage.

Engineer and applied linguist Dmitry Orlov has come up with Unspell, a way to eliminate the need to learn English spelling, temporarily if not permanently.

The human brain is primed to memorise groups of speech sounds, not sequences of letters, he says. With this in mind, he developed Unspell, his own writing system which is more or less a phonetic rendition of spoken English.

Anyone who has learned shorthand will understand what this is like – what you hear is what you record. CAT and KIT vary in the vowel only. When I lived in Papua New Guinea some years back, I found recording Pidgin English in shorthand was a breeze – no C, only K or S, purely phonetic just like Unspell.

Orlov assures doubters that Unspell is not an attempt at English spelling reform. It is not an attempt to change the English language in any way and it is not some sort of “dumbing down” of the way English is taught.

Ad. Article continues below.

Since English has 205 ways to spell 44 sounds, Unspell teaches the 44 sounds. A beginning reader should be able to learn to read sentences in Unspell in just a few months, Orlov says.


I love the idea of a system that removes the hassle of learning English spelling (children can learn spelling by rote AFTER they can read). It can be a way around dyslexia and other learning disabilities, and once parents learn Unspell too, reading can be a fun family activity not the ordeal it sometimes is. 


Would you like to see children learning to read with this simplified method? Do you think anyone learning English as a second language would find it much easier with Unspell?