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Glasgow 2001 Tuesday, 4 September, 2001, 21:52 GMT 22:52 UK
Children 'slow' at learning English
Blackboard PA
English spelling and syllable structure can be more complex
Children learning to read and write in English are slower to master it than other European youngsters learning their own language, new research suggests.

Scientists at Dundee University compared literacy skills of primary school children in Scotland with 14 other countries.

They found that the Scottish children took two to three years to reach the same literacy levels as their foreign counterparts.


Mastery of basic foundation elements of literacy clearly occurs much more slowly in English

Professor Philip Seymour
Dundee University
Project leader Professor Philip Seymour told the British Association Festival of Science that factors like complex spelling and syllable structure could be responsible.

Speaking at the event at Glasgow University, he called for further research into whether children should start learning earlier.

Professor Seymour said: "Mastery of basic foundation elements of literacy clearly occurs much more slowly in English than in many other European languages.

"The slow rate of progress in English may be related to some degree to educational factors such as age of starting school or teaching methods.

"However, it seems likely that the main cause is linguistic and derives from difficulties created by the complex syllable structure and inconsistent spelling system of English."

Virtual non-readers

He said that children in most of the countries were able to read 90% of a selection of common words.

But the Scottish children could only read 30% after the first year at school and 70% after their second.

Commenting on the findings, Professor Seymour added: "Our Danish and English samples included, for example, children who remained virtual non-readers after one year in school as well as children who read very effectively.

"This variation stands out from other European languages in which the vast majority of children tend to learn quite quickly."

Esperanto

BBC News Online user Ian Fantom, from Berkshire, e-mailed to sing the praises of Esperanto.

He said his wife was brought up with Esperanto as her first language, Dutch her second, and English her third.

"We brought up our own children with Esperanto as their first language, and English as their second," he said.

"The ease with which they learned to spell in Esperanto far outstripped the progress in English. By the time they started school they could all spell better in Esperanto than they ever will in English.

Basic elements

The Dundee research project was part-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and is the first to have compared the elements involved in learning English with so many European languages.

The team assessed the literary skills of primary school children in Scotland, Finland, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Holland and Denmark.

Researchers found children mastered the basic foundation elements of literacy within a year or less of starting school.

But the Scottish children, who represented the English speaking sample, took two to three years to reach the same levels.

French, Portuguese and Danish children also experienced problems, although not to the same extent.

The study looked at groups of children ranging in size from 30 to 70 in each country.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Ania Lichtarowicz
Difficult spelling and inconsistent pronunciation are mainly to blame
See also:

23 Mar 01 | UK Education
06 Jul 00 | UK Education
28 Nov 00 | UK Education
Links to more Glasgow 2001 stories are at the foot of the page.


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