English is Europe's most difficult language to learn to read, Scottish child survey finds


English ranks as the most difficult language in Europe to learn how to read. It took native English-speaking children a year and a half longer to reach the same reading standard as children on the continent, a study in Scotland has revealed.

Learning to read English is more difficult than any of 12 other European languages which were compared in a reading development study carried out by Prof Philip Seymour of the University of Dundee and reported yesterday at the BA Festival of Science.

Groups of between 30 and 70 children had their reading abilities measured in 13 European countries including Scotland to see how long it took them to achieve a basic ability.

After one year of learning to read simple and nonsense words, the accuracy of the Scottish children was only 30 per cent compared with 90 per cent in most other countries in the study.

"Two-and-a-half years of learning are needed in English to reach the one-year capability in Europe," said Prof Seymour. "In word reading and nonsense word reading very large discrepancies have occurred. In English the rate of progress is very much slower."

So why is English so difficult? One reason could be that children learning to read not only have to decode words by learning the basic alphabetic building blocks but also have to deal at the same time with the quirkiness of English spelling rules. Children learn the rule pattern but then are confronted with many exceptions to the rules.

"Children are being asked to do two things; they are having to learn to decode words at the same time as coping with large numbers of words that don't fit that pattern," said Prof Seymour.

English is also a more complicated language with difficult combinations of syllables containing bunches of consonants. Prof Seymour said "sprint" was an example of this type of word with a vowel bracketed with consonant groups, something rarely found in other European languages.

In the league table of reading difficulty, English is the top-ranking language ahead of Danish, French and Portuguese that are also in the difficult category. Finnish and Greek are the simplest, with others such as Italian, Spanish and German somewhere in between.

The slow rates of learning in English could be caused by differences in the way children are educated in these islands. Teaching methods and age of starting may be a factor but it seems that the main cause is the language itself.