Posted by: Bob C. Cleckler | February 10, 2013

Functional Illiteracy: the Only Proven Cure

The amount of functional illiteracy in English is much worse than almost anyone realizes partly because the media has given very little attention to this very serious problem. Analysis of the most statistically accurate and comprehensive study of U.S. adult literacy ever conducted proves that 48.7 percent of U.S. adults are functionally illiterate, defined as being unable to hold an above-poverty-level-wage job. The lifetime work of Dr. Frank Laubach has led to development of the only proven way of permanently ending illiteracy in English.

The Proven Cause of Illiteracy

Jonathan Kozol’s published his shocking new book, Illiterate Americain 1985. Kozol wrote about 34 different types of serious physical, mental, emotional, medical, and financial problems of the many illiterate people he knew and loved. He stated that if most of us had to endure the problems that illiterates must endure every day of their lives, we would consider it a crisis. I decided to use my research skills as a chemical engineer to see if there was a solution to the problem. I spent more than a year reading every book I could find on the subject of my research. I read dozens of books from the large Marriott research library at the University of Utah.

In these books, I discovered the primary cause of English illiteracy. The very first step in solving any problem is to find what is causing the problem. Otherwise, you can spend a lot of time and money fighting the symptoms of a problem without solving the foundational cause of the problem. A good analogy is fighting the symptoms of pneumonia with cough medicine, decongestants, and painkillers and not taking antibiotics to cure the disease. We have been fighting the symptoms of the difficulty in learning to read for over 90 years now.

Although there are obviously many reasons why any one student does not learn to read, there is only one problem affecting every student. Books by Dr. Frank Laubach made the primary cause of illiteracy very clear. Dr. Laubach spent almost his entire adult life teaching thousands of adult illiterates around the world how to read. He taught in more than 300 alphabetic languages other than English. He prepared reading primers in 313 languages and even invented spelling systems for 220 languages that were unwritten.

Dr Laubach’s books, Teaching the World to Read and Forty Years With the Silent Billion, document a truly amazing fact about the languages in which he taught. His books never mention being unable to teach any of his students to read fluently, but take careful note of this: He was able to teach adults to read fluently in from one to twenty days in 95 percent of the languages and in less than three months in 98 percent of the languages!

The problem in English written material, however, is not with the language itself. The English language is neither among the easiest nor among the most difficult. Axel Wijk states on pages 56-57 of Alphabets for English, edited by W. Haas, that English is a comparatively easy language to learn for foreigners, “… mainly due to its grammatical structure, which is far simpler that those of most other important languages, particularly so in comparison with French, German, Russian, or Spanish.” Sir James Pitman states on page 264 of his book Alphabets and Reading, “No other major language possesses such a simple grammar and syntax or combines the following advantages:… ” The first two of the eight advantages he lists are: there are no arbitrary genders and agreement between adjectives and nouns is unnecessary.

The grammar and syntax of English is easier than that of many European languages. In most European languages, students learn to read fluently in less than three months. Here is the reason: Dr. Laubach was able quickly to teach his students to read fluently because 98 percent of these languages had an almost-perfect phonemic spelling system. That is, they spelled words the way they sound. A perfect spelling system has only one grapheme for each phoneme. A grapheme is a letter or digraph (a two-letter grapheme) that represents a phoneme, syllable or word. A phoneme is the smallest sound used to distinguish between syllables or words in a language or dialect.

The Effect of Illogical, Inconsistent Spelling

Before examining the effect that a less-than-perfect spelling system has upon beginning readers, a close look at the outcome of using an illogical and inconsistent spelling system is definitely in order.

Analysis of a report released by the U.S. Department of Education in April 2002 titled Adult Literacy in America proves this is true. The follow-up report released in 2006 confirms it. The Adult Literacy in America report is from the most statistically accurate and comprehensive study of U.S. adult literacy ever conducted. It is a five-year, $14 million study involving lengthy interviews of 26,049 adults statistically chosen by age, gender, ethnicity, and place to represent the entire U.S. population. The study used interviewees from urban, suburban, and rural locations from twelve different U.S. states and included 1,100 prisoners from 80 prisons to represent the entire U.S. population.

Analysis of this report proves that 48.7 percent of U.S. adults are functionally illiterate, proves that 31.2 percent of these functional illiterates are in poverty, and proves that they were more than twice as likely to be in poverty because of their illiteracy as for all other reasons combined. With 31 percent of functional illiterates in poverty, that means that about 15 percent of all U.S. adults are in poverty, which is in close agreement with recent estimates of U.S. poverty.

You may be wondering why you have not heard such shocking statistics. There are several reasons, only a few of which are listed here. There were very few media reports on this study, and the reports that appeared, in effect, minimized the seriousness of the findings. Most people have underestimated the amount of illiteracy because illiterates are very good at hiding their illiteracy. You may not see much of the evidence of poverty because most families have more than one employed adult; because low-income families receive help from government agencies, family, friends, and charities; and because of the natural separation that occurs between people in different economic groups.

Why Learning to Read English is So Difficult

The reason it is so difficult to learn to read English is very simple: English is not a logically designed alphabetic language. English is more like Chinese writing that uses specific shapes in specific positions to represent a word. English uses a specific combination of letters in a specific order to represent a word.

Despite the difficulty our spelling causes for beginning readers, especially for immigrants, apologists for the present method of teaching reading will tell you that most English words are phonemic. That is true only if you allow more than one spelling of the phonemes. If the 38 English phonemes needed to learn to read can each have only ONE specific spelling, only about 20 percent of English words are phonemic. More than one spelling of the phonemes requires a huge amount of memorization when each phoneme is spelled in as many as 60 or more ways and the spelling of each phoneme varies from one word to the next.

As a result, the only way to learn to read English is to learn each new word in your reading vocabulary one-at-a-time by rote memory or by repeated use of the word. Almost every American can read at least a thousand simple words they learn by memory in the first three grades in school.  In order to be a fluent reader, however, one must be able to recognize 20,000 words or more by their spelling. Many fluent readers have reading vocabularies of more than 70,000 English words. Recognizing a correctly spelled word by its spelling and by its context is much easier than remembering the correct spelling when trying to write the word. Even many fluent readers are very poor spellers.

Professor Julius Nyikos of Washington and Jefferson College did an extensive study of six standard desk dictionaries. He found 1,768 ways of spelling 40 phonemes! We need only 40 ways of spelling 40 phonemes — one each. If he had used unabridged dictionaries he would have found even more. Other apologists for our present spelling will say that you can learn to read using spelling rules. The truth is that there is not even ONE spelling rule that does not have exceptions. Some of the exceptions even have exceptions! A computer programmed with 203 English spelling rules was able correctly to spell only 49 percent of a list of 17,000 common English words. Can we honestly expect the average human to do better?

In English, a syllable can be a vowel all by itself. Each syllable has only one vowel, but a consonant — or several consonants — can be before and/or after a vowel. All English words can be pronounced by learning only 38 phonemes and there are 26 letters in the alphabet, so 26 of the phonemes could be spelled with a single letter and twelve of the phonemes could be spelled with a digraph. Instead, in English there are at least 184 two-letter graphemes, at least 131 three-letter graphemes, at least 22 four-letter graphemes, and even four or more five-letter graphemes.

In fact, more than half of all English phonemes are spelled with graphemes of two or more letters. There are at least three vowel phonemes and one consonant phoneme spelled with five letters. The most familiar is in the word weighed, in which five letters represent the A phoneme. That sound is spelled with only the letter A in words such as fading. Most English words have two or more syllables, and with multiple letters used for a single phoneme each syllable in a word can have a very complex combination of vowels and consonants.

If each vowel and each consonant in these syllables always represented the same sound, there would be nothing in the logic of these syllables that would be beyond the abilities of most four- or five-year-olds, but they do not. The real confusion comes since one grapheme often represents many phonemes when reading, and many graphemes are used to spell most of the phonemes.

Although only 38 are needed, there are at least 367 different letters or letter combinations used as English graphemes with an average of at least nine pronunciations each. Some of the graphemes are used to spell seven or more different phonemes. Only four of the 26 letters — B, K, P, and V — have only one pronunciation. Adding to the confusion, however, all four of these letters are doubled in some words and not in others; all but six of the 26 letters are doubled in some words.

There is an average of at least 44 spellings of each of the 38 phonemes. The worst example is the U vowel phoneme as in the word nut that can be spelled in at least 60 different ways. If that is not nutty, please tell me what is. That is why spelling correctly is even more difficult than learning to read.

More than one pronunciation of graphemes or more than one spelling of phonemes requires a type of logic that most children do not develop until they are eleven or twelve years old. Before that age, students have difficulty thinking of the same letter or letters in more than one combination at the same time. So they just have to be helped to memorize (or learn by repetition) the spelling of new words.

Most of us are not familiar with spelling systems in other languages, so we do not realize the comparative difficulty of learning to read English. Most of us learned to read as a child and have long since forgotten (or proudly dismiss) the difficulty we had. Our eyes skip easily over a multitude of traps for beginning readers.

As most teachers will tell you, reading is the foundation of all learning. Reading ability is required for class work, homework, and testing for nearly every subject in school. Based upon more than 40 years of teaching students of phonemic languages to read fluently, Dr. Laubach stated on page 48 of his book Forty Years With the Silent Billion, “If we spelled English phonetically, American children could be taught to read in a week.” Although present educational and political authorities may have a financial interest in believing that this is overly optimistic, it would be a serious mistake to discount Dr. Laubach’s findings and his advice.

Other than remedial reading, most instruction in reading ends after fourth grade. With our present inconsistent and illogical spelling, most U.S. students need at least two years to learn to read well enough to be able to keep increasing their reading skills after fourth grade — and almost half of the students never become fluent readers. Statistics prove that almost half of U.S. adults never read an entire book after they leave school. If English spelling were as simple and logical as most other languages, the better students could learn to read in one week and all but the most mentally challenged students could learn to read in less than three months — for many students, much less than three months.

The Obvious Solution to Illiteracy in English

What is obviously needed is a simple spelling system for English that has only one grapheme for each phoneme. After many years of examining every proposed spelling system for English that could be found (1800s to present), there is only one known proposed spelling system that has that characteristic. This proposed spelling system, called NuEnglish, has eight other beneficial characteristics.

Each of the many proposed spelling systems has its own list of beneficial characteristics. None of them, however, has all the beneficial characteristics of NuEnglish. Based upon Dr. Laubach’s many years of experience, adoption of such a spelling system is the only proven way permanently to end English illiteracy.

More than 93 million adult Americans read so poorly that they do not like to read and seldom try to read. They read so poorly that they cannot hold an above-poverty-level-wage job. Although they can read about a thousand words, they are functionally illiterate. Along with an estimated 500 million English-speaking adults around the world who are also functionally illiterate in English, they desperately need help to avoid the problems, pain, and suffering their illiteracy causes.

In addition, functional illiteracy costs every adult American–readers and non-readers — an average of more than $5,000 each year for government programs used by illiterates, for truancy, juvenile delinquency, and crime directly related to illiteracy, and for the higher cost of consumer goods due to illiterates in the labor pool and in the workplace.

When people learn that spelling reform is being proposed, they may think of one or two objections to changing the spelling. Numerous respected scholars, however, have thoroughly debunked every reasonable objection to spelling reform. They have also described the many benefits of making the spelling of our words as easy to learn as those of other languages.

It does not take a genius to know that it is much easier to learn the spelling of 38 phonemes — and how to blend them into words — than to learn by rote memory, or by repeated use, every word in your reading vocabulary. By learning to read quickly, English-speaking students can finally compete with students of the same age in other languages by studying most subjects about two years earlier.

It is not well-known by the public, but American educators who are familiar with reading education in other nations and members of some of the think-tanks such as The American Enterprise Institute know that most American students are two years behind students of the same age using logical alphabetic languages. American students have ranked near the bottom in three or more recent scholastic competitions with more than twenty other industrialized nations.

Although educational authorities have made some improvements as a result of the 1983 education report titled “A Nation At Risk,” there have not been any overall statistically significant improvements in the teaching of reading for ninety years or more. Dozens of reports on educational problems have come out since 1983, but most of these reports have not received the media attention they desperately need.

There are roughly 600 million people around the world hoping someone can help them escape from English functional illiteracy. All that is needed to begin the process of ending illiteracy in English is to publicize the proven solution to illiteracy. Despite all the naysayers and all those who oppose change — even change for the better, to believe we cannot significantly improve the teaching of reading is to underestimate our human ability to solve our problem of illogical and inconsistent spelling instead of merely fighting the symptoms of the problem, as we have done for almost a century now.

Two non-profit educational corporations, Literacy Research Associates, Inc. and NuEnglish, Inc. have developed the perfectly phonemic NuEnglish spelling system. NuEnglish has only one grapheme for each phoneme and eight other beneficial characteristics, described on our website NuEnglish Characteristics. No other known proposed spelling system has all of these characteristics. NuEnglish is so simple that present readers can learn the ten simple NuEnglish spelling rules in about eight minutes. Our company website, has a Respeller computer program which will quickly transpose about 25 pages of traditional spelling into NuEnglish with the click of a button.

At least 25 other nations — both smaller and larger than the U.S., both advanced and developing — have simplified their spelling. Let’s End Our Literacy Crisis, Second Revision, provides enough facts to convince even the most confirmed skeptic and is available as an e-book at no cost or obligation on our website. It is an award-winning 265-page e-book with 164 pages of text, 8 appendixes, 178 extensive notes and references, a glossary, an extensive bibliography, an index, and many tables and graphics.

I have been passionately fighting this problem for many years, and I KNOW — as an absolute fact — that what I am proposing will not only solve the problem but will also be surprisingly easy to carry out. I also know that anyone who honestly examines all the facts will agree. Our website provides the proof for everything stated in this blog. If each reader of this blog will tell at least three others about our website, enough people will soon know the seriousness and the ease of solving the problem, and the problem will be solved. Although what I have said may raise more questions than it answers, most of your questions will be answered by a careful reading of our website. My book, Let’s End Our Literacy Crisis, which is available free on our website, should answer all of your questions.



  1. Bob,
    Great background research in your blog post. You have outlined the length and breadth of the illiteracy problem really well. I think it would benefit from some empirical studies that add data to support your argument that spelling is the key to literacy. These studies could be drawn from Let’s End Our Literacy Crisis, if they are reported there. If these studies have yet to be conducted, then every effort to do such studies should be made so that irrefutable proof is available to indicate that your solution works.
    Even once you have bona fide evidence of the strength of your solution, you need to be able to get professionals to use it. I have been working on that issue for 40 years without much success with the educational establishment. Our Maloney Method model creates literacy, partly because it includes spelling, but it also includes specific methods for instruction and measurement of a variety of emerging literacy skills. Keep up the good work.

    • Dear Michael Maloney,

      Chapter 5 of my book gives additional data about about how bad English spelling really is. It also explains the psychology of why learning is so hard to read and how English spelling came to be so inconsistent and illogical. It is so bad that about half of students never become fluent readers without extensive one-on-one tutoring or teaching methods far superior to what students get in the average public schools in America.

      Chapters 1 to 3 explain why learning to read fluently is such a crisis in American schools: the seriousness of the problems that must endure, the shocking extent of the problem, and the monetary cost of illiteracy for every adult. Chapter 4 explains why worldwide literacy is so badly needed and why the English language — at least after the spelling is simplified — is the ideal candidate for a worldwide language.

      Chapter 6 explains why spelling reform is the only effective — and proven in at least 313 alphabetic languages other than English — way of solving our literacy crisis. This chapter also shows why the spelling system we have perfected can be easily learned in a week or two by the better students and certainly in less than three months by any student except the most seriously mentally challenged. Chapter 7 explains the advantages and disadvantages of implementing our spelling system. Chapters 8 and 9 explains how our spelling system can be implemented and provides irrefutable reasons for doing so.

      The good news is that the latest version of my book is available without cost or obligation on my website as an e-book. A print version is available for only $15, which is my total cost from a local print-on-demand publisher.

      I fully realize that I will need, as you stated, to get professionals to use it. That is because they will use every excuse they can think of to keep from changing the status quo — for both personal and financial reasons. If enough people urge them to allow it to be used based upon what we already know, instead of gathering additional data which will only confirm what we already know, they may finally accept the inevitable. No other method will ever be able to overcome the huge disadvantage to learning that our present spelling imposes upon our educational system. We have been trying unsuccessfully to make a statistically significant improvement in the teaching of reading for at least 90 years now.


      Bob C. Cleckler, B.S.Ch.E. (retired Chemical Engineer)
      CEO of Literacy Research Associates, Inc.
      Vice Pres. of R & D, NuEnglish, Inc.
      (two non-profit educational corporations)
      Author of four published books on ending illiteracy

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