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The US-based International Reading Association - - is hosting the 22nd World Congress on Reading in Costa Rica on July 28 to 31. The independent literacy researcher and writer Masha Bell from England will be presenting a short lecture entitled ‘Reading Problems Beyond Phonics’ at this event.

Several recent studies have established that learning to read and write English is much harder and slower than in other alphabetic languages (Thorstad, 1998; Frith, Wimmer and Landerl, 1998; Paulesu, 2001; Spencer, 2002; Seymour et al, 2003).

Masha Bell has tried to ascertain exactly what is responsible for this. She first identified 3695 common words with spelling difficulties of some kind and listed them in her book ‘Understanding English Spelling’ (2004) and on her website (2006), such as 'leave, sleeve, believe, even'. Among those, she also isolated 2032 words with the potential to cause reading problems for all learners, from beginners to adults.

Since then she has tried to establish which spellings and words are chiefly responsible for impeding children’s reading progress in the early years, at primary or grade school level. At the Costa Rica conference she will present 809 common words in which some letters don’t have their usual sound, but which English-speaking children are likely to meet before age 11. For example, the ‘ea’ in ‘great, treat, ready’ not sounding as in ‘teach, reach’ and ‘reading’; or the ‘ou’ in ‘country groups should shoulder’ not as in ‘shout out sound’.

Bell will also explain how the 809 words in which some letters have an irregular sound have the potential to make another 500 words harder to read as well, because they cause cognitive confusion. Letters with variable sounds make all words with them more difficult to decipher, even when they have their more usual sound, because children have to learn, word-by-word, how to pronounce each one.

Bell believes that phonic inconsistency is the main reason why most English-speaking children only learn to read with a great deal of individual help. Fortunately, in most cases this is provided free of charge by parents who introduce their children to books and reading in early infancy, and also help them with learning to read at home once they start school.

But some parents are unable to do so because they work long or unsociable hours, or because they never learnt to read fluently themselves. To their children the inconsistencies of English spelling present far greater challenges, and their teachers need to be more aware of them in order to assist them as effectively and quickly as possible.

In addition to her book ‘Understanding English Spelling’ and her website, Masha Bell has also written a course book to help struggling readers, 'Learning to Read' (2007). She has also explained English reading and writing difficulties in many articles, the latest being in the current issues of the educational magazines Classroom and Literacy Today.

Masha Bell can be contacted at:

Email: and
Tel: 0044 (0)1929 552173

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