The Limits of Sounding Out

From “Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read by Stanislas Dehaene

From “Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read by Stanislas Dehaene

Covert access to the pronunciation of written words is an automatic step in reading, but 

this conversion may not be indispensable. Speech-to-sound conversion is often slow and 

inefficient. Our brain thus often tries to retrieve a word’s meaning using a parallel and 

more direct pathway that leads straight from the letter string to the associated entry in the 

mind’s lexicon.

To boost our intuition about the direct lexical route, we have to consider the plight of a 

make-believe reader who would only be able to mentally enunciate written words. It would 

be impossible for him to discriminate between homophonic words like “maid” and “made,” 

“raise” and “raze,” “board” and “bored,” or “muscles” and “mussels.” Purely on the basis of 

sound, he might think that serial killers hate cornfields, and that one-carat diamonds are an 

odd shade of orange. The very fact that we readily discern the multiple meanings of such 

homophonic words shows that we are not obliged to pronounce them—another route is 

available that allows our brain to solve any ambiguity and go straight to their meaning.

A further problem exists for purely sound-based theories of reading: the route from 

spelling to sound is not a high-speed highway devoid of obstacles. To derive a word’s 

pronunciation from the sequence of its letters is often impossible in the absence of 

additional help. Consider the word “blood.” It seems obvious that it should be pronounced 

blud and that it rhymes with “bud” or “mud.” But how do we know this? Why shouldn’t 

“blood” rhyme with “food” or “good”? Why doesn’t it sound like “bloom” or “bloomer”? 

Even the same word root can be pronounced differently, as in “sign” and “signature.” Some 

words are so exceptional that it is hard to see how their pronunciation relates to their 

component letters (“colonel,” “yacht,” “though” . . .). In such cases, the word’s pronunciation 

cannot be computed without prior knowledge of the word.

English spelling bristles with irregularities. Indeed, the gap between written and 

spoken language is centuries old, as attested by William Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s 

Lost, where the pedant Holofernes says:

I abhor such fanatical phantasimes, such insociable and point-devise companions; such 

rackers of orthography, as to speak dout, fine, when he should say doubt; det, when he 

should pronounce debt—d, e, b, t, not d, e, t: he clepeth a calf, cauf; half, hauf; neighbour

vocatur nebor; neigh abbreviated ne. This is abhominable—which he would call

abbominable: it insinuateth me of insanie.

English is an abominably irregular language. George Bernard Shaw pointed out that the

word “fish” might be spelled ghoti: gh as in “enough,” o as in “women,” and ti as in “lotion”!

Shaw hated the irregularities of English spelling so much that in his will he provided for a

contest to design a new and fully rational alphabet called “Shavian.” Unfortunately, it never

met with much success, probably because it departed too much from all other existent

spelling systems.27

Of course, Shaw’s example is far-fetched: no one would ever read ghoti as “fish,”

because the letter “g,” when placed at the beginning of a word, is always pronounced as a

hard g or a j, never as an f. Likewise, Shakespeare notwithstanding, in present-day English

the letters “alf” at the end of a word are always pronounced af, as in “calf” and “half.” If

letters are taken in context, it is often possible to identify some higher-order regularities

that simplify the mapping of letters onto sounds. Even then, however, exceptions remain

numerous—“has” and “was,” “tough” and “dough,” “flour” and “tour,” “header” and

“reader,” “choir” and “chair,” “friend” and “fiend.” For most irregular words, the recovery of

pronunciation, far from being the source of word comprehension, seems to depend on its

outcome: it is only after we have recognized the identity of the word “dough” that we can

recover its sound pattern.

One may wonder why English sticks to such a complicated spelling system. Indeed, Italians

do not meet with the same problems. Their spelling is transparent: every letter maps onto a

single phoneme, with virtually no exceptions. As a result, it only takes a few months to

learn to read. This gives Italians an enormous advantage: their children’s reading skills

surpass ours by several years, and they do not need to spend hours of schooling a week on

dictation and spelling out loud. Furthermore, as we shall discuss later, dyslexia is a much

less serious problem for them. Perhaps we should follow Italy’s lead, burn all our

dictionaries and desine a noo speling sistem dat eeven a θree-yia-old tchaild cood eezilee


There is no doubt that English spelling could be simplified. The weight of history

explains a lot of its peculiarities—today’s pupils should lament the loss of the battle of

Hastings, because the mixture of French and English that ensued is responsible for many of

our spelling headaches, such as the use of the letter “c” for the sound s (as in “cinder”).

Centuries of academic conservatism, sometimes bordering on pedantry, have frozen our

dictionary. Well-meaning academics even introduced spelling absurdities such as the “s” in

the word “island,” a misguided Renaissance attempt to restore the etymology of the Latin

word insula. Worst of all, English spelling failed to evolve in spite of the natural drift of oral

language. The introduction of foreign words and spontaneous shifts in English articulation

have created an immense gap between the way we write and the way we speak, which

causes years of unnecessary suffering for our children. In brief, reason calls for a radical

simplification of English spelling