The English Alphabet is Not “as Easy as ABC”

The English Alphabet is Not “as Easy as ABC”

By: Pauline Bunce

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Ugly worms. Chicken guts.

In Hong Kong it is not uncommon for the written English script to be described in a derogatory way by its school-aged Chinese learners. They describe it as looking like “ugly worms” or “chicken guts.” No doubt there are other labels, but these are the ones that my secondary-school students were willing to share with me. One Chinese teaching colleague, newly returned from a self-driving holiday in Europe, told me that he had developed “alphabet headaches” from all the road signs that he was obliged to read.

When you have been immersed in a particular written script your whole literate-life, it speaks to you. Seeing is reading. You have reached what is known as automaticity.

It is almost impossible to ignore what is right in front of you–unless, perhaps, the font is particularly challenging, or parts of the lettering have been worn away.

As a famous Chinese expression puts it, you cannot ask a fish to explain water. We are all steeped in our first-literacy writing system and it has a powerful effect on how we learn (and teach) a new one.

Most English learners today come from non-alphabetic backgrounds

Spare a thought for the world’s newest learners of English–for it is now a global commodity. Think of a map of the world and focus on the vast swathe of countries that spans the lands between Morocco in the far west, through North Africa and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central and Southern Asia, across China to Korea and Japan. Add Russia to that, and you have the overwhelming majority of today’s English language learners. Yes, there are also large numbers of English learners in the Pacific, the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa and Western Europe, but they (in the main) have become literate via the Romanised alphabet–and their numbers cannot begin to compete with those in Asia.

Everyone who is already literate in this wide sweep of countries has gained their literacy in a written script other than the Romanised alphabet.

    • How much do we know about these other writing systems?
    • How much insight into the English alphabetic system do we provide to these, our biscriptal learners?

Sadly, not enough.

Unfortunately, the major insights that we could provide to biscriptal learners largely remain in the research domain, rather than in their English-language classrooms. Current EAL (English as an Additional Language[1]) practice is in urgent need of some major “shots in the arm” from recent developments in English-language literacy research and from neuroscience.

EAL practitioners who work with biscriptal learners are often, like myself, secondary-trained teachers and/or they hold TESOL certifications of various kinds. Only a minority have been trained as primary school teachers, equipped with the skills and the experience of teaching people how to read from scratch. Hats off to them!

[1] English is often more than a second language for most of these new learners. See:

"EAL practice remains stuck in a kind of trans-Atlantic (i.e. alphabetic) myopia."
Pauline Bunce
TT Author

Most current EAL practitioners have, as a result, probably escaped all the controversy that accompanied the so-called “reading wars” of the 1990s and earlier, when the proponents of phonics did battle with the followers of “whole-language” methods of teaching reading to English-speaking youngsters. This was largely a stand-off between the teaching of sound-letter correspondences and the teaching of whole-word recognition. While this war is now over, thanks to thorough, sophisticated scientific research on the side of phonological awareness, EAL practice is still somewhat stuck in the “communicative allure” of the whole-language approach. In my opinion, EAL practice also remains stuck in a kind of trans-Atlantic (i.e. alphabetic) myopia when it comes to the reading-specific needs of biscriptal learners (see: Bunce 2016a, 2017).

After a brief introduction to the letter-and-sound system of English and possibly some handwriting practice, we move rather too quickly into the teaching sequence of those all-too-familiar graded course-books that have become the staple diet of English Language Teaching (ELT) around the world.

Oh, the assumptions we make!

So much ELT practice and research has grown out of the practical teaching experiences of (mainly adult) learners in the UK and the USA in the late twentieth century. In those settings, the vast majority of learners came from alphabet-scripted language backgrounds. There was barely a Chinese student in sight. The very notion of “bilingual” in so much of the literature of this time mainly referred to Western European or Hispanic-heritage learners of English.

Too often, we have been told by ELT “gurus” (e.g. Jim Cummins, Stephen Krashen, David Nunan) that prior literacy skills can be directly transferred across to English. This is not necessarily so. Any potential transfer will depend on the orthographic distance of the learner’s first written script from the English alphabetic system. Written scripts operate at quite different linguistic levels, such as phonemes, syllables, words, or sentences. They have completely different design principles, using different letters, symbols, complex characters, diacritics, different directionalities, and their use (or not) of spaces between written symbols.

EAL instructional practices can also reflect their teachers’ first-language scriptal assumptions. Take dictation as an example. In Hong Kong, Chinese teachers of English commonly practise Chinese-style dictation in English classes. In this method, learners are sent home to memorise a section of English text from their coursebook. The next day, the teacher will read out this text in short chunks, and the students will transcribe it. This may look and sound like English-style dictation, but the students pay very little attention to the teacher’s voice and frequently finish long before she does. They are reproducing it all from memory. Students who don’t prepare either write nothing at all, or they produce impossible spellings. Their errors are almost all visual, and have next to nothing to do with sound. Frequently, students are held back at lunchtime or after school to memorise and re-take these tests.

This practice is strongly defended by many Hong Kong teachers who claim to have learned their own English in this fashion. How sad. The whole purpose of English dictation is to listen closely to the sounds in the words and encode them into written letter-combinations. There is really no place at all for “seen dictation” in English learning. By contrast, in the learning of written Chinese, sound plays quite a minor role, with shape and form being all-important. The worst example I ever saw of “seen dictation” in Hong Kong was a boy on my morning bus desperately trying to memorise the spelling of the words in Lewis Carroll’s The Jabberwocky. I kid you not!

The alphabetic principle

Mastery of literacy in an alphabetic script depends on the learner’s grasp of the alphabetic principle (Byrne, 1998)–being able to both decode (read) and encode (write) combinations of letters in order to “capture” the individual sounds (phonemes) of the spoken language. In English, these sounds are tiny, yet they must be clearly perceived by the learner in order to distinguish even simple words such as hot, hat, and hut.

"The principles on which our first literacy is based form the invisible “water” in which we all swim."
Pauline Bunce
TT Author

For the biscriptal learner, with pre-existing literacy skills in another writing system, the core principles on which their first script is based will almost certainly be applied to the learning of a new script. For example, first-language speakers of English who wish to learn another script will naively enquire about its ”alphabet,” and may find it odd to begin reading a book “from the back page,” The principles on which our first literacy is based form the invisible “water” in which we all swim.

The “communicative allure” of whole-language approaches to reading, referred to earlier, sometimes encourages English learners to skip over new words in a text in the rush to achieve a modicum of meaning at the level of the sentence. Unfortunately, this plays right into the hands of many Chinese learners of English, for example, who may use their first-scriptal visual memory skills to memorise the shapes and spelling sequences of English words. In this way, word-level work for these learners becomes mere “vocabulary,” in which every new word is seen as a “one-off” and a further burden on the learner’s memory. This is the origin of the “ugly worms” and “chicken guts” expressions–English words are just not “speaking” to such learners.

Unfortunately, there are next to no adult-level resources available to teach the fundamental alphabetic skills that are needed by older, biscriptal learners of English. If such learners cannot decode and encode new and unknown English words, they will not fare well in higher learning programs–which are packed full of new terminology. In Hong Kong, I have had students with IELTS[2] scores of 6 or 7 (on a scale of 9) who lacked these essential word attack skills (see: Bunce, 2016a, 2016b, 2017).

[2] The International English Language Testing System


The contributions of neuroscience

The human brain is an amazing instrument. It is continually adapting to do what we ask it to do. Reading and writing are not innate human skills. Literacy in any language requires instruction and practice, and a range of complex neural adaptations. When we ask the brain to do something it already “knows,” but in a different way, we need to be strategic in how we approach this new learning. Biscriptal learners need to be in no doubt that they are “changing gears” and embarking on a new literacy adventure that is quite different from their first. It is vital that they have an early introduction to the contrastingly different principles upon which their two scripts are based. They need to be fully prepared for the challenges ahead, and expect things to be different.

Systematic scientific research into the fundamentals of the alphabetic reading process was the final key to the resolution of the “reading wars” in the early twenty-first century–in favour of the importance of phonological skills development. This research continues to provide fascinating insights into the human brain’s capacity for additional language learning today. Contrastive studies of readers’ eye movements during the reading of English and Chinese texts have shown that the two scripts required different “visual spans” (or saccades). The strings of equally spaced, equally sized, square-shaped, complex Chinese characters require narrower visual spans and longer fixations than alphabetic scripts, which have linear groupings of varying lengths and shapes (i.e. words) (Chen, Song, Lau, & Wong, 2003). Not all written scripts make use of spaces as word boundaries, so here is a fundamental, first-order adjustment that many biscriptal learners will need to make.

Now, neuroscience can identify the regions of the brain that are activated and engaged during reading. Increasingly, it is showing us important differences between non-literate and literate individuals and the finer distinctions between the processes involved in reading different scripts. Reading literally changes the brain. A lot of work in this field has been conducted in Hong Kong and China with adult literates in Chinese and English.

[Readers are strongly encouraged to follow the amazing work in this field that is being done by Li Hai Tan, Wai Ting Siok, and Charles Perfetti.]

The YouTube video of a talk by Stanislas Dehaene explores the idea that the part of the brain that was previously solely responsible for visual recognition has been adapted in literate individuals to accept the recognition of print. Dehaene calls this area the brain’s “letterbox” (otherwise known as the Visual Word Form Area or VWFA).

In English literates, this area is shown in red in the above diagram from Pegado Nakamura, and Hannagan (2014).

In Li Hai Tan’s neuropsychological studies, he has found a great deal of similarity in the processing of written English and Chinese–with the added involvement of a couple of different areas. In the Chinese script, spoken syllables are mapped onto complex characters, which are also morphemes (units of meaning). This is quite different from the English script, in which spoken phonemes (units of sound) are mapped onto letters.

In functional MRI scans, it seems that native Chinese speakers use more areas of the brain for speaking and listening than English speakers do. This may have something to do with the presence of tones in the spoken language. Readers of Chinese also show relatively more engagement of the visual-spatial areas, the right superior temporal cortex and the left middle frontal regions, than English readers. This may be necessary to provide the time and space it takes to recognise the complex, sometimes homophonous, square-shaped Chinese characters whose pronunciation has been memorised, rather than directly converted via the letter-sound correspondences of English (Perfetti, Liu, Yiez, Nelson, & Bolger, 2007).

Li Hai Tan has provided a very clear comparative diagram of these areas (2013). Here, the left middle frontal region has two symbols (a C and the Chinese character , representing the written code). Two areas in the right hemisphere are shown here as well.

Functional MRI studies of dyslexic individuals have also provided insights into the differences between English- and Chinese-language dyslexics. The central importance of handwriting to the learning of Chinese is another important area of interest (and possible future concern) to all educators (Tan, Spinks, Eden, Perfetti, & Siok, 2005)–particularly in this increasingly digital age (Wolf, 2018).

Brain imaging studies have also been carried out with literate subjects in Japanese, Korean, Hindi, and Arabic languages.

All of this research points to the central role that writing systems play in the establishment of any literate person’s neural circuitry. Our brains are forever being changed by our language use. If we are to add the alphabetic English script to a bilingual person’s literacy repertoire, then we need to be quite deliberate in helping to “set them up” for this “rewiring” by continually emphasising that the English alphabet is all about sound.


  • Bunce, P. D. (2016a). According to the script: A handbook for biscriptal learners of English. Retrieved from:

    Bunce, P. D. (2016b). The English alphabet: Alpha-best or alpha-beast? In P. Bunce, R. Phillipson, V. Rapatahana, & R. Tupas (Eds), Why English? Confronting the hydra. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

    Bunce, P. D. (2017). Biscriptal English learners: A blind spot in global English Language Teaching. In M. Borjian (Ed.), Language and globalization: An autoethnographic approach. New York, NY: Routledge.

  • Byrne, B. (1998). The foundation of literacy: The child’s acquisition of the alphabetic principle. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

  • Chen, H.-C., Song, H., Lau, W. Y., & Wong, K. F. E. (2003). Developmental characteristics of eye movements in reading Chinese. In C. McBride-Chang & H.-C. Chen (Eds.), Reading development in Chinese children. Westport, CT: Praeger Press.

  • Pegado, F., Nakamura, K., & Hannagan, T. (2014, July 10). How does literacy break mirror invariance in the visual system? Frontiers of Psychology. Retrieved from:

  • Perfetti, C. A., Liu, Y., Fiez, J., Nelson, J., & Bolger, D. J. (2007). Reading in two writing systems: Accommodation and assimilation of the brain’s reading network. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 10(2), 131 -146.

  • Tan, L. H. (2013, August 18). Brain mechanisms of reading: Universal or culture-specific? Oral presentation at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Retrieved from:

  • Tan, L. H., Spinks, J. A., Eden, G. F., Perfetti, C. A., & Siok, W. T. (2005). Reading depends on writing, in Chinese. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS), 102(24), 8781–8785. Retrieved from:

  • Wolf, M. (2018, August). Screen time is changing our brain circuitry. Medium: Online magazine. Retrieved from: https://medium.

Pauline Bunce is an Australian teacher of English as an Additional Language to young adults. She has taught in Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Sri Lanka, and Hong Kong. She has published and presented widely on the specific needs of biscriptal English language learners and her handbook, According to the Script (2016a), has been widely used in Australia.

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