Several previous studies have suggested that basic decoding skills may develop less effectively in English than in some other European orthographies. The origins of this effect in the early (foundation) phase of reading acquisition are investigated through assessments of letter knowledge, familiar word reading, and simple nonword reading in English and 12 other orthographies. The results confirm that children from a majority of European countries become accurate and fluent in foundation level reading before the end of the first school year. There are some exceptions, notably in French, Portuguese, Danish, and, particularly, in English. The effects appear not to be attributable to differences in age of starting or letter knowledge. It is argued that fundamental linguistic differences in syllabic complexity and orthographic depth are responsible. Syllabic complexity selectively affects decoding, whereas orthographic depth affects both word reading and nonword reading. The rate of development in English is more than twice as slow as in the shallow orthographies. It is hypothesized that the deeper orthographies induce the implementation of a dual (logographic + alphabetic) foundation which takes more than twice as long to establish as the single foundation required for the learning of a shallow orthography.