The Initial Teaching Alphabet
An idealistic experiment to help children read with an augmented, phonetically consistent alphabet
In September 1961 young children starting school in twenty selected primary schools in the Midlands found themselves the unwitting subjects of a controversial educational and typographical experiment. These were the first children to be taught their letters via the Initial Teaching Alphabet: an elegant set of 44 lower-case characters designed to ease the route into the complexities of printed English.
For such a dominant written language, English is uniquely difficult to learn. The various sources that give it its richness and extensive vocabulary also contribute to its notoriously inconsistent orthography. Unlike for example Welsh or Spanish, which give consistent sound values to letters or groups of letters, the 40-odd phonemes, or distinct sounds, of English can be spelled in a variety of different ways (the long ‘i’ sound in Eye, for instance, can be represented in over twenty forms). And similar spellings may have conflicting sound values. When the Conservative MP James Pitman argued in favour of spelling reform in February 1953, it was the lack of consistency in written English that he identified as the major hurdle over which so many young readers stumbled, often with disastrous effects in later life. His solution, six years later, was to marry the rationalised spelling proposed by the Simplified Spelling Society, of which he was a member, with an extended phonetic alphabet, devised a century earlier by his grandfather Isaac Pitman, the originator of shorthand.
A logical system
James Pitman proposed that children should learn to read with an augmented alphabet that would cover, through 44 distinct characters, the principal sounds in the language – not just short and long vowel sounds, but the most common digraphs (such as ‘th’, ‘ch’) which, as letter combinations, form confusing units within traditional orthography (T.O.). The new alphabet was not intended as a wholesale spelling reform, nor as a replacement for the existing alphabet; its role was purely to provide a logical system that would be simpler for children to learn. Having mastered the concept of reading, they would then make the transition to T.O. at the age seven or so, discarding the initial alphabet like an outgrown shoe.
The idea was taken up by the Reading Research Unit at the University of London Institute of Education, in association with the National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales, and the Initial Teaching Alphabet (I.T.A.) was introduced as an experiment, under the direction of John Downing, to investigate its potential as a teaching medium.
From the outset, the transition that children would have to make to the standard alphabet and spelling system was identified as the major sticking point in the scheme’s success. Pitman argued that this would be an adjustment, not a relearning; nevertheless the new alphabet was designed to facilitate a smooth change – a rather more difficult task than that of creating an entirely new writing system from scratch. Two letters from the traditional alphabet, ‘q’ and ‘x’, were dropped, as their sound values can be represented by other letters; the 24 letters that were retained were assigned specific phonetic values and were supplemented by twenty new characters designed, by the Monotype Corporation, to bear a visual resemblance to existing lower-case sorts. Some concessions were made to conventional spelling: both ‘c’ and ‘k’ were kept on as the hard ‘c’ sound, as both would be encountered later; ‘y’ continued to function as both consonant and vowel, and double consonants (as in letter) were retained.
In order to simplify word and letter recognition, the new alphabet was made available in a single Roman font, Monotype Ehrhardt. Letters with variable forms, such as lower case ‘g’, therefore have a consistent appearance (the script form of ‘g’ was used). Since young learners frequently confuse ‘d’ and ‘b’, the downstroke on the ‘d’ was extended to make the letter more distinctive. More importantly, it was decided that capitals would be avoided: lower case letters are more distinct and legible, and constitute 95 per cent of printed text; upper case would therefore be represented by a majuscule cut of the font, effectively identical to the lower case letters. Many of the new letters, such as ‘ing’ (‘ng’) and ‘chay’ (‘ch’) were designed as ligatures to bear a visual resemblance to the related letter groups in T.O., and children were taught to form them in a way analogous to the way they would subsequently form ‘n’ and ‘g’, or ‘c’ and ‘h’. Originally named Ehrhardt Augmented Roman, the new font became Pitman I.T.A. and was made available free of copyright.
This new alphabet sought to address the inconsistency built into T.O. by making each written symbol stand for one phoneme only. By learning the symbols and the sounds they represented, children could in theory then decode any words written in I.T.A. without help. A huge advantage of this was that it removed the need to construct early reading books out of an unimaginative vocabulary of words consistent in their spelling: any words within a five-year old’s spoken vocabulary could, theoretically, also be read and expressed in writing. In practice, though, the reading books made available in I.T.A. were limited, and in the early stages many were merely translations of standard readers, such as Nisbet’s ‘Janet and John’ series, bringing with them their stilted and repetitive vocabulary. Although attractive readers were subsequently printed, children learning with I.T.A inevitably had far fewer books available to them than children learning with T.O.
The introduction of I.T.A. was scrupulously monitored and initial results were positive: infant teachers reported that reading ability among children of all abilities learning with I.T.A. outstripped those learning with T.O.; children learning with I.T.A. showed more independence; they took greater pleasure in reading and expressed themselves in written work with remarkable confidence.
The experiment was quickly extended to 75 UK schools in 1962, and 200 in 1963. By 1966, 140 of the UK’s 158 Education Authorities taught I.T.A. in one or more of their schools. The first children to make the transition to T.O. did so without difficulty; the anticipated problems with spelling did not materialise.
But there were obvious drawbacks. Children who quickly mastered I.T.A. could not immediately read the words they saw about them every day, so that their growing enthusiasm for reading was frustrated. Although teachers were encouraged to allow a mixture of I.T.A. and T.O. in children’s spelling, the children were effectively learning two systems at once: one at school, one in the outside world. And, since children made the transition to T.O. at different ages, teachers would find themselves teaching both systems within the same classroom. Parents were encouraged to take part in the scheme, but many found themselves excluded from their children’s written communication, while children who had begun to read before starting school, or who moved house and changed schools, had to begin again.
An independent study by Warburton and Southgate in 1966 found that the substantial early advantage gained by I.T.A. children was not exploited and was already less pronounced by the age of eight. When, in 2001, the BBC asked for comments from people who had learned to read with I.T.A., many of the respondents felt that I.T.A. had hampered, rather than helped, their reading and spelling ability.
Testament to idealism
An extraordinary amount of dedication went into the development of I.T.A., yet despite its early success it was not adopted wholesale as a teaching method and, from a lack of resources and from changes in educational fashion, it gradually fell into disuse in English schools. In Australia, it was introduced in 1963 in the state school in Warnambool, Victoria. An Australian I.T.A. Association was established in 1974, but dissolved in the mid-1990s. In the US, the remaining I.T.A. Foundation still enthusiastically promotes the benefits of the system in remedial teaching for dyslexic children.
Remarkably beautiful in print, the alphabet remains a testament to an idealistic period when English speakers attempted, in the context of primary education, not only to reform their eccentric spelling but to modify the very symbols with which the language is represented on the page.