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Wednesday, 5 September, 2001, 07:35 GMT 08:35 UK
Educashunal lunacie or wizdom?
A sample sentence in ITA
For translation, see the foot of the page
It's 40 years since the introduction of the Initial Teaching Alphabet, which was devised to teach young children to read. But many people found it did them no favours in the long run, says BBC News Online's Megan Lane.

What do you suppose the above sentence says? Chances are that you will only be able to decipher it if you are a child of the 1960s who went to a progressive school.

Initial Teaching Alphabet
The 44 characters in the Initial Teaching Alphabet
It's written in the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA), a system designed by Sir James Pitman - grandson of the man who devised Pitman's shorthand - to help young children learn to read more quickly.

It uses the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet and another 14 characters to represent sounds such as "oo" and "th". Sentences written in ITA are all in lower case.

It was introduced into several English schools in 1961, and soon spread to the United States and Australia.

New pupils - and their parents - were expected to read and spell using the expanded alphabet. Once they reached seven years old, the children had to switch to the standard alphabet and accepted spellings.

Illogical and inconsistent

Sir James's aim was to aid dyslexics and end illiteracy by providing children with a logical spelling system, in which words were made up of speech sounds.


If you make it easier to read and spell, children will learn faster

John Gledhill, Simplified Spelling Society
After all, about 13% of English words are not spelt the way they sound.

And, according to research published today, children take longer to learn basic reading skills in English than in other European languages.

Professor Philip Seymour, of the University of Dundee, says this is mainly because of the complex syllable structure and inconsistent spelling system of English.

Coded language

Sir James based the system on the "phonotypy" of Sir Isaac Pitman (his grandfather) and the "nue speling" of the Simplified Spelling Society, of which he was a member.

Spelling mistake
Many have come a cropper with spelling
The thinking went that as children became fluent in ITA, they would become aware of conventional spelling and move seamlessly into the normal alphabet.

Did it work? Opinions vary, but the system was never successfully made mainstream.

One former pupil has very strong views about it: "I suffered ITA for my first few years at school, with the consequence that at the age of seven I could barely read or write," he says.

And Edwin Robson, who was taught ITA in the 1960s, says many of his friends blame their poor spelling on being taught this system in their first year of school.

But he personally didn't have any problem, and can still remember it today.

His family still recounts the time when his sister went to stay with grandma in Northumberland, and wrote her first letter home to Newcastle.

"Grandma couldn't understand the contents of the ITA letter, but put it in an envelope and posted it home all the same. It read: 'We went to the beach. We saw two horses. They were pissing in the sea.'"

From ITA to txt msgs

John Gledhill, of the Simplified Spelling Society, says ITA was hailed as pioneering in its day.

"It fully demonstrated that if you make it easier to read and spell, children will learn faster. But it wasn't a long-term solution because the system was a bit messy."

Text messaging
Texting has taken off in the past two years
Although society members may raise a glass in memory of ITA, few now champion its use, Mr Gledhill says.

Instead, they are keen to see consistency, with double letters dropped, and a cull of the many and varied spellings for "e" sounds.

Although e-mail and text messages have filtered shortcuts into the language, these are not necessarily the same from person to person, Mr Gledhill says.

"People make up shortcuts as they go along, but these may not be understood outside their circle of friends."

But the enthusiasm for texting has made it clear that English speakers are frustrated with conventional spelling.


The sentence above reads: "The ice angel gave the owl a ring." It might be meaningless, but it illustrates some of the system's more unusual sound shapes.


Click here to add your comments

Some comments so far:

A big problem with ITA was that phonetic spelling doesn't account for regional accents. Anyone used to hearing words pronounced with a Scots, Welsh or Scouse accent was completely lost.
Rod Maxwell, Scotland

I am dyslexic and learned ITA at school. I was already able to read and write simple words when I arrived at school but ITA crippled me. This was because when I wrote the words I knew to be correct I was told they were wrong.
Chris, UK

We could write notes to each other without our parents or teachers in the grown-up children's classes being able read them. Since moving to London I haven't found anyone I can pass ITA notes to during long meetings.
jśn (Jane), UK

I was in my second year's teaching in Luton in 1968. ITA seemed to be a brilliant way of pushing the children on and they learned to read much earlier than usual. But - and the but is enourmous - some could not make the transition. I don't think they'll ever unlearn ITA spelling.
Mrs Patricia Collett, England

I had a couple of Ladybird books written in ITA, including one about fishermen and their trawlers - lots of scope for unusual sounds like halibut and sturgeon. I don't recall it doing me any harm.
Chloe Williams, England

I have to think about how to spell some very simple words because they contain either a silent or mispronounced letter. I don't think ITA damaged my ability to spell, but has sown a seed in my subconscious that acts as a hurdle.
Sebastian Andrews, England

I love ITA and have a book of famous quotes, speeches and poetry all "translated" into ITA, including Winston Churchill's war speeches.
Anthony Richards, UK

ITA made me the bad speller I am today. Yet we make same mistakes again and again. My son now learns to read by word recognition, associating the appearance of a word with a picture over and over until he knows it. When he meets a new word, he can't put the letters together to form the word. Instead the teacher tells him the word and asks him to memorise it.
Trevor Hentzschel, UK

ITA is a classic case of missing the point. If you are taught English - inconsistencies and all - from an early age, you develop an intuition for how words should look.
Doug Trumpshaw, UK

I went to a conservative school and saw the spelling issue from the other end of the telescope. Our teacher passed out a workbook on spelling, warning: "The first thing you need to learn is that the same sound can be spelled different ways." She was referring to the workbook's title, Phonics Can Be Fun.
Harry Matthews, USA

It was used to teach us French pronunciation but the teacher omitted to find out if it had been used to teach us English (which it hadn't). A clever way to ensure the linguistically challenged English never managed to learn a second language.
Malc, Brit in Turkey

As a child my family moved from London to Newcastle where my new ITA school forbade me from using the ordinary alphabet. My parents (one Scot, one Geordie) were baffled when I informed them that people wrote in a different language up North.
Neville Cooper, UK

Do you have memories of ITA? If so, tell us them using the form below, or by sending them by e-mail to newsonline.features@bbc.co.uk

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See also:

09 Sep 00 | UK
Text messaging grows up
18 Aug 01 | Education
Youngsters fail spelling test
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