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[John Gledhill: see Journals, Newsletters, Media. and about ita.]

3 September 2001. BBC On-Line news. Excerpt.

Educashunal lunacie or wizdom? 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."

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.



5 September, 2001, 10:30 pm BBC Radio.

I.T.A. Anniversary: An interview with Dr. John Gledhill.

Alex Trelinski's (BBC) interview of Dr. John Gledhill took place on the 40th anniversary of the i.t.a. or Initial Teaching Alphabet experiment which was introduced into the primary school curriculum in the United Kingdom in the Fall of 1961.

Although Dr Gledhill was chosen for the interview on the basis of his being a member of the Simplified Spelling Society, the views expressed below are his own and not necessarily those of the Society. Any errors or oversimplifications in the content are entirely his own.

The transcript below has been edited only for presentational hiatuses such as the removal of hesitations. Potentially confusing syntactical features arising from the conversational context are adjusted in square brackets.


Alex Trelinski (AT): The Society has been going for over 80 years, it doesn't seem to have made much progress does it?

John Gledhill (JG): It's gone in fits and starts. We were very active in the 60s, about the time ITA came out. That was following a national campaign that got as far as a parliamentary debate, and it was very active at that time. Since then various governmental changes have taken the emphasis away from English literary standards. It's becoming very active recently because the debate's [been] raised again about literacy standards in school; so the society has become much more active again recently.

AT: What's the problem with English?

JG: English as a language - no problem at all. English as a language is no harder to learn than any other language. The main problem is how to read it when you're confronted with text in front of you, and, as you've just said, the rules for actually deciphering what the combinations of letters on the page mean and what they transfer into [as] sounds are much less predictable than nearly every other language in the world.

AT: Yet the many foreign students who learn to speak English, learn to write it, learn to read it, don't seem to have a problem.

JG: They learn to speak it; they have problems writing it down correctly in the [same] way that many English native speakers do. They learn to speak it quite well, it's when they try to learn it from written language that they find the same problems as our children do in schools.

AT: This probably explains some of the eccentric writing you see abroad in non-English speaking countries, and some of the road signs, some of the menus; that probably explains a fair bit of it.

JG: It does indeed, because like English native speakers do when they're trying to learn the language, they have to come to terms with things like [that] there are letters that don't do anything - the "silent letters" - and like English children they know that there are silent letters dotted around here doing nothing, so they stick them in ad lib on the assumption that it makes it look right, and they make the same mistakes as our children do when they are learning.

AT: So the answer is, in your view, to introduce a different written form of English?

JG: Not really, not radically. There could be lots of ways of changing it radically, but that's not what we're trying to do. We're trying to get uniformity, get rid of some of the things that confuse people like the silent letters in "doubt" and "receipt", and things like that that don't actually do anything, and confuse no end of children, and for that matter adults as well, and get some regularity into it. So what we're left with is still by and large familiar to those who use English actively, but [it] gets rid of some of the things that are needless impediments to using it fluently and comfortably.

AT: But who can take such a decision? It's got to be done at the highest level, it's a government decision isn't it? Language evolved, whatever people say, language evolves in a particular direction over the years. You can lay down as many suggestions, ideas, edicts, proclamations [as you want] - language is whatever people want to make it.

JG: Indeed it is. If you're going to have an official national, recognised, authoritative spelling, like some countries do - like in France - then you have to have a government edict which changes it. We don't have that: our spelling has just developed haphazardly, as you imply yourself. There are changes [which] creep in: you'll be aware that things like "program" have lost the '-me' on the end in a computer context - you know, "computer program" doesn't have a double on the end whereas "radio programme" still often does.

AT: That's Americanisation isn't it?

JG: No, it existed without "-me" on the end long before computers came in, and before it went to America. It's just one of the differences there are. Take for example "telegram": it used to be spelt with a double "-mme" within my lifetime, so going back 30 or 40 years. But you don't see that now. Or "kilogram". These have just changed because people felt it was unnecessarily cumbersome and they've simplified it to simple "-am" at the end. So things do change sporadically: it doesn't need a government to say "Tomorrow you don't spell '-mme' at the end of 'kilogram': stop doing it". Take, for example, weights and measures [with] metric 'tonnes'. The government tried to persuade people to use '-nne' to show it was 1000 kilograms rather than the old-fashioned imperial measure.

AT: ... and it bombed.

JG: It bombed, people just said "no, we're going to stick with 'ton', it's virtually the same weight, we'll carry on spelling it the way we're used to; if you like the 'ton' why have a '-nne' on the end that does nothing?"

AT: Let's have a bit of nostalgia here, let's talk about the ITA. As I said earlier on, it's not the Independent Television Authority, as it was in the 50s and 60s; we're talking about the Initial Teaching Alphabet. Tell us what the concept was here. This is just taking it a stage or two further from what you were talking about.

JG: It is. It was to try and get over the initial hurdle that children have when they're trying to read, because when our children are learning to read they have two hurdles: learning to read as a concept, and learning how to turn the letters into words and sounds. The idea of ITA was to give them the nice simple one-to-one correspondence between the letters that they see on the page and sounds that they hear when they're speaking. They had a very easy way: learn the alphabet, the extended alphabet that ITA had, learn that and then you can very easily see what the words mean on the page, which under traditional orthography you can't; you can make a good stab at it, but very often be wrong. So the idea of ITA was to get early learners' and young children's enthusiasm captured into learning how to read. Then, when they've mastered that but have still got their enthusiasm for reading, then wean them off that onto traditional orthography when they were old enough to understand that it was fairly haphazard in many areas. So get them to learn while they are still young and enthusiastic, because most young children are very keen to learn to read, but are put off by unfathomable rules and exceptions - and exceptions to exceptions. Get rid of that, make it easy and enjoyable, get them interested in reading and then once they're hooked on that, then you can get them back to traditional orthography if you like. That was the idea of the ITA, it was a teaching alphabet, not designed to replace English normal orthography.

AT: But if it was so good, it didn't really take off, did it?

JG: Because it was aimed at teaching. It was never designed to take over the official spelling. People were taken off it once they had got the enthusiasm. And it wasn't followed through to say "well, let's see if we can keep some of that enthusiasm by making adult books easily readable". If you like, it was seen purely as a means of elementary teaching, not as a solution. It proved its original thesis, which was "make it simple to learn and people / children will learn enthusiastically"; but it didn't follow that through logically to "keep it simple and adults will keep their learning skills later on and keep their reading enthusiastic". A lot of people lose interest, even as adults, when they find difficulties in spellings and words that just don't make sense.

AT: I understand that. I was looking at the "BBC Online" website, where they've been covering this story and where you've been quoted in it as well. Also they invited people to send in their comments on it - I have to say, a lot of very strong anti-comments with regard to ITA. Just to read a few:

"I suffered ITA for my first few years at school, with the consequence that at the age of 7 I could barely read or write".

Somebody else said [he] was taught ITA in the 60s, said many of his friends blamed their poor spelling on being taught the system in their first year of school.

Somebody from Scotland said a big problem with ITA was that the spelling didn't account for regional accents.

Somebody said "I'm dyslexic and learned ITA at school. I was already able to read and write simple words when I arrived at school, but it crippled me", etc.

JG: I'm surprised at the last one, because there is a lot of research over all the world that shows that dyslexia is a particularly English-speaking phenomenon. Most other countries that have regular spelling haven't [much] dyslexia. There was some research last year that showed that Italian people have about 1/5th - or something like that - the rates of dyslexia that English-speaking nations do. Not just England: it's not that our pupils are particularly difficult to teach, or that our teachers are less efficient than anywhere else. It's the same in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand - the whole English-speaking world has a massive dyslexia problem that doesn't exist in other countries. There has to be correlation there somewhere.'

AT: Just back to the ITA. One or two very interesting comments, not so "anti":

"In my second year of teaching in Luton in 1968," says a lady called Patricia Collet, "ITA seemed a brilliant way of pushing the children on, and they learned to read much earlier than usual, but - and the "but" is enormous - some could not make the transition. I don't think they'll ever unlearn ITA spelling".

JG: I think that's part of the problem with it being seen as a teaching method, a transition and a bridge to traditional orthography rather than a long-term solution to making it simple, which is where we are now. ITA was a valuable experiment to prove the point that learning to read isn't difficult. What we would like to do now is build on that experience and say "Let's get rid of some of those rather useless silent letters and strange rules, and make it fun for everybody to keep on reading now". That's what was missing in the ITA experiment - it didn't follow it through.

AT: Now back to my first question almost, and the comparisons with people abroad learning English - and anybody learning English at any stage. Another quote from "BBC Online". Somebody called "Doug" sent in this point, again with "ITA": "ITA is a classic case of missing the point; if you're taught English, inconsistencies and all, from an early age, you develop an intuition for how words should look." Shouldn't we just grin and bear what we have, and it's down to good quality teaching, and that really is the way to crack it?

JG: Well, yes, you can learn every word by the word shape. There was quite a tendency at one stage to learn [with] whole-word teaching, where the pupil, the student, whatever, looks at the word shape and says "Ah, that says 'plough', and that says 'circuit'", or something; if you do that and say "we're divorcing the ability to read from the ability to decode it from the letters", then you're basically in the same realm as road signs or pictograms and Chinese. You're saying the letters mean nothing, or they'll give you at best a very general hint; you're saying "Let's make up some very nice-looking words that show all the etymologies and so on" but they don't actually help you learn how to read; and I don't think that helps. I think that, for most people learning to read, they want to be able to look at a word and be able to work out what it means, and what it says if it is one they haven't come across before. If you present them with a word they haven't come across before, English is one of the few world languages where you can look at a word you don't know and not know how to pronounce it.

AT: John, good speaking to you tonight. Just a quick "and finally" - in 30 seconds or so how do you see things developing? Do you see the Simplified Spelling Society still around and kicking in about 20 years time?

JG: I hope so, we're very active, we have a good website if you want to look on there. We're always welcome to comments, contributions, even the critical ones, because we pick up lots of good ideas that way.

AT: All right. It's been a good talking point. Thank you, goodnight to you John.



[JG] Of course, the correct answer to the final question would have been "No, in 20 years I hope we will have completed our task and no longer be necessary".

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