On other pages part 1, part 3, part 4, part 5.

READING & SPELLING part 2.

I.t.a. - An Exercise in Futility.

D. Stafford.


The creation of committed organisations and societies is a process that is based an the perception of a problem (or problems). The Simplified Spelling Society is certainly not an exception in this respect. It was established in 1908 by a number of learned scholars who shared a common concern for the disastrous effects of our irregular spelling. For these founder members, their problem (and ours) can be summarised as follows:

Our spelling 'system' is unsystematic. In traditional orthography (t.o.) a particular phoneme (or sound) is generally symbolised is more than one way. Moreover, a particular letter of the alphabet (or combination of letters) can usually be pronounced (or 'realised') with more than one phoneme, the choice of phoneme being often very arbitrary and requiring 'rote' learning [1].

A Linguistics specialist would probably add that the suprasegmental phonemes of stress and pitch, which are such a vital feature of the spoken language, are never symbolised in t.o. The same applies to juncture (which refers to the different types of 'gaps' in sequences of phonemes).

The consequences of this situation are very unfortunate and on a massive scale. The catastrophic effects of t.o. have been analysed by a number of authors and it is not my intention to examine these effects in any detail [2]. I intend instead to consider the possible solutions that could be advanced for the problem that is stated above. In fact, it some that all significant, would-be solutions belong to one or other of the following two categories:

(a) Permanent spelling reforms. The numerous systems that belong to this category are intended to replace t.o. permanently. Some of them are essentially rationalised versions of t.o., but this is certainly not the case for all systems of proposed spelling reform (s.r.)

(b) Initial teaching media (i.t.m.) In this context, the abbreviation i.t.m. refers to alphabets that are designed for the initial teaching of reading and writing to young children in their first years at school. Subsequently, the children must make the transition back to t.o. There is no attempt at any kind of permanent spelling reform.

It should be apparent that there is a wide separation between the underlying attitudes and assumptions that are .implied by these two categories. The design criteria and axioms of i.t.m. and s.r.'s are different. Spelling reformers are those whose sympathies are directed toward the systems of category (a). Theirs is a radical approach. Many of them favour those systems of s.r. that would retain a close visual resemblance to the forms of t.o., where this would not affect the efficiency of the reform, but others are not deeply concerned about close visual links with t.o. in the spelling reforms that they currently favour.

The supporters of i.t.m., however, are forced to choose systems that have a close resemblance to t.o. 'on the page'. This is essential for an i.t. medium if a severe check to educational progress is not to be experienced at the time when pupils effect the transition from their initial teaching texts to normal reading material employing t.o. This points immediately to the dilemma that faces the would-be designer of an initial teaching medium for reading and writing. Such a person is in thrall to the idiocies of t.o. however tempting more rational: spellings may be. He or she is often forced far from the ideal of a one-to-one correspondence between sound and symbol, even where this is attainable, because the result of adopting such an ideal system of symbolism would be too logical and distant from the weird and irrational conventions that the pupils who use an i.t.m. must be able to recognise at the time of the (dreaded) transition to t.o. Similarly, the designer of an i.t. medium is not generally free to introduce those developments that are so desirable from the viewpoints of many spelling reformers. For example, the extra vowel symbol (or symbols), and the combined symbol for main stress and intonation [3] that form, or could form a feature of some systems in category (a). Where a given system of category (b) appears to incorporate significant innovations, these are almost always adopted to ensure that there is a close mimicry of idiosyncrasies in t.o., and are rarely the sort of modifications that a spelling reformer would bother to consider.

The situation can be expressed in anthropomorphic terms, as follows: The spelling of t.o. is 'sick'. Spelling reformers wish to cure the sickness, but the supporters of i.t.m. are quite content to toss a few aspirins in the direction of the patient. In short, s.r. implies a permanent cure, i.t.m. imply temporary palliative measures, and they cure nothing.

More objectively, one can say that the existence of various system of i.t.m. for reading and writing is a symptom of the need for a thorough s.r. When our spelling is effectively reformed the 'need' for i.t.m. will vanish (as will the schemes themselves). A well reformed orthography should function as its own initial teaching medium.

This last point should help to explain why many distinguished proponents of initial teaching alphabets are often vociferously opposed to the very concept of a spelling reform. In blunt terms, their systems would become totally irrelevant if the inanities of t.o. were eliminated (as they would be by a competent s.r.).

Incidentally, the very large financial investment that is involved in the development and marketing of an initial teaching medium is worthy of note in this context.

It should now be obvious that a deep gulf separates systems of s.r. from schemes of i.t.m. There is, however, a certain general relationship of a one-sided nature between the two, for an initial teaching medium can rarely be considered as constituting more than a third-rate substitute for a bad spelling reform, but a spelling reform that is worthy of the name should have the potential to serve as its own (very effective) i.t. medium - in the sense that pupils should not require auxiliary aids when learning to read and to write with such a regularised system. Of course, the question of a transition to t.o., in this instance, does not arise.

The most widely known example of an i.t. medium for reading and writing is, of course, the initial teaching alphabet (i.t.a.) of Sir James Pitman [4]. Of all the systems in category (b), this is certainly the best researched and the most widely used. Same very fine scholars and administrators have been involved in the development and testing of i.t.a., and notable success has been achieved with the system at the stage before the transition back to t.o. This illustrates the fact that almost any simplification of t.o. can speed the initial learning process - a fact that has been known and accepted by several generations of spelling reformers. Unfortunately for i.t.a. and its proponents, their system has been far from an unqualified success in aiding pupils to withstand the shock of the transition to traditional spelling, and the early gain has to be balanced against the considerable check to program that occurs at this point.

In many respects, it could be argued that i.t.a., like other systems of i.t.m., is an exercise in futility. It is an attempt to dodge the main issue (which is the question of a permanent spelling reform). "At the end of some two years learning in the Infants School all of the difficulties of traditional English spelling still lie ahead of the i.t.a. learner and still have to be mastered before he or she can read functionally in traditional English spelling. I.t.a. does not remove difficulties; it merely delays them. I.t.a. has, in fact, a delaying effect on reading fluency in t.o. (the ultimate aim) since many of these difficulties would have been met and mastered earlier if traditional spelling had been the medium of instruction" [5].

These unfortunate facts are reflected in the statistics relating to the number of British schools that still employ i.t.a. Figures published by, or assembled for the i.t.a. Foundation reveal that fewer than 1000 schools are still using i.t.a. in Britain. This statistic should be compared with the corresponding value for the period from 1967 to 1971 when up to 4000 schools were using the system.

It seems to be fairly certain that part of the reaction (that is implied by these figures) against i.t.a, developed in the first instance among those teachers in Junior schools who had seen the stresses of the transition from i.t.a. to t.o. at first hand. This reaction now appears to have filtered into infant schools.

Certain studies purport to show that the 'average' standard of spelling among i.t.a. pupils cannot be distinguished from that of pupils whose studies involve the use of t.o. only. (Presumably, one is required to overlook the remarkable fact that i.t.a. methods have failed to produce any statistically significant improvement in spelling attainment.) It is difficult to know how one is expected to react to these results, particularly in view of the fact that most of these studies have been done by supporters of i.t.a. or by authors who have i.t.a. texts to their credit!

It is irritating to hear that certain apologists for i.t.a. have referred to the system as a foundation for the reform of our present orthography. An s.r. should be designed as such from the outset. Is this requirement satisfied by the design criteria of the Initial Teaching Alphabet?

There appears to be a growing conviction among supporters of spelling reform that category (b) systems (including, of course, i.t.a.) are collectively the antithesis of spelling reform, for they imply the preservation, not the reform, of traditional spelling. I suspect that this conviction is likely to spread to an increasing number of those who still advocate the use of i.t.m. as potential 'foundations' for a spelling reform. The S.S.S. is almost certain to gain from such an evolution, and even now the Society is privileged in having among its members some of the distinguished scholars who have been associated with the i.t.a. movement. Their knowledge and experience could do much to speed the reform of one of the main sources of illiteracy in the anglophone world - traditional orthography.

Notes and references.

[1] In an unpublished Ms., I have expressed the concept of the (unattainable) 'perfect' spelling system in terms of one-to-one reading and writing 'mappings'. Such mappings are sets of one-to-one reading and writing 'maps'. In the same terms, t.o. gives great trouble because many of its component maps are one-to-many (both for reading and for writing) and there is no clear guide as to the choice of 'image' under the mappings. In short, ambiguity (which can be defined as a set of one-to-manor maps with largely unguided choices for the images) reigns supreme.

[2] The Society has prepared a short list of publications relevant to s.r. A copy can be obtained by writing to the Publications Secretary and enclosing a stamped and addressed envelope (large enough to take two folded sheets of A4 paper).

[3] Some spelling reformers favour the introduction of a symbol for the unstressed mid-central vowel (number 12 on the listing of the late Prof. Daniel Jones). For my part, I wish to suggest the possibility of an optional symbol for marking the syllables that carry the main (or 'strongest') stress, and for giving a (very) rough indication of intonation. Such a symbol could have a threefold form. I suggest: \ / for the falling, level and rising intonation, respectively. Perhaps such a system could be elaborated a little (not too much!) to show pitch 'level' as well.

[4] See: 'A Short Account of Simplified Spelling and the Simplified Spelling Society' (particularly page 8 onward), by Maurice Harrison, M.A., M.Ed., B.Sc. Eton.; S.S.S. Pamphlet No. 11; published by the S.S.S. in 1971.

[5] Quoted, with permission, from a letter to the author. The same letter provided the data relating to i.t.a. usage in Britain, the comments concerning the reactions of Junior school teachers to i.t.a., and notes on spelling attainment with i.t.a.


Copyright (C) 1976. D. Stafford.


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