i.t.a: a great idea but a dismal failure

Talk to anyone today who was taught to read through i.t.a. (Initial Teaching Alphabet) and they will almost invariably tell you how they’ve never been able to spell correctly since. 
As i.t.a. was more or less abandoned in the sixties/early seventies (though it did cling on for much longer in some places), many of today’s generation of teachers will never even have heard of it except from their parents or grandparents! So why write a blog posting about it?

I’m writing about it because it did, at first sight, appear to be a great idea. At the same time, as the title of the post suggests, it was a disaster – because so many children were left floundering it its wake.

Starting with the ‘great idea’ bit, it was conceived by James Pitman, grandson of Isaac Pitman, developer of the famous shorthand system of note-taking still in use today. What James Pitman thought was not dissimilar from the ideas of Stephen Linstead, Chair of the English Spelling Society Spelling reform. Pitman thought that if he could produce a single symbol for every one of the forty-four sounds in English, children would have a simplified and very easy system to learn. Doing so would give us a writing code not unlike Italian or Spanish.

Most of the single letter spellings, the one-to-ones remained the same. So, the spelling in ‘bat’ remained the same as in our accepted orthography. Where the system differed was in many of the two-letter consonant and vowel spellings. Thus, Here’s an example: /th/ (unvoiced) in the word ‘thin’ was spelt q; /th/ (voiced) in the word ‘this’ was spelt d; the sound /ae/ as in ‘gate’ was spelt æ; and, the sound /oe/ in ‘goat’ was spelt œ.

If we had a system for spelling the forty-four sounds in English (forty-five in some accents) with one symbol, learning to read and spell would be easy. For example, the sentence ‘I have a goat’ would be written: ‘I hav a gœt’. At the time, Ladybird produced books to support the approach. To give you an idea of what they looked like, here is an example from a book called The Fisherman: 

The most obvious problem with such a system is that, at some point, the transition to our accepted orthography must be made . In the sentence ‘I hav a goet.’ above, the spelling of /v/ in ‘have’ is commonly spelt ve at the ends of words and the spelling of the sound /oe/ in ‘goat’ is oa. For children to make the transition, the teacher has to make explicit to children that, in English:
·      we spell sounds with one, two three or four letters
·      sounds can be spelt in multiple ways
·      many spellings represent more than one sound

The teacher also has to teach all the various common ways of spelling sounds for reading and spelling, and they need to know how to teach that many spellings represent different sounds and the skills to enable them to use this knowledge when reading and writing.

Because hardly any teachers knew how the transition to accepted orthography should be taught, many children were left struggling to work out the logic of the alphabet code. Teachers in (the then) junior schools (KS2) found themselves confronted with children writing what seemed to them like gobbledegook.

The next problem with i.t.a. was that it presented the spellings for the sounds of someone with a Received Pronunciation (RP) accent, which is not the accent of many speakers of English. So, it didn’t make sense to speakers of other varieties of English. In addition, aside from also violating the principle that it is never a good idea to teach what later needs to ‘un-taught’, no-one for a moment believed that all existing written materials should be re-written in i.t.a. This meant that after learning to read and write i.t.a., children had to be taught how the code works.

Today’s would-be spelling reformers peddle what is essentially the same line: simplify spelling and learning to read and write English will be much easier. As I’ve pointed out here, the idea is a pipe dream. Many previous attempts have been made and they all founder on the rocks of different accents of English and on establishing an agreed system of spelling the forty-four sounds in the language, including the most common vowel sound, the schwa.

There is one reason and only one reason for the spelling reformers’ confusion – instead of starting with the sounds of the language and teaching children the different ways of spelling those sounds, they start from spellings. Spellings, they seem to think, ‘make’ or ‘say’ sounds. They don’t. We are dealing with a symbolic system: spellings are symbols for sounds. Once this becomes your starting point, you have an anchor for all your subsequent teaching.

Below is the i.t.a. chart, which you’ll also find on Wikipedia here.

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5 thoughts on “i.t.a: a great idea but a dismal failure

  1. Rite 2 th last par, I'd say. The ankor is th Alpha Code, & th akshon is in th CORRES btw the ltrs & th snds tht comprise th wds, not in the ltrs or snds per se.

    The thing is, English "spellings" are symbols for "readings" not symbols for "sounds." Children enter school speaking prose, but but few know how to read speech, and that communication is what reading instruction is all about. The English-speaking world has yet to devise instruction to reliably teach all kids how to do this. The UK is on the forefront of accomplishing this task, and more than 600 schools in England are doing it. Curiously, we don't know what distinguishes the instruction in these schools from that of schools that aren't, but "some day" that information will come to light.

  2. I was taught by ita and got on really well with it. I'm amazed how people find it so hard to read. I'm now a teaching assistant and find the way phonics is taught now much harder. I don't really remember a transition between alphabets. I still recall the reading books we had including Janet and John books. I still have some of them.

  3. I was taught ITA and got on well with it. The problem came when I later came to read normal English I really lost my confidence. Sounding out words like stomach and hearing the whole class laugh at my ignorance

    To this day I struggle with spelling even quite simple words. I wonder how I might have done if I had not gone through this ridiculous system.

    I still feel self-conscious about my inability to spell.

    I wonder if anyone ever sued the educational services for this?

    1. Just fancy, Archibald, you learned to read and write your name – no doubt with expert help from your mother/father/aunt/etc. and then you have to learn to spell it in some mysterious code, half of which makes sense and half of which is simply incomprehensible. And what a name! it sounds as though you came through despite the odds 🙂

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