There’s been a lot of ink spilt recently on the subject of the best way to teach children how to read (or more accurately to decode) written English, and how large a role phonics should play in that process. I’m not going to enter that fray today, except to point out that long before phonics there was another system that promised to get children up and reading in super-quick time. Its name was ITA, or the Initial Teaching Alphabet.
ITA was invented by a member of the Pitman family, whose shorthand system has underpinned the work of secretaries for generations, and like shorthand it relied on the sounds of words rather than on their spellings. Since English sounds don’t correspond to letters, at least in a consistent way, Pitman was obliged to create new characters for children to learn, producing books for five-year olds that looked like the example above. (Being Englished, the text reads: Paul said to his mother, “Jet has taken the meat. Oh look, Jet has eaten the meat.” Paul said to Jet, “Bad dog, Jet.”) The idea was that, once children grew confident in reading using ITA, they would graduate smoothly to standard English spelling.
ITA flourished in the 1960s, when it was taught to many of my own generation (although not to me). Did it work? That it is now a historical curiosity suggests not, and a quick straw poll of my peers reveals that many feel it badly affected their ability to spell in later life. Others, however, are more sanguine, so who knows? Did you learn using ITA - and, if so, how was it for you? I cite it here simply to offer a long perspective on present controversies. We have always had trendy reading schemes to deal with, and children have generally muddled through despite our best efforts. If that's not a positive message, what is?
For all the trouble it causes, I’d be sad to lose the strange system that is English spelling, just as I was sad to lose imperial weights and measures, and pounds, shillings and pence. Like these, English spelling offers a window onto our past and those who lived there. Each word is like a stone that breaks to reveal a fossil, a sudden glimpse of a world in which "k-n-i-g-h-t" really is a phonetic spelling. What is ugly when seen in two dimensions, in four may be a thing of beauty.
Thought for the day:
Though you plough thoroughly through the rough, you should expect the odd hiccough