[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J28, 2000/2 p2]


Christopher Upward.

Enduring significance of the i.t.a.

The year 2000 marks the fortieth anniversary of the launch of the Initial Teaching Alphabet (i.t.a.), the greatest 'spelling reform' ever implemented in English - though none of those involved saw it as such. This number of JSSS acknowledges the importance of the i.t.a. with its first two items, which both, in different ways, originated with John Downing. For it was he who led the Reading Research Unit at London University which conducted the i.t.a. experiment from 1960 to 1967, and who as President of the SSS from 1972 to 1987 gave the address we reprint on pp3-11.

That address, The Transfer of Skills in Language Functions, though it highlights key findings of the i.t.a. experiment, ranges far more widely across the question of what goes on in readers' minds when they transfer reading skills already achieved in one writing system to an unfamiliar system. For that is what we are asking people to do when we call for a mature orthography such as that of English to be replaced by another, whether that is altered only slightly or quite radically. Downing's extensive experience of literacy acquisition in different languages and cultures illuminates this issue in a humane and tolerant manner, setting out the broader psychological context in which the whole enterprise of spelling reform has to be conceived.

The summary of Downing's formal evaluation of the i.t.a. (pp12-16) is partly of historical interest (spelling reformers do need to know what happened), but it also contains many practical implications for the design of future reform proposals. The most quotable finding of the experiment is that it further confirms the conclusion of more recent comparisons between languages (see JSSS 27, pp30-33), that the irregularity of English spelling seriously hinders the process of literacy acquisition. Perhaps the strongest warning we can take from the i.t.a. experiment is that there is no evidence that the special i.t.a. characters benefited learners. Indeed, they rather prejudiced the long-term viability of the i.t.a., which would have entailed fewer problems of all kinds if it had been merely an 'i.t.o.', ie, an initial teaching orthography using only letters of the Roman alphabet.

With hindsight, we may perhaps feel that the SSS was right to keep its distance from the i.t.a. 40 years ago. The i.t.a. was a bold experiment, launched almost at the whim of a man (Sir James Pitman) of enormous energy, influence and resources. Fortunately it was directed by a man (John Downing) of cool scientific judgment who, in his evaluation, was not afraid to point out its weaknesses and to suggest sounder, if more modest, alternatives which, unlike the i.t.a., could be compatible with a real spelling reform.

Other features of this issue.

Several articles in this issue are concerned with phonics, explicitly in the contributions from Jolly (pp17-19) and Groff (pp20-22), and implicitly à propos of the i.t.a. One of the chief obstacles to spelling reform in the English-speaking world is the lack of public understanding of the psychology of the alphabet - how easily and naturally the human brain masters patterns of regular sound-symbol correspondence, and how profoundly it is confused by the present spelling. This lack of understanding has also inhibited the use of phonics in literacy teaching in English where it is now proved to offer the most effective learning method despite irregular spelling. Phonics and spelling reform are based on the same psycho-alphabetic principle, and every advance in the use of phonics may be seen as preparing the ground intellectually for spelling reform. Spelling reformers therefore have an interest in the widest possible use of phonics, which shows up the hazards of the system where more slapdash approaches to literacy, such as 'look-and-say', skate over them.

Seen from Europe, Portuguese may seem marginal, but in a world perspective it is an important language, spoken in four continents. Zé do Rock's account of its spelling (pp25-27) reveals an important parallel with English: that there are marked differences between its European and American versions (ie, between Portugal and Brazil). Similar differences between British and American English are sometimes cited as obstacles to the reform of English spelling; but the repeated small reforms that have been (sometimes rather erratically) agreed between the spelling authorities in Portugal and Brazil at intervals through the 20th century show that, given the will, the Atlantic need be no barrier to the co-ordinated improvement of the spelling of a world language. We may also note how a letter may be written as pronounced in one accent, but omitted when silent in the other (cf, secret(a)ry, fert(i)le in different accents of English).

Allan Campbell's collected campaign documentation from New Zealand (pp28-32) suggests what might possibly prove the most promising location for a first step toward spelling reform: a country small enough and new enough for personal contacts to count and for institutions to be open to the arguments of individuals. He sketches a scenario where New Zealand, unencumbered by vast, arthritic political structures, might be willing to throw down the gauntlet to the rest of the English-speaking world with a challenge to orthographic action. Allan deserves the SSS's wholehearted support for his undertaking. His documentation also merits careful study for the lessons it may suggest for campaigning elsewhere.