[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J29, 2001 pp26-28]
[See other items written by Masha Bell.

The Significance of the ITA Experiment.

by Masha Bell.

Masha Bell is an educator and one-time Secretary of the Simplified Spelling Society. She has long been an effective publicist for reform.

The ITA experiment is now generally regarded as a failure. A full-page piece about ITA in the Daily Telegraph on 2 June 2001 was entitled "A cleer case of educashunal lunacie." Few people have any idea why ITA ever came to be used in the first place.

In 1953, a private member's Spelling Reform Bill was carried in the House of Commons by 65 votes to 53 after its Second Reading. It was then approved in Committee, too, against the wishes of the Conservative government of the day. Without government support, the Bill had no chance of being passed by the House of Lords.

The Bill's success in the House of Commons did, however, persuade the Secretary of State for Education, Miss Florence Horsbrugh, that some further action should be taken as a result of it. Consequently, she gave her consent for a large-scale investigation to establish whether traditional spelling had adverse effects on children's progress with learning to read and write, when compared with the use of a simplified spelling system.

The prestigious Institute of Education of the University of London and the National Foundation for Educational Research were entrusted with the project. They took great care with its design. Since participation in the study was voluntary, it took several years to persuade enough directors of education and school heads to take part in the experiment. The study eventually took place the academic year 1963-64.

The study compared 873 children who learned to read and write in the normal way with 873 children who were taught using the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA). There were no plans at that stage to continue using ITA beyond the experiment. However, its designer, Sir James Pitman, hoped that it might be. He did not favour a proper spelling reform. Rather, he believed that the use of ITA as a transitional alphabet for teaching beginners to read and write would obviate the need for reform.

Some Precedents.

Sir James Pitman's ITA was based on his grandfather's, Sir Isaac Pitman's, Fonotypy. This had already been tried in the US in the 1850s, in 10 schools in Waltham, Massachusetts. According to a summary of the results made by the American Philological Society in 1899, the use of Fonotypy enabled children to learn to read much faster. It brought other benefits, too. The savings in time led to better development of "observation, skill in drawing and writing, and geometrical ability." A further reported outcome was the following: "The phonetic print corrected the brogue of the Irish children and the Yankee dialect of the American in a surprising manner."

A large-scale experiment, with a different transitional alphabet, had also been used in St. Louis between 1866-86. The US Bureau of Education claimed that this saved 1 - 2 1/2 years in the time needed for learning to read. Furthermore, as a result of the experience, children "took more pleasure in reading books and newspapers at home." After an experiment with the same transitional alphabet in Boston, it was claimed that it enabled the basics of reading to be taught in just one year, instead of the usual two years. Several experiments in Britain had also found that learning to read and write English can be dramatically speeded up when using a more regular spelling system. They had, however, not been conducted according to strict scientific criteria.

Results of the ITA Study.

The more scientifically conducted ITA experiment of 1963-1964 led to many of the same conclusions as the various earlier studies. It demonstrated very clearly that children can learn to read and write English much faster when using a more consistent spelling system. Children using ITA moved more quickly through the five books of the Janet and John reading scheme. For example, the average pupil using ITA was on the fourth book by the beginning of the fifth term, while the average pupil using traditional spelling had not advanced beyond the second book.

The ITA children scored higher in reading tests: reading more fluently, with fewer errors and attaining higher comprehension scores. The writing of children using ITA was also superior. Their compositions were longer and they used a much wider vocabulary. Teachers of the ITA groups repeatedly also commented on a more favourable attitude to learning among their pupils.

The original purpose in using ITA was to establish whether traditional spelling had adverse effects on children's progress with learning to read and write, when compared with the use of a simplified spelling system. About that, the investigation provided totally unambiguous results. The study demonstrated conclusively that traditional spelling impedes the acquisition of literacy in English.

ITA enabled children to grasp more easily what reading and writing is all about. Still, eventually they had to memorise the erratic spellings of 3,500 common English words, which all have some element of spelling unpredictability in them.

Although children made a good start on the road to literacy with ITA, ultimately they had to confront the difficulties of the current system. The least able pupils suffered the most severe setbacks when they eventually had to switch to normal, unreformed English spelling.

If English spelling itself were to be simplified, then children would be able to continue learning to read and write English in the same satisfactory and confident way in which they progressed with ITA. They would no longer need to experience the setback that initial users of ITA had to face when eventually confronted with traditional spelling.

To summarise, the ITA experiment proved 2 things:

(1) A simplified English spelling system makes learning to read and write English far easier and more enjoyable than it is now.

(2) A transitional learning system cannot enable learners to cope with the difficulties of the current English spelling system.

Personal Experience.

My own experiences have confirmed the second conclusion. By the time I started to learn English, I already knew perfectly well how alphabetic systems are meant to operate. I had acquired this insight, not from ITA, but from learning Lithuanian and Russian. This knowledge proved very useful when I next went on to learn German, another language with a fairly alphabetic spelling system. But it was of no help to me when I subsequently came to learn English. Because English spelling so often fails to adhere to the alphabetic principle, the really hard part of becoming literate in English is memorising the thousands of exceptional spellings, after the basics of reading and writing have been grasped. A spelling system riddled with contradictions (like learn/fern, steady/teddy, knew/new/due, how/low, alphabet/Alfred, system/sister) will always take a long time to master. Only spelling reform can ameliorate that.

Misuse of ITA.

That still leaves us with the question: why did so many teachers continue to use ITA after the original 1963-64 experiment was completed?

The teachers using ITA were impressed by the immediate benefits of ITA. Those teachers had previously watched many of their pupils struggle and get stuck for a long time on one reading book. They saw their students' writing being severely handicapped by the contradictions of English spelling. With ITA, by comparison, all children were speeding along and enjoying their learning, too. There is nothing that gives teachers more satisfaction than seeing their pupils succeed. How could they not want to continue using ITA?

Unfortunately, ITA transported both pupils and teachers into the more idyllic world of reformed spelling, which existed as yet only in their own classrooms. The heady success of ITA made the teachers using it ignore the grim reality of traditional spelling, which their pupils would have to confront before long. This was easy to do because, in primary schools, teachers usually teach just one age group. How those children later coped with traditional spelling would be someone else's problem. Pitman kept reassuring everyone that there would be no difficulty making the transition to traditional written English. Unfortunately, ITA no more helped the children cope with the vagaries of English spelling than learning Lithuanian, Russian and German helped me carry the same learning burden. Only lots of intensive practice with traditional spelling can do that, or a proper reform of English spelling.


Downing, John (1967) Evaluating the Initial Teaching Alphabet, London, Cassell.

--(1962) to bee or not to be: The Augmented Roman Alphabet, London, Cassell

Upward, Chris - John Downing's i.t.a. Evaluation, JSSS J28 2000/2

Johnson, Rachel - A cleer case of educational lunacie, Telegraph Weekend, 2.6.2001