[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1988/1 p18,19 later designated J7]
[See articles on ita, including some by Ronald Threadgall.]

The Initial Teaching Alphabet:
Proven Efficiency and Future Prospects.

Ronald A Threadgall.

Ronald Threadgall is General Secretary of the United Kingdom i.t.a. Federation, Editor of the Federation's Newsletter, and former Head of the Remedial Department at Clacton County High School, Essex.

The Initial Teaching Alphabet:
Symbols and Sound Values.
ita alfabet: symbols and sound values
Few Spelling Reformers can be unaware of the Initial Teaching Alphabet, and some will have used it and enjoyed doing so. Essentially it is a phonetic alphabet consisting of 44 letters to represent the 40+ sounds of English, so that spelling is consistent. It is not intended to replace our traditional orthography, but to be used as an initial learning medium so that reading and writing can be more easily learnt.

It began with Sir Isaac Pitman. Shorthand, up to his time, had been based on the written word, but his shorthand was based on the sounds of the language, and we know how successful that idea was. Sir James Pitman had a very close relationship with his grandfather, and took a great interest in his work. It was from this beginning that he developed i.t.a. After working with Bernard Shaw and others on a new alphabet, he felt that, laudable as this was, a new alphabet was not a viable proposition, and that even a simplified spelling structure was not likely to commend itself in the foreseeable future. He therefore invented i.t.a. to help people learn to read.

I stress that i.t.a. is not a method for the teaching of reading and writing, but an initial learning medium. There are many ways of using it. Among our National Committee members there are at least four very different ways in which it is used. One of its strengths is that it is flexible and can be adapted to all kinds of circumstances.

From 1961 it was used experimentally in Oldham and other places, under the auspices of the University of London. The last President of the Simplified Spelling Society, the late John Downing, was heavily involved at this stage and produced the Downing Readers which are still widely used today. All the schools taking part were infant schools, and there it had immediate success. It was very well researched, involving such people as Vera Southgate, John Blackie and Donald Sadler.

Considerable advantages were soon noticed. The beginning stages of reading were completed much faster, and children very quickly took to writing. Because reading was easier in this medium, the children read much more, thereby gaining a greater facility for it and a greater enjoyment from it. Much, and much better, creative writing flowed from their pens. I meet a number of people who know little about i.t.a. but are aware of this fact. Just as the children 'enjoyed their reading and writing, and such enjoyment is a great spur to learning, so the teachers gained enjoyment from the teaching. No longer was there the eternal queue of children at the teacher's desk to ask "Miss, how do you spell ... ?". The teacher was now free to go among the children and help with style and vocabulary and ideas. There was also no waste of time on the children's part, less opportunity for fooling about, and no break in their concentration.

There was limited use with older children, with adults, in the army, and in prisons; but the full potential of i.t.a. in these situations was not fully realised, as infant material was used, and even material specially written was very dull. It was not fully grasped that with i.t.a. the repetition of words was not necessary, nor did vocabulary need to be restricted.

I began using i.t.a. in 1965. 1 was involved in Remedial Education, and was not satisfied with what I was achieving. I was not happy while there was one child who was illiterate or even semi-literate. I came across i.t.a. and thought it might be some answer to the problem. After a course by Peter Daffyn, and some time in making myself proficient in this new medium as well as working out how I could use it in my rather different situation, I experimented by teaching one class with i.t.a. and another parallel one with T.O. It was soon clear to anyone that the i.t.a. class was romping ahead of the other. We found it to be just as successful in a multi-ability situation as in a streamed set-up. At last one could abandon the 'cat sat on the mat' type of literature, and give these older children material within their interests and vocabulary. You can read the account of all this in the leaflet "Sir's Magic Alphabet".

Samples of text in ita
samples of text in ita

One of the great benefits of i.t.a. for older children was the speed at which they learnt to read. In six months to a year they were all proficient at reading and writing in T.O., and could keep up with their peers, instead of drifting further and further behind as previously was the case, because their reading and writing no longer held them back, as all the difficult or special subject words could easily be written in i.t.a. Discipline rapidly improved because the children were now too busy to misbehave.

Why is it then that i.t.a. seems to have failed? Firstly, I think, it was too successful at the beginning. The news of its success escaped from the experimental situation, and many teachers and educational authorities grabbed at it as the panacea for all ills, and without adequate training and preparation dived in. I.t.a. is a tool and as such needs careful and skilful handling. Giving someone a chisel without any directive as to how to use it could produce very poor work and would probably be very dangerous.

A Foundation had been set up to foster the work of i.t.a. During the 1970s this foundered for lack of funds and other reasons, so there was a lack of support for teachers and schools. Some were unaware of the range of materials available. Also the bad ideas about teaching reading re-surfaced in new guises, and i.t.a. was considered to be out-dated. 'New' ideas took over, promulgated by H.M.I.s and advisers who were wholly ignorant of i.t.a. and what it had achieved.

The United Kingdom Initial Teaching Alphabet Federation was formed in 1978 by teachers who were using i.t.a., for the support of schools using this medium and for the promotion of further use of it. It has gradually taken over the functions of the Foundation in this country. It gives advice and help to schools, teachers, parents and students; provides books and other materials, training courses and an annual conference, as well as advertising and generally promoting the use of i.t.a.

We are not just propping a system up. We are looking ahead and working hard for the future. We are working for the time when the efficacy of i.t.a. will be widely recognized, and our skills be more in demand.

We have recently produced a pre-reading phonic kit, which has awakened considerable interest. We have produced, and are continuing to produce, materials with older vocabulary and interest levels for older children and adults. We have produced a literacy pack for adults with cassette tapes, and we are about to revise that. We are making contacts with parliament and politicians. We have recently made a submission to the Kingman Committee. We are involved in teacher training, both in courses we run ourselves and in lectures and courses run in teacher training establishments. We are becoming more involved in adult education, and are endeavouring to get i.t.a. used in prisons again. We are beginning an experiment in the use of i.t.a. to help parents to teach their children to read before they go to school. Our Annual Conference brings many people together to discuss and consider literacy in its many aspects. In all we are doing much to combat illiteracy.

Its strength lies in its sound educational basis. In every subject except English one begins with what is simple and moves to the complications later. One does not start teaching mathematics with logarithms! I.t.a. begins in a simple phonetic way, and when confidence and facility have been gained it moves on to the complications of our orthography. In a remedial situation it provides a real new start, and this has a great psychological effect, raising confidence in all directions. The great thing is that it engenders an interest and enjoyment in reading and writing that continues beyond school. This does not show up in research, but I find that those taught by i.t.a. go on enjoying their reading and writing and thus gaining greater proficiency while many taught using T.O. give up using such skills and so they atrophy. Another strength is its adaptability to all kinds of uses and situations, such as learning English as a second language, and the learning of foreign languages. It could even adapt to Cut Spelling!

Further Reading.

John Blackie & Donald Sadler i.t.a.: An independent Evaluation.

John Downing The Initial Teaching Alphabet Explained and Illustrated.

O M Gayford i.t.a. in Primary Education.

Maurice Harrison Teaching Reading - An i.t.a. Approach.

Sir James Pitman Alphabets and Reading


Back to the top.