The i.t.a. experiment


The Initial Teaching Alphabet uses only 43 – 45 regular spellings, (instead of the usual English 205: englishspellingproblems.blogsp...). It was developed in the 1950s by Sir James Pitman, grandson of the inventor of shorthand Sir Isaac Pitman.

Pitman believed that teaching children to read and write with i.t.a. for the first school year, would make them more able to cope with traditional spelling afterwards. He spent much money and effort on promoting it, but schools resisted trying it to begin with. It was widely adopted only after 1964, after it was used in a study by the London Institute of Education and the National Foundation for Education Research in 1963-4, to investigate if traditional English spelling impeded literacy acquisition.

The research occurred, because in the first half of the 20th century the idea of making learning to read write easier, by modernising English spelling, had received serious consideration in the UK. The cause was financed by several British industrialists, and also the American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. The writer George Bernard Shaw and the National Union of Teachers supported it.

In the 1950s the Labour MP Mont Follick put a Spelling Reform Bill before Parliament. It was passed by the House of Commons, but as a Private Members Bill, without government support, it had no chance of succeeding in the Lords. The Commons vote did however lead to the Education Secretary Florence Horsbrugh commissioning the research which compared the literacy progress of 873 children using normal English spelling and the same number using i.t.a..

The children on i.t.a. learned to read and write much faster. They also wrote more and used a more varied vocabulary. Their overall attitude to learning was more positive too. – The study established very clearly that traditional English spelling impedes literacy acquisition.

By the time these findings were published, however, Follick and Shaw were dead. Florence Horsbrugh was no longer in office, and the post-World-War-Two zeal to improve the lives of the lower classes, which had helped to give impetus to the reform movement had waned.

Ironically, the study helped Sir James Pitman to persuade teachers to adopt i.t.a. as a means of reducing the need for spelling reform

Teachers who used i.t.a. in the research were so impressed with the progress of their pupils that they wanted to believe Pitman. They spread word of how well the i.t.a. groups had learned, and many schools decided to try it. The purpose and findings of the 1963-4 study were ignored.

It soon became obvious, however, that using an easier spelling system for just one year, does not help to cope with normal English spelling thereafter. But enthusiasm for spelling reform did not revive.

This was partly because i.t.a. did not merely use one of the traditional English spellings per sound. Pitman had created several new letters, which many people found off-putting. 

So despite the clear evidence that regular spellings make learning to read and write much easier, English spelling has remained highly irregular and educationally disadvantageous. 

Author Profile

Masha  Bell

Masha Bell

Retired teacher of English and modern languages, now literacy researcher and writer

21 stories


Kate Sawyer Kate Sawyer @dorastar 2 months ago
I was taught a year of ITA in my first year of infants, I was already sharing books at home so the new language was the strangest thing ever. I remember having a name card written in ITA and English too, very odd.
Masha  Bell Masha Bell @mashabell 2 months ago
Thank u for sharing that Kate. Pitman’s idea to use i.t.a. for a year, to avoid spelling reform, was crazy. It was used in the 1963-4 research, only because there was no other complete alternative spelling system for English.
I find it incredible that the research was ever allowed, or that anyone could doubt that English spelling makes learning to read and write exceptionally difficult. – The only excuse is that before the advent of computers nobody knew for sure how bad English spelling was, i.e. that at least 4,000 common words contain some unpredictable letters, with half of them causing reading problems as well.
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