Why the 'flouers' of reading withered

9th January 1998 at 00:00
"It is very wet tw-dae,

raen will maek the

flouers groe."

With those sentences, the Edinburgh Evening News in 1964 sought to explain the Initial Teaching Alphabet after several schools pioneered the latest method of teaching infants to read.

Across Britain and the United States in the early to mid-1960s, teachers were being encouraged to try the phonic approach, devised by Pitman. It increased the alphabet to 43 letters but cut the 2,000 symbols for the 40 sounds of English speech to 88. The letters "q" and "x" were omitted, along with capitals.

Lecturers at Dundee College of Education were particularly enthusiastic and liaised with staff at the London Institute who were in the forefront of United Kingdom research.

In Parliament in April 1965, both Lady Tweedsmuir, a minister in the previous Tory government, and Tam Dalyell, the West Lothian Labour MP, pressed Willie Ross, the Scottish Secretary, to step up action to test the reading methods. Mr Ross remained noncommittal but replied that 10 schools in four authorities were involved in a pilot.

Some months earlier, a conference at Dundee College heard Alastair Milne, a senior lecturer, espouse the virtues of the new approach. "The augmented alphabet is used only until the child has achieved fluent reading in material printed in this new alphabet. He then transfers to material written in the Roman Alphabet . . . the child experiences no difficulty in making the transfer from material written in i.t.a. to the t.o. (traditional orthography). This latest reform of our spelling then is only a temporary one, until fluency has been achieved and in this it differs from many of the previous attempts. "

David Stimpson, Dundee's principal, told the Scottish Office that i.t. a. "produces a fluency and a confidence in excess of the traditional alphabet". Test results appeared to show significant progress in reading ability.

But by 1967, Tony Crosland, the minister for education south of the border, had proved "not nearly as enthusiastic as Sir Edward Boyle", his Tory predecessor, according to Scottish Office advisers.

The i.t.a. approach withered in the late sixties and early seventies following an extensive research project in England. Bill Gatherer, a staff inspector for English during the period, told The TES Scotland that pupils learnt to read quickly, especially the less able, but could not translate their progress into normal written material. "By the age of eight or nine, children who were taught by conventional methods caught up," Dr Gatherer said.

There was also insufficient written material in the new alphabet, a point reinforced by Lady Tweedsmuir in the Scottish Office records.

Dr Gatherer said the i.t.a. methods, with the different alphabet, could not be combined with other approaches and were finally sunk by the Bullock report in 1974 on language and literacy.

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