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Today in history… bid for simplified spelling system

12:00am | & Lifestyle

The way this article is written and read could have been very different if changes to English spelling being debated 65 years ago today had actually gone ahead.

Crusading Labour MP Mont Follick had introduced a private member’s bill for discussion in the House of Commons. On February 27th, 1953, his “Simplified Spelling Bill” cleared its second hurdle when MPs voted by 65 to 53 in favour of approving it for consideration by parliamentary committees.

Mr Follick believed that written English was full of contradictions and inconsistencies, with many words which sounded the same having different spellings and meanings, while about 13% of English words were not spelt the way they sounded. This is because English language has evolved over centuries, incorporating elements of other languages such as Old Norse, Saxon and French, rather than being designed logically from scratch.

A simplified system of spelling would, claimed Mr Follick, make it easier to learn to read and write English for young children and those with difficulties such as dyslexia. His bill proposed setting up a feasibility study into introducing a simplified spelling system for young children, who could then switch to standard English as they got older. If the bill succeeded, the Government would fund trials in schools in England and Scotland.

This was Mr Follick’s second attempt to win parliamentary support for a new way of spelling. A previous bill narrowly failed in 1949, but his new one had cross-party support and was seconded by Conservative MP James Pitman, whose grandfather devised the Pitman shorthand system. It is a ‘phonetic’ system, enabling users to take rapid notes using symbols which represent the sounds of words. It was thought spelling could also be based on a phonetic system.

During the four-and-a-half-hour Commons debate Mr Pitman said around 150,000 of the 400,000 children who started school each year would leave without being able to read properly, partly because of the complicated and inconsistent system of spelling. He held up large printed cards to demonstrate some of those inconsistencies, such as the spellings of “bow” and “bough”, which sound identical.

Famous author George Bernard Shaw had also been a passionate supporter of spelling reform and even left money in his will to fund a national competition to devise a simplified system. But not everyone was in favour of reform, some MPs arguing that teaching young children one way then expecting them to transition later to standard English would only confuse the issue still further.

Mr Follick’s bill never made it to a final reading and vote. Instead he withdrew it after reaching a compromise with the Ministry of Education, which backed a small-scale research project to be carried out by the University of London. The project then spent some years on the back burner until James Pitman devised a phonetics-based system of spelling, which he called the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA).

It used the existing 26 letters of the Roman alphabet, but added another 14 characters to represent sounds such as “oo” and “th”. Sentences written in ITA were all in lower case, to remove the confusion of having two versions (upper and lower case) for each letter. Pitman’s ITA system was trialled in a handful of English schools during the early 1960s, with mixed success for the pupils involved. Several popular Ladybird books were also reprinted in ITA.

Teachers in the trial schools also had to learn to read and write in ITA, but even harder was getting parents to use it when helping their children study at home. Another problem was that a phonetic system failed to account for regional accents, which meant the same word sounded very different when spoken in various parts of the country.

ITA was also trialled in various schools in Australia and the USA where it arguably enjoyed more success, possibly because there wasn’t the same attachment to standard English. Eventually ITA fell into disuse and some of those who had been taught it had considerable difficulty ‘unlearning’ the system and transitioning to standard English.

Mont Follick later switched his attentions to campaigning for decimalisation in the UK – a reform which enjoyed much more success.

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