June 19

John W. Gardner, President of the Carnegie Corporation, in an address before the annual meeting of American school board members on this day in 1962, said: “A school board member . . . should understand, for example, that there is a lot that no one knows for sure about the teaching of reading. Beware of the individual who knows all the answers. He’s a fraud.”

Gardner, now Secretary of Health and Welfare, was reviewing some recent research into the reading habits of schoolchildren, and of course his words were used on both sides of the fence in one controversial bit of research then being undertaken by educators in England and in the United States. This was the augmented roman alphabet invented by Sir James Pitman, grandson of the inventor of shorthand, under the name of Initial Teaching Alphabet.

Basically, the augmented alphabet contains forty-three characters, each of which represents a sound in the English language. Since standard English ordinarily requires about 2,000 different ways to spell these forty-three sounds, it would appear that the augmented alphabet is at the very least a step in the right direction. Of the conventional alphabetical characters, the augmented roman alphabet uses all but q and x and adds nineteen symbols of its own.

The whole idea is based upon the concept that the logical mind of a child cannot comprehend the quixotically illogical structure of English spelling, with the result that most of the reading difficulties of the developing years are seeded at this point. Pitman, in explaining his method, is careful not to pronounce it as a panacea for all the problems of illiteracy. He says, “The main point to be borne in mind is that this alphabet is intended for use during the first two years only of the young child’s school career, after which the transition will be made to traditional orthography. It was, therefore, essential to arrive at a compromise between maximum resemblance to the existing alphabet and spelling system (if it can be dignified by the name of system) and a maximum phonetic consistency. It must be emphasized that the augmented roman alphabet and spelling system is not intended as a permanent spelling reform.”

From the results of the preliminary experiments it would appear that the augmented alphabet is doing the job, with a number of teachers expressing their enthusiasm. At present no type designer, however, has attempted to bring great beauty to the new characters, which are available only in a workaday and readable type named Erhardt, a product of the Monotype Corporation of London. Adults may be comforted with the knowledge that the new alphabet will continue to be restricted to five and six-year olds, because the prosaic characters do not seem to be capable of presenting English prose splendidly.

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