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Educashunal lunacie*

[click for bigger] Stuart Buck's TCS education column today got me thinking about how I "learned" to read. I emailed Stuart and he posted what I sent him over at his site, so you can read it there. The image depicts the alphabet I had to work with for nearly three years. One thing I didn't mention to Stuart was the lingering effect the ITA way of learning had on me; to this day, I have problems with my handwriting because I still try to connect certain letters together. Imagine a classroom where this little story would get you an A+. I have never come across another person - including those in the education field - who has heard of ITA. I was part of some small, isolated experiment that presumably failed, because it vanished from our school as soon as we left the program and "graduated" to the normal way of reading. Yes, I wuz speshil. *


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» Educational Experiments from Secure Liberty
I've got to admit, I had never heard of ITA until I stumpled upon this post from Michele Catalano. Her story is frightening and should cause parents to lose sleep, since ITA evidently still exists. The kids across the street from us are learning some... [Read More]

» Education or training for government dependence from TFS Magnum
we need to judge programs and institutions by the results they produce not by the intentions of their architects. [Read More]


Reminds me, just a little bit, of the method used in the SRA Distar method. A popular book among home schoolers - "Teach your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons" -is a beginner reading book, uses this method. The letters look more like conventional letters - but some have lines over them - or lines attaching them (as in "sh".) The book, though, weans the beginner reader of these visual clues slowly. By the end of the book, the printing is normal. It works for some kids, not for others.

I was a subject in an education experiment, too, though one seemingly less certain to fail. In the 2nd grade, 1963 or so, instead of conventional arithmetic we got "Sets & Numbers". Sets included set theory and boolean operations, numbers was mainly about working in alternate number bases.

Preparation for the space race, I assume, mildly useful preparation for being a programmer. All in all, rote multiplication tables probably would have been better.

How odd! I just talked about ITA today on my site! It just doesn't make any sense to me-- teach children a fake alphabet that they'll then have to spend the rest of their lives unlearning? I just don't see how it's better than either whole language or phonics.

How very odd. I'm just lucky I guess that I knew how to read proficiently when I entered kindergarden (as near as I can tell, I appear to have taught myself to read at age 3 or so using Dr. Seuss, although I have no recollection of it), thus being spared "innovative" educational techniques. The New Math was bad enough. It's one of the reasons my own kindergardener is in a private school, where they tend to use approaches that, you know, work and stuff.

I still haven't figured out how to read, and that weird diagram only frustrates me more.

Looking back, I still don't understand what taking off my pants had to do with learning to read.

The reading part was easy. Try taking a normal left-handed kid and force him to write right-handed. Everything gets messed up.

But hey, in Texas being left-handed was wrong.

I learned via the whole language method and I used to think it's why I read faster than almost everyone but speed readers... Turns out that most "phonics" taught readers "learn" whole language reading skills on their own and I'm just a freak of nature.

JFH you might be a freak but you are a very lucky one. I worked with illiterate adults in Louisiana for a number of years and I can tell you the "whole language approach" did sooooo much damage to many of them. Many people are intelligent enough and in the right way to learn to read no matter what method the teachers are using. Others are just wasted because some professor (I'm not knocking all educated people here, my husband is a retired professor of zoology) has a new theory and grant money to spend on it and graduate students to use it and the school kids are the guinea pigs they use. I really get cynical about education and what it is doing. I think the MacGuffey Readers might be the best method of all.

I know a guy who almost failed 4th grade because he had to learn "color multiplication"...like, blue X green = purple. And you weren't supposed to convert the colors back to numbers to do it, either.

This 'method' was used here in New York
(Long Island) in the mid 1960s. I recall a neighbor telling me that he had insisted his kids be taken out of this method and taught phonics (which was used when I was in early elem school in the early 1960s.) My neighbor also told me his brothers' kids were taught with ITA and had much trouble learning the regular alphabet later on.
I also came across an article from about 1968 that reported that teachers in Baltimore were 'enthused' about the method.
Many teachers just seem to have a weekness for new methods that don't work, whether for teaching English or mathematics.

Hey Michele,

I'm lost, what is the difference between the two blends of "th"... for that matter how is the "r" in bird different from the normal "r" sound?


The "th" in "thumb" is hard while the "th" in "that" is soft. Say them out loud, you'll notice the different tongue placement between the two.

"R" in "bird" is an "er" sound as opposed to a "ruh" sound.

Yikes. This is why liberals need to be tagged and tracked by sattellite.

Tim McNabb

This reminds me of the way braille is typically taught to blind students. Braille contractions (such as "th," "st," and words like "the" and "with") are taught alongside standard spelling of the words, often resulting in a confused kid.

I learned to read with ITA (in suburban washington DC in the late 1960s). The principal at our school was doing his doctoral thesis, and somehow we all wound up getting ITA in 1st grade as part of it. I don't remember much of the experience, but my mom tells me it worked for me -- I could read complex things in ITA quite quickly, and didn't have any trouble transitioning to real books later. But the general feeling at our school was that it wasn't successful and it was scrapped a few years after I did it.

I once found a book on ITA in a used book store -- I no longer remember the details, but apparently it lasted for a while in parts of Great Britain (where it originated).

oh, after reading the other comments: Sets and Numbers (written originally by Pat Suppes, now prof. emeritus at Stanford) are still in use in certain circles! A somewhat revised version of them is at the core of the elementary math program used by EPGY (http://epgy.stanford.edu)

Wow, I was a subject in an educational experiment too! Except it failed,,,,,,,

I had a cousin who got screwed up by one of these experimental methods. Somehow they were supposed to guess the word by the shape of it, so he would confuse something like elegant with elephant. Weird stuff, glad I didn't live in a "progressive" area.

My parents taught me to read before I started school. (And I started first grade one year early due to having a birthday in late May.) I wonder if they had heard about "experimental" methods and wanted to make sure I already had some knowledge that couldn't be screwed up. As it was, for first grade I went to a private school where we did old-fashioned, non-experimental things like phonics, writing vocabulary lists, and reading aloud in class. FOr second grade I was sent to the dreaded experimental school where I learned absolutely nothing except that Black Was Beautiful (this was 1969-70), and kickball was created to torture bookish kids. (The school was in an inner city area; my mother was working there, that's how I got to go. They had a tiny library that was always kept locked.) After that, I was sent to a regular public elementary school in my neighborhood where we were taught by old-fashioned methods like writing vocabulary lists and reading out loud.

The critical thing about educational methods is that different people learn best in a variety of different ways. Phonics always seemed like complete and utter lunacy to me, but there are undoubtedly many people who find it helpful.

The bottom line is that no single method of instruction is right for everyone. Just because an educational method makes sense to you (the general you, not Michele) does not mean that many other people won't find that method to be sadistic torture.

The best, most effective methodology is one that looks for the best way to teach each child - the way that makes the most sense to him or her - and uses it as frequently as possible. People who believe in a single "correct" method of instruction are wrong in a way that can be very hurtful to many, many kids.

I suppose that MikeR is correct about different working for different people. Personally, I recall phonics being great. As for the endless diagramming of sentences....

JFH: the [th] in 'thumb' is voiceless. The [th] in 'that' is voiced. The tongue and teeth are in the same place for both. It's the manner of articulation that is different. [p] and [b] are in the same place, i.e., lips together. But [p] is voiceless and [b] is voiced. As for the ® in bird, it is colored by the preceding vowel. The ® in rabbit is not.

Wow, some of these things look really screwy. I don't remember much about the teaching methods they used on us in the early 1980s, but I guess it was all pretty standard stuff. I seem to remember being able to read a little bit going into kindergarten, and the only thing I had trouble wrapping my tiny head around was that upside-down "e" schwa thingy. To this day, I'm not sure what to make of it.

Being taught "ahead of time" by your parents can have its benefits or its drawbacks, depending on the situation.

I learned to read at 3 or 4, by virtue of the fact that my folks both read to me (and read to me with me sitting right next to them, looking at the book as they read, so I somehow figured the squiggles on the page made the story). This served me well - I got into "accelerated" groups at school and got to read real books instead of the pap for the "pre-readers."

However, my mom's teaching me math didn't work so great. She taught me long division - the "old fashioned" type of long division that any reasonable person would do when faced with a long-division situation (and no calculator). This was the summer between 3rd and 4th grade, she had heard 4th grade was where long division was taught.

Well, after I learned and mastered the traditional method, turns out the school had been mandated to use this "new math" method, which looked ridiculous to me - I suppose for the kids who had never seen long division before, it wasn't so bad, but I totally rebelled against it because it took twice as many steps. My poor hidebound teacher, instead of letting me just do the damn long division the way I knew how (and demonstrated I understood) insisted on my STAYING IN AT RECESS (for several days) and practicing the whacked new-math long division method. (I'm still a little bitter about that).

Fortunately, the next year, we got a math teacher who was a year away from retirement and who basically said (in different words) "New math is crap. I'm gonna teach you the way people do this in the real world."

Amen, Rob M. My second grade teacher tried to make me write with my right hand, and my mother actually had to go to school and tell them to leave me alone. I was 7 years old, so that was about 1960.

I guess the reason was because my brother, who's 4 years older, was left handed as well and they changed him. He stuttered for a long time, and he has to print so people can read it. So maybe Mother finally figured out that that was not a good thing to do.

And please don't get me started about "New Math." I still get nightmares.

Imperial Keeper

This is one of the benefits of Catholic school (where I went and my kids go) - the Catholic Church may be many things, but susceptibile to trends is not one of them.

I was involved in a math experiment.

My father was a middle school principal in MO when I was 9. We moved to NJ and he ended up being my middle school principal when I was old enough (lots of angst about that for another time).

He brought the CEMREL math program. This was a program that holistically taught math, rather than breaking it down into subjects. It ran from grade 6 - 12, and broke down the traditional arithmetic - algebra - trig - advanced - calculus path. As a result, I learned logic in 6th grade along with some basic math stuff that was a little earlier than usual.

This continued into 7th grade with the same class (a group of 30 "really smart" kids). The high school refused to pick up the curriculum, so in 8th grade we got a special class to catch us up on what we missed - leaving us ahead in general.

It was very useful to me - the logic training alone allowed me to ace a philosophy class and several Comp Sci classes in college.

Educational experiments are the norm. Both my parents were in education. My father was principal of a school designed and built using "the open concept." No walls. The theory was that students would learn more by hearing other classes. The reality was that no one learned anything. He oversaw the building of walls.

My mother taught 2nd grade. She had taught 2nd grade just about forever - as far as I was concerned. She taught kids how to read. But then they told her "thou shalt not teach phonics." A new theory. So she quit. Today, there is a whole industry around "Hooked on Phonics," because it works, and the current theory does not.

Why do parents allow the government to experiment on their children?

My tongue is plathed differently for the two "th" thounds. Of courth, I have a bit of a lithp.

Mark - I've long believed that we should be teaching logic to kids LONG before they get to college, and your experience is good evidence in support of that belief. There are people everywhere - advertising, politics, you name the field - making often extraordinarily sophisticated use of logical fallacies, and we send our kids out into the world with little or no means of defense.

Logic can be helpful for a wide variety of other academic subjects, but it's also invaluable in helping handle the information overload we all receive on a daily basis in the real world.

I had the same long division issue. Mine involved placing some results in a '|_'-shaped "box" after each subtraction.
Luckily my mom argued enough with the teacher and principal so that I was allowed to do it the old-fashioned way.
Contra Crank, this was in a Catholic school, although that might, in fact, be why my mother's argument was sucessful.

Not necessarily, Crank. I went to Catholic school and new math was introduced in 4th grade. It was the beginning of my lifelong math phobia. I missed a lot of school because of ear infections (they didn't do tubes back then) and had never gotten a good grasp on math beyond addition and subtraction. The new math program lasted one year, and we returned to a regular curriculum after that, but the damage was done for me....I still have problems with division and as for dealing with fractions and percentages, forget it.

Thank God for calculators.


This was like reading the nightmare of my pre-teen life at catholic school.

I did well with phonics (and thhkfully scored a 780 verbal score on teh SAT, but damn If I couldn't get a hang of math. Who really needed to learn how to count in base eight, I ask you?

Damn Sister Bubba and her fellow Penguins.

Wow, this is amazing. I haven't thought about ITA in years and always wondered what became of it. I grew up in Vancouver, B.C., Canada and learned to read with ITA in the first grade in 1969. I must be one of the few who loved this system. I learned to read extremely fast and turned into an avid reader and excellent speller with no problems whatsoever (please disregard any typos!). I had no difficulty switching over to the regular alphabet. A childhood friend and classmate of mine, on the other hand, told me years later that ITA ruined her for life, that she was still a very slow reader and a bad speller. I have no idea if it was just my class or my grade who were taught this method, but I don't think my brothers, 3.5 and 5.5 years behind me, learned it.