Maltese orthography has been the bête noire of Maltese language teaching, detested by pupils and stifling the beauty of our mother tongue as expressed in our rich vocabulary, metaphor and colourful idioms.

When I was studying at the Institute of Education in London, I was able to notice that, throughout the early school years, children were encouraged to develop their imagination and creativity with scant attention to spelling. The main focus was on reading skills, which were monitored by the reading research unit of the university.

Traditional orthography in most European countries has always been the remit of university research units, even when it comes to foreign loan-words. In the UK, where the French language has always been encouraged through the Nuffield Foundation, the thousands of borrowed French words are all spelt as the original.

In my opinion, orthography should be the realm of a reading research unit at our university and children should always be central in any decision. According to the present arrangements, English loanwords should be spelt in Maltese orthography. Thus, we have: “It-tiċers ħadu l-fajls tat-tfal lill-kowċis fil-grawnd” (the teachers took the files to the coaches at the ground).

In the mid-1960s, a number of experimental approaches to reading had been tried in England and Wales. Perhaps the best-known was the initial teaching alphabet (ita). The basic claim of ita was that it depended on a regular alphabet with each of the 40 symbols standing for a sound in English. It was tried in several schools, but after a long process of monitoring by educational bodies it had to be scrapped in favour of the original orthography.

Educators revealed that this method, which had to be adapted in later stages, was on the whole detrimental to the children.

In Malta’s case, the children, the principal stakeholders, have been left out of the equation.

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