augmented roman

Old Unifon

UNIFON is a phonemic alphabet developed by John R. Malone in the 1930s on a contract from the Bendix Corporation. A phonemic writing system promised fewer spelling and teletype errors in aviation communications. In addition, the spelling system could be mastered by non-native speakers in 3 months or less.

When the International Air Transport Association selected English as the international airline communication in 1937, the particular market that Bendix had seen for Unifon ceased to exist.

Malone taught the code to his young son who taught it to his peers at his preschool in Hyde Park. The University of Chicago Lab school picked up on the idea because the kids quickly became code literate and were using Unifon to write messages to each other. The kids went from Unifon to reading comic books. When the kids started the first grade, they were reading at a 3rd grade level. By learning and using a dictionary key based writing system, kids acquired a high level of phonemic awareness in a very short time. Becoming code literate helped them become literate in the traditional writing system.

Malone showed Unifon to Pitman who then came out with his own augmented Roman alphabet based on New Spelling. In the early 1950s, Malone entered Unifon in the Shaw alphabet competition but since it ignored the requirement that the new alphabet be non-roman, it was disqualified.

For 23 upper case Roman letters, Unifon assigns the usual sound. Many of the 17 new characters were just modified sans-serif capitals of Latin alphabets. The most common modification was an embedded macron. (see graphics and tables at and

.HIR IZ U SIMÚLÁTUD EGZAMPUL UV ÚNIFON. (simulated display Unifon)

.hir iz u simYlAtud egzampul uv Ynifon. (keyboard map)

Although Unifon was made available to a number of schools in the early 1960s, it was overshadowed by another initial teaching alphabet, Pitman's Augmented Roman. This came to be known as the i/t/a and was supported with $20 million in research grants in the US and the UK. By comparison, Unifon had relatively little outside support. Various grants to the Unifon Foundation totaled around $1 million.

To complicate matters Unifon was completely at odds with conventional wisdom. Most educators doubted that preschool children were ready for reading let alone writing. The Unifon classes demonstrated that once the kids learned the 40 sound-symbol correspondences, they started writing and were code literate in less than 3 months.

The i/t/a allowed teachers to teach as they had always taught except their basal readers would now be transcribed into Pitman's augmented Roman. Children progressed through their transcribed readers twice as fast as their peers using traditional readers. However, in the 3rd year when students transitioned to traditional spelling, they lost most of their advantage. The i/t/a or initial teaching alphabet, failed to accelerate conventional literacy.

While i/t/a students learned word-signs, 50% never overlearned the code. Half of the i/t/a/ trained students could not spell words that were not included in the controlled vocabulary of their readers. By contrast, all of the Unifon trained students could string together sound-signs for any word they could pronounce and pronounce any Unifon spelling by the 3rd month. They were code literate. They could comprehend transcribed text as well as they could comprehend the text that was read to them.

Although upper case Unifon did not resemble traditional spelling nearly as much as lower case i/t/a with its ligatured digraphs, children were still able to make the transition.

Downing had predicted that if the code was overlearned, the skills developed learning the simple orthography would transfer. The i/t/a failed to accelerate literacy because at least half of the students did not overlearn the code and because the teaching method used was designed to promote whole-word recognition. Students who learned that "show your shoes" was spelled "[sh][oe] ywr [sh][oo]z" had some unlearning to do. Simulated Unifon: $Ó Y3R $ÚZ.

External links

To see how "Show your shoes" would look in Unifon, cut and paste the text into the transliterator here You may also download the font.

Unifon students were focused on sequencing sound-signs and never overlearned very many word-signs. Once learned, word-signs are often difficult to unlearn.

Unifon teachers defined literacy as the ability to understand what you read as well as you would if the text was read to you.

As a symbol system, Unifon is probably no better than any other dictionary key. What made the program work was the writing to read approach. Once 40 paired associates were learned, the students could start using them to write messages. Some students picked up the code in 15 minutes. They were paired with the slow learners so at the end of the week, everyone was experiencing success in writing messages. Most of the learning was peer to peer. The teacher became a guide on the side and did little more than make copies of the student messages so they could be shared.

Unifon discussion group

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