Education, Politics

Guest post by tf

Fifteen percent of French students leave elementary school without being able to read properly, according to Ministry of Education statistics. The Education Minister, Gilles de Robien, blames this on the whole word method of teaching, which emphasizes word recognition, over the phonetic method, in which children spell out words syllable by syllable. He further blames the whole word method for creating an epidemic of dyslexia” among French grade school students, as Agènce France Presse reports. He made these statements in the context of announcing a new order that will abolish the use of the whole word method in French schools.

In an article in Le Monde, Martine Laronche questions the first of Mr de Robien’s claims. She points out that French elementary school teachers have long abandoned a pure whole word approach, and that it has been official policy for the past thirteen years to teach a combination of word recognition and phonetics in parallel, sometimes starting with one, sometimes starting with the other. She quotes Roland Goigoux, a professor of education, to point out that the ministry has never financed a study to determine more precisely which practices are being used, or to determine their efficacy.

In an accompanying article, Sandrine Blanchard questions the second claim. While Mr de Robien bases his claim on the expertise of speech therapists, Ms Blanchard quotes the national federation of speech therapists’ position on the question (my translation):

To this date, there is no study that has been conducted by speech therapists, and scientifically validated, that reveals causal links between reading methods and written language pathologies.

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So why is Mr de Robien making such a fuss over reading methods? My guess is that it has nothing to do with reading and everything to do with politics. Phonetics, as an idea, resonates with a portion of the conservative electorate, anxious to see traditional values articulated in the public sphere.

It is too bad that Mr de Robien is passing up on the more difficult problem of improving reading levels in areas where it is clear that the schools could do better. Ms Laronche quotes Professor Guoigoux regarding the four percent of students whose reading problems are the worst of all (my translation):

… how does one explain that the figure of 4% of non-readers in sixth grade rises to 11% in the priority education zones [for the underprivileged], while the reading methods that are used are the same?