France, like Britain, has been heavily influenced by the sight-word and whole-language approaches, but the French education authorities, like their British counterparts, now want a return to phonics teaching. In January 2006, Dick Schutz drew attention on the RRF message-board to official statements made by the French Minister for National Education, Higher Education and Research. These statements emphasised the need to teach systematic phonics and the dangers of the ‘global method’. People familiar with the French education system say that the ‘global method’ is a sight-word/look-and-say approach rather than pure whole language, but clearly whole language also plays a part. The following translated extracts illustrate the French minister’s stance.
‘The global method still exists.’ It relies on ‘quasi-photographic recognition of words’, overloading children’s memories. ‘The global method is believed to have disappeared 30 years ago, but the mixed method which has replaced it is very often applied using “global” guiding principles, giving little or no importance to systematic training in grapheme-phoneme correspondences.’ ‘The reading of words has nothing to do with guessing’ and should not be ‘un exercice de devinette’ – this can be translated literally as ‘a riddle exercise’ but two people fluent in French (one a native French speaker) have, independently of each other, suggested that ‘a guessing game’ is more apt, despite neither having heard of Ken Goodman. The ‘guessing game’ approach may or may not be associated directly with Goodman in France, but it is clearly well known.
‘The children who decipher [décryptent] the best at the beginning learn the most quickly and the best later on; decoding [décodage] is the sine qua non condition of reading’ (quoted from Liliane Springer-Charolles, a researcher). ‘Contrary to what has been drummed into teachers for 30 years, it is not the fact of deciphering [déchiffrer] that is responsible for reading which is impoverished in getting access to meaning, but it is deficits in oral vocabulary which hinder the child from accessing [meaning]’ (quoted from Alain Bentolila, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Paris V). ‘In particular, [global methods] present a real risk to the most vulnerable children, or those with least support at home: that of falling into difficulties which then become insurmountable in acquiring the alphabet code.’ ‘But, you will say to me, 80% of pupils succeed in learning to read. Yes, but it’s the remaining 20% who worry me.’
‘I ask teachers to use methods which start with the “basics” [éléments] and allow children methodically to make the connection between the written form of a letter and the sound which it gives.’ ‘Researchers in France and elsewhere are in agreement: learning to read proceeds via decoding and the identification of words to their comprehension.’ ‘It is necessary that the pupil identifies the sounds of the French language at the same time as the relationship which connects them to corresponding letters and groups of letters. He will then understand that letters encode sound, not meaning.’ ‘The automatisation of the recognition of written words necessitates systematic exercises in the connection between letters and sounds and will not result from the committing to memory of a photographic image of words which characterises the global approach to reading.’
The Minister appealed for the co-operation of teachers and teacher-trainers in implementing his new directives.