Just as Australia last week launched into a debate
on how to teach children to read – the age-old question of phonics v
whole language – the same debate was taking place in France.

As France 2 television reports,
education minister Gilles de Robien told the National Assembly that “we
need to abandon once and for all the whole language method,” and cited
research showing that the syllabic method (ie phonics) helps to
combat dyslexia.

The odd thing about the phonics debate is that each side seems
convinced that it is the voice of moderation and that its opponents are
mad extremists. Sure enough, just as in Australia, the minister’s
opponents accused him of picking a fight with straw people. The
secretary of the teachers’ union said that “the whole language method
was abandoned ages ago.”

“The minister’s proposals show a complete misunderstanding of practice
on the ground,” he added. The parents’ organisation chimed in as
well: “This method [whole language] is no longer used at all and
to go to war against it shows a disturbing amateurism … The minister
seems to have to speak in order to exist.”

Literacy is a major problem for French schools; French spelling is much
more capricious than that of many other European languages, and its
students lag behind in international comparisons. Imagine the shock in
store for those who go on to learn English, whose idiosyncratic
spelling leaves the rest for dead.