Five-year-old Sophie is just starting primary school. Her "joined-up" writing is already legible. She did the groundwork at nursery school, which is attended by all children in France from the age of three. Her sister In s, two years older, writes in a neat, cursive script. During the last school year, she progressed from lower-case handwriting to include capital letters as well as tackling grammatical exercises. She also reads without difficulty.
Early progress in reading and writing is considered vital in France's rigorously planned system. At the start of primary school, progress achieved depends on the foundations previously laid at the ecole maternelle. The crucial second pedagogical cycle starts with the final nursery year and continues through the first two of primary schooling. Many nursery activities are carefully structured to help future competence in reading and writing - including drawing, tracing, copying shapes such as petals, fishes and symmetrical patterns. It all helps develop graphisme, as the French call the complex combination of processes and controls - motor, muscular, spatial, visual - necessary for a fast, flowing style of handwriting.
Politicians of all parties agree that written language is top priority. Segol ne Royal, the new schools minister, declared in June: "A child who can't read is on the road to failure. If a child can't read in CP (cours preparatoire, equivalent to reception class), he won't pass the baccalaureat."
Introducing reforms in September 1995, Francois Bayrou, then minister of education in the centre-right government that preceded Lionel Jospin's Socialist government, stressed: "Knowing how to read is at the heart of all intellectual learning. A child can be considered as a true reader if he knows how to adapt to different situations; if he can read an appropriate 10-page text without getting tired, if he knows how to find information in a newspaper or a children's encyclopaedia, integrating cultural elements, memorising knowledge; if he understands a statement or instructions for carrying out a piece of work."
Pupils should be able to write by dictation or copy a 10-line text on, for example, the main points of a class activity, and be able to compose a short text, a story or a letter.
Earlier that year Francois Bayrou set up the Observatoire National de la Lecture (ONL), a think-tank of a dozen academics, scientists and educationists to investigate methods for teaching reading, conduct research and to promote debate.
Teachers are free to use the teaching methods they prefer. Of the half-dozen practised in France, the oldest is the "syllabic" or "synthetic", under which pupils first learn the alphabet and related sounds of each letter, then how to associate letters and syllables, and syllables and words. However, in French, sounds and spellings do not always correspond. The "global" or "analytic" method was used by the Belgian child-centred psychologist Ovide Decroly in his schools. It teaches children to recognise complete words, later identifying syllables and letters. The "mixed" or "semi- global" method combines these first two approaches.
More recent methods emphasise comprehension. The "natural" method, based on the ideas of Celestin Freinet, means pupils producing their own texts through discussions with the teacher. Another system, devised by the Association Francaise de la Lecture (AFL), is based on the study of long, structured "real texts". There is also the "learn to read as you learn to write" approach.
Most teachers and textbooks use the mixed method, according to Jean-Pierre Jaffre, an educational researcher and member of the ONL. Wide ranges of textbooks, workbooks and worksheets are supplied to schools by the independent educational publishers, who have freedom to produce material and exercises so long as they conform to the official instructions relating to the national curriculum.
Written French is difficult to learn, says Jean-Pierre Jaffre, because the same sounds can be represented by different spellings - for example, o - eau - au - aux, or ai - ais - ait - er. Plurals may sound like their singular form.
Great importance is given to immersing pupils in language, spoken and written. According to Ther se Boisdon, president of the nursery teachers' association: "Before learning to read, the child must be familiar with the components of the spoken language because he will find them again in the written. Oral and written language are built simultaneously and the child is bathed in these two forms. Sensory and motor actions count, as well as development of curiosity, real motivation and, of course, all the necessary skills."
Standards of literacy are monitored during school life. All pupils are assessed nationally as, like In s now, they enter the third year of primary school (class CE2), and at the start of lower secondary. Latest published information, for September 1996, shows seven pupils out of eight beginning CE2 are at or above minimum requirements - for example, they can recognise words in general use, deciphering words previously unknown to them and understanding a given text - though certain grammatical points, notably the rules on agreement, caused "real problems", according to the Education Ministry. Six out of seven pupils starting secondary education achieved at least minimum standards, though for them spelling was a common difficulty.
According to Mr Jaffre, the French results are comparable with western Europe. "What is complicated is deciding where to draw the line of what is basic competence. When it is drawn normally, there are always about 10 per cent of a class in difficulty."
More worrying is the estimate that about 20 per cent of adults say they experience reading and writing difficulties. "Society is changing," says Mr Jaffre. "It used not to matter so much if people couldn't read, but today people live increasingly in the towns, they are more individual and need more independence. Writing is a necessity. It is no longer acceptable to have illiteracy in our society."