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Phonics war breaks out in France

The row sounds familiar. Primary teachers are furious that ministers are making them teach pupils to read words exclusively by a method where they put together their syllable sounds.

Gilles de Robien, France's education minister, is facing mounting protests from teachers, inspectors and parents over his insistence that they use the "syllabique" method.

Mr de Robien has demanded that all primary schools use the approach, which is essentially the same as synthetic phonics. He first announced that the global method, in which pupils recognise whole words, should no longer be used in December last year. He claimed it was responsible for an "epidemic of dyslexia" resulting in 20 per cent of pupils having reading difficulties when they entered lower secondary. In March, a new ministry circular uncontroversially laid down that "deciphering" of words - the syllabique method - should be included in reading lessons. But since then, Mr de Robien has gone further, ordering that teachers must use this method alone.

He claimed that neurosurgeons recommended it was best for children learning to read.

Teachers complained the minister's orders contravened their freedom to choose their teaching methods, and pointed out the global method on its own was no longer used anyway. A survey by French polling company IFOP found that 76 per cent of teachers used syllabique teaching among a mixture of methods and that only 7 per cent used it in isolation.

The row intensified in September with the dismissal of educationist Roland Goigoux from the college where he trained education inspectors. He had written a book on "learning to read at school" which his college principal said contradicted the minister's orders.

An education inspector, Pierre Frackowiak, is also facing disciplinary action for opposing Mr de Robien's instructions in a newspaper interview.

But Mr de Robien is now looking increasingly isolated. Organisations representing teachers, parents and educationists have written an open letter and started a petition against the minister's "authoritarianism".

The primary teachers' union SNUipp has also denounced the "simplistic and caricaturial manner" in which he presented his case.

And 20 researchers have complained it is wrong to insist on one method. The education minister may take some comfort from England, where opposition to the introduction of compulsory phonics has quietened since it was announced earlier this year.

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