Jane Marshall on the ministerial think- tank set up to address the literacy question. A new effort to raise the reading standards of French schoolchildren got under way last week with the launch of a National Reading Observatory by education minister Francois Bayrou.
M Bayrou, a former teacher and president of the Permanent Group for the Fight against Illiteracy, made reading a priority when he took over the department nearly two years ago. He claimed that at least one in three pupils were leaving primary schools unable to read - an assertion that was hotly denied by teacher unions.
M Bayrou's claim was based on ministry figures which showed that about one pupil in 10 was rated as having below basic competence in reading at the start of secondary schooling, with nearly one in four achieving only basic competence.
Now M Bayrou has set up the Observatory, a group of a dozen academics, scientists and educationists, under the "new contract for schools" reform programme he announced last year. It is chaired by the physicist Jacques Friedel, former President of the Academy of Sciences and of the Institute of France and will investigate successful teaching methods, including those developed abroad, to carry out research and promote debate, and to publicise its findings.
French teachers of reading have always been free to choose the method they prefer. A survey showed that 65 per cent of them use a reading scheme with appropriate textbooks and 45 per cent write their own texts.
As the school year progresses, they are more likely to introduce other methods, such as using "real'' children's books.
There are about half a dozen teaching methods in use in France. The oldest is the "syllabic" or "synthetic" method, where pupils are first taught the alphabet and the sounds the letters represent, then learn to associate letters and syllables, syllables and words. Critics say this system is not well suited to the complexities of the French language, in which sounds and words do not always correspond.
The "global" or "analytic" method, in the form of a game introduced by the 19th-century grammarian Nicolas Adam, was used by the Belgian child-centred psychologist, Ovide Decroly, in his schools. It teaches children to distinguish complete words, moving on to identify syllables and letters. The "mixed", or "semi-global", method, used in most textbooks, combines the syllabic and the global approaches.
Newer techniques emphasise powers of comprehension. The "natural" method, based on the principles of French educator Celestin Freinet, dispenses with formal teaching and even with textbooks, leaving pupils to produce their own texts, through dialogue with the teacher. The method devised by the Association Francaise de la Lecture (AFL) is based on the study of long, structured "real texts". The AFL has also produced complementary software. In yet another system, pupils pick up reading by first learning to write.
Each system has its supporters and critics, but past attempts to work out which are best have proved inconclusive. Researchers are unanimous only in claiming that evaluation is impossible.
Professor Friedel, who has just taken on investigation of the impossible, turned down M Bayrou's first invitation to head the Observatory because he had no knowledge of the subject. The minister replied he had chosen the physicist precisely because he could offer the "outsider's view . . . indispensable for lifting the debate out of the narrow circle of specialists". He wants the Observatory to "leave behind the ideological debates and artificial confrontations, to look at the methods and evaluate them in a scientific manner".