A Systematic Way of Teaching French Phonics

We are delighted that Dr Robert Woore, Lecturer at the University of Oxford, has written the following review of Physical French Phonics. Sue Cave and Jean Haig, the authors of Physical French Phonics, have been developing their scheme for teaching French phonics for many years, so it is wonderful to have such an excellent public endorsement.

Review of Physical French Phonics by Sue Cave and Jean Haig
by Dr Robert Woore, Departmental Lecturer, University of Oxford Department of Education

Being able to pronounce written words – including unfamiliar ones – accurately and fluently in a foreign language can be argued to be a foundation skill which underpins various other aspects of language learning.  French, which remains by far the most widely taught foreign language in English primary and secondary schools, has a spelling system which can appear baffling, but which is actually much more transparent and consistent than the English system (at least when decoding from print to sound).  Therefore, as the authors say, pupils who master the French spelling system “will be able to read aloud anything they choose and will be understood”.  However, recent research in English MFL classrooms has consistently found that, in the absence of explicit instruction, pupils have poor decoding proficiency in L2 French and make little progress in this area.

Physical French Phonics is an attempt to remedy this situation by providing systematic phonics instruction for primary school pupils.  A strength of the book’s approach is that it begins by helping pupils acquire the sounds of the language (phonemes) before going on to link these to their written representations (graphemes).  This is achieved through the use of a series of physical actions and corresponding pictures – suggested by primary school pupils themselves – which are linked to individual French phonemes.  For example, the nasal vowel in the French words ‘main’ and ‘vingt’ is represented by a mime imitating an angry goose.  This avoids the need for the kinds of anglicised spellings of French sounds which are so often seen in classrooms (such as ‘ay’ for the second vowel in ‘café’) but which run the risk of entrenching inaccurate pronunciations.  The DVD accompanying the book includes recordings of native speakers producing the French phonemes, an excellent feature for those teachers who may feel unsure of their own pronunciation in the foreign language.  For those who wish to use them, the actions / pictures are also linked to symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet, providing pupils with a key to unlock the pronunciations of words as found in standard French dictionaries.

Physical French Phonics contains a wealth of engaging activities for helping pupils to practise the recognition and production of both phonemes and graphemes, and the links between these.  The authors draw here on many years’ experience of teaching French in primary schools: as the book’s subtitle says, their approach is “tried and tested”.  Having seen it in action with several different year groups, it was clear that pupils enjoyed the physical actions and that these helped them to decode French words.  I was extremely impressed to find that Year 6 pupils – who had followed the Physical French Phonics scheme for a number of years – were able to read aloud unfamiliar words such as ‘la couronne’ and ‘la queue’ accurately and spontaneously.  Clearly, these pupils had excellent foundations in French literacy on which their subsequent language learning at secondary school could build.

One possible question raised by the Physical French Phonics approach concerns the extent to which there is space left in the curriculum for many other valuable aspects of language learning (such as the development of spontaneous oral language use; or the opportunity to engage with stimulating French texts and to develop strategies for comprehending these).  However, perhaps the best answer to this question would be to ensure the availability of sufficient curriculum time to ensure that pupils made good progress in all these (and other) aspects of language learning, generating a real sense of achievement and ‘momentum’.  Thirty to sixty minutes a week is unlikely to be enough for pupils to achieve real success across the board in second language learning.

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