Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Phonics and whole word teaching in Algeria

Just about every parent I've spoken to in Dellys is concerned one way or another about the direction the educational system has been going – over-complex curricula, excessively heavy backpacks, extramural tutoring, discipline, class sizes... How children are taught to read and write looms relatively small among these concerns, except for parents who find their own child having serious difficulties. The more I've learned about this issue, though, the more worrying it seems.

During my brief, unpleasant experience with Algerian education in the late 1980s, reading and writing were taught in much the same way as in my American home school. We learned how to build up letters into words and break down words into letters – in brief, a variant of phonics. Arabic spelling is almost perfectly regular, so this stage is actually significantly easier in Arabic than in English (although this advantage is no doubt more than offset later on by diglossia). Today's Algerian children, however, are taught to memorise words and texts as wholes, and are only exposed to individual letters well after having memorised words containing them – in other words, a rather extreme version of the whole language method. This change of method – imposed not by the controversial current Minister of Education, but by her well-connected predecessor – is enforced by teaching inspectors, who are empowered to penalize efforts to teach in the older way.

This would be all very well if the whole language method were more effective. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell from a quick literature meta-review (and notwithstanding some conspicuous sketchy political exploitation of the issue), the evidence seems to be pretty clear-cut (eg [1], [2], [3]) that including phonics makes reading instruction more effective even in a language as irregularly spelled as English, and tends to favour a primary (if not exclusive) focus on phonic methods in early teaching. In other words, Benbouzid's "modernizing" educational reforms seem likely to have deprived Algerian children of one of the very few advantages they enjoyed over English-speaking children.

A question especially for any readers with a wider background in education: do you know of any good studies of the effectiveness of different methods of teaching Arabic early literacy, preferably carried out within Arabic-speaking countries?


petred said...

I know Dellys is a very different place from Oran, but my sister-in-law in Oran - to be explicit, the wife of the brother of my partner - was proud to have taught ALL her children to read French BEFORE going to school. As for Arabic, she "dismissed" that as "school stuff".

In the home, they spoke a mixture of French and Dardja, with a liberal admixture of "good" Arabic from the younger kids from school.

I am entirely neutral, though I readily confess that I found our littlest nephew, with his easy mixture of Fujdja and French, to be the easiest to talk to.

Not very useful, I suppose, but for what it's worth...

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

She was proud because she was doing something self-consciously unusual and extreme by national standards - as far as the curriculum goes, students don't even start French until third grade, and plenty of kids are still having trouble learning the language well after that. A lot of children start a little Quranic school before 1st grade though, which gives them a potentially helpful chance to learn Arabic literacy in a more phonic way.

petre said...

That's very interesting. He's a smart little kid, and figured out that when he couldn't remember the French word, it would be better to give me it in "school Arabic" rather than Darja. As it happens, he was right. I hadn't really considered it from his mother's position. French was the main language used during our visit, not just to make me feel comfortable, but because my partner, who left Oran for Europe when he was three years old, also cannot sustain much of a conversation in either Darja or Standard Arabic.
I don't think it's right to regard our family in Oran as "francophonist" in the sense that my brother-in-law's boss is: he speaks French systematically to his subordinates, reserving Standard Arabic (which he also speaks perfectly) for foreign Arabic visitors. My impression is that he regards Darja as a rather shameful patois.
It all makes me regrettably aware of how incompetent I am to comment on Algerian language-politics (though just by gut reaction, I remain a Darja-ist).
Bien a vous,

petre said...

My sister-in-law demands that I make it clear that she was not at all 'dismissive' of school Arabic, but rather that she relied (perhaps misguidedly) on schoolteachers to instruct her children in it, while using French alongside Darja at home. My sincere apologies to her, as also to you, if I misled you.
As for my nephew, if you're still interested in him, he now speaks frighteningly good English, though god knows where he got it from.

petre said...

Re-reading the above, it seems I may have been wrong about many things. When you say Algerian kids only start French in "third grade", what is that, 9 or 10 years old?

All my in-laws' kids learnt French, alongside Darja, from birth. "Proper" or "fancy" Arabic was regarded as something they would have to learn later in school, useful and necessary, but definitely a "school subject", kinda like Latin, I guess?

I know they would all (adults and children) be much more ashamed by not responding coherently to a question from a Francophone visitor than by being addressed in Arabic by a non-Maghrebi speaker. (My brother-in-law can do it, but he works at the airport, and can do frighteningly accurate impressions of various Arabic accents!)

Is our family SO exceptional? Are we traitors to the Algerian Republic by speaking French with our kids?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

What I'm saying is that such families are indeed a rather exceptional case - perhaps not so unusual in the context of upper-middle-class Oran (maybe even of Algerian upper middle classes more generally), but extremely atypical for the population as a whole. Most Algerian kids do not learn French from birth, and quite a few have hardly learnt it even by adulthood.

petre said...

Now you start to make sense, Lameen. My family are lower middle-class, but aspirational, and my sister-in-law leaves no opportunity unturned to remind us (and her children) that she "married beneath herself", though her husband is a senior customs and immigration officer at the airport, about which (I speak now as a European) you have nothing much to complain.

I don't know her own family background, but she clearly regards herself as some kind of "princess", and that may well be why she favours French over Darja,
And there was I, being so proud that my nephew spoke French. There was I, too, as a linguist eschewing 'sociolinguistucs' not realizing that all linguistics is sociolinguisics. Excuse me while I go wash my mouth out.

I'm still glad my little nephew speaks good French, not so little now, and better than me.