Spelling: why is the level dropping ?


These days, we hear about the theme of the alarming drop in spelling levels among students and more broadly about the difficulties students encounter in French . But it has been a long time since we deplored in France the lack of mastery of spelling. By way of illustration, in an article written in 1993 by the linguist Jean-Marie Klinkenberg on the recurring theme of the Crisis of French , the author mentions a quotation from Nicolas Audry dating from the 17th century :
“It is common to find rhetoricians who have no knowledge of the rules of the French language, and who in writing sin against spelling in the most essential points. »

And it often happens that this observation takes the form of a denunciation of the drop in the level. The Ministerial Commission for Orthographic Studies, chaired by Aristide Beslais, wrote a report in 1965 for a reform of spelling beginning in these terms:
“From all sides, in the administrations as in education, we complain about the rapid deterioration of spelling. During the period of information which preceded the creation of the Commission, none of the personalities consulted disputed this fact, which the statisticians confirm. »

As we can see, the theme of lowering the level is not new, including from official bodies. But is it true that the level in spelling drops? And if so, since when?

Declining spelling

first work published in 1989 showed that the level of spelling in a school context had increased between the end of the 19th century and the end of the 20th century . Another study, published in 1996, highlighted a drop in spelling levels between pupils of the 1920s and those of the end of the 20th century . We can therefore hypothesize a strong increase in the level for a few decades before a gradual decline during the 20th century .

Finally, two studies have completed this picture. A book in 2007 and a note from the statistics department of the Ministry of National Education in 2016. The observation is clear: between 1987 and 2005, students lost 2 years, that is to say that those in 5 e in 2005 have the same level as their classmates in CM2 in 1987. And the 2016 study confirmed the continued nature of this decline. We can therefore reasonably say that the level has been falling for at least fifty years in a school context. The cause of this situation has been known and denounced by linguists for more than a century: it is spelling itself.

The “mistake” of the spelling?

Since the end of the 19th century, linguists have been warning about the need for regular spelling reforms in order to adapt it to the times . Historically, we know that the choice made by the French Academy is that of an elitist spelling reserved for a handful of people. Mézeray , the perpetual secretary at the time, wrote it explicitly:
“The Academy declares that it wishes to follow the old orthography which distinguishes men of letters from ignoramuses and simple women. »
At the time when this choice was made, the written French language was learned from Latin. However, from the first attempts at standardization, there were strong oppositions and some grammarians wanted greater regularity and greater proximity to the oral language.

With the Ferry laws voted in 1881-1882 instituting free schooling and compulsory and secular primary education, it clearly appears that French spelling is not adapted to this new context. In previous centuries, the French Academy began to regularize it but without completing the project, which explains the persistence of anomalies. We have kept more or less a spelling developed for an elite in a context where it was a question of teaching it to everyone. We have therefore gone from a tiny part of spelling experts to a myriad of amateurs, without having first adapted the spelling .

Aware of the disaster that was looming, linguists began campaigns at this time to have a spelling reform adopted, but in vain. This process will be repeated several times, sometimes at the request of associations of teachers, learned societies, ministers or the Academy of Sciences as in the 1950s, but in vain. Therefore, no significant reform has been applied and French spelling requires considerable learning time.

Year after year, some of the students had a decent level for a few decades, but this was done at the cost of a very large number of hours and to the detriment of other skills such as writing. Thus, some students were made into dictation virtuosos, without teaching them how to write personal texts. And only the best in dictation were presented for the school certificate around the age of 12-13 with, as a result, appreciable results. The other pupils (the majority) stopped their studies at this age.

However, with the reduction in school time (from 1338 hours per year at the beginning of the 20th  century to 864 hours today and the diversification of the subjects taught, the level has steadily dropped . To this must be added, more recently, a new revolution in writing (comparable to the printing press) with the arrival of the internet and written conversation devices, which has changed the status of writing. There have never been so many people capable of write and read only today, which shows that the school fulfills its role.However, poor spelling represents a major social handicap in contemporary society.

We therefore have before us a historic challenge: to finally make the democratization of spelling a reality. However, without intervening on the spelling itself, this objective will remain a chimera. The colossal work of André Chervel , linguist and historian of education, crowned by the Guizot prize of the French Academy in 2007, showed this very well. We have to choose between, on the one hand, a spelling reserved for an increasingly reduced elite, a luxury discipline, playing the selective role formerly assigned to Latin, or a spelling for all. Improved teaching methods, however promising, will not on their own be enough to overcome this age-old problem.

Author Bio: Christophe Benzitoun is Lecturer in French linguistics at the University of Lorraine