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March 08, 2004
Is Russia about to forget the lesson of Blaise Pascal?

Incoming email from Susan Godsland, who runs this. Did I see this? Not until you emailed me, Ms G. Thank you.

Quote from this Telegraph story:

Over seven decades of communism, education played an important part in preparing children for their place in society. Young people left school with a good grasp of the basics, drilled into them by traditional teaching methods. Since the Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin, Russia has taken part in international comparisons in which its secondary pupils have performed well above the international average for maths and science and better than their peers in Britain.

Vladimir Putin's government, however, is not happy with the system and is looking to countries such as Britain to provide models for teaching methods that they believe will improve young people's creativity and entrepreneurial instincts.

Presumably Susan fears that something like this is about to happen in Russia, this being an essay about how the phonetics-based teaching of reading and writing got replaced by new and inferior methods.

The English language contains approximately half a million words. Of these words, about 300 compose about three-quarters of the words we use regularly. In schools where the "whole language" is taught, children are constantly memorizing "sight" words during the first three or four grades of school, but are never taught how to unlock the meaning of the other 499,700 or more words. Reading failure usually shows up after the fourth grade, when the volume of words needed for reading more difficult material, in science, literature, history, or math cannot be memorized quickly enough. The damage to children who have not been taught phonics usually lies hidden until they leave the controlled vocabulary of the basal readers, for more difficult books where guessing, or memorizing new words just does not work. The result is that textbooks in the middle and upper grades are "dumbed" down to a fourth or fifth grade reading level.

This is the real reason why the SAT scores have dropped to such low levels during the last three decades.

It is a little bit off at a tangent, but I include also this next bit, which I knew nothing about until now.

From the time the alphabet was invented until the time of French scientist and mathematician Blaise Pascal, reading was taught by memorizing the sounds of syllables, and then stringing them together to make words. But Pascal found that by separating the syllables into their letter parts, one could learn to read more effectively and efficiently. His method was intended only to assist in the very beginning stages of reading, when a child is learning the printed syllables of his own language.


Former teacher and researcher Geraldine Rodgers puts it this way: "It was only for this purpose that Pascal invented it [phonics], to make the previously almost unending memorization of regularly formed syllables ... unnecessary. But phonics works, and has since 1655. So it is not surprising that it was invented by one of the most towering mathematical and scientific geniuses in history, Blaise Pascal ..."

With luck those Russians will stick to Pascal's methods when it comes to teaching reading and writing, and only introduce that "creativity" stuff later on. But thoughts of babies and bathwater inevitably present themselves to the mind of the anxious Telegraph reader.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:18 AM
Category: HistoryLiteracy

Sorry, I think the bit about Pascal inventing phonics (or synthetic phonics as we are supposed to say) is just rot. My evidence: European languages are written in an alphabetic script.

It's certainly possible that renaissance educators were keen on syllables, because they were obsessed with classical metre and prosody. One can easily imagine them seeking to inculcate a sense of syllabic quantity in young children. Teaching fads aren't new. However it is implausible that phonics wasn't used in more general life. Look at the variant spellings in 16th/17th century texts.

A syllabic approach is entirely natural if you have a syllabic notation, as in (brilliantly-designed) Korean, or nagari. There are a few more symbols to learn, but it shouldn't be too big a problem. (No more than having a larger alphabet troubles the Russians.)

Comment by: Guy Herbert on March 8, 2004 02:54 AM

Russian has a (more or less) strict sound-to-sign writing system, with hardly any anomalous spellings, so the case for using phonics would seem even more compelling.

Having taught there, I reckon the relatively better state of Russian schooling has a lot to do with a generally higher regard for education, and corresponding absence of indiscipline. (It was hard to convince locals that West was not Best in this case.) Whether this can survive changing teachers from imparters of knowledge to "facilitators" will be interesting to see.

Comment by: Yaffle on March 8, 2004 08:12 PM

Yes, this is probably a posting that should have been two separate postings.

Yaffle, thank you for that. I am always interested in the experiences of teachers anywhere, of anything, and however mundane such recollections might seem to many. Please feel free to expand about matters in Russia when you were there, if you are inclined. Is the "professor" bit in the email address you supplied for real?


Yes, I wondered about that. This thing about Pascal was so strange that I just flung it up before I had really pondered its plausibility. My guess is that Pascal perhaps did, in some way, rediscover phonics, for teaching purposes.

Does anyone else know about what could have happened here? I presume that the article I linked to didn't just make the whole Pascal story up out of thin air, but did it somewhat misrepresent matters?

Comment by: Brian Micklethwait on March 8, 2004 08:45 PM
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