Sunday, October 12, 2008

Speech Impediment Epidemic

If you walk around Paris long enough, you'll discover that there are zillions of “orthophonistes,” or speech therapists … so many, in fact, that you wonder how they find patients. French people don't seem particularly prone to speech impediments, so why are there so many speech therapists? It took years for me to find out exactly why speech therapists are so thick on the ground.

It turns out that speech therapists in France make most of their money teaching children to read. An inability to read is lumped together with many real speech impediments, and speech therapists dedicate the bulk of their practices to teaching reading rather than correcting actual speech problems. It seems that French public schools can't always teach reading effectively, and so speech therapists serve as private tutors to help kids learn.

The reason for this probably has something to do with the French méthode globale of teaching reading, a hugely defective teaching technique that is very much like the "look and say" method of teaching reading in the U.S. Both methods eschew teaching children the relationship between letters and spelling and spoken pronunciation, and instead expect them to somehow memorize whole words without sounding them out. The results are disastrous, producing a very high proportion of functionally illiterate children, but the methods are still used in both countries. Children crippled by exposure to this brain-dead technique for teaching apparently go to speech therapists to learn about what might otherwise be called phonics. Once their “impediment” is corrected (that is, once the speech therapists reveal to the children that letters represent sounds), reading ability improves.

Or at least that's how I understand it, based one what I've seen and been told. I learned to read by sounding things out, so I was never handicapped by the incompetence of institutional educators. It is interesting that the same egregious mistakes have been made in both American and French public education systems. It's not very reassuring, though.