To help students achieve better spelling success, it is not only necessary to review French programs or teaching strategies: it is also important to help students “feel less puffy”, since the perception of their competence to write well also weighs in the balance, says a researcher.
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Priscilla Boyer is a professor of French didactics at the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivières. As part of the Acfas congress taking place this week in Montreal, she is presenting on Friday the results of a longitudinal study that has made it possible to document for five years the perceptions and motivation of 228 high school students (regular program) by in relation to their mastery of spelling, an “unpublished” exercise in Quebec, she underlines.
This study shows that, from the moment they arrive in secondary school, pupils’ motivation towards spelling is “very weak” and hardly improves over the years.
Worse, the perception of their ability to write well – identified in research as the “sense of self-efficacy” – even decreases between the first and fifth secondary.
These are “worrying” results, according to Mme Boyer. In a learning context, the perception of their spelling competence should rather improve with the learning of new notions, and not the reverse.
“It’s contradictory. The students learn new things, but the more they advance in time, the more pockets they find. There is really something to work on there,” she said.
Believing in your abilities helps you succeed
This is a key element, since research results have also shown that students who believe in their abilities perform better, while those who underestimate themselves perform less well, even with equal skills.
That’s why it’s “super important” to bring small successes to students, especially those with spelling difficulties, to get them to believe in themselves, says Ms.me Boyer.
But be careful, it is not a question here of giving “false successes” to the students, who are not fooled anyway. “It’s not by protecting them in cotton wool that it’s going to work,” she warns.
However, avoid trying to teach them several grammar rules at the same time. This is equivalent to “throwing them from the top of a mountain” when they cannot ski, she illustrates.
Rather than asking students to correct all their mistakes during a dictation, the teacher could target a few, for example. “Why not target four faults in each of the copies and choose cases within the student’s reach, for the weaker one, or more serious faults to correct for the stronger one?” she says.
Traditional dictation is also to be avoided, adds Mr.me Boyer. “All she does is convince weak students that they’re pocketed, week after week. There are other types of dictations that show students that they have progressed. Even the students in difficulty progress and no longer write like in the first year.
Mme Boyer refers to new forms of learning dictations, which are said to be “intelligent” or “interactive”, which lead students to ask themselves the right questions in order to solve a problem related to spelling. Dictation then becomes a way of learning, rather than an assessment tool.
This study also revealed that, despite their poor results in spelling, high school students place a lot of importance on mastering written French, which adds a layer to their shoulders.
“We see that the students are convinced of its importance”, underlines Mme Boyer.
The newspaper reported earlier this week that less than one in two young people obtained the passing grade in spelling during the fifth secondary French test in June 2022, which represents one of the worst scores for almost ten years.