La dictée: How a spelling test took over France

A simple dictation exercise for schoolchildren was central to the construction of the French nation

500 people attended a dictée at the musée de l’Air et de l’Espace in 2021, as astronaut Thomas Pesquet read the text from space
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Children in the final two years of primary school should do a short dictée every day, according to new guidelines from the Education Ministry.

La dictée (dictation) is, in its essence, a spelling test.

A teacher will read out a text, which pupils must transcribe.

Yet such a definition is inadequate, so heavy does the exercise weigh in the political and social consciousness of France.

The dictée is intrinsically tied to efforts to unify France into a single nation.

Patrick Cabanel, historian and director of studies at the Ecole pratique des hautes études, said: “Since Richelieu, and the creation of the Académie française in 1635, there was a policy in favour of the standardisation of language, so it was decided there would be one correct spelling.”

With the advent of mass schooling, it fell to teachers to enforce the ‘correct’ spellings.

In 1833, the loi Guizot required every commune above 500 inhabitants to have a primary school, and the loi Ferry of 1882 introduced compulsory primary education.

“In the 19th century, most French people did not have French as a mother tongue, but regional languages.

From the Revolution until the 1960s, there was an effort to teach all French people the national language, and the dictée played an essential role.

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“It remained a crucial exercise until the 1960s, when maths gained the upper hand.

For a long time, spelling was used to measure success.

Today, maths is used to select the best students.”

Dr Cabanel describes it as “a sort of rite”, anchored in French culture.

“France is a secular country, but its roots are completely Catholic.

Mass was replaced by the dictée

In a sense, Mass was replaced by the dictée.

“There is the particular role of the teacher, a bit like a priest, a moment of silence, of extreme concentration in the classroom.”

In recent years, there has been a revival, and not only in schools.

In 1985, journalist Bernard Pivot created the Championnats de France d’orthographe (later renamed Dicos d’or), a national televised spelling competition based on the dictée.

Mireille Huchon, emeritus professor of French at the Sorbonne, said: “This revival was curious, as in 1968, the dictée was seen as a coercive exercise which focused on mistakes, and had been relegated.”

The idea of turning dictation into entertainment was not new.

It can be traced back to the famous dictée de Mérimée, named after the writer who is believed to have created it.

This impossibly difficult text delighted the court of the Second Empire in the mid-19th century, including Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie.

It is said that during a dictée at Tuileries Palace, the emperor made zero mistakes.

Other accounts say he made many at the Château de Compiègne.

“It’s a jeu d’esprit as we’ve always loved them in France – anagrams, wordplay.

You only have to read [satirical newspaper] Le Canard enchaîné to see that’s still the case,” she said.

The exercise is based on the complexity of the French language – full of homonyms and difficult conjugations.

It tests comprehension and grammar as much as spelling.

Complicated entertainment

“When it’s for entertainment, it should be as complicated as possible.

Mérimée’s dictée is full of traps in terms of accents and past-participle agreements.

“For pupils, it is about learning the French language, and it can give them a love of reading, as you can use literary texts which you explain beforehand.

It can be a useful exercise if it is well-prepared, and uses examples of things that have been taught.”

Pap Ndiaye is the third education minister in a row to recommend daily dictées in schools.

Each time, unions have protested at attempts to impose specific teaching methods.

There is a sense of history repeating itself.

“There was a circular in 1851 saying pupils must do a dictée every day,” Dr Huchon said.

In 2013, author Rachid Santaki began organising dictées in his hometown of Saint-Denis.

“I later learned that when I was young, I would give dictées to my Moroccan dad, who was learning French,” he said.

He has since held dictations all around France, often in prisons, schools and offices.

He holds the record for the world’s largest dictée (1,473 people in the Stade de France), and has even had French astronaut Thomas Pesquet read a dictée from the International Space Station.

“I present it as if it’s a show. I ask who doesn’t like dictées, and everybody raises their hand.

So I say ‘I’m a doctor, I’m going to cure you and by the end you will like it.

“They have fun, and come to understand that it’s a game.

It’s also a passport to culture, integration into the world of work, and reading and writing.”

He cites La dictée qui rend fou (The maddening dictation) as an example of a fun text.

It plays on homophones such as Lamère (family name), la mère (mother), and le maire (mayor).

Remove anxiety

Gone are the grades, a significant source of anxiety.

“You are judged. When you have a bad grade, you feel useless, there is a form of disdain.”

It is no coincidence the events are often held in working-class areas.

“When you have poor spelling, it’s a social marker, you are stigmatised.”

Referencing the imperial penchant for dictées, he added:

“When you’re from a working-class background, that heritage is heavy, it excludes you.”

That is what he has set out to change.

Some of those who come to his events know him from TV or radio appearances, but much is word of mouth.

“They’re curious. They come to find out if it’s true I’m going to heal them.”

You can sign up to participate in future events at

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