This entry was first published on October 11, 2015; and it was issued again on March 11, 2023 (it was also reblasted on August 24, 2017). Last week, Nell Duke, issued a Tweet that encouraged the teaching of literacy to young children. Judging by some of the responses you'd have thought my esteemed colleague was encouraging child abuse. Some of the responses claimed there was no value to early teaching since the kids in Finland do so well -- and they don't receive reading instruction at school until the kids' reach age 7. This blog entry is relevant to that discussion. I wrote it originally in response to an article that appeared in Atlantic which posited the same kinds of claims. The Finnish educational system is still doing great, though it has slipped a bit in the world standings over the past decade. Analyses of these reversals don't ascribe blame to Finland's well-trained teachers, but rather to the reduction in reading outside of school, the increasing availability of screen time for kids, economic cuts in support staff at schools (and even larger classes), and the increases in immigration that Finland has experienced. For more on these issues either search for Finland on my site or "international comparisons." What preschool and kindergarten screening tests reveal again and again in the U.S. is that middle and upper class parents have no fears that teaching their children the ABCs and how to print their names will do any harm. Like so many Finnish parents, American parents want their children to be able to read and they make sure they enter school well on their way to that goal. The arguments against introducing literacy to young children seems to be more about protecting economically disadvantaged kids from gaining the experiences their more advantaged peers have already enjoying.
The Atlantic just published an article about the mistake American educators have made by teaching reading in kindergarten. Shouldn’t we do what the Finns do: let kids learn to read when they want to and end up with high achievement?
This article emanates from the “Whistle a Happy Tune” School of Philosophy. It links a single cultural input with a single achievement output and assumes a causal connection (not teaching reading in kindergarten will result in higher achievement) and that if this cultural input were adopted anywhere else, the same outcome would result there, as well.
It sure is fun to think about how easily we could remake a society.
This is the third or fourth such article on Finland that I've read in the Atlantic and thei tone has been pretty consistent — they convey the sense of a feel good fantasy, that may help ward off the blues as days grow shorter and the verdant earth dies yet again. May this fantasy keep us warm until "April, that cruelest month".
The problem with this dream, however, is that cultural change doesn’t work that way. Nor does literacy teaching in Finland.
The U.S. is not a relatively simple society, small in geography and population, and low in diversity. All kinds of diversity. Few of the 5.5 million Finns (fewer than the population of the Chicago area) differ in race, ethnicity, language, income, or religion. It is estimated that there are more than 11 million immigrants in the U.S. (twice the total population of Finland) and our immigrants tend to differ from the “average American profile” in many ways. Finland takes few immigrants and those they let in have to have to have a secure middle-class income (ours often have only what they can carry with them).
The comparison of Finland with the U.S. is like comparing Scarsdale, Winnetka, Piedmont City, and University Park with the U.S. We’d all be amazed at how wonderful things are in those relatively wealthy communities and how little the schools there have to do to teach reading successfully to most kids.
What are the most pertinent differences between the Finns' situation and that of the U.S.?
First, they teach the Finnish language, not English. Finnish is reputedly the easiest language to learn to read (something I was writing about in the 1970s). The relationship between spelling and pronunciation is highly consistent, making it especially easy and quick to learn to decode. Because the country is so small, there are not dialectical differences to complicate things either. All things being equal, a Finnish child can learn to read Finnish much faster than an American child can learn to read English. (Funny that point wasn’t even mentioned in the article).
Second, most Finnish parents have college degrees or advanced degrees. If we can generalize from U.S. research and I think we can, such children will have better health, nutrition, ability to concentrate, IQs, vocabulary, will have more adults available in the home to provide care, and will be more likely to be reading or to have learned a lot of pre-reading skills before school entry. Given the religious beliefs of most Finns, it would be the rare child who enters school without a big head start on literacy achievement. Most homes subscribe to newspapers, have many books available, have a well-stocked public library close by, and bedtime stories are the norm.
In fact, according to a study conducted by the Finnish government, more than one-third of children enter school already reading. That sure takes the pressure off those supposedly high-skilled Finnish teachers. (Another point not mentioned in the Atlantic article).
I’ve got to admit I would love to live in a community in which everyone was well educated and had a substantial income. No doubt about it, the children and grandchildren would thrive. However, I live in a community where the majority of adults have not completed high school, libraries may be across gang territory, and mom and dad may not know how to speak English yet. Even when they do, they may be speaking a dialect far removed from the one teachers are using. Under our circumstances, starting early to learn to read a challenging language is a really good idea. (If our population was particularly diabetic, I would support higher than usual insulin injections. But then, I'm just a wild and crazy guy.)
Another problem with the Atlantic article is that it characterizes the typical U.S. kindergarten as teaching literacy with worksheets. I don't support such instruction, but it does happen--in some cases. The silly dichotomy between play and academic learning is something made up by U.S. psychologists in the 1890s and it hangs on with those who've never taught a child to read in their lives. Successful early literacy teaching is much more interactive and hands on (and, perhaps, even play-based) than the weird characterization in the Atlantic.
The Atlantic article requoted one of my least favorite claims: "'But there isn’t any solid evidence that shows that children who are taught to read in kindergarten have any long-term benefit from it,' Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emeritus of early childhood education at Lesley University, explained in a video published by the advocacy group Defending the Early Years.'"
You can make that claim… as long as you ignore the research. I chaired the National Early Literacy Panel. Unlike Dr. Carlsson-Paige, we had to look at the studies. We found long-term benefits from early learning. But that inconvenient fact screws up the narrative: Finland is great, we're idiots, and teaching your children to read will make a mess of their idyllic lives. Sure, and I have some swampland in Florida that I can let you have for cheap. Really.
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