The Joyful Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland

  • National Early Literacy Panel
  • 11 October, 2015

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.    

Reader Question:  

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?

Shanahan Response:

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.



See what others have to say about this topic.

Mary Jun 12, 2017 08:03 PM

Love your response!!

Harriet Janetos Jun 12, 2017 08:04 PM


This is an excellent post. Here's the breakdown of errors on word reading at the end of first grade in countries with transparent languages vs. ones with opaque languages. Transparent: Finland 2%, Austria, 3%, Greece 3%, Spain 6%. Opaque languages: Portugal 23%, France 28%, Denmark 29%, England 67%. From The Reading Brain (2009) by Stanislaus Dehaene.

Paula Lee Bright Jun 12, 2017 08:05 PM


You should be ashamed. You ignore so many important points in your blanket refusal to even consider the points.

I find many of their methods not only beneficial, but amazing. Yet you're blowing them off as nothing, despite the success.

YOUR method is not the only method!

Sheesh. Same old story.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 12, 2017 08:05 PM



Actually the article doesn't provide a teaching "method" per se. It indicates that their kids do so well because they don't teach them to read. My entry points out that approach may make sense in a country with no diversity, in which all of the parents are relatively high in education and SES, and where a large percentage of parents are going to teach reading to children before they enter school. Essentially the method that Atlantic was espousing was to get the schools out of the business of teaching reading--leave that to mom and dad, and, of course, teach the children to read Finnish rather than English. I doubt that method would be very effective

Kiitos, hyvää. (That's "thank you" and Finnish--perhaps you'd like to brush up on it). :)

Matt Renwick Jun 12, 2017 08:06 PM


Nice post. It is all about context when we talk about school research, and how kids come to learn to read, specifically. We could also point out that children in Finland watch American shows with close captioning so they can understand what the characters are saying (pg 151-153 of The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease). As Mr. Trelease states, "a free reading tutor".

Timothy Shanahan Jun 12, 2017 08:07 PM



Thanks. You make a good point--one that the Finnish government made as well when they looked into their success. I simply forgot this and am glad that you reminded us.

Amelia Van Name Larson Jun 12, 2017 08:07 PM


Why not read in Kindergarten? Why not play in Kindergarten? Kids should be able to do both! Tim, you are right, we ARE NOT in Finland and we DO NOT speak Finnish; however, we also need to reflect on the learning experiences our kindergartners need to thrive not only in literacy, but to help kids remain physically, emotionally and intellectually ready to become fully realized citizens of the world.

As educators, we must be better judges of what we read; we must problem-solve, collaborate, and maintain comfort with ambiguity and change. More importantly, we must be be able to own the good, bad, and ugly in the changes we make if we're to really do right by kids!

CrunchyMama Jun 12, 2017 08:08 PM

Here is a link to the study I mentioned in my comment on the Education Gadfly: I traced links to this original study from this article, which crossed my Facebook newsfeed earlier today:

Yes, early ed is important. Early literacy is NOT the same thing. The languages (English & Finnish), do indeed have their differences, as do our societies, but the brains of young children follow a pretty similar arc no matter where in the world they are, barring factors that can interfere with that development.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 12, 2017 08:08 PM



Early education and early literacy are not the same thing, but they should be. That's the point of the entry--waiting for parents to teach literacy as is done in Finland is not in young American children's best interest. The study you mention is interesting, but I would point out that there are studies like that--better done, however--that track the advantages of solid literacy development in young children through the age 42 (so, 35 years later--and controlling for the initial differences in the parents/families that the children came from) and with lots of positive benefits. There is no research who has done better work on social-emotional development than my colleague, Roger Weissberg, who tells me that the best social-emotional program for children is academic success in school.

Lisa Smith Jun 12, 2017 08:09 PM


Wow. that's a fairly brutal 'take down' of an otherwise decent article! I think the main point to the (original) article was not to say that "we are idiots for trying to teach our children to read" it was basically trying to make the (extremely valid) point of stating that we need to seriously reconsider the effects that standardized testing has on early childhood. Is it merely a coverup for the adults' selfish ego's ruling out over their children's well being?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 12, 2017 08:10 PM


No, Lisa. Actually the article argues against teaching reading to kindergartners... something horribly irresponsible in our social context. No doubt about it, if most American parents taught their children to read before entering school (as it is done in Finland) this would be no big deal, but that isn't the case in the U.S. The only kids who lose out in that equation are those with mother's who are low in income and education.

Melissa Varis Jun 12, 2017 08:11 PM


I came to Finland, after teaching nine years in the US, on a Fulbright teaching exchange, dare I say it - almost 15 years ago. My husband is a language teacher at the high school where I worked. Our two boys (7 and 9) have dual citizenship and are both bilingual and literate in both languages. My masters degree is in literacy, from UNR, one of the top 5 programs nationally at the time. I believe and have seen firsthand at the middle school level how forcing kids to "read" before thier brain is ready does not improve their educational potential, but will make them learn to hate reading and most likely kill their joy of learning. Dr. Bear, author of the Words Their Way series, said something that struck me in during our program one day. Kids learn to read despite how we teach them. We had been discussing the many reading programs and what worked best. He said that when they are ready, they will learn. Of course, he doesn't mean to wait until kids are 12, but that every approach has value, when the kids are ready - and before age 6 or 7, most are not ready.

That being said, I believe there are some truths to what you wrote, and some untruths - especially during the past few years, when we have gotten a massive number of refugees, compare with our previous numbers. Finland has two national languages, and the native Swedish speakers learn to read too. Do not count them out. The ever shrinking middle class that you referenced is a strange phenomenon. For a very long time after the winter wars, Finland had a dire economic situation and mass emmigration, replayed in the 90's with their own housing market crash. So, in my mind that theory that everyone "is middle class" is false, based upon your premises. Even this month we had a 9.8% unemployment, which only includes those able to look for work, not refugees without green card or people like me who aren't on the dole, for example. Despite lower earning than their other Scandinavian counterparts, they consistently out perform them. As for diversity, some schools in Helsinki have over 50% foreigners in them, and still manage to do well. And when the handful of 'token' refugees came to my boys school, they had never been in school before - and they are all reading at grade level with their peers - and no special Finnish as a second language classes. They were added to the class roster, sink or swim.

It is true that Finnish students are not taught reading in the same stressful way as their American counterparts. There is a huge emphasis on play. My boys have both picked up reading in English, without learning it at school - English lessons start in the third grade, but my cherubs will study Russian because they don't need English lessons as such. (My 3rd grader does read Russian too, FYI.) Students who fall behind even slightly are supported immediately. Finns also value literacy more than Americans, if you compare library usage, it's a slam dunk. I read to my boys, but not all Finns do. My husband's family certainly didn't and still doesn't.

So, yes and no to your article, but I don't think that the Atlantic's (Taught by Finland's) point was to NOT teach them, but not to force it down their throats when they were not yet ready. That was a stretch.

Anonymous Jun 12, 2017 08:12 PM


You make some good points though the first premise (that Finnish is easier to learn than English) is subjective, and likely not correct. I grew up in Estonia, right across Finland - we have a fairly similar language, with 16 declinations - try to learn that grammar! Most of the kids learn reading at home rather than in kindergarten - I learned reading on my own at age 3, and while it was somewhat earlier than usual, it was generally considered poor parenting to let your kid go to school without knowing how to read. We have 99% literacy rate. It is just something that is expected of everybody. I am amazed that it is possible to live in the US and not know how to read. Different expectations.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 12, 2017 08:12 PM


Linguists generally agree that "transparent languages," that is, those languages that possess orthographies that simply and consistently map onto the phonological aspects of the language are the easiest to learn. Thus, the focus of that comment is on learning to translate from print to speech (decoding), not one's ability to think with a language (comprehension). Finnish is about the most consistent, ortho-phonologically straightforward languages in existence, thus its learnability. Contrast that with languages like English, German, and Chinese and one can see the reason for the designation.

When it comes to literacy rates, however, they tend to track socioeconomic status (the wealth and education levels of the parents) and diversity (homogeneous countries seem to have fewer literacy challenges). The U.S. is wealthy, with a high SES, but it is also one of the more diverse countries (e.g., economics, race, ethnicity, religion, language). Finland, on the other hand, is both wealthy, but also very homogenous in almost all aspects. Because of recent immigration, that is beginning to change, and it will be interesting to observe over time how universal literacy development is going forward.

In any event, if one is trying to compare teachers or education systems, it is not enough to look at the outcomes when kids reach a certain age, but how they looked at the starting line. If an American teacher is expected to teach most of her students to read, and a Finnish teacher starts with a group who is already reading when they walk in, the outcomes alone will not be particularly informative of educational quality.

Let me put it this way: in the U.S., the kids from families that share the demographic characteristics of most Finnish families (middle class or higher income, high levels of parental education, proficient in the national language, white/European background), usually accomplish high levels of literacy attainment (just like in Finland). It is when one looks at income differences, parental education differences, racial/lingjuistic differences, that U.S. kids struggle. We definitely need to do a better job with those children--parents and schools--but trying to copy the Finnish schools, which currently are being reformed, does not seem like the right thing to do.


Jo-Anne Gross Aug 24, 2017 06:39 PM

Parents must be teaching with "sounds",it`s the logical parenting inclination,you have to admit what goes on in our schools is ridiculous-walk into most schools and it`s not happening,luckily,early intervention is popular.
One special ed teacher I trained told me they were adamant not to teach the grapheme of the phoneme unless the child had an assessment and after grade 3.

Tim,it seems that when you teach the kids "how to' for a while,they start to run with it..
My program is explicit and systematic but at lesson 32 in my system sequence,lots of the kids are ready to fly..only those with a true deficit need to learn everything explicitly,systematically and in a multisensory way based on the science of Reading.
Have you "seen "this phenomena?

Luqman Michel Aug 24, 2017 10:44 PM

Tim, it is high time that you and guys like you stop using this opaque/transparent language thing as an excuse for everything about reading. To quote Heffernan: You are , willfully blind. What the research shows is that some people are blind out of fear. They're afraid of retaliation. And some people are blind because they think, well, seeing anything is just futile. Nothing's ever going to change.

You stick your head into the ground every time someone says something that you are unaware. You fear that you will be the idiot.

I am telling you again that if around 80% of kids can read leaving behind about 20% who leave school as illiterates it cannot be because English is an opaque language.

If those 20% can be brought to grade level with a few months of intervention than they could not have not been able to read because English is an opaque language.

Stop ignoring the obvious.

Read my posts on our conversation in my blog at:

Luqman Michel Aug 24, 2017 10:44 PM

Tim, it is high time that you and guys like you stop using this opaque/transparent language thing as an excuse for everything about reading. To quote Heffernan: You are , willfully blind. What the research shows is that some people are blind out of fear. They're afraid of retaliation. And some people are blind because they think, well, seeing anything is just futile. Nothing's ever going to change.

You stick your head into the ground every time someone says something that you are unaware. You fear that you will be the idiot.

I am telling you again that if around 80% of kids can read leaving behind about 20% who leave school as illiterates it cannot be because English is an opaque language.

If those 20% can be brought to grade level with a few months of intervention than they could not have not been able to read because English is an opaque language.

Stop ignoring the obvious.

Read my posts on our conversation in my blog at:

Marja Ingrid Urponen Aug 26, 2017 12:51 AM

The assumptions about Finland, Finns and the Finnish language are simplistic and half-truths, part of that picture that sounds good, but it isn't correct.

Do dialects? Only non-Finnish speaker would say that. There are huge dialectial differences between regions.
Everybody is middle class? There are plenty of poor people and poor children.
It is no homogenous? Visit the cities and see the diversity, now even in Lapland!
Everybody is educated? What about those unemployed who can't find work because they don't have enough education.
Everybody is high achiever? Well, how come teachers are desperately trying to find ways to break that "working class masculine shield" that makes certain boys and young men drop out of school and later labor force.
Yes, it is easy to learn to decode Finnish and because of that children can begin to focus on reading comprehension already in the first grade. There is no need for spelling bees or spelling lessons instead they can concentrate on vocabulary building and critical thinking. Yes, that is great! Real envy of the children needing to learn to read in English! But reading is not just decoding!
And education is not just literacy skills and that is one of reasons why the learning outcomes of Finnish students are so high. They learn such much ore than just reading and numbers and bits of science. And no teacher needs to write bathroom passes to interrupt the instruction because students take care of their physiological need during the the frequent recess breaks. Yes, they have a 15-minute recess after each lesson, physical activity built into the school day, music with instruments, art classes, crafts, cooking, woodwork with real powertools, lots of hand-on activities, free healthy school lunch cooked in the school's kitchen, etc., etc., and not to mention the carefully selected and well-prepared teachers from the same of candidates as medical and law schools. And before they were born, their mothers had prenatal care and after etc., etc., etc. Everyone. All that equity contributes to equity in the learning outcomes.
Register and join an Edu Tour to Finland to learn factual information about the Finnish education system, its policies, practices, successes and challenge; meet principals and teachers; and visit classrooms. Information at .

Leah Mermelstein Mar 11, 2023 03:32 PM

Thank you for this. I hope people actually listen to Nell Duke’s most recent webinar (especially the people who were concerned about her ‘take’) I have only watched the first ten minutes, but she already suggested that children scamper around the room to deepen their understanding of the word scampered. She also spoke about having a puppet named Munching Monster who ate things that began with /m/. It’s interesting to me that some people have a difficult time imagining that early literacy can be interesting and playful for very young children.

Emma Hartnell-Baker Mar 11, 2023 03:35 PM

So funny that you shared this. Yesterday I’d responded to someone who implied that my work with young children (the byproduct is that they read, not the primary goal - which is improved oral language skills, phonemic awareness, vocab etc) was not needed - children don’t ‘need’ to read because kids who learn later do just fine.
Two points
- that’s not what happens (you explained it well here)
- don’t ‘need’ to read? To me that’s like saying they don’t ‘need’ to dance or sing. Reading is a magical experience.

The main issue I have is the way in which so many kids are being taught - that makes the learning to read part so awful. But that’s not about kids not being ready to read’ it’s about the instruction.

When there is a deep orthography - unlike the code Finnish kids face - we can’t afford to make it even harder for kids. Or wait until they’re 7.

Jackie Pohl Mar 11, 2023 04:09 PM

I've taught kindergarten through fourth grade during my many years teaching. Yes, we taught reading in kindergarten and realized that it was important to read with each child individually, to see what level they were reading. Several students come in reading at a second-grade level but there is always one or two that possibly are beyond that. We are all born with differences as well as having parents with different attitudes on when their child is ready to read.
When my own children were born I read books to them several times a day; often because I needed to sit and rest! My oldest daughter is now in at Stanford in CA getting her Doctoret as a surgeon. My youngest is in law school. They both read before they started kindergarten. However, they also, often had friends over, walked through trails in the woods, planted flowers, helped me make cookies to name a few activities. I understand not everyone has the chance to stay home with their children but it is possible to find wonderful care takers as well. My suggestion, find ways to have many books in your home. Our library allowed children's books to be checked out up through 30. Naturally when they advance to an itty-bitty novel, one or two suffice. Reading is still one of my favorite ways to spend time. I thank my parents and my siblings for reading to me and piano lessons. Make sound decisions for your child or children. It's the greatest gift of love.

Elizabeth Robins Mar 11, 2023 04:18 PM

Factoid: Apparently, to aid the deaf, Finnish TV stations are required to provide subtitles for all programming. It has been posited that, given all the above in your excellent article, children benefit from this extra resource while watching children shows.

Lise L’Heureux Mar 11, 2023 05:03 PM

Is it time to overhaul English (and French) orthographic coding ? If we are to consider the science of reading, the biggest challenge is the complexity of the orthographic code, not the ability of our teachers to teach it or of our children’s brains to understand it.

How long will we be using an 18th century system?

Ann Christensen Mar 11, 2023 05:12 PM

Play and learning are NOT opposites. My kindergarteners love making and sharing their own books during Community Writing, carefully encoding using everything they know about literacy. During play time, many children continue to make books. Children without toy farms, plastic jungle animals, or pattern blocks at home benefit from play with thoughtful adult input and interaction. They can expand their vocabulary and oral language.
However, each year without effective literacy instruction, further increases gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children. Attention to children’s playfulness while providing effective literacy instruction is an art in kindergarten.

Dr. Caterina Di Tillio Mar 11, 2023 05:55 PM

Old information

Colette Titus Mar 11, 2023 06:06 PM

I have my concerns about teaching kindergartners to read. I think now kindergarten is so structured and academic -driven, and this may be contributing to the rise in anxiety disorders we are seeing in teens and even earlier years. While I believe in teaching letters, sounds, and exposing kindergartners to print, etc., I think we place a lot of pressure on these kids to learn to read. Kindergarten classrooms no longer have play kitchens, puppets, etc. that enhance imaginary skills (which I believe can help kids to be better creative thinkers and writers). I think back to when I was a kindergartener, and my kindergarten day was about 2 hours long. Within that period of time we colored, played outside, were provided snack and took naps! I learned to read just fine and so did all of my friends. Why do we have such a push for Kindergarten children to be so academically driven? Is this even developmentally appropriate? As an educator, I am seeing a huge uptick in anxiety disorders and behavior problems at school. Yes, Covid certainly impacted this because we expected our students to be back on their grade level post Covid. I think the US should rethink our curricular demands and allow for children to also “be kids” and not push them to be high academic achievers and scholars. I think we are robbing children of playful opportunities that enhance creative thinking and problem-solving.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 11, 2023 06:42 PM


Children should be taught to read in kindergarten and, no, they should not be under pressure. It isn't necessary, it is counterproductive.


Lauren Mar 11, 2023 09:42 PM

I think that kindergarten students should be in a language rich environment. There should be stories, songs, poetry, creative play and building, sharing time, creating stories and all of the things that develop language whether in listening, speaking, reading, or writing. Letter names and sounds can be taught in fun developmentally appropriate ways. Beginning reading can be taught in creative, developmentally appropriate ways. You have to have the enriching language development to support the reading instruction. I agree that young children should not be put under pressure and pushed. I agree that too much of this is hurting our society at large. Parents often get competitive about young children reading because it is a pathway to "Gifted Programs." When "No Child Left Behind" first came out, I remember my daughter's elementary school was hosting daily breakfast buffets with all the bells and whistles because every school was in a frenzy to have the highest test scores, and the breakfasts were seen as something that would lend a competitive edge. I was looking on in bewilderment thinking: "This is just crazy..." Politics and competition should be kept at bay when it comes to education. Whether it's "No Child Left Standing", or "The Race to Nowhere", or overly demanding and developmentally inappropriate instruction for early learners... I think we all have to agree that something is off with our society. Children are experiencing anxiety, and we as adults need to identify the elements in our educational system that might be contributing to this and correct them. By the way, I vote to get rid of the educational term "Rigor". I feel like too much "rigor" in the school system is ill advised. One of the sweetest, most heart melting things I've ever seen was a young dad coaching five year old girls in soccer. He had a large slate where he was drawing out X's and O's like football plays. The girls listened intently and then ran out and all chased after the ball in a big clump. He learned very quickly about child development. The educational system should pay more attention to this important element of learning as well.

Miriam Trehearne Mar 12, 2023 04:47 AM

Miriam P. Trehearne

Dr. Nell Duke, a very well-respected researcher, issued a Tweet last week that encouraged the teaching of literacy to young children.
Early Efforts | Literacy from Day One…. Dr. Duke is right!

This encouraged you, Tim, to revisit the topic with a focus on Finland and early literacy learning.
Thank you for providing some facts about Finland.
We do know a lot about the topic:

Finland - a Literacy Success Story

Finland consistently has one of the highest adult literacy rates in the world. Finnish children generally start Grade 1 in the year in which they turn seven. Most attend strong preschools.
There is some speculation in North America that the reason for the higher literacy rate is due to their learning to read at an older age than many North American students.
However, this is a simplistic explanation which does not stand up under scrutiny.
Consider the following facts:
Almost half of Finnish children (40-50 %) are able to read when they begin school.
The schools, the teachers and parents have high expectations for literacy education.
Six-year-old Finnish children (Kindergarten), like children in English-speaking countries, segment and blend syllables and identify rhymes. They also focus on phonics and listening to and responding to stories.
They write. The work is intended to provide the foundation for further work in literacy.
There is a “national culture of the book” which some analysts believe lies behind Finland’s high standings in international comparative studies of attainment in literacy.
Finnish society places a high value on literacy and teachers. It is reinforced in schools and home where, in both cases, the daily reading of a story to children is firmly embedded. There is a strong national culture of reading. It is a country of readers.
Teachers are quite well paid and highly valued in the community.
Finland has excellent public libraries and highly educated librarians. The number of books borrowed annually from public libraries and the number of new books for children and young people is very high.
There is a strong regularity of the Finnish Sound/ Spelling system—unlike the English Sound/Spelling system.
The impact of parents’ socio-economic background on pupil’s performance is reported to be low. The differences among schools, between urban and rural areas and between regions, are small. ‘Equal opportunities’ is the leading principle in education policy.
Differences in socio- economic status of families have little impact on students’ reading achievements. In Finland, education is totally free, including lunches, travel, and books.
The Finnish learning environment consists of a commitment to good design. The classrooms within the schools have been designed to promote collaboration between students, teachers and the community as a whole. This can help inspire primary research and unique, independent learning. With students in mind, the classrooms can also support those who find traditional learning spaces to be inhibiting and daunting.
Primary schools (since 1948) provide free warm lunches which are of a high nutritional quality.
Finland’s population is approximately five and one- half million. It is a largely homogeneous society.
Pupils with learning difficulties get remedial teaching in addition to their regular classes. Early intervention is in place. Approximately thirty-seven percent of First Graders get additional support. All regular class teachers and special needs teachers
have knowledge and expertise in support of learning difficulties.

So, there you have it. Too many have for too long tried to find simplistic explanations or excuses for why some students struggle with reading while others don’t. And often, they have blamed the “victim”.
The gift of time, waiting until students are older, is generally no gift at all. - Literacy learning in kindergarten is extremely important, for school systems have a small window of opportunity (K-2) in which to get students off to a strong start.
There is longitudinal research involving 3,959 high school seniors from 24 school districts in 10 U.S. states that shows that students who learned to read in kindergarten were superior in reading skills and all other educational indicators measured as seniors in high school, regardless of their social class, ethnicity, and gender. The research shows no ill effects from learning to read in kindergarten. Both play and focused (intentional) literacy teaching are important in kindergarten.

Kindergarten teachers can predict at the end of the kindergarten year where most of the children will be in literacy learning by the end of Grade 1. Allington says it best in the title of his article, “What Schools Should Do: Start in Kindergarten on Day One!” (2011).

According to a study by Connie Juel (1988), the probability that a child who is a poor reader at the end of grade 1 will remain a poor reader at the end of grade 4 is 88%.

Comparing Finland’s education system and culture to that of the U.S. or Canada is like comparing apples to elephants. Good results in literacy call for strong co-operation between homes, schools, and the whole society.
In the end, Finnish society supports literacy—schools and teachers are not alone.

cheryl Cook Mar 12, 2023 01:35 PM

Your comments re the Finnish family level of education and value of education speaks volumes. Our community has seen an increase in poverty level and all of the accompanying challenges, not to mention the impact of Covid and the ever increasing use of video games in place of family interaction.
Thanks to support/collaboration with Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio, most of my k-2 staff has completed or is now enrolled in Science of Reading training. This year we implemented 95% intervention and a whole grade level approach to intervention. The results are rewarding! Next year we are implementing Amplify CKLA. I am so proud of the efforts of my staff to learn and implement these strategies and materials.

Gaynor Mar 13, 2023 04:21 AM

Thank you so much Miriam for your contribution on teaching young children to read which reinforces Tim's view. I have been involved in teaching even three and four year olds, some of whom had handicaps, to read for 40 years. I have been treated like a criminal.
Teaching a reluctant child of any age to read is similar to encouraging a small child to eat vegetables rather than cake. Humour , rewards, withdrawal of treats,stamps, stickers,firmness but fun cajoling jollying along, games etc This is where teaching as an art comes in. It can be a battle of wills but once the child is succeeding even a little it becomes easier. ' Pressuring ' to me suggests a lack of imagination by the teacher . However children must learn to become compliant which child -centered educators don't like.

Anne Mar 19, 2023 11:50 AM

“We found long-term benefits from early learning.“

I’d love to know the actually studies you are citing here? Thanks!

Timothy Shanahan Mar 19, 2023 03:57 PM


Take a look at the National Early Literacy Panel Report or the follow up article that Chris Lonigan and I did about the Developing Early Literacy -- both can be found in the Publications (Print Publications) section of this website.


Moira Chrzanowski Apr 25, 2023 02:37 PM

Would love your help in pointing me to specific research studies that found positive effects of teaching reading early!

Timothy Shanahan Apr 25, 2023 03:01 PM


I would suggest Developing Early Literacy the Report of the National Early Literacy Panel. You can find that online.


Moira Chrzanowski May 03, 2023 02:36 PM

Hi Tim,

Thank you so much for your response. I've downloaded several of the resources you have here on your site. Could you also point me in the direction of the Finnish government study you mentioned that estimated one third of Finnish children enter school already reading?

Timothy Shanahan May 03, 2023 10:02 PM

No, at this remove, I cannot. There were a couple of Finnish government studies that I quoted (one here with no citation and another in another blog with a link, but it appears to be dead now). Here is another study along the lines of the one that I noted here.

Silven, M., Poskiparta, E., Niemi, P. (2004). The odds of becoming a precocious reader of Finnish. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(1), 152-164.

It found that 30 some percent of Finnish kids enter school reading (it is more like 3% in the U.S.). Of course, there are many other differences between the educational systems of the two countries. Type Finland into the search function on this site for that info.


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The Joyful Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.