Don't Use Finland as a Case Against Baby Reading
Teaching babies to read is becoming more and more popular. As a result, critics of the practice are becoming more vocal. Finland is sometimes brought up as an argument against baby reading.
These critics of teaching babies, toddlers or preschoolers to read point to Finland as a case against early and baby reading because students in Finland start formal schooling at the age of 7, yet they are one of the top scorers on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, which is taken by students in dozens of countries every three years.
The argument goes like this. Students in Finland start learning to read at 7 and are better readers than students who learn to read at younger ages in other countries. Therefore, learning to read later rather than earlier is better. These critics ignore the major differences between the Finnish and English languages. Finnish is much easier to learn and more logically structured than the English language. This makes it easier to achieve higher levels of literacy.
These critics also appear to be unaware of the fact that many Finnish children enter school already reading or with basic reading skills. Formal reading instruction begins at age 7 in Finland. But many Finnish children can already read before they enter school. A study that followed 61 Finnish kids from infancy to age 7 found that a whopping 30% were precocious readers. Another 43% were classified as emergent readers. If these numbers are representative of the population overall, it would seem that only a small minority of Finnish children start school with no reading skills.
The Finnish Language Advantage
In the blog post Why does Finnish give better PISA results?, "Taksin Nuoret" suggests that the ease of learning the Finnish language may be a significant factor in Finland's PISA performance. Nouret points out that Finland has a Swedish speaking minority that does not do as well on the PISA test as Finnish speaking students, despite being better off financially. In the 2003 PISA, Finnish-speaking students did better than their Swedish-speaking peers in scientific literacy, with a 26 point difference in scores.
Finnish has a logical structure that other languages like English lack. Unlike English, Finnish is a mostly phonetic language. Many words are built on the same root. In Finnish, kirja - book, kirjoittaja - author and kirjailija - writer and numerous other words related to writing all derive from kirj. This makes it easier to build a large vocabulary and figure out the meaning of new words based on context. Taksin Nouret says that "the number of roots needed to reach comparable vocabulary is lower in Finnish than in...English, Spanish, French or Italian."
In The Beginning Phases of Reading Literacy Instruction in Finland, Marja-Kristiina Lerkkanen of the University of Jyvaskyla points out:
"Many studies have shown that a systematic use of phonics with beginning readers is effective in the Finnish language context, because of the nearly perfect letter-sound correspondence. It helps children to achieve accurate reading and spelling skills in a short time and quickly gives them the feeling of being a reader."
Many Finnish Students Can Read Before Starting School
The following is from the abstract of an article on early readers in Finland called The Odds of Becoming a Precocious Reader of Finnish. Sixty-one Finnish-speaking children were followed from the age of 12 months to starting school at age 7. Before entering first grade, 43% of the children were classified as emergent readers and 30% as precocious readers.
"The readers had displayed more rapid vocabulary, inflectional, and metaphonological development than their agemates. The findings suggest that early mastery of words and word inflections increases the likelihood of becoming aware of sound patterns in words."
This is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the kids who either were already readers or had a basic understanding of reading "displayed more rapid vocabulary, inflectional, and metaphonological development." Secondly, if these 61 Finnish children are anything to go by a significant percentage of Finnish students enter school already reading or with emergent reading skills in place. Of these 61 children, only 27% had no reading ability upon starting school.
Marja-Kristiina Lerkkanen says that one third of Finland's students can read before starting school.
"When children start school...they already know a lot about reading and writing and some have even learnt to read.
Reading is a valued skill in Finnish cultures. Early readers are seen as talented and people who read a lot are respected."
Lerkkanen says that reading studies in other languages have found that reading is a cumulative process. Those with an initial advantage in reading progress at a faster rate. Good readers become better and poor readers become worse over time. This does not seem to happen with the Finnish language. Due to the ease of learning Finnish, poor readers are quickly able to catch up. The fact that so many preschool students in Finland learn to read likely benefits poor readers too. Schools with few poor readers can more easily focus on these kids and help them catch up. This would probably be a much more difficult task if most students entered school unable to read.
In Learning to Read, Lerkkanen says that school age readers in Finland do catch up with preschool readers very quickly.
"However, in the longer term, early readers were likely to be more fluent readers in the second grade than those who learned to read at school.
...phonemic awareness is more likely to predict reading fluency in later reading...phonological awareness at the preschool age predicted fourth graders' reading fluency."
So, even in Finland early readers maintain an advantage over later school-age readers, even if it is a less than in other languages.
Based on the comparative ease of learning the Finnish language, it doesn't make sense to use Finland as an argument against learning to read English earlier, whether that's baby reading or preschool reading. A large percentage of Finland's students are already reading at some level before they ever enter school, which would make Finland an argument for, rather than against, early reading. Studies done on early readers of English, such as the Dolores Durkin studies, have found that they do remain ahead and do better on reading tests than their later reading peers. All of this indicates that learning to read earlier provides an academic advantage to children.
- Why You Should Teach Your Preschooler to Read
Studies of early readers have found that they maintain a reading advantage over later readers. Just learning to read a year earlier can put a child ahead. Teaching a baby, toddler or preschooler to read will likely create a lasting academic advantage