Rod Everson wrote:What strikes me about the Finnish situation is that the apparent straightforward nature of the Finnish language very likely leads educators to teach the phonics of the language without giving it a second thought. That is, if most words can be dependably decoded, they why on earth wouldn't you teach them the phonics code? Ergo, we get young precocious readers prior to school entry age.
From what I've read and heard about Finland's educational practice, there is little to no emphasis on teaching children to read before they go to school. Parents are encouraged to read to and with their children, and this is a widespread practice, but formal home teaching is (according to Sahlberg and others) an anomaly. While formal schooling is not begun until age 7, most Finnish children attend daycare and preschools where there is a rich, informal learning environment that builds background knowledge, language skills and introduces (but does not demand) some foundation literacy/numeracy skills. So while families rarely "teach" children to read (and homework is not a feature of Finnish schooling), early years education offers opportunities for children to learn some of the basics, and the fact that many TV shows are subtitled surely adds incentive above and beyond the high esteem given to reading in the culture. From what I can learn of their preschools, there is some resemblance to Montessori education where children can work through reading skills via structured activities that explicitly teach phonics and decoding if they demonstrate the ability and interest; Montessori preschool graduates around here are often reasonably proficient readers (for their age) when they enter Grade 1.
In their first year of formal schooling at age 7, Finnish children are taught a fairly systematic, code-based approach with primers and workbooks. However, special modified readers are needed, because the Finnish language has many VERY long words ( as many as 20+ letters, very polysyllabic) which would tax the working memory of many small children to sound out and blend. The readers used early on have the words broken into separate syllables so the syllables can be decoded individually, then combined to form a word. This very feature of Finnish -- the word length and number of syllables -- would make it difficult for many young children to read independently at ages 4 or 5, when English-speaking countries introduce formal reading instruction.
However, when they DO start learning to read, most progress quickly, and additional support is provided right away to those who struggle (they have "dyslexia" in Finland, apparently, and similar phonological difficulties in some students to what we have reported in English and other languages). Fully half of all students in Finland receive special education support before they leave school, but they do not need to be labeled or classified to receive this. Some classrooms have two or even THREE teachers assigned so that those who need assistance can work with a teacher and continue to progress! Class sizes are small and teachers often stay with the same class for two or three years.
That students in Finland start formal reading and written language instruction later but make rapid progress should not surprise anyone; our students also start formal instruction later than the U.S. or U.K. but rapidly catch up. That does not mean, of course, that other countries need to copy Finland (or Ontario) in this particular respect. Student success is a product of a number of interacting factors, and it is impossible to separate out a specific one and say that "this" is the reason.
What we should take away from the Finnish example is the commitment at all levels to making students successful, and the incremental and co-ordinated way in which the country moved from its former mediocrity to the higher standard it exemplifies today. Finland developed and implemented its system changes over a 20-30 year period and did so with a lot of consultation and active involvement at all levels. Alas, we in North America at least (and perhaps in the UK -- I can't say) are all too susceptible to "quick fix" solutions that often cause as many problems as they solve. Attempts to "copy" FInland without the reflection and planning that characterized its success are probably doomed to produce insignificant benefit.
I had the pleasure of hearing Sahlberg speak last year; much of what he had to say was new and surprising to me, but I highly recommend his book, which is not one of nostrums but a thoughtful look at how one society revamped its schools to meet its own objectives. Unfortunately in our case, widespread public consensus on the goals and processes of schooling might be much harder to achieve than in Finland.