The following is based on an article by Dr Eliane Gautschi, a special educator, which appeared in the May 2005 issue of Current Concerns, the English version of Zeit-Fragen (published in Zurich). Finland is often said to have the highest literacy standards in the world – many people believe this to be the result of its exceptionally transparent writing system, but as Dr Gautschi shows, other factors are also at work.
Finnish children start school in the year in which they turn seven. The country’s population is very homogeneous, with smaller differences between the highest and lowest incomes than in other European countries. The winters are long, dark and cold, and this has ‘spawned a culture of reading that hardly exists anywhere else’. Reading has a high social value. ‘Television and computers do not offer serious competition to books. There are only a few TV programmes in Finnish, so that watching television becomes another form of reading practice, because films are not dubbed, but rather given Finnish subtitles. Because of this, if they want to understand what happens on the screen, children have to automatically train themselves to read quickly and retain what they have read’.
Finnish grammar is complicated, but letter-sound correspondences are very straightforward: ‘Every sound in Finnish corresponds to a letter. There are no letters that stand for more than one sound...’. This makes word-reading and spelling very easy, and ‘most of the Finnish children who start school in August can read by Christmas time’. Editor’s comment: It is arguable that a similar level of performance is achieved within the first term in British schools where phonics is taught first, fast and only, and where care is taken to ensure that reading vocabulary is decodable on the basis of the phonics taught at any given point. Because of the complexity of the English alphabetic code, English-speaking children have clearly not finished learning to read in the sense that Finnish children have at this point, but they can at least start just as easily. (See also the article by Finnish authors in this issue’s Research Digest.)