Finnish children don’t start school until they are 7-years-old, yet they go on to become great readers. Are we teaching our kids to read too early?
Finland was one of the top performing nations when tests were first done to compare the academic abilities of children in different countries.1 Finnish children did particularly well in the tests for reading, yet they don’t start school until they are 7 years old.
This observation has been used to argue that English speaking countries (which don’t rank as highly in the tests) start formal reading instruction too early.
Perhaps younger children just aren’t mature enough for reading instruction and they should be spending more time engaged in free play? Maybe they would be more receptive to learning if we left it until they were a couple of years older?
These opinions sound plausible, but, as we’ll demonstrate in this article, a variety of factors contribute to the relative success of the Finnish education system.
- Children from Finland do exceptionally well in international reading tests, yet they don’t start school until they are 7 years old.
- A number of countries that don’t perform so well in these tests give formal reading lessons to 5-year-olds, so it’s been argued that early reading instruction does more harm than good.
- However, it can be misleading to draw conclusions from an isolated example without considering other factors…
- There are significant social, political and cultural differences between countries that can make fair comparisons between their education systems difficult.
- The Finnish language also has a straightforward spelling system and a simple syllabic structure. In contrast, English has one of the most complex writing systems of any European language.
- More than a third of Finnish children are already reading before they start school, which gives the average Finnish teacher a head start over the teachers in many English speaking countries. This is especially true in schools where the majority of children don’t even speak English as their first language.
It’s Important to Consider the Bigger Picture…
Education systems do vary between countries and the Finnish system has a very good reputation: it’s well-funded, the teachers are highly qualified and the curriculum in Finland has a strong focus on mastering the basic skills. All of these things contribute to the excellent Finnish literacy rate.
All the same, comparisons between countries should always be treated with some caution. It’s not always easy to identify which particular aspects of an education system have the greatest impact on student performance. And there can also be significant social, political and cultural differences that impact on academic performance as we discuss below…
Some East Asian regions, such as Shanghai and Hong Kong, do even better than Finland in international comparison tests. But is this due to superior schooling, or a strong work ethic and a deep cultural tradition of valuing education?
It turns out that Asian-American children and UK and Australian-Chinese children also do exceptionally well in international tests, performing well above the average for other groups in their countries. In fact, children with an East Asian heritage from America, the UK and Australia do just as well as many children who actually live in East Asian countries2,3.
This suggests that differences in school systems probably aren’t the most important factor in explaining variations in academic performance. It’s more likely due to East Asian cultures valuing education more strongly than other groups.
These cultural differences can have a considerable impact on educational outcomes. A very striking example can be seen in the U.S. where Asian Americans make up only 4% of the population, but account for 25% of the student cohort at top universities such as Harvard and Yale!4
So, like East Asians, it’s possible that the performance of Finnish children in international tests might be more affected by their culture than the age they start school. A Finnish teacher who was interviewed by Lucy Crehen, author of Cleverlands, said: “The role of education in our culture is huge.”5
Historically, a well-educated population was seen as a way of cultivating a uniquely Finnish identity in the people. This was especially important during the time when Finland was keen to become fully independent from Russia.
Today, a high proportion of parents in Finland have had a university education, which shows they still really value education, and Finns clearly think reading is important because they borrow more library books per person than any other country in the world. 5
The Effects of Poverty…
Levels of childhood poverty also have an impact on academic performance. Although being poor doesn’t actually prevent a child from learning, it’s statistically more likely that poorer children will have a limited vocabulary and have parents with lower levels of education and weaker literacy skills.
Poorer children generally don’t have access to as many books or other educational resources in the home and are less likely to have a quiet place to study. They are also less likely to have role models who can show them the value of a good education. Poorer children are also more likely to have patchy attendance records or to be malnourished.
In the UK, social class and income distribution are the strongest predictors of educational achievement 6; only 4 percent of those eligible for free school meals at the age of 15 are likely to go on to university, compared with 33 percent of their wealthier peers.7
Schools in wealthy areas of a country almost always get better academic results than schools in poorer areas, regardless of the country, and these differences in attainment can be very large.
Although the methods used to calculate poverty levels aren’t entirely consistent between countries, it does appear that the levels of childhood poverty in Finland are significantly lower than in some of the main English speaking countries. For example, in the United States around 22% of children live in poverty, in the UK the figure is 30%, but in Finland, the rate is closer to 5%.
Immigration levels can also have a significant impact on a country’s academic performance, largely because the children of recent immigrants are likely to experience language difficulties in school.
Finland has had relatively low immigration levels compared to the UK, America, Canada and Australia. In 2014 over a million children in English schools spoke English as their second language.8 In some parts of London, children with English as a second language now make up as much as three-quarters of the school roll.
Differences in Written Languages…
In addition to social, political and cultural factors, there are also significant differences between written languages that can help to explain why English speaking countries appear to lag behind in early reading.
“… it is generally accepted that is harder to learn to read and write in English because the relationship between sounds and letters is more complex than in many other alphabetic languages”.
We have over 400 spellings for the 40+ sounds in English. Children learning to read and write in English have to know that a particular spelling is used to represent a sound in one word, but a different spelling is used to represent the same sound in another word. And the same spelling can have a variety of different sounds in different words.
A poem attributed to Lord Cromer, which was published in The Spectator magazine in 1902, eloquently illustrates the quirks and complexities of the English spelling system:
Our Strange Lingo…
When the English tongue we speak.
Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Will you tell me why it’s true
We say sew but likewise few?
And the maker of the verse,
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse?
Beard is not the same as heard
Cord is different from word.
Cow is cow but low is low
Shoe is never rhymed with foe.
Think of hose, dose, and lose
And think of goose and yet with choose
Think of comb, tomb and bomb,
Doll and roll or home and some.
Since pay is rhymed with say
Why not paid with said I pray?
Think of blood, food and good.
Mould is not pronounced like could.
Wherefore done, but gone and lone –
Is there any reason known?
To sum up all, it seems to me
Sound and letters don’t agree.
Compared to English, the writing and spelling systems of many languages are relatively straightforward because a given letter reliably corresponds to a given sound.
Daniel Willingham and others have drawn attention to research10 which shows that children in European countries with straightforward writing and spelling systems (such as Finland, Spain, Germany, Austria and Greece) become accurate and fluent in foundation level reading before the end of their first school year.
However, countries in which children make a lot of errors – Portugal, France, Denmark, and especially Britain, have more complex spelling systems.
Learning to read in English appears to be especially problematic because as well as a confusing spelling system the language also has an especially complex syllabic structure.
Finnish has both a straightforward spelling system and a simple syllabic structure, which might explain why more than one-third of children enter school already able to read!11
Differences in Education Systems
What are the facts about the Finland education system? Teacher and independent researcher Lucy Crehan5 spent several months in Finland finding out…
Although Finnish children don’t start formal schooling until they are 7, they don’t just turn up at school without any prior education. Most attend nursery and pre-schools that are run by well-qualified professionals with high staff to child ratios.
Finland early childhood education is based mostly on activities that involve play, but this isn’t so different to the so-called ‘formal’ education given to 5-year-olds in the UK. People we know who’ve volunteered to help out in English primary schools have often been surprised by the amount of play centred learning children do in reception classes.
Finland also has a curriculum of academic skills that nursery children are expected to master and this includes laying the foundations for reading and arithmetic, so the differences in early education between Finland and the UK don’t seem to be as great as some people might believe.
However, group sizes are significantly different in in Finland compared to primary classes in the UK…
Typical class sizes for 5 and 6-year-olds in the UK are around 30, but Finnish children of the same age in preschool have one member of staff supervising just 7 children.5
Contrary to what some politicians might tell you, class sizes have been shown to make a significant difference to academic achievement, particularly for younger children.12
In the Finnish model of education, preschool children who are more advanced are helped to develop their skills further, and all children are screened for special needs so they can get extra support as soon as they start school.
Finland’s teaching methods don’t seem much different from those found in other countries, but their schools have very good support and intervention systems for children who fall behind.
Although the education systems of most countries provide some kind of extra support for struggling students, few dedicate the same degree of expertise and resources as they do in Finland…
There are highly qualified professionals including psychologists and social workers in each school looking after the children’s psychological and social welfare as well as their educational needs.
And children who aren’t making the expected progress are given regular extra support by qualified teachers with specialist training.5
As we’ve seen, a variety of factors contribute to the relative success of the Finnish school system, and differences in the complexity of written languages have a significant effect on the literacy skills of children in different countries. The age that children start school in Finland might have little to do with how well they can read.
- Programme for International Student Assessment: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Programme_for_International_Student_Assessment#Finland
- Steve Sailer: iSteve, Graph of 2012 PISA Scores for 65 countries / economies: http://blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/graph-of-2012-pisa-scores-for-65_4.html
- The Guardian, ‘Culture, not just curriculum’ determines east Asian school success: http://theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/09/east-asian-school-success-culture-curriculum-teaching
- Baumeister, R and Tierney, J (2012), Willpower, Penguin Books.
- Crehan, L. (2016), Cleverlands: The Secrets Behind the Success of the World’s Education Superpowers, Unbound.
- Parent Power, The Sutton Trust 2013,
- Social class still determines success, The Guardian, Jan. 2009
- The Telegraph, At least 1.1m pupils speak English as a second language: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10895056/At-least-1.1m-pupils-speak-English-as-a-second-language.html
- Independent review of the teaching of early reading (Rose 2006.p18-19)
- Foundation literacy acquisition in European orthographies. Seymour, Aro & Erskine, 2003
- Finland’s “joyful, illiterate kindergarteners”: http://edexcellence.net/articles/finlands-joyful-illiterate-kindergarteners
- Wilson, V (2006) Does Small Really Make A Difference? University of Glasgow: http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/117736/1/117736.pdf