Worrying trends of Finnish reading habits

According to PIRLS 2016 results, the Finnish children are still among the best readers in the world, and there is not much difference compared to the PIRLS 2011 results, but the country’s ranking has gone slightly down (now 5th in the ranking) due to other countries that have made significant improvements. However, there are some worrying trends. [1]

The reading performance in Finland is first and foremost tied to two things: family’s socio-economic background and the parents’ support for children’s reading. The reading attitudes and practices of home such as reading aloud or visiting libraries together contribute strongly to the reading performance of children. When parents read for pleasure extensively, the children are more likely to become attracted by books and texts. The support and encouragement for reading provided by parents and the amount of time they spend on reading themselves have a direct impact on the performance and the reading hobby of the child. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer Finnish parents actually enjoy reading themselves. Research shows that while the number of parents with negative attitudes towards reading has increased (only 41 % enjoyed reading a lot according to PIRLS 2016), the number of students who only enjoy reading a little or not at all has concurrently grown. [2]

One of the most effective ways to raise readers is to read aloud to them. As stated by a survey conducted recently in Finland, approximately 30 percent of mothers and less than 25 percent of fathers read to their children at the age of 2-3. The reading role models are particularly important for the development of boys’ reading habits, notably reading fathers hold a central role in boys’ reading education. Early literacy experiences of children are slightly growing but remain too sparse in international comparisons, with only 32 percent of the children having several early literacy experiences and 67 some experiences. [3]

Even the number of books at home contributes to child’s emergent literacy development and reading performance. However, reading doesn’t depend on the wealth of the family. Reading can also be effectively supported by visiting libraries together and borrowing books. Unfortunately it seems (PISA 2015) that the families with least socioeconomic resources also utilized the library services the least.

On the basis of PIRLS 2016, 18 percent of the Finnish students have excellent literacy skills and 62 percent are on good performance level. However, 2 percent did not even reach the lowest level of performance, which is 1 percent rise from the PIRLS 2011 results. This implicates a strengthening connection between socioeconomic background of the family and the performance of the child. In addition, the number of students who need special support has increased on a yearly basis. In basic education, 16 percent received additional support in autumn 2016, and two thirds of them were boys. Their literacy should be paid special attention since weak literacy hinders all other learning and forms a potential risk for the future. [4]

According to the PISA 2015 results, every tenth adolescent in Finland has poor literacy skills, and in the comparison among boys, the respective proportion was 16 percent. Another concerning message is that the gap between girls and boys has drastically widened in Finland, reaching the point where the difference is now larger than in any other OECD country [5]. The girls’ literacy is on average 22 points higher than boys’. That is why the ministry of education and culture has recently implemented new initiatives (such as Lukuinto – Joy of Reading) aiming at, among other goals, narrowing the gender gap. Reducing the gender gap is also mentioned in the development plan of Finnish education (– the stated aim to halve the gap between now and 2020). [ibid]

There is a remarkable decrease in reading for pleasure at the age of 15 from 2000 to 2009. At the moment, one forth enjoys reading whereas one forth hardly enjoy reading. In the international comparison, the Finnish students were among those who enjoy reading the least. The findings are reflected in PIRLS 2016, where results also indicate decline in the recreational reading, since only 35 percent of 4th graders read for pleasure. The gender difference is pronounced as 47 percent of the boys and 19 percent of the girls report this.  The number of those who never or very rarely read recreationally was 10 percent and 12 percent for those who never read in order to find out about things. A significant connection was found between the literacy performance of those who read recreationally but the connection between non-recreational reading motivation and literacy performance was not directly linked. [3]

The attitudes towards reading for pleasure are further clarified in the surveys measuring students’ commitment to the reading education. Only 39 percent of Finnish children and youth claim they are very committed to the reading education, 54 % somewhat and 7 % hardly at all committed. In international comparison, the proportion of very committed students is very low. However, the proportion of very committed students has risen (from 15 % in 2011 PIRLS results) and respectively, the proportion of very weakly committed students has decreased (the figure from 2011 PIRLS was around one fifth). [ibid]

According to PIRLS 2016 Encyclopaedia there is major emphasis on reading for pleasure in the intended language/reading curriculum in Finland. However, textbooks and workbooks dominate among resources used for teaching reading. Only half of the pupils in Finland had an access to class libraries. Despite the active cooperation between public libraries and schools, classroom libraries should be invested in to guarantee every child an easy access to diverse reading materials. [6]

The PISA and PIRLS results and other studies indicate that children and adolescents from disadvantaged families have lower performance in reading in Finland, and the influence of the family background to the performance is growing. In Finland, financial support is allocated to schools that work in a challenging environment and who have lower academic performance. However, there are no significant differences on a regional level or between schools, though the capital city area seems to get slightly lower results than the rest of the country (PISA 2015). The capital city area then might have schools in environments of high unemployment and low education rates as well as schools where number of immigrants is high have been supported in particular. Where the language played a more remarkable role was in the case of students whose home language was not Finnish nor Swedish, many of whom are likely to have migrant background. Their performance in the tests was remarkably lower than of those who speak Finnish or Swedish at home. [ibid]

Hence, to some extent, we may be facing a migrant gap in Finland, an unequal distribution of learning outcomes between the native students and immigrant students. Migrant gap is not only associated with the socio-economic gap but also with the home language differing from the language of instruction at school which increases the risk of low performance in reading. According to the Finnish development plan for education (2011-2016), the goal is to reduce educational differences due different living areas and social or ethnic backgrounds, and at least cut them by a half by 2020. One example of a policy aiming at preventing segregation and advancing equity is the committence to limitations regarding free selection of school. As a rule, education is provided in neighborhood schools. [7]

In addition, there are specific objectives for immigrant education; the pre-primary education needs to support the learning of Finnish or Swedish and foster children’s own native language and the opportunity to grow into two cultures. Municipalities organize on voluntary basis preparatory education for children and teenagers who have only recently arrived at Finland, usually for 6-12 months [. When the pupils have already integrated into the regular classes, they still have an opportunity to attend Finnish as a second language instruction in case the schools provide such instruction. Support for both mother tongue and language of the school is one of the strengths in supporting students whose home language is not the language of the school in Finland. Among the challenges is the length of preparing education which does not always allow the proficiency in second language to become high enough to attend normal classes. Another challenge is that municipalities can themselves decide whether they provide such instruction. [ibid]


Sources of information:

1] https://www.jyu.fi/en/news/archive/2017/12/tiedote-2017-12-07-14-17-18-674433

2] PIRLS 2016 Encyclopedia, Finland http://timssandpirls.bc.edu/pirls2016/international-results/encyclopedia/countries/finland/teachers-teacher-education-and-professional-development/

3] Kaisa Leino, Kari Nissinen, Eija Puhakka & Juhani Rautopuro. Lukutaito luodaan yhdessä. Kansainvälinen lasten lukutaitotutkimus PIRLS 2016.

4] Literacy in Finland: Country Report. Children and adolescents. March 2016. ELINET European Literacy Policy Network.http://www.eli-net.eu/fileadmin/ELINET/Redaktion/user_upload/Finland_Short_Report.pdf

5] http://julkaisut.valtioneuvosto.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/79052/okm41.pdf

6] Literacy in Finland: Country Report. Children and adolescents. March 2016. ELINET European Literacy Policy Network.http://www.eli-net.eu/fileadmin/ELINET/Redaktion/user_upload/Finland_Short_Report.pdf

7] http://www.oecd.org/els/mig/Finding-the-Way-Finland.pdf