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Finnish way with words

Does a tradition of oral storytelling and love of music help to explain the secrets of Finland's literacy success? Diane Hofkins reports

Ever since that embarrassing trend of the 1990s - to visit foreign countries and declare that we should emulate their huge classes and whole-class methods - was knocked on its head by economic crisis along the Pacific Rim, ministers have hesitated to draw lessons from international comparisons. This is especially true when it comes to countries with high taxation and small classes.

So it was not so much to see what could be copied here as a curiosity about what sort of country, year after year, scores top of international literacy tables, that prompted a fact-finding trip to Helsinki.

Apart from the huge investment in young children and their families (see TES, September 26), some of the obvious reasons are that Finland is a very small country of between five and six million people which, despite some immigration from countries such as Somalia and Russia, is still overwhelmingly monocultural.

And yes, it does have high taxation, and a relatively un-class-divided society, where the gap between rich and poor is fairly modest. Its spelling is completely phonetic but, as Sue Palmer pointed out last week, its grammar is stunningly complex, with words rambling on endlessly like reindeer tracks through the forest.

Finland also has a "culture of the book". Reading is a valued pastime for this solitude-loving people, and Finland's national literature is "a defining pillar for your identity in a small country", says Tuija Talvitie, director of the British Council in Helsinki. Finland's great epic, the Kalevala, had been sung for thousands of years, before being written down for the first time in the 19th century. The intertwining of literature and music is an important feature of Finland's literacy teaching, which uses song to help children internalise the beat and syllabification of their language's interminable words.

In the Kalevala, the hero uses the national instrument, the kantele, to sing his opponents down. This same zither-like instrument is used in pre-schools to help sound out syllables.

In modern times, the country has produced children's writers such as Tove Jansson, author of the internationally-acclaimed Moomin series, and the award-winning Tomi Kontio (see below).

For a small country, maintaining its socialist democracy on the edge of the Soviet empire until only recently, a strong sense of national identity must have been essential. Literacy is also linked with the high status of women.

From the 16th century, anyone who wanted to get married had to be able to read the Bible, so a literate female population was a requirement under Finland's Lutheran Reformation.

Research has long shown strong connections between a child's success in school and his mother's level of education, and in Finland more than half the population has the equivalent of a Master's degree, including all teachers. And these highly-educated mothers have the option to stay at home until their child is three and then return to their jobs.

Finland has the highest rate of newspaper reading in the world, and a first-rate public library system. Of course, higher education is free.

If the quality of education is tied to the quality of applicants to teacher-training college, Finland has got another head start. Although not well-paid, teaching remains a high-status job there, and there are 10 applicants for every place. Teachers like the respect they get, as well as the freedom to do the job as they see best and the long holidays.

No, all is not perfect. A national project called Read Finland has been running for two years in 100 municipalities to try to overcome deficiencies revealed by the Programme for International Student Assessment research, says its director, Ritva Falck.

Some children are still struggling with the basics and boys' reading is weaker than that of the girls. A big concern is children's analytical skills, and how to help them to formulate and justify opinions. There is no tradition of public debating, like there is in England, Ms Talvitie explains.

The Read Finland project, which seems something like the national literacy strategy but without the pressure, is developing ways to teach literacy across the curriculum and to entice boys to read more.

What can we in Britain learn from all this? Convert to Lutheranism? Become a socialist country? Education is the product of the society in which it takes place, and vice versa. It is hard to disconnect the individual links.

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