Pounds 4m study to help close literacy gap

DENMARK. Denmark is to spend more than Pounds 1 million a year for the next four years on research to discover the causes of problems in elementary reading and mathematics.

Ole Vig Jensen, the minister of education, and Frank Jensen, the minister of research, announced the research project after the publication of a report from the Danish Institute for Educational Research which says that Danish 10-year-olds are poorer readers than their Swedish and Finnish counterparts.

The report confirms the findings of a 1991 inquiry into pupils' reading abilities that caused a sensation because it placed Denmark bottom of a list of 32 countries, just ahead of Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago.

Swedish and Finnish children outperform their Danish counterparts in recognising letters and in reading quickly and surely at the start of their schooling - and they maintain their advantage for several years.

"In Denmark we have been rather reticent in encouraging children to play with words and letters before they start school,", said Elisabeth Hansen, an associate professor of children's language at the Royal Danish School of Educational Studies. "But the attitude of professionals and parents is slowly changing towards letting children discover the language, letting them write and tell stories."

Ms Hansen said that there are large differences in the Nordic nations about how old children should be when they start reading and writing (in all three countries, children have to start school at seven but many start at six. ) It is expected that Finnish children should know the alphabet before they start school. More than half of Swedish and Finnish parents expect their children to be able to read after the first school year. But only 6 per cent of Danish parents expect their children to be able to read by that stage and 47 per cent have no expectation at all about their children's reading ability.

The institute report says that the difference in reading ability arises not because Swedish and Finnish children are taught letters before they start school, but because the parents show a greater involvement in their children's learning. For many years, Danes have understood teachers to have said that it is the job of schools to teach children to read.

Mr Jensen also said he was considering changing the function of Danish-language teachers, so pupils in the first years of school would be taught by reception-class teachers specialising in new readers. He said he would strengthen reading as a discipline in a new teacher-training bill.

That the Danes' inability to read is a chronic problem is illustrated by the growing number of reception classes - designed to get pupils literate enough to get through their studies - atDenmark's further education establishments.

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