By age seven the Finns are already streets ahead. Sue Palmer reports
They speak. They listen. They join in with the teacher as she reads them favourite stories and rhymes. They act out stories, wearing costumes or special hats to take on the roles. They learn about letters and sounds, and recite poems and action rhymes learned by heart. Above all, they sing - folk songs, songs about the characters in the stories, action songs involving lots of clapping, beating out syllables, and sweeping arm movements that will prepare them for handwriting letters. What they don't do is worksheets, or any kind of formal reading and writing activities.
They are the six-year-olds of the pre-school class at FriisilA day care centre, in Espoo, Finland, the highest scoring country in international literacy assessments.
When I told one of the teachers that in England this age group would already have done a year's slog with simple reading books and would have been expected to wield a pencil for a year or two, her first reaction was amazement. It swiftly turned to concern: "But that is stupid," she said.
"They are too little. That is cruel."
Here in Finland, an enormous amount of groundwork is put in preparing children for literacy. When formal teaching of the skills begins, in the equivalent of our Year 2, the vast majority are literate by Christmas.
I've heard it argued that Finnish is easy to learn because it is very simple phonetically. However, when we went to see a first year primary class at the nearby PAivAkehrA school, we discovered that grammatically Finnish is complex. Like German, it uses compounded words, and it is inflected so the number of word-endings, including 17 different noun cases (some unfamiliar because they are found only in written language), is enormous. This means many common words are extremely long - difficult for young children to read and write. They must be taught syllabification, encoding and decoding nonsense syllables in the way our five-year-olds blend and segment phonemes. The difference is that at seven you are mature enough to understand the task, sit down and get on with it. Especially if you've already learned to listen and articulate clearly and been prepared to use a pencil with ease.
One thing you cannot fail to notice in Finnish early-years teaching is the commitment to music. Every classroom we saw had a music centre at the front, to play songs related to the lesson - including karaoke versions for children to join in. Our pre-school teacher also used a kantele, a Finnish instrument like a five-stringed zither, to play and sing the syllables in children's names on different notes. The children listened and sang their name back.
At the end of the lesson, the children split into two groups. One group went off to "colour-lab". Having collected autumnal souvenirs in the forest yesterday, they were going to discuss and experiment with mixing the colours of autumn for art work. The second group split into two: those who could tie their shoelaces and those who couldn't. The former were delegated to instruct the latter.
All this emphasis on talk, listening and collaboration means Finnish children are socially and linguistically streets ahead of English children when they start formal school at seven and, as Ofsted found on their recent visit, far better able to concentrate and attend to their teacher.
The emphasis on recitation and music means their auditory memories are well-developed - essential for literacy skills. And there's another bonus: most are happy and self-confident, ready to learn.