Russia's read revolution

7th December 2007 at 00:00

Why are Russia's 10-year-olds the best in the world at reading? Tony Halpin explains the secrets of their success and how his daughter's experience in a Moscow school differs from her studies in England. So Russia's 10-year-olds are the best readers in the world while England's have slid down the international league after a decade of intense effort to raise literacy standards. What's going on?

Our daughter Lara was seven when we enrolled her in a Russian school after moving to Moscow from London 15 months ago.

My wife, Zara, is a native speaker and Lara had some passive understanding of Russian but could not read or write it. After six weeks of extra tuition from her teachers at Zolotoye Sechenie school she was doing both and thriving alongside her Russian classmates.

It soon became clear why they had worked so hard to bring Lara up to speed. Russian schools take reading so seriously that it has its own place on the timetable, separate from the study of writing, from the very beginning. Classes take place three or four times a week, depending on the school.

Children are also expected to read in a far more structured and intensive way than in any English primaries

I know. Lara is in the third year, equivalent to Year 4 in England, and the curriculum for her reading class fills three textbooks totalling more than 500 pages of stories, fairy tales and poetry.

She must also memorise quite lengthy poems. Heads are no doubt being shaken in staff rooms across England at such out-moded rote learning, but Russian teachers insist that it trains the mind, encourages children to appreciate the rhythms of language, and gives a sense of pleasure and achievement at being able to recite poetry. It builds bridges between the generations too, since most of their parents also know these poems by heart from childhood.

This shared experience encourages parental involvement in children's reading, an issue raised by Ed Balls, the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, in an attempt to explain away England's poor performance after 10 years of the national literacy strategy.

Mr Balls responded to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) findings with a feeble call for a "new national debate about the value of reading". Russian teachers and parents would ask what there is to debate about the self-evident value of reading.

Zolotoye Sechenie is a private school but it follows a state reading programme developed by Moscow's education department. Each textbook carries a message to "young Muscovites" from the Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, encouraging them to study well and grow into intelligent, cultured adults. It is hard to imagine Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, or Mr Balls addressing children from a reading textbook in common use across primary schools.

While teaching of the mechanics of reading has become more structured with the literacy strategy, schools still usually decide what children read.

Russia, like England, has a rich literary heritage but takes an entirely different approach to the importance of teaching it. From the start, teachers follow detailed annual plans that carry children on a journey through Russian literature, from the charming fables of Ivan Krylov through Pushkin and Tolstoy to Bulgarkov and beyond. Nobody pretends that every child reads War and Peace, but the point is to expose them to literature as a serious and pleasurable goal of education, one that does not depend on the whim of individual teachers.

To this end, schools send children on their three-month summer holidays with reading lists of 15 to 20 books. They include titles for pleasure and by authors that pupils can expect to study the following year. Russia came 14th in the last Pirls test in 2001, when children's education was disrupted by the economic chaos of the 1990s. Those who took the test this time live in a wealthier, more stable country, and many have access to the same computer games, TVs and mobile phones that Mr Balls blames as distractions in England. It isn't convincing. He commissioned a National Foundation for Educational Research study that found a drop in achievement by better readers and a sharp rise in the proportion of English children who seldom read outside school.

Perhaps we should learn instead from the methodical way in which Russian schools instil the habit of reading. Lara is expected to read complete stories far more often than in England, where the tendency is to tackle short passages or worksheets. From there grows an appreciation of narrative and character that blossoms into a love of books.

JK Rowling's epic Harry Potter novels demonstrate that there is no lack of appetite for reading once that initial spark is lit.

Tony Halpin is Moscow correspondent for `The Times' and its former education editor.


- Russia came top in last week's international study of 10-year-olds' reading skills. The country gained an average of 565 points in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), well above the average figure of 500 and the UK score of 539. It was also the country that showed the most improvement of the 57 involved.

- Most Russian children have no literacy skills when they start school (compared with 80 per cent of English children) but more children in Russia than in any other country read books outside school, and Russia has a literacy rate of 99.4 per cent, which exceeds most Western European countries.

- The performance of the country's 15-year-olds is less impressive. In this week's Pisa study, Russia ranked 35th in science, 34th in maths and 39th in reading out of the 57 participating countries.

- Studying individual sciences is compulsory for students in Russia, and Russian pupils spend more time in science lessons than pupils from nearly all other countries. Russian pupils participate in more extra-curricular science activities (excursions, projects, fairs and clubs) - than in any other country barring Thailand. Ninety seven per cent take part in science competitions.

- Eleven per cent of schools in Russia have selective admissions policies based on ability. This is around three percentage points more than in the UK, but well below the international average of 24 per cent.

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