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Reader Question:

The Atlantic (opens in a new window) just published an article about the mistake American educators make by teaching reading in kindergarten. Shouldn’t we do what the Finns do: let kids learn to read when they want to and end up with high achievement?

Shanahan Response:

This article is from the “Whistle a Happy Tune” School of Philosophy. It links one cultural input with one achievement output and assumes both a causal connection (not teaching reading in kindergarten will result in higher achievement) and that if this cultural input were adopted elsewhere, the same outcome would result there, too. It sure is fun to think about how easily we could remake our society. This is the third or fourth such article that I have read about Finland in The Atlantic and the tone has been pretty consistent — it is a feel good fantasy, that might help us ward off the blues as the days grow shorter and the verdant earth seems to die yet again (may it keep us warm until “April, that cruelest month”).

The problem with this dream, however, is that cultural change doesn’t work that way.

The U.S. is not a relatively simple society, small in geography and population, and low in diversity. All kinds of diversity. Few of the 5.5 million Finns (less people than live in the Chicago area) differ in race, ethnicity, language, income, or religion. It is estimated that there are 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. (twice the total population in Finland) and those aspiring-Yanks tend to differ from the “average American profile” in many ways. Finland takes few immigrants and those they let in have to have to have a secure middle-class income (ours, of course, often have only what they carry).

The comparison of Finland with the U.S. would be like comparing Scarsdale, Winnetka, Piedmont City, and University Park with the U.S. We’d all be amazed at how wonderful things are in those relatively wealthy communities and how little the schools there have to do to teach reading successfully to most kids.

What are the most pertinent differences between the Finns’ situation and that of the U.S.?

First, they teach the Finnish language. Finnish is reputedly the easiest language to learn to read (something I was writing about in the 1970s). The relationship between spelling and pronunciation is highly consistent, making it especially easy and quick to learn to decode. Because the country is so small, there are not dialectical differences to complicate things. All things being equal, a Finnish child can learn to read Finnish much faster than an American child can learn to read English. (Funny that point wasn’t even mentioned in the article).

Second, most Finnish parents have college degrees or advanced degrees. If we can generalize from U.S. research such children will have better health, nutrition, ability to concentrate, IQs, vocabulary, will have more adults available in the home to provide care, and will be more likely to be reading or to have learned a lot of pre-reading skills before they enter school. Given the religious beliefs of most Finns, it would be the rare child who enters school without a big head start on literacy achievement. Most homes subscribe to newspapers, have many books available, have a well-stocked public library close by, and bedtime stories are the norm.

In fact, according to a study conducted by the Finnish government, more than one-third of children enter school already reading. That sure takes the pressure off those supposedly high-skilled Finnish teachers. (Another point not mentioned in The Atlantic article).

I’ve got to admit, I would love to live in a community in which everyone was well-educated and had a substantial income. No doubt about it, the children and grandchildren would thrive. However, I live in a community where the majority of adults have not completed high school, libraries may be across gang territory, and mom and dad may not know how to speak English yet. Even when they do, they may be speaking a dialect far removed from the one teachers are using. Under our circumstances, starting early to learn to read a challenging language is a really good idea. (If our population was particularly diabetic, I would support higher than usual insulin injections. But then, I’m just a wild and crazy guy.)

Another problem with The Atlantic article is that it characterizes the typical U.S. kindergarten as teaching literacy with worksheets. I don’t support such instruction, but it does happen — in some cases. The silly dichotomy between play and academic is something made up by U.S. psychologists in the 1890s and it hangs on with those who have never taught a child to read in their lives. Successful early literacy teaching is much more interactive and hands on (and, perhaps, even play-based) than the weird characterization in The Atlantic.

The Atlantic article requoted one of my least favorite claims: “ ‘But there isn’t any solid evidence that shows that children who are taught to read in kindergarten have any long-term benefit from it,’ Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emeritus of early childhood education at Lesley University, explained in a video published by the advocacy group Defending the Early Years.”

You can make that claim… as long as you don’t know the research. I chaired the National Early Literacy Panel. Unlike Dr. Carlsson-Paige, we had to look at the studies. We found long-term benefits from early learning. But that inconvenient fact screws up the narrative: Finland is great, we are idiots, and teaching your children to read will make a mess of their idyllic lives. Sure, and I have some swampland in Florida that I can let you have for cheap. Really.

About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
October 13, 2015