Supporting reading literacy, Finland


Globalisation and international migration have increased the number of students from immigrant backgrounds across Europe. For these students, learning the language can play a crucial role in their schoolwork, sense of inclusion in the school and integration into society.

In addition, rising child poverty in the UK increases the risk of the attainment gap growing between children living in poor areas and their wealthier peers.

Finland has developed a solution to improving reading skills that sees volunteer grandparents recruited to support students struggling with reading. The approach is being used in more than 60 schools and is being shown to improve reading literacy levels.

CULTURE AND SOCIETY

Children in Finland typically start school at the age of seven. Starting school later than is common in many other Western countries does not appear to hold Finnish children back when it comes to attainment - the OECD's 2016 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results place 15-year-olds from Finland second among 28 European countries for reading literacy and fourth among the 73 countries assessed worldwide.

A 2016 study by John Miller, president of Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, judged Finland the most literate country in the world. The research looked at literacy achievement tests and also at what it called "literate behaviour characteristics" - everything from numbers of libraries and newspapers to years of schooling and computer availability in the countries.

Education experts have attributed Finland's success to a school system that promotes student wellbeing and independence. For example, students receive regular 15-minute unstructured breaks during the day, which research has shown promotes alertness. Meanwhile, primary-age pupils are given open-ended projects that encourage critical thinking and creativity.

All schools in Finland are state run, bar a handful of independent settings, which ensures children receive a consistent standard of learning wherever they live. Unicef found that Finland has the second lowest inequality among children in the world.

REGULATION AND POLICY

The National Board of Education, which is subordinate to the Ministry of Education and Culture, decides on the objectives and contents of instruction in different subjects, recording them in a national curriculum.

Municipalities' education providers have a significant amount of freedom in organising the schooling within the guidelines provided by the Ministry and the National Board.

Before compulsory education begins, the child participates in one-year pre-primary education which since August 2015 is obligatory. Compulsory education usually starts in the year when a child turns seven. The scope of the basic education syllabus is nine years, and nearly all children complete this by attending comprehensive school.

Finnish national curricula for different school and grade levels emphasise literacy in an age-appropriate way. At pre-school level the emphasis is on emergent literacy and play-like activities. In primary school the curriculum focuses on teaching reading using phonics but also reading comprehension strategies are introduced. In lower secondary grades, students are expected to develop further their reading strategies, engage in increasingly diverse literacy activities, and adopt critical literacy, and in upper secondary level, literacy has a particularly strong focus on academic texts.

In response to a small rise in low-performing readers, in 2015 the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture launched the national development programme Basic Education of the Future - Let's Turn the Trend! to provide analysis and recommendations for updating the Finnish basic education offer. The new national curriculum has a separate chapter on literacy. The concept of multiliteracy is introduced as a cross-curricular competence aimed at all subjects throughout basic education.

Improving language fluency is a key aim of the new plan. A ¤5.5m government package announced in late 2017 will pay for training to help immigrants who already have an official qualification from their own country work as subject teachers and in kindergartens.

Currently, immigrant children get a year of Finnish language classes, in small groups usually no more than 12, with intensive support from their teacher. After this, they are integrated into mainstream classrooms.

PRACTICE

There are a number of support programmes targeted at Finnish pupils struggling with reading. The Lukuinto programme (Joy of Reading) targets the reading motivation and multiliteracy competence of children and young people aged 6 to 16. In the Lukuinto project, schools and libraries work together to develop innovative learning approaches and promote multiliteracy, new reading and writing skills, as well as reading enjoyment.

For supporting the pupils struggling with reading, game-like approaches have proven to be effective. Especially for struggling learners and children starting to learn to read, digital gaming GraphoGame approach provides extra training in early reading skills.

The Reading Grandmas and Grandpas project was established in 2012 by the Niilo Mäki Institute. Funded by the Finnish Slot Machine Association, the project sees grandparents read with children aged eight to 12 who teachers have identified as struggling with reading.

Volunteer grandparents are recruited to help teachers and improve students' reading skills, visiting schools for 20-minute one-to-one sessions with the children. During these sessions, children and volunteers read and discuss a variety of books, including both fiction and non-fiction.

The grandparents model fluent reading, provide instant feedback to students, and encourage students about the importance of reading. Reading grandparents utilise evidence-based strategies to improve reading fluency, including echo reading, choral reading and shared reading with students.

The grandparents' initial training is a two-hour session led by researchers at the Niilo Mäki Institute, but further peer-led group training is available.

Of the original volunteer grandparents, only 28 per cent had a teaching background. The original group of volunteers ranged in age from 50 to 80.

IMPACT

Results from the first study found that after 14 sessions of participating in the programme, students improved their own belief in their reading skills. Students completed pre and post measures, rating aspects of self-efficacy and the findings indicate that participating in the programme led to increased feelings regarding reading skills and continued ability to improve reading skills. The motivation and encouragement provided by the grandparents played a vital role in these improvements, which is an important building block to improving reading.

Benefits were also noted for the volunteer reading grandparents. For those that participated, volunteers noted increased feelings of self-worth, increased social activities, and increased social relationships.

The Reading Grandmas and Grandpas programme continues to grow and several different versions of the programme are currently being introduced and piloted.

While the initial study focused on disfluent readers, a new programme addresses developing vocabulary skills for students that are learning Finnish as their second language. Grandparents are trained to use nine evidence-based vocabulary development strategies to help build vocabulary through reading. A third version of the programme will see older members of immigrant communities encourage reading in the first language of immigrant students.

In 2012, the programme was introduced in one city in Finland (Jyväskylä), but has now grown to 60 schools across 13 cities with nearly 200 volunteer reading grandparents.

FACTFILE

  • Finland scores consistently highly for good levels of pupil literacy
  • However, rising child poverty and children with Finish as a second language mean some pupils need additional support
  • Programme established in 2012 pairs retired volunteers with children who need extra reading support
  • Short and regular classroom-based sessions improve pupils' vocabulary and confidence
  • Scheme continues to expand, with specific programmes working with children from migrant communities

EXPERT VIEW

By Christina Clark, head of research, National Literacy Trust

This programme could certainly work in the UK, and many similar schemes already exist where adult volunteers go into schools to help children improve their reading skills, enjoyment and motivation.

In the UK, reading volunteers may be grandparents, but they may also be parents (ABC to Read's parent helpers), business employees (Business in the Community's Paired Reading programme) or members of the public (Beanstalk's reading helpers). Remote reading schemes are also growing in popularity, with volunteers offering reading support for children online (TutorMate).

While grandparents may participate in many of the reading volunteer schemes run in the UK, there are no initiatives exclusively for grandparents. Internationally, in addition to the Reading Grandmas and Grandpas programme in Finland, many schemes exist to support children's learning and literacy through increased integration between generations. In the United States, the Foster Grandparents scheme matches volunteers over the age of 55 with children who need a mentor or tutor.

The success of the Reading Grandmas and Grandpas programme lies in a number of areas. First and foremost, the training of volunteers is fundamental. The one-to-one reading sessions enable the child to get the volunteer's undivided attention, while the number of sessions allow the pair to build a trusted and supportive relationship which can help motivate the child to keep reading and get more practice.

The fact that the volunteers are grandparents means they are more likely to have the time and experience to be good volunteer readers.

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