Early reading and writing in the Finnish school system

Pirjo Sinko

The Finnish students scored highest in the international comparativePISA analysis in 2000 and 2003 of all the participating OECD countries. Finland rose to the top of the world in reading skills first time already in the IEA Study of Reading Literacy  when 1990 - 1993 both  Finnish 9-year-olds and 14-year-olds appeared  to be the best readers. Since then Finnish youngsters have got very good results in all international reading literacy surveys and in the latest Pisa survey also in mathematics, science and problem solving.  Especially in reading the Finnish teenagers have achieved significantly higher results than students in any other country. These results have been repeatedly so convincing that it is worth scrutinising reasons behind this success.

It is interesting to try to find, what the main factors behind the good PISA results are. Being involved it is often difficult to understand what are the factors that constitute the success. There are good reasons to believe that the Finnish school system itself is the main factor but it consists of a number of significant sub-factors. Good results are connected with the curriculum and curriculum design process, teacher education, status of teachers´ in the society, ongoing development work and not the least the whole culture, which values education and learnedness high. Finland has been called a land of readers.

Finnish school system - is it somehow specific?

Equal opportunities to everyone-regardless of the social background, mother tongue (Finland is officially a bilingual country) or residential location of a family-have been the leading principle in the Finnish educational policy since the early 1970s when the comprehensive nine-year basic education system was extended to all children of the compulsory school age. This principle is the same in all the Nordic countries. The education system is financed almost entirely through public funding.  In practice it means for example that in Finland we have no school fees. There are very few private schools and even they are not levying fees but are publicly funded. Pupils get daily school lunch and also transport free of charge if the school is further than three kilometres from home. (Perhaps worth of mentioning is the Nordic way of living stemming from rural tradition: children are allowed to travel to school in their own from the very beginning by foot or with bicycle or using public transportation without being escorted by their parents.) Also textbooks and other necessary learning materials and equipments are provided free of charge. This of course means that Finns pay high taxes but this is the way to ensure equal opportunity and eligibility for further studies.

Finns are very proud that this ideal of equal opportunities is working also in reality.  Finnish comprehensive school has been very successful especially with the weakest quarter if we compare their results with other countries. The differences in learning results between schools and regions are smallest among the OECD countries. The drop-out percentage is less than 0.5.  The gap between high and low performers is relatively narrow, and the variation between schools is among the smallest in the OECD countries. Even the least successful schools attain a relatively high level of learning. For instance in reading literacy, the lowest performing Finnish schools (the 10th percentile) scored almost 100 points higher than the OECD average and only seven Finnish schools 4.5 percent scored a little below the OECD average according to the latest Pisa survey 2003. The Finnish comprehensive school seems to be successful in reaching both high quality and equality at the same time.

The structure of the Finnish school system does not look very different from others (see Figure 1 below). The basic education lasts for 9 years like in most countries. After the basic education there is possibility for further studies available for everyone in the age group. The Finnish upper-secondary school is non-graded. Its structure is a very special one in the world.

There have been lately two big renovations connected with the education system: Finland introduced on year 2000 a free of charge pre-primary education for 6-year-olds on the voluntarily bases and made a structure renovation inside the comprehensive school system by the new school law year 1998.

In Finland children start their school at the age of seven, and they usually study for nine years. An additional, voluntary tenth year is offered for those who need support to be able to go on with their studies at the upper secondary level. All are obliged to complete the basic education or to study until they are 17 years old.

Figure 1

The age of 7 years to begin school is internationally quite high.  The main reasons must be Finnish formal education for everyone is quite new - not much more than 100 years old.  The coverage of schools has been fairly thin because of the low population density. We have a great number of remote small villages and the distance to school has often been long.  The vast number of Finnish primary level schools is still very small with two or three teachers only. Because of long distances and a hard climate with long dark winter it has not been safe to send a small child to school too early. But even though Finnish children have a long childhood at home or in day care and they are starting their school life quite late they achieve very good learning results at the age of 15. So the starting age does not matter.

Now when we offer one-year voluntary pre-school education, over 96 per cent of 6-year-olds participate in it. Newest observations tell that in this new system almost half of the age group can read before starting the compulsory school. (See the chapter about the curriculum of the pre-school education.) The number of literate children used to be one third prior to the pre-school reform).

The nine-year basic education was originally divided into primary years from grade 1 to 6 and lower secondary years from grade 7 to 9. Today the main issue in reforming the comprehensive school is to abolish this division and unify the nine-year continuum of the basic education. Usually, children are taught by a class teacher for the first six years and by specialized subject teachers for the next three years. Along with the present reform, there is more and more cooperation between teachers across the grades.

The new pre-school education has been successful

According to the law children have the right to free-of-charge pre-school education year before their compulsory education will begin at the age of seven. But the child can have right to pre-school education in the age of five, if his/her compulsory education will begin at the age of six. This small special group includes those children who have some sickness or disability and who thus need more support and earlier start to improve their basic skills.  Children with serious difficulties in their verbal development can benefit a lot from this opportunity. This is an early intervention in order to prevent coming learning difficulties also in reading and writing.

Each local authority has the obligation to provide pre-school education. They can independently decide whether pre-school education is organized within the social or educational sector in connection with a day care centre or school.

The national minimum for preschool studies is 700 hours per year which means about 4 hours per day. Cooperation between preschool education and comprehensive schools is very intensive. Schools and day-care centres draw up the cooperation plan and include it in their curricula. They agree on common educational goals during the transition phase and on the practical cooperation.

Early childhood care, preschool education and basic education form an integrated whole progressing consistently in terms of children's development. The role of pre-school education is to promote children's growth into humane individuals and ethically responsible membership of society by guiding them towards responsible action and compliance with generally accepted rules and towards appreciation for other people. The core role of preschool is to promote children's favourable growth, development and learning opportunities, to improve children's learning conditions.  It should support and monitor physical, psychological, social, cognitive and emotional development and prevent any difficulties that may arise. So its task is to enhance the readiness of a child to start school. A much emphasized objective is to prevent growth of differences. This objective has a strong connection with reading and writing skills: the task is to smooth the differences in children's verbal skills caused by differences in verbal stimuli in the homes.

During the preschool year children do not study different subjects but they learn through play and strengthen their social and learning abilities and their self-confidence as learners. The core themes are language and interaction, mathematics, ethics and philosophy, environmental and natural studies, health, physical and motor development, art and culture. Because the pre-school education is not compulsory Finnish National Board of Education has not issued strict objectives - the set goals are more like guidelines for teachers and suggestions for preferred activities, recommendations for the learning environment. In the core curriculum there are not strict learning objectives for a child.

We had a debate before initiating the pre-school education, whether children should learn read and write during pre-school. The national curriculum task force chaired by me and populated by researches, teacher trainers, experienced teachers and kindergarten teachers were very convinced that pre-school year should lay the foundation for learning to read and write. We described it as "emerging literacy".  It is not an on-or-off situation that child either can or cannot read. The foundations of literacy are that children have heard and listened, they have been heard, they have been spoken to, people have discussed with them, and that they have asked questions and been answered. In such an environment, children will develop their vocabulary and literacy as if by chance. Children's earlier experiences and skills form the basis for the process of learning to read and write in pre-school education. These different skills and knowledge, including possible literacy already learnt before pre-school education, shall be taken into account by providing an open learning environment, which allows each child to grasp written language in accordance with his or her own abilities. The material shall consist of diverse texts, which provide opportunities to read alone and together with other children or adults.

Children should be encouraged and guided so as to enable them to gradually become speakers and listeners in diverse interactive situations, both in everyday communication situations and in learning situations. Children will become accustomed to talking about their own feelings, hopes, opinions and thoughts and to expressing their observations and conclusions. Children will become good listeners and narrators. As members of groups, they will become accustomed to listening to the speech of both children and adults, participating in conversations and waiting for their turn when necessary.

Children should be read and told fairy tales, stories, narrative factual texts, poems, rhymes, etc. so as to provide a chance for them to enjoy what they hear. Children will live with what they hear, they will obtain material for their thinking and their ability to understand their own and other people's lives will strengthen. They start to understand the significance of reading. They become interested in asking questions, drawing conclusions and evaluating what they have heard.

The objective is to inspire and increase children's interest in observing and exploring spoken and written language. Targets of exploration may include various texts, expressions, individual words, letters and sounds in a context that is meaningful to children. The development of linguistic awareness is be supported through playing with language, talking nonsense and rhyming as well as through exploring the written forms of language diversely.  Children will gain experiences of how to convert speech into written language and writing into spoken language both through examples set by adults and through their own attempts to read and write.

Pre-school education supports the development of children's thinking, sociability, emotions and interaction skills and their learning process with the aid of language in particular. Thus children's emotional life, creativity and self-esteem will strengthen.  A good learning environment will constitute a stimulating linguistic environment with plenty of interesting children's books, magazine, computers and linguistic plays, videos and audio tapes and quiet, piece places to read and listen.

Finnish teacher is free to choose the working methods but the teacher shall support learning and guide children to become conscious of their own learning. From the child's perspective, the activities should be purposeful and challenging. Recommended methods and principles are for example concrete experimentation, children's own investigation, playful activities, active participation, information acquisition, problem solving, interaction, reflecting, imagination, drama.

Assessment revised

The assessment of pre-school education shall be based on the achievement of the general objectives of pre-school education and of the individual child's objectives set in child's possible pre-school education plan or in some other form. The assessment shall be carried out on a continuous basis in interaction between the teacher and the child in the course of schoolwork and the learning process. The feedback should be provided in regular discussions between the teacher and the parents and possibly also with the child. The teacher should promote children's capabilities for self-assessment in order to support children's self-concept and analysis of their own work. The assessment places greater emphasis on the progress of the child's growth and learning process.

Learning path continuum

The objective of the pre-school reform has been to integrate the pre-school and the comprehensive school into a logically connected and uniform curricular unity, so that the pupil's development and learning can be supported more effectively. Thus creating an integrated continuum for the child's learning path. This presupposes close operation between those working in pre-school as well as in the basic education.

At this moment we are trying to find more flexible paths for the child to proceed from pre-school to the next level depending on the maturity of the child. The Government submitted a report to Parliament on the outcome of the pre-school education reform in 2004. According to the report, the pre-school education promotes children's potential to grow, develop and learn in equal conditions throughout the country. 96 per cent of 6-year-olds are now participating in the pre-school education, which seems to prepare them effectively for school.

Characteristics of Mother tongue and literature and its status in the lesson plan  

The new National Core Curriculum (2004) specifies 11 syllabi for the subject of mother tongue and literature. These are Finnish, Swedish, Sami, Romany, and Finnish sign language as mother tongue. The remaining ones are Finnish and Swedish as second language, Finnish for Sami pupils, and Finnish and Swedish for users of sign language. Finland is officially a bilingual country (Finnish and Swedish) but also Sami and Romany are having a status of an original national language. In addition, FNBE's recommendation for the core curriculum for instruction in the native languages of immigrant pupils is included as an appendix to the national core curriculum. The Finnish language is a mother tongue for a big majority (about 95 per cent). Moreover the law allows a local authority to provide instruction in additional mother tongues for minority migrant groups.

The new curriculum took into account the change of the name of the subject from Mother tongue to Mother tongue and literature throughout the basic education and upper secondary school. With this renaming it was emphasised the role of literature as indispensable part of the subject thus reinforcing the importance of reading literature.

When the national core curriculum process started one of the main decisions made was to draft the new distribution of lesson hours. The decision on this matter is done in Finland on the high political level made by the government. The decision gave two additional weekly teaching hours for mother tongue teaching and literature on the grades 6-9. The division between the primary and lower secondary level was "blurred" in purpose in order to unify the whole compulsory education into one basic education. Interesting enough the increases were made to subjects already scoring well to ensure continuously good results in core subjects (mother tongue, maths, social studies, and health education) reducing the share of optional subjects.

According to the new distribution of lesson hours the amount of weekly hours in mother tongue and literature is highest during the two first school years when children begin to learn read and write. Then the number reduces step by step, so that during the last three grades there are only 3 weekly lesson hours for mother tongue and literature.  The table below shows that to every section it is given the same total number (14) of lesson hours, which schools has right to distribute as they like. It is also only a minimum, so it can be enlarged a little by local authorities. The number of lesson hours for 13-15-year-olds is in international comparison quite low partly because Finnish students have to study two compulsory foreign languages. 

There is a new structure concerning the mother tongue and literature syllabus. It is now divided in three sections: grades 1 - 2, grades 3 - 5 and grades 6 - 9.  In the curriculum there are specific sectional objectives, core contents and description of good performance for each of them.  Normally it is a class teacher who is teaching the grades 1 - 6 and a subject teacher is starting as late as from the 7th grade but enabling a flexible use of subject teacher on lower grades and class teachers on upper grades vice versa.

TABLE 1: Distribution of lesson hours in basic education provided to pupils in compulsory school age

Minimum weekly lessons

Subject groups,


per year[1] from the date of commencement of instruction or the preceding point of lesson-hour determination Grades

total / year










Mother tongue and literature





Language starting during grades 1-6 (A-language)





Language starting during grades 7-9 (B-language)










Environmental and natural studies

      Environmental studies

      Biology and geography

      Physics and chemistry

      Health education








Religion or ethics




History and social studies








Arts, crafts, and physical



        Visual arts


        Physical education












Home economics









Educational and vocational guidance









Optional subjects



Voluntary A-language  [2]






The fundamental task of instruction in mother tongue and literature is to spark the pupil's interest in language, literature, and interaction. The instruction must be based on a community-oriented view of language: community membership begins when one learns to use language as the community does. The instruction must also be founded on the pupil's linguistic and cultural skills and experience, and must offer opportunities for diversified communication, reading, and writing, through which the pupil builds his or her identity and self-esteem. The objective is that the pupil becomes an active and ethically responsible communicator and reader who gets involved in culture and participates in and influences society.

The instruction must take into account that the pupil's mother tongue is the basis of learning: for the pupil, language is both an object and tool of learning. The task of instruction in mother tongue and literature is to develop language-based study and interaction skills systematically.  In instruction in mother tongue and literature, the pupils learn concepts with which to approach the world and their own thoughts in linguistic terms; they acquire not simply means of analysing reality but also possibilities to break loose from reality, to construct new worlds and connect things to new contexts.

Mother tongue and literature in our context is an informational, artistic and skill subject that acquires its content from linguistics, the study of literature, and the communication studies.

Curriculum objectives and contents for early reading and writing (Grades 1-2)

The key task of mother tongue and literature instruction in the first and second grades is to continue the language learning that has begun at home and in early, especially pre-primary, education. The instruction is to consist of comprehensive oral and written communication that is connected with the pupil's day-to-day life, encompasses all areas of language, and supports the pupil's personal language learning. The instruction must make allowance for the fact that the pupils may be at very different phases of their learning processes.

OBJECTIVES according to the 2004 National Core curriculum are as follow:

The pupils' interaction skills will increase

The pupils will -

-           become accustomed to interactive situations at school

-           learn to listen with concentration

-           learn to ask and answer questions, and to relate their own knowledge, experiences, thoughts, and opinions

-           develop their overall linguistic and physical expression.

The pupils' reading and writing skills will develop

The pupils will -

-           learn the basic techniques of reading and writing, and the concepts that are necessary in that learning; they will come to understand the importance of practice and regular reading and writing

-           develop their reading and writing skills, including their media literacy, as well as their communication capabilities in an information-technology learning environment

-           learn to observe themselves as readers and writers

-           learn gradually to take into account conventions of written language when writing their own texts.

The pupils' relationship with literature and language will take shape

The pupils will -

-           become acquainted with the written form of language through listening and reading; their imaginations, vocabularies, and ranges of expression will be enriched, and they will obtain material for their thought and expression

-           learn to choose reading material that interests them and to read books that correspond to their reading skills

-           become accustomed to examining language and its meanings and forms

-           become accustomed to texts being spoken of with such concepts as sound, letter, syllable, word, sentence, terminal punctuation, heading, text, and image.

CORE CONTENTS according to the 2004 National Core curriculum are as follow:

Interaction skills

-           oral and written expression in various school interaction situations, and one-on-one, small-group and class discussions

-           focused, precise, and inferential listening

-           reworking of things heard, seen, experienced, and read, with the help of improvisation, narration, play and drama, integrating these skills into other artistic subjects, too.

Reading and writing

-           diversified daily reading and writing

-           analysing printed and electronic texts through group discussion

-           ample practice with the correspondence between sound and letter

-           practicing written and spoken standard language

-           word recognition, progressing from short words towards long, unfamiliar ones; gradual shifting from reading aloud to reading silently, too

-           introduction to and application of strategies that improve text comprehension

-           breaking down speech into words, syllables and sounds; practice with writing words

-           drawing the forms of letters, learning capital and lower-case printed and cursive letters, and combining letters

-           learning to hold a pen or pencil properly, use appropriate writing posture, coordinate hand and eye, and write on a computer

-           spelling at the sound and sentence level: spacing between words, word division between lines, capital initial letters in familiar names and at the beginning of a sentence, terminal sentence punctuation and its use in the pupil's own texts

-           production of texts based on the pupil's own observations, everyday experiences, opinions, and imagination, with emphasis on content and the joy of creating.

Literature and language

-           literature and other texts, the pupils listening as the teacher reads, looking at the illustrations, and gradually reading on their own

-           reading and treatment of books, with reading experiences and the general experiential aspect being central; use of literature as a stimulus in creative activity

-           literary discussion, in connection with which concepts of the principal character, setting, and plot; connecting the reading to one's own life, and to things previously read, heard and seen

-           learning to use a library

-           observing language and its forms and meanings.

DESCRIPTION OF GOOD PERFORMANCE AT THE END OF THE SECOND GRADE (according to the 2004 National Core curriculum):

The pupils' interaction skills will have developed so that they -

-           are accustomed to expressing themselves orally and know how to relate observations and experiences to a small group so that the listeners are able to follow the account

-           are able to act appropriately in everyday speaking situations; they will follow the teacher's and other pupils' oral narration and discussion, strive for reciprocity when speaking and, in discussion, react to what they have heard with their own thoughts and questions

-           participate with concentration in expression exercises.

The pupils' skills in reading and writing will have developed so that they -

-           have progressed from the initial reading phase to a phase in which basic technique is reinforced; their reading will be fluent enough to allow them to read texts intended for their age group

-           have begun, while reading, to observe whether they understand what they are reading; they will be able to draw conclusions from what they are reading

-           are able to express themselves in writing, too, so as to enable them to cope with writing situations in their own daily lives: they will also be able to use imagination in their writing

-           are able to connect letters when writing by hand, and to produce original text on a computer

-           are able to write simple and familiar words almost without error and have begun to use terminal punctuation in sentences, and capital letters to begin sentences.

The pupils' relationship with literature and language will have taken shape so that they -

-           look for something appropriate and pleasant to read; they will use their reading skills both for pleasure and to find information

-           have read at least a few children's books appropriate to their reading skills; their media literacy will suffice to follow programmes directed at their age group

-           are able to make observations characteristic of their age group about language; they will feel encouraged to analyse the phonetic and syllable structure of words and will be able both to list the letters in alphabetical order and use alphabetical order

-           have become accustomed, when talking about language and texts, to using the concepts taught.

The subject's foundation is a broad conception of text: texts are spoken and written, imaginative and factual, verbal, figurative, vocal, and graphic - or combinations of these text types, including not only print but other media as well. The subject is carrying also the main responsibility together with visual art teaching for media education, which is one of the cross-curricular themes. This encompasses getting familiar with ICT.

The mother tongue and literature curriculum is based on skills. It emphasises from the very beginning the need to learn meta-cognitive and strategic skills so that the pupils learn to control their own learning and text comprehension: what happens before, during and after reading.  Reading is seen as a process. The new curriculum increasingly focuses on the mastery of various genres and text types. It will start from reading and writing stories, and mundane issues.

Also enforcing motivation to read is important. Those children who are reading during their free time are normally better readers, they have larger vocabulary and their ability to write more complicated sentences is more developed - literature is a very powerful language teacher.  That's why during the first school years it is very important to lure the children into the world of literature.  It turned out in the PISA study that for the Finnish children the main factor in good reading skills was the reading activity. The simple correlation is that the more children and youngsters read the better readers they become.

Finnish children get a flying start as readers

During the two first school years pupils learn to read rather fluently, they should understand easy and clear text so that they can find facts in factual text written to children of their age. It looks like they are able to follow and understand the plot of a story. They can easily find answers to questions "what" but it is more difficult for them to answer to "why" questions, to make conclusions based on the text. Their reading speed is high enough, which according to our knowledge helps to understand what has been read. Their short-span memory is not loaded too much block the text comprehension process.

One-third of Finnish children are already able to read on school-entry, and the development of reading skills of non-readers is rapid.  Spelling accuracy is developing quite easily. Many of them are able to write familiar words correctly at the end of the 2nd school year. The explanation is the shallow orthography of the Finnish language. It means that in the Finnish language grapheme-phoneme correspondence is consistent. If you compare this kind of transparent orthography with the deep orthography of languages like English, Portuguese, French, Danish, it is clear that Finnish-speaking children entering the first grade get a quick start.

After the initial easy decoding the Finnish language is causing more challenges for a young learner: The words are bending, so that also the body of the word may change, there are no prepositions or articles in the Finnish language. We are putting the meaningful linguistic pieces in the end of the word. So the words become easily very long requiring a good memorising capacity to keep the whole word in mind. For example the expression in the English language "also in our house" could be expressed in Finnish with one word "talossammekin". 

What children are supposed to know at the age of 11?

In order to compare what pupils have learned since the 2nd grade one way of doing it is to describe the characteristics of "good performance" in the end of the 5th grade. The grades 3, 4, 5 are time to learn the fundamental skills in the language: fluent reading and writing techniques, deepening of reading comprehension, and acquiring of information acquisition skills. The pupil is guided in listening, speaking, reading, and writing various types of texts. In these years, both reading literature and diversified writing have intrinsic value, but they are also used to aid developing the pupils' reading proficiency, expressive resources, imagination and creativity. The pupils also gain practice with sharing and processing their own reading experiences.

The pupils' interaction skills will have developed so that they -

-           venture to express themselves both orally and in writing, in various situations, and want to improve their skills in expression and interaction; they will know how to take a turn to speak in a conversation

-           recount and describe their own observations and ideas, and compare them with the observations of others; in their communication they will to some extent be able to take the communication situation and means of communication into account, and will try to ensure that their own messages are understandable and reach the recipients

-           know how to listen to others' ideas and how to form their own opinions; they will try to justify those opinions and will have become accustomed to evaluating what they hear and read

-           know how to draw conclusions about message content and the communication situation, with respect to the techniques used in spoken and written texts

-           are able to make a clear, small-scale oral presentation to a familiar audience; they will participate actively in expression exercises.

The pupils' skills in interpreting and utilizing various texts will have developed so that they -

-           achieve a fluent basic reading proficiency

-           know how to use strategies to improve reading comprehension

-           know the main phases of information acquisition

-           are used to utilizing the library and capable of searching for the information they need in printed and electronic sources

-           find the main elements in texts in which there are words, sound, and illustrations

-           distinguish opinion in age-appropriate texts and consider the text's dependability and meaning for themselves

-           use their reading skills for both benefit and fun.

The pupils' skills in producing texts and utilizing them for different purposes will have developed so that they -

-           know how to produce, orally and in writing, a variety of texts, such as accounts, descriptions, and instructions

-           plan and develop ideas for the content of their texts and are able to construct texts based on information, experience and imagination; the writer's own voice and a growing vocabulary will be evident in their compositions

-           understand the importance of sentence structure and paragraphing in analysing a text, and know how to use their knowledge in planning and producing a text that proceeds chronologically; they will know how to use sentences of different length varyingly in their texts, and how to combine those sentences with reasonable fluency

-           know how to print; they will also have developed legible cursive handwriting

-           are able to produce text with word-processing programs

-           have mastered the basics of spelling in respect of using capital and lower-case initial letters and forming compound words; they will use terminal punctuation correctly and be accustomed to using other punctuation as well.

The pupils' relationship with language, literature, and other culture will have developed so that they -

-           utilize their linguistic observations and skills in producing their own texts and in understanding both their own and others' texts

-           have become accustomed to examining a text as a whole, and to distinguishing between its parts; they will know how to look for and classify words in a text on different grounds, and how to group words into parts of speech on the basis of meaning and inflection

-           know that tense and person can be expressed with verbs

-           distinguish between subject and predicate in a simple text's sentences, and perceive the sentence as a part of the text

-           know the differences between the spoken and written forms of language, and, in their own expression, make use of the division of roles between those forms

-           have read the class's core complete works, an abundance of short texts, and a variety of optional books, and have investigated them using different methods

-           are able to select reading that they find pleasant, and know how to describe themselves as readers; through reading they will expand their knowledge, gain experiences, and develop their imaginations

-           have also acquainted themselves with the fiction of film and theatre, and fiction created through other media.

Also in mother tongue

Our conception of learning has changed during the last thirty years. At the moment one could call it socio-constructivist and situational. The active role of the student, as well as abilities in learning to learn, are emphasized. But of course, also traditional memorizing, learning by heart and listening are still important. Everyone in the school community, not only students but teachers and other school staff as well, should have opportunities, support and challenges for life long learning. Learning is seen both as an individual and social process so that interactive cooperation supports individual learning. Continued professional learning of teachers is seen as an important prerequisite for students' learning.

Some features of the Finnish Curriculum system

The Core Curriculum (CC) gives basic guidelines and main elements of subject syllabi and cross-curricular themes but municipalities and schools can modify them and emphasize those areas they see important. Every municipality and school is expected to draw up their own municipal and/or school-specific curricula based on the CC. The idea is that local needs can be better taken into consideration, and that special features of a school and its surroundings can be utilized in teaching and learning.  See the Figure 2 below.

Figure 2

The CC is a norm set by the FNBE. It does not, however, stand alone but requires complementing by local authorities and schools. It is their duty and right to adapt the CC for their local needs and priorities. They have to set the detailed objectives, contents, methods and evaluation guidelines for each grade. The CC does not go the grade level but addresses these curricular parameters on section (Grade 1-2, 3-5, 6-9 in some subjects, Grade 1-5 and 6-9 in some others etc).

There is no (longer) national control of study materials, but there is an active public private partnership in providing materials for schools: publishers are represented in curricular task forces to be able to take into account the guidelines in preparing their text books and other materials in accordance with the syllabi. The schools have a say in choosing the learning materials suitable for their needs.

The one of the corner stones of our good educational achievements is laid by the high level of teachers' competence in our country. The teachers' profession has traditionally been valued very high in our society compared to many other countries. It is still the most popular field of study among (female) students. This helps recruiting best young people into teaching profession. Teacher training departments enjoy the luxury of recruiting for class teacher education in particular the crème de la crème of each age cohort. Another factor keeping the level of teachers' competence high is due to the fact that to become a qualified teacher one needs to get a Master's degree in the university. This strong research orientation (education being based in the universities and leading to a master's degree with theses) has added value to the professionalism of teachers. There theoretical readiness to reflect and further develop their own teaching practice is high on any standards.

About the assessment of learning achievements and the pupil assessment

There are no national tests, not even at the end of comprehensive school. The need for gathering information about learning achievements is being fulfilled through sample surveys one of them being participation in the PISA surveys. In mother tongue there has been since 1999 every other year a national survey for 6th-graders and now for the first time after the 2nd grade. We are eagerly waiting the results, not only of the performance of pupils but of the feasibility of testing reading, writing skills and linguistic awareness at so early an age.

There are no league tables or ranking lists published but the schools are informed of their own standing in order to improve their performance.

In a wider perspective of evaluation our school culture could be characterised as one of trusting. It could be stemming from the tradition of independence of local authorities and municipalities. There is no regular school inspection system any longer. In this atmosphere it has been relatively easy to build new ways of self-evaluation and school improvement activities.

The tasks of assessment during the course of studies are to guide and encourage studying and to depict how well the pupil has met the objectives established for growth and learning. It is the task of assessment to help the pupil form a realistic image of his or her learning and development, and thus to support the pupil's personality growth, too. The subject Mother tongue and literature is evaluated (as other subjects) numerically (scale 4-10), by verbal summaries or a combination of the two.

The pupil's progress, working skills, and behaviour are assessed in relation to the curriculum's objectives and descriptions of good performance (grade 8, if numerical grading is used). In verbal assessment, the description helps the teacher assess the pupil's progress and forms the basis of assessment when describing how the pupil has met the objectives. The description are phased to the transition points in the lesson plan, i.e. in Mother tongue and literature at the end of Grades 2, 5 and 9.

With verbal assessment the teacher can also depict the pupil's progress and learning process. In assessing core subjects, the purpose is to employ numerical grades by the eighth school year at the latest. Usually pupils get verbal assessment during the first years and number of schools issuing certificates with grades increases towards the last years of basic education.

Strong support for weak readers and writers

We have done fairly well in teaching the weak learners, poor readers and writers who often have difficulties particularly in reading and writing. Teachers feel themselves quite responsible for the learning results of the weakest quarter in Mother tongue-perhaps sometimes the talented ones are not getting enough attention. Finland is getting the good results in international surveys mainly because our weak pupils are better in basic skills than in most other countries. In this respect we might have something to give. Primarily-in addition to very professional teachers-we exploit individualized student support, early intervention and integration. The underlying ethos is the strong Nordic sense of equality.

Despite all these efforts there are, however, still many poor readers whose reading skills are not good enough to succeed in the knowledge-based society. Through reading can be reaped other benefits as well. The Basic Education Act emphasizes every student's right to be supported in learning and in personal development and welfare. Every student has a right to get special needs education.

Pupils, who have minor learning difficulties, specific learning disorders or problems in adjusting to work, have the right to receive part-time special needs' teaching. There are different ways to arrange this teaching. It is usually organised during normal lessons as team teaching, in small groups or individually. Part-time special needs tuition is given by a teacher who has a special needs teacher training. The emphasis is strongly on primary years and especially on reading, writing and speech difficulties and problems in mathematics. 37 per cent of first graders get some kind of extra support and this seems to produce good learning results at the end of basic education.

Early intervention is emphasized. A child may need special support already during early childhood care and pre-school education. Diagnosis and rehabilitation at the earliest possible time are the keys to overcoming learning problems.  This requires intensive cooperation between parents, teachers and other experts. Public authorities are expected to support families so that they can ensure the well-being and personal development of children. Parents are expected to support teachers in their work. Teachers have a duty to intervene if they see problems in child's behaviour, development or learning and they must individually support their students. All teachers need knowledge and expertise concerning learning difficulties, developmental problems, early intervention and integrative methods. These are very actual and important themes in teachers' in-service training. FNBE has also launched a development project with schools called One School-Diverse pupils to find more powerful means for early intervention and to spread best practices.

The philosophy of integration is strong in the comprehensive school with the objective that also pupils with special needs have the opportunity to participate in regular instruction.  The first alternative for providing full-time special needs education is to include pupils in mainstream classes and, when necessary, provide special needs education in small teaching groups. Only when this is not feasible an alternative is considered: the provision of special needs education in a special group, class or school. In terms of promoting integration, it is important that the organisation of education and the syllabus are to be individualised according to the individual children's age and learning abilities. The starting point is to assess each pupil's strengths and her/his individual learning and development needs. Education is required to promote pupils' initiative and self-confidence. Special education calls for decisions to be made concerning the study place, time and facilities and different functions as well as the allocation of resources to implement these decisions. The plans for those children admitted to special education are prepared in the form of personal plan covering the organisation of education; the acronym IEP is used for these individual education plans.

If compulsory education is not possible in normal time due to disability or illness or for some other reason, compulsory education will start one year earlier than for other pupils and it will last eleven years. Within this system of extended compulsory education, pre-primary education may take two years. If the parent or guardian so wishes, the extended compulsory education can start at the age of five on a voluntary basis.

Instead of subjects, instruction for the most severely disabled is divided into functional domains, which are motor skills, language and communication, social skills, activities of daily living and cognitive skills. The functional domains are further divided into sub-domains. The students' progress is evaluated within these domains.

Students who are temporarily lagging behind in their studies have a possibility to remedial (extra) teaching. Remedial teaching is usually given by the own teacher or the subject teacher after lessons. It is very rare in Finland that families arrange private lessons for their children. In addition, cooperation with parents and engaging if need be other professional support provided by municipalities enables studying in mainstream instruction.

Ongoing reading literacy work in Finland

Every generation has to learn its reading literacy skills by itself-they are not inherited. After first goodPISA results Finland has not started to nestle on the good results. There is all the time starting new reading literacy or writing campaigns, competitions launched by different organisations: municipal libraries, local or nation wide newspapers or magazines, parents' association etc.

One of the longest-lasting and most powerful of reading literacy projects has been the one FNBE launched as a priority project calledReading Finland in 2001-2004. The objective of the project was to improve the reading and writing skills of the pupils in basic and general upper secondary education and to improve their knowledge of literature. The development project invited all the municipalities to participate in the project. We also asked our customary partners in promoting reading literacy to participate: the associations of newspaper and magazine and book publishers, library association etc.

We managed to involve in the project 67 municipalities (out of about 450) and 7 teacher training schools (out of about 10). All kinds of schools were participating in the project: preschools and primary schools, lower and upper secondary schools, teacher training schools and special schools for pupils with individual learning plans.

We organized municipalities to work as a network under seven themes. Those areas were weak points found in our national surveys of the learning results which we wanted to improve. The areas were:

- Curricular development in all subjects in order to improve reading and writing skills and the knowledge of literature;

- Improving school libraries and promoting collaboration between schools and municipal libraries;

- Improving reading and writing skills as a collaborative effort between basic education and special needs education;

- Reading comprehension, especially the improvement of deductive and critical reading strategies in all subjects;

- Writing different genres of texts and learning through writing in all subjects;

- Improving pedagogical methods for educating boys in the areas specified in the project; and

- Providing special education for the gifted.

The biggest and strongest network appeared to be for the second theme in the list: to improve school libraries. Finland has one of the best public library networks and Finnish people appreciate and love their libraries but most school libraries were (and are still)  fairly poor. In Reading Finland Schools many head teachers and teachers realised that when a school has a good library, young readers have better access to books and learning of information skills is more effective. In that way pupils can get better reading and writing results.

The most interesting network perhaps was, however, the one trying to invent special pedagogical methods to get boys reading. Why just for boys? Because the international PISA surveys have told that the difference between the skills of Finnish girls and boys was 2000 biggest in the OECD countries and still (PISA 2003) is one of biggest, although our boys were best among boys.  The last theme, the network for finding methods for excellent readers, failed to materialize. Finnish schools and teachers seemed to be more interested in putting efforts and developing methods for weak students than for motivated ones.

The objectives for the developmental work were set by FNBE. It had the organizational responsibility for the network to choose the coordinating municipalities for every thematic network,   to organize seminars both for launching and concluding the project.  FNBE also provided some funding for the coordinating municipalities and provided consultation services for the networks and the municipalities.

The role of the coordinating municipalities was to organize the activities of the network, hold seminars and report to FNBE.  The participating municipalities worked locally in their municipalities and schools, established centralized working groups and promoted collaboration in order to create new, innovative approaches. The participating parties have the responsibility to spread ideas and share their thoughts and best practices with others.

Changes desired in this project were

- to raise the skills and knowledge of the "weakest quarter";

- to develop methodologies to increase reading among boys;

- to improve deductive reading skills;

- to have pupils who read and write more at school and outside school;

- to have better school libraries;

- to increase cooperation between schools and municipal libraries;

- to increase school visits of authors ;

- to have all teachers working to improve reading comprehension and writing skills;

- to improve the methodological skills of primary teachers ;

- to familiarise the teachers better with literature aimed at children and young people; and

- to strengthen the cooperation between homes and schools to support reading and writing skills.

Working methods for boys

In the network which aimed at improving the pedagogical methods for educating boys, teachers recognized the well-known attraction of boys to information technology and let them write with the computer, search information on the Internet and work with the video camera. Teachers wanted to utilise the strong sense of boys for competitiveness. The schools arranged all kinds of competitions about who reads the most. They also assigned other kinds of challenging reading tasks, e.g. monitoring the pupils by using score cards indicating reading activity and in this way taking advantage of the external motivation, which seemed to be important for boys. Learning by doing brings fun to boys, because boys need action - also during reading and literature lessons. Schools discovered all kinds of activities: playing roles, recording with a video camera. Experienced teachers noticed that it is important to set clear objectives for boys. In order to get greater number of reading boys it is important to improve school libraries so that there will be plenty of interesting reading materials, fantasy and sci-fi literature, magazine shelves and ambient environments.

Strong school traditions of integrating and involving boys in reading activities pay off: with such traditions there is no need to resort to special efforts of pushing boys into participating in anthology publishing or school magazine activities in such schools were it has been a tradition to do so. It is good to remember that boys like working with other boys. In male groups they even recite poems together in front of the audience. But at the same time teachers got to know that in mixed gender classes the texts or books offered to boys must be real life texts and clearly "masculine texts" without any hint to feminine world (no girls as main characters, no "feminine content", no romantic plots, no "girlish" pictures etc). The taste of boys may be limited; they may like a certain genre and avoid any other. Some of them like non-fiction books or magazines and dislike fiction, some do not read anything else but fantasy. So it is better to let them mainly read what they want. In Finnish schools we appreciate pupil's right to choose his/her reading material as a mean to make reading more attractive.

Better school libraries

In the beginning of the project many of the school libraries were more like museums rather than libraries. In the conference of the project teachers made a developmental plan to improve their own school libraries step by step. The more experienced ones consulted beginners. Books in school libraries were often older than pupils themselves. So the first difficult task was to throw away outdated books because they prevented children from finding out for them more interesting books. Then schools had to find money to provide school with up-to-date and interesting material. All books and other materials were catalogued in the database. New better shelves, convenient chairs and good lights were needed. Computers arrived into school libraries as, one for the librarian and a few for students to use. The Internet was made available. The modernisation of school libraries was and still is a demanding task. Many of project schools arranged exhibitions, competitions, campaigns, theme weeks, author visits in the school libraries. Many of school libraries got a new attractive name.

Picture 1

To improve and diversify teaching methods in reading and literature teaching was one aim in the project. Teachers were to share new ideas and good practice, to learn from each others. Visits of writers to schools improved so that pupils were better prepared when a guest artist arrived. The visits became more versatile including writers´ workshops. Better and more effective learning methods like reading in pairs, reading portfolios, desk-top publishing of students own books were launched. All methods to transform the text into action or into another form of art are efficient and preferred by the pupils: a story that they first read is then transformed into a picture, comic strip, drama or video.

During one previous cultural project of FNBE the teachers and librarians in the northern part of our country developed a literature diploma to deepen and widen the knowledge of literature and reading. In the beginning it was meant especially for talented readers.  In Reading Finland this innovation was rolled out over the country from one municipality to another. Schools designed their own book lists for different age groups, also for the youngest pupils, planned how to issue diplomas and designed beautiful certificates for pupils.

Picture 2

Reading Finland delivered also a new baby: in Espoo (in the capital area) was born a new school, Ymmersta school, a school dedicated to literature. It is a normal comprehensive school, attended by pupils from the local catchment area, but the criteria for choosing teachers was that they are interested in teaching reading and literature. School's own curriculum is more diverse and precise than national or municipal curriculum. The entire adult community acts as a model for the community of readers.  They arrange book evenings and story nights with children. The school library, Never-Never-Land, forms the heart of the school. Literature is visible all around the school. All the rooms are named after places in children's and young peoples' books. Reading in pairs, reading circles and portfolios are some of the methods.  Ymmersta school wants to be a school where children get hooked in books. It provides a good model on how much a devoted staff can do for children's reading and has become challenging model. 

School system is not the only underlying factor - the whole Finnish culture promotes reading strongly

The good reading literacy of young Finns can be explained by the entire Finnish culture. The work carried out in class in important, yet teachers' resources alone are not sufficient to guarantee good results. Schools must not be the only party responsible for promoting reading among children and young people if good reading performance is the goal.

In practice, all Finnish adults are able to read. Finns are a reading nation: daily newspapers are heavily subscribed to, and are delivered to households in the morning. A typical Finnish family starts its day at the breakfast table by reading the morning paper and, at best, by commenting on the day's news. The number of books published annually is high, compared to the population, and women-mothers and grandmothers-are particularly keen readers of books. Parents also know the importance of reading bedtime stories to children and discussing the stories with them.

Finland has one of the world's best library systems. Libraries are the cultural service that people love and use the most. Each Finn borrows 21 library books, on average, every year. When the recession of the 90s made many Finns jobless, the reading rooms of libraries were filled with people, particularly men, who came to the library to read newspapers and periodicals. Libraries are not elitist institutions; rather, they have diverse material: books - of both high literary style and light subject matter - newspapers, periodicals, videos and compact discs, i.e. both print and multimedia. The libraries' computers provide citizens with free access to the Internet. Finnish school libraries currently require development and many of them continue to be inadequately supplied; however, local public libraries can complement the services provided by school libraries. Schools and public libraries carry out extensive co-operation in the teaching of information acquisition skills to pupils and in encouraging them to read. Librarians visit schools and inform pupils about interesting books.

A large proportion of the programmes broadcast on Finnish television are of foreign origin. Most of these are in English, but Swedish, German and French programmes are also often shown. The programmes are provided with Finnish subtitles instead of dubbing, so that children have to read when watching television. This also improves their quick reading routine, which is important from the perspective of reading comprehension. Children, for whom reading is technically easy, like to read a great deal. Favourite television programmes are much more motivating than any reading-speed exercises assigned in class!


It is possible to have at the same time within one educational system equal opportunities for education and achieve good results. Good results in reading literacy need a strong co-operation between homes and schools and within the whole society.


Finnish National Board of Education, Core  Curriculum for Pre-school Education 2000, Helsinki 2001.

Finnish National Board of Education, National Core Curriculum for Basic Education. 2004, Helsinki

Irmeli Halinen - Pirjo Sinko - Reijo Laukkanen,  A land of readers, Educational Leadership, October 2005

www.oph.fi (English)

www.edu.fi (English)

http://ktl.jyu.fi/pisa/ (English)

[1] One weekly lesson per year = 38 lessons.