Reading is food for your mind

(Detta är en engelsk version av artikeln Barn som läser blir framgångsrika.)

Children learn to use their innate curiosity and learn to concentrate when they lose themselves in a book, while they engage in brain exercise, dealing with complex ideas, logic and humour. A book can provide fun, pleasure, mystery, thrills, science and knowledge in one small package and by choosing the right book at the right time one can relax the body, relieve stress and calm the mind.  It provides the best way to find out about anything, especially those things you need to know about or want to know about. It is a way to grow your vocabulary while learning new subjects and ideas and simultaneously appreciate the power of words in poetry, imagination, lyrics, puns and jokes. The resulting mastery of language helps you to communicate with others clearly and persuasively. 

Books help you to overcome distance and time by providing access to people, places and events beyond what can be gained by your own experience. Therefore, you gain empathy by sharing of human experiences from the past, present and future through books. Childhood is the life stage when reading competence is established as a life skill.  Researchers have found that up to around age 8, children learn to read and after that age, people read to learn.

Reading prepares you for life

Children need to be hooked on learning early because reading competency affects life chances.  There is empirical evidence from OECD PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) that reading competency increases the probability of advantages in life. In Canada, reading scores at age 15 were related to post-secondary education: a more direct pathway after school to higher education, increased probability of enrolling, successful choice of a desired discipline and graduating successfully. 

Reading scores were also related to higher earnings and lower unemployment rates, increased probability of speaking both English and French resulting in an earnings premium and even a lower rate of reading skill loss with age.  It is a key ingredient for the future success of children.  

But the level of your reading competency is not only related to your own development and success but also for the prosperity of Finland.  Indications are that both these positive results are related to your own level of reading but also the level of reading of those around you.  Societal reading levels matter as well, such as the average level of reading of people in Finland as well as the number of poor readers and the number of good readers in the country.

Average reading competency at age 15 in Finland is high but declining

Of the 65 countries that participate in PISA, Finland has been among the top performers in international comparisons, but it has not kept pace with the rate of change in other countries in terms of average score or rank.

PISA yearAverage scoreCountries with higher scores
2006547Korea 556
2009536Shanghai 556
Korea 539
2012524Shanghai 570
Hong Kong 545
Singapore 542
Japan 538
Korea 536

Trends over time show that countries like Japan have been able to not only continuously improve their average but they have also been able to increase the scores of lower reading performers.

What are three key things Finland can do to improve the reading performance of children?

1. Improve reading performance in Finnish and Swedish speaking schools by focusing on reading in early grades: The goal should be equitable reading performance of all children, so it does not matter where a child goes to school. In Finland, there is a big difference in the results between urban and rural schools, between regions and between Finnish speaking and Swedish speaking schools which contributes to the declining performance.  

In both Finnish speaking and Swedish speaking schools, there are a high number of children with low reading competencies. While the average of Finnish speaking children has been falling, the average for Swedish speaking children has much lower than the national average and static. The average in schools in three Swedish speaking regions is below the OECD average of 500.

Swedish speaking schools by regionAverage PISA reading score 2012
All Swedish schools508
Helsinki region529

An ongoing study has shown that some Swedish speaking schools are able to improve average class reading competencies between grade 5 and grade 9 but others have not succeeded in doing so.

2. Reduce the difference in reading competencies between boys and girls:  The OECD average gender difference was 39 points. Among all PISA participating countries only Albania Bulgaria, Lithuania, Jordan, Trinidad and Tobago had higher differences between boys and girls than Finland with a difference of over 50 points.  

GirlsBoysDifferenceLag in terms of time
Finnish speaking56351053Over a school year
Swedish speaking53648452

Over a school year

Girls in Finnish speaking schools have an average score just below that of Shanghai and girls in Swedish speaking schools score above the national average.  While boys in Finnish speaking schools score over the OECD average of 500, boys in Swedish speaking schools score well below it.

The gender difference between boys and girls in Swedish speaking schools in some areas is as high as 70 points, equivalent to a lag of about a year and a half. An ongoing study showed that the difference between boys and girls was evident in Grade 4 and that not all schools were able to close the gap by grade 9.

Improving the reading skills of boys to equal that of girls will make a very large difference to the Finnish National average.  Furthermore it will ensure the future of boys in the new global economy.

3. Improve the “joy of reading”:  When children read both for pleasure and for learning, their reading skills improve tremendously and reading tends to become a lifelong habit. There is a big difference in this indicator between children in Finnish speaking schools and Swedish speaking schools, most of it due to boys. According to the OECD, 64% of the gap between boys and girls can be closed in Finland with boys scoring a predicted value of 544 if they enjoyed reading as much as girls.

Everyone has a role in improving reading competencies of children

Children are exposed to reading in the home, at school and in the community.  When parents read to their children from a young age and are seen to be reading for pleasure and for information themselves, children understand that reading is part of life and the daily routine at home.

Teachers should present reading in a way that children take pleasure from the joy of reading. When reading problems are identified early, children should be provided with additional help. If they do not receive help, reading becomes unpleasant and they gain no understanding from what they read. Communities should include reading as part of resident interaction, whether it is reading in parks, encouraging the borrowing of books from libraries or using communication methods by posters, newsletters, blogs and social media which require reading to participate. 

In addition to modelling and demonstrating the importance of reading, children should be encouraged to discuss what they have read, and to transform information to other forms, such as presentations, pictures, videos or theatre. Reading should be equated with a fun way of learning.