How Children Really Learn to Read…in 10 Steps

When should children learn how to read? Do we have to teach children how to read or does it just happen on it’s own? Why do some children struggle with reading? What can I do to help my child learn how to read?

The U.S. Department of Education would have you believe that learning to read is rocket science, which makes it sound extremely complex and like something that should only be left to trained professionals. As a former elementary school educator for seven years with a Master’s degree focused on Linguistics, I almost believed this to be true. But then I had my four children, and after following these 10 steps, I saw them all learn how to read from a very young age, much like the Finnish children do which is “as if by chance”.

So without further adieu, here are the 10 steps that I have found which have led my children to reading.

1. Make Them Feel Safe and Loved

This may sound like a strange first step for learning how to read, but it is the most important aspect of human development. I know that against all odds, there are many who have succeeded even when they have been raised in the most unfortunate of circumstances, but the best environment for a child to thrive is one in which his or her basic needs are all being met and where he or she is shrouded in love.

Ophelia Reading with Great Grandma Gene

Ophelia Reading with Great Grandma Gene

Children who are noticed, children who come first, children who matter, and children who are loved will be able to reach their own personal best in whatever areas they are so inclined to grow.

2. Provide a Language Rich Environment

When adults realize that children are blank little slates who know nothing about the world or the things in it, and then take the time to talk to them and show them all of the little things that they see and interact with, it helps their oral language development to flourish and grow thus providing them with a rich foundation of vocabulary.Add-subtitle-text-3

When little babies sit in the grass across from their parents, rolling a ball back and forth for the first time, they don’t know what a ball is, what it means to roll, to throw, or to catch. They don’t know what colors are or that the little blades poking their legs are called grass…they don’t know that the sound they hear is a bird chirping or that the tall green thing next to them is a tree. They don’t know about clouds, or wind, or sun, or rain…these are all things that they must learn, and the more we talk to them and the more they hear these words repeated over and over and over again, the sooner they’ll learn the names of the things in their little worlds and their worlds will get bigger.

Research shows that a child’s vocabulary is correlated with reading comprehension in upper elementary school and that children who enter school with limited vocabulary knowledge fall further and further behind as compared with students who have rich vocabulary knowledge. Children who enter first grade as linguistically rich will know 20,000 words and children who are linguistically poor will only know 5,000.

When children have a rich vocabulary based on experiences, this is known as background knowledge, and is a key piece of learning how to read.

3. Sing Songs and Nursery Rhymes to Build Vocabulary

Another aspect of language and vocabulary development occurs when children memorize songs and nursery rhymes. As children’s brains are growing, whatever is repeated over and over and over again will strengthen the neural pathways and lay the foundation for further brain development. Neurons that are used will remain; neurons that are not used will die. Starting at about 6 months (see a really cool image here), you’ll notice an explosion of neural connections which will reach its peak when children are between the ages of 2 and 3. By age 4, synaptic pruning begins. You want to lay the foundation BEFORE this happens and what better way to do it than with songs and nursery rhymes.

Not only are songs structured in a way that is predictable and patterned, but singing them is enjoyable and therefore, we do it a lot. It is this repetition that helps us commit what we sing to long term memory. Check out my YouTube playlist of favorite nursery rhymes here. Here’s another playlist of all of my favorite preschool songs and another one just for the ABCs. The standard Mother Goose Nursery rhyme book is good too.

With my children, I love making up songs about everything all the time! I have songs about how much I love them, songs about waking up in the mornings, a song before we go to bed, songs about getting dressed or getting in the van…and they LOVE it! It’s absolutely fascinating to me that our youngest son, who is 20 months and still developing his ability to communicate using complete sentences, yet can sing all of the words to his favorite songs and nursery rhymes.

4. Foster a Relationship with Books

Reading is so much more than just words on a page. It’s a feeling, it’s an expression, and it’s a whole new world that can be discovered just by turning a page. By building a foundation of reading that is based on bonding and love, your child will grow up having positive associations with reading that will motivate him to peruse reading on his own…not just when it’s “reading time”.

Reading with Julian in My Comfy Rocking Chair

Reading with Julian in My Comfy Rocking Chair

This is why I love creating reading routines that are just part of our day. When my babies are little, I have nursing stations set up around the house with my comfy rocking chair and a table nearby for water, burp towels, and anything else I might need. When my babies are ready (usually around 6-8 months), I start keeping little baskets of books nearby too. I love reading before bed, when they wake up in the morning, before naps, or anytime we’re just cuddled up and rocking together.

While this early reading is going on, children are learning about some very important pre-reading skills such as how to hold a book, how we read from left to right, how we turn pages, how books have a beginning and an end, and how words are used to represent pictures on the page. Check out my blogs: How to Engage Your Baby with Reading and Best Books for Babies for more ideas on reading with babies.

Throughout the entire process of learning how to read, this step remains crucial. We need to find the time in our busy lives and in our busy days to read often. We need to build libraries of books, use reading as part of our routines so that it doesn’t get missed, make reading fun, and make reading about snuggling up in the arms of someone you love to explore something new. As your children grow and changes, find out what engages and excites them, and continue to look for new books that they will like.

4. The Most Important Pre-Reading Skills

Instead of listing these separately, I wanted to lump them together to emphasize that they are best taught simultaneously, but each one is of vital importance. In fact, without these skills, children will struggle as readers for their whole lives, but with a solid foundation in them, they will learn to read from a young age “as if by chance”. When my children are about 6-8 months old, I have found that this is the optimum time to start teaching them these skills.

Ophelia (2) and Her Fridge ABCs

Ophelia (2) and Her Fridge ABCs

  • Words Have Meaning: Before children start learning about the alphabet, they need to know what the alphabet is used for, and they need to see that words have meaning. I learned about this valuable skill when our first born daughter was 6 months old and we started watching Your Baby Can Read videos together. It took awhile for her to master the first batch of words, and she didn’t really start articulating her understanding of them until about 12 months of age, but once she did, her word memorization skills cascaded like a waterfall. (The Your Baby Can Read program did have it’s flaws, and has since gone out of business. This has inspired me to create my own reading system called “Teach Your Child to Read” which is coming soon…check out the progress at my Embracing Motherhood Shop!) I have also loved using books like this – Hinkler First Words to teach my babies that words represent things.
  • Letter Names: Teaching letter names is where it all begins. Learning uppercase letters is in some ways easier because they are more distinct and easier to differentiate, but children will encounter the lowercase letters more often, and so I like to teach them simultaneously. In the English language, we have 26 letter names that children must learn, which is a pretty straightforward process that simply requires repeated exposure and rote memorization.
  • Letter Sounds: Learning the letter sounds is a bit more tricky because while we may only have 26 letters, they make up 44 different sounds. Being able to understand and recognize the different sounds in a language is called phonemic awareness. (So it’s really more auditory than visual.) When children are learning their letter sounds, I have found that it’s best to work in layers. First teach the consonants (using the hard c and g) and short vowels. After these are mastered, you can start getting into more complex letter sounds such as long vowels (and all of the different ways they are represented…starting with the most basic), digraphs (two letters that come together to make a single sound like the /ph/ sound in “phone”) and dipthongs (vowel combinations where neither vowel sound is heard such as in the words “coin” and “moon”).

5. Decoding Three Letter Words

Learning how to decode three letter words is where the true act of reading begins. When children can look at the word “cat” and are able to isolate the individual sounds that each of the letters make, “/c/-/a/-/t/” and then blend those sounds together, “c-a-t”, to make the word “cat” this is what is known as phonics.

Ophelia and Elliot Spell Words

Ophelia and Elliot Spell Words

Children are ready to embark on the journey of learning three letter words once they have completely mastered their letter names and letter sounds. If you push them into decoding too soon, they will get frustrated, lose confidence, and possibly hate reading forever. Okay, maybe it won’t be that severe, but it’s much much better and way more effective to wait until they are ready.

One of my favorite tools for teaching three letter words is Starfall’s Word Machines. (Watch a little video of us using it here.) This is a really fun and cute way for children to become familiar with decoding three letter words. After that, I love using a muffin tin like this and some foam letters like these to teach word families. It’s best to first start with three letter words before branching out to words with four letters or more. Read more about this process in my blog: Using Magnet Letters to Teach the ABCs.

I wouldn’t have realized that this step was so important unless I had seen it with my own eyes with all of my children. It’s like once they figure out this step, the floodgates open and they start reading more and more words at an increasingly rapid rate.

6. Memorizing Words with Repeated Reading

Once a children have sounded out the word “c-a-t” many many times, they eventually will just know that this is the word “cat”, and they won’t have to sound it out anymore. Children can also just memorize words that they encounter often without ever learning how to sound them out at all.daddy reading with elliot

The more children are read to and the more that they “read”, the more they will be exposed to words over and over and over again which will help commit them to long term memory. Going back to the brain development I discussed in the songs and nursery rhymes session, it is this repeated reading that will help children commit words to their long term memory.

When you think about how you read as an adult, especially when you encounter a slightly challenging text like a college textbook, think about how you read, and in particular, notice how you read when you come to a word you don’t know. Many times, we simply see the beginning and ending letters of a word and this leads to recognition, that’s why we can still read and make sense of a paragraph like this. Other times, we will rely on a plethora of other skills (not just decoding) to figure out a new word such as our background knowledge, context clues, and looking at the structure of the word (i.e. root words, syllables, etc.).

In the primary grades, there is a HUGE emphasis on teaching phonics, as if learning every single rule of the English language is the true key to learning how to read, but the reality with all of these phonics lessons is that while they are really good for helping children learn how to spell, they are not a crucial component of learning how to read. In fact, a meta-analysis of 71 intervention control groups looked at the long term effects of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and reading comprehension interventions and found that phonemic awareness and comprehension interventions made a difference whereas phonics and fluency interventions did not.

As a teacher, but mostly as a parent, I have been enlightened as to what learning truly is and is not.

Learning isn’t about memorizing a series of facts and rules. Learning is about creating meaning. True long term learning occurs when something is so entertaining, so engaging, and so useful, that the repetition needed to commit it to long term memory seems effortless.

7. The Different Stages of Reading

There is a progression of reading that children will go through at different ages based on a variety of factors. You might just notice your children are going through each of these stages on their own, or you might see that they need a little nudge and some guidance in getting to the next stage.

  • Picture Reading: This is basically where children flip through the pages of the book and just talk about whatever is seen in the pictures. You can read to your children this way to teach them what picture reading is like or you might just observe them doing it. This was something our daughter Ophelia would do on her own starting at about a year and a half. After watching Dora programs, she LOVED all of the Dora books and would flip through all of the pages saying words that she knew. With our son Elliot, who wasn’t quite as interested in books, I would encourage him to read picture books like this and this and this because he was ready to “read”, but not quite ready to tackle the words on the page.
  • Repeated Reading: When you read books over and over and over with your children, especially really good interactive books where they can lift the flaps and such, you’ll probably fall into some patterns based on what entertains them. For example, if there’s an animal, you might ask what the animal says, or if there’s a rhyming word, you might pause to let them fill in the blank. By having these predictable routines, your child will love anticipating his or her participation.
  • Reading Single Word Books: This is an excellent way for children to memorize words that will help them read while letting them practice their reading skills. Sometimes, word books can get very busy making you think you’re getting a better value because in 10 pages, they cover 100 words, but trust me, less is more. I absolutely love the simplicity of these Hinkler First Word books and how they keep it simple with just one picture and one word per page.
  • Reading Sentences: Once children are out of the baby stage and have a good foundation of basic reading skills, they will love reading books with simple sentences. Gone are the Dick and Jane books of the past, today’s easy readers are Mo Williams books! One of our favorites is this, but we try to buy as many as we can because every single one is pure gold.
  • Reading Books of Interest: Teach your children how to find books that they like at the library and even on Amazon. Organize your books at home using bookshelves and baskets of books so that your children can easily find new books that peak their interest. They might choose books that are too hard and just look at the pictures, they may select all of the baby books they enjoyed reading over and over with you from long ago, or they might discover a new genre that they can read on their own.
  • Reading to Comprehend: There are a variety of comprehension strategies that you can engage your children with as they become more accomplished readers, and I explain these more in detail in my blog: How to Teach Reading Comprehension. One of the best ways to help your children with their comprehension skills is simply to talk about the books they are reading. You might want to read the same book as they are or read together so you know what the story is about, but sometimes it’s fun when you don’t know what the book is about and they have to tell you as much as they can.

8. Let Children Progress At Their Own Rate

As I created my “Teach Your Child to Read” program (coming soon…check out the progress at my Embracing Motherhood Shop!), I debated calling it “Teach Your Baby to Read” because I have seen that it is totally possible, but at the same time, I have learned that it is not always probable.

By going through this progression, three out of four of our children have become very early readers (before the age of two), but one of our children only started reading recently at the age of 5. Now, this may be due to the fact that we skipped the memorizing words stage with him (due to the fact that we were in the middle of a huge life transition at the time…see my blog: How I Became a Stay at Home Mom) or it could just be that due to his personality, he wasn’t interested in learning until now.

At any rate, I believe strongly in letting each of our children develop at their own rate and according to their individual interests. My strongest teaching philosophy is rooted in the zone of proximal development that encourages teachers to continuously provide students with learning opportunities that are not too challenging, but just challenging enough, and then providing scaffolding as they learn the new idea or skill until they can do it on their own. In this manner, I am always creating learning goals for all of my children that helps me to meet them right where they are.

Learning how to read is not a race, and nobody is going to give you an award for being the best parent just because your child reads at a young age. BUT, when you place these pre-reading tools in front of an eager learner, and they POUNCE on them, it seems almost cruel to think our society would have us wait until they are in school to begin reading.

9. Encourage Your Child to Ask for Help

This is a reading comprehension strategy known in the teaching world as “Monitor and Clarify” meaning that good readers know how to monitor their reading to make sure that they are understanding what is being read and working to clarify anything that they don’t understand.

When I was a teacher, I designed many lessons to teach this concept, but it wasn’t until I read with my children, side by side, every day, that I truly grasped the importance and the organic nature of this process. Every night as part of our bedtime routine, I read with our oldest daughter Ruby (currently 6). She has a HUGE stack of chapter books she keeps in her bed next to her little nightlight, and every night we cuddle up and she reads to me for 10-20 minutes any book of her choosing. As she reads aloud to me, she’ll pause at a word that she doesn’t understand to say, “What does this word mean Mom?” I never taught her how to “Monitor and Clarify”, and yet somehow she just does it.

Ruby Reading in Bed

Ruby Reading in Bed

How? Well, when she asks me a question, I answer it. I don’t put it back on her and say, “What do you think it means?” or “Let’s look at the context clues to figure this out.” Yuck. No thanks. When Ruby asks me the meaning of a word, I simply tell her, and we move on. When she struggles to correctly pronounce a word, I quickly read it for her, and she doesn’t skip a beat. There is this misconception that we need to let our children struggle in order to learn, and I disagree. What typically happens after I tell her the meaning of a word is that she knows what that word means and she applies that knowledge the next time she encounters the word or phrase in question. If she somehow can’t remember and asks for help again, I’ll simply tell her again…just like that.

10. Become a Family Who Reads

Both my husband and I love reading. Our children know this, our children see this, and they know we are a family of readers. Our house is FULL of books, and we have bookshelves and baskets of books in every room. We read books every night before we go to bed, we cuddle up and read throughout the day, we listen to books on tape, we go to the library and get as many books as they’ll let us check out, we pay regular library fines for late books, and we don’t even mind, we have book wishlists on Amazon for ourselves and for every child, and we buy books to add to our library for birthdays, Christmas, from the tooth fairy, and anytime there’s a really good book that we just have to have.

When you become a family of readers, your children will become readers. When you teach your children not only how to read, but how to access books (from your home library, from the public library, and from Amazon), they will become masters of their own destiny. Instead of going to you like an empty vessel waiting to be filled, they can fill their own tanks with whatever knowledge they desire. Here’s what I mean…

When we found out we were pregnant for baby #5, our daughter Ruby went straight to our Basher Books collection (an EXCELLENT source for teaching young children higher level concepts…we have purchased just about every single one), and read the book about the human body. She came to me later and said,

“Mom, did you know it’s really up to dad if our baby becomes a boy or girl because he’s the one who carries the x or the y chromosome?”

And that’s what I’m talking about folks! This is what reading is all about. It’s not about reading early or getting high grades, and it’s not about becoming proficient or advanced or reading the right number of words a minute. Reading is about unlocking the world around you, discovering new things, exploring new ideas, getting lost in another world, and having access to all of the knowledge that the world has to offer.

In Conclusion

Learning how to read is not rocket science, it is not something that should wait until formal schooling to be learned, and it does not need to be taught by a trained professional. In fact, very little “teaching” is actually needed in order to lead children to reading. What is needed is an environment conducive to reading, deliberate exposure to word recognition, letter names, and letter sounds, guidance in discovering the structure

By creating an environment conducive to reading and by building a foundation of some key basic skills, children can learn to read “as if by chance” and in the process unlock an entire world that is just resting at their fingertips. Check out the teaching tools I have created to help children learn how to read at my Embracing Motherhood Shop!

Happy reading!

Videos of Our Kids Reading

  • Reading with Julian 18 months. Notice how much he interacts with the books I am reading. These are some of his favorites that we read all the time.
  • Ophelia reading at 2.5. Ophelia started reading from a VERY young age, and it really blew our minds!
  • Elliot reading some Mo Williams at age 5. Elliot started reading on his own fairly recently, and he is so proud! He has a nightlight by his bed, and we hear him over his monitor reading to himself every night.
  • Ruby reads The Princess in Black at age 6. Ruby start reading at a VERY young age like Ophelia and absolutely LOVES reading!
  • Here’s a playlist of our kids learning how to read over the years. *Showing children videos of other kids reading can be a great way to get them motivated to read!
15 Reasons Why Finland's Schools Are Performing Better Than Schools in the United States at Embracing Motherhood

15 Reasons Why Finland’s Schools Are Performing Better Than Schools in the United States

Unless you’re really interested in education, you might not be aware of what’s going on in Finland’s schools. If you are, you may have read a few click bait articles about more recess, delayed kindergarten, and play based learning, but the whole story is much more interesting…and complex.

In this article, I hope to shed some light on why Finland has become such a buzzword for educational experts, how they got to be where they are, and all of the parts that make up the whole of their successful educational system. Throughout this article, I will compare what is working in Finland to what is currently being done in the United States to help paint a complete picture.

PISA Results

Let’s begin with the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that put Finland on the map (as an educational buzzword that is) in the first place. PISA in an international test given every three years to 15 year olds in the areas of reading, math, and science with the 65 countries that have chosen to participate.

Below, I have listed the most recent scores (from 2012) from Finland and the United States in the three categories that the test covers. Below that, you will find their overall ranks listed with all of the other countries who participated. *Also note that Finland was ranked 1st in reading, 4th in math, and 3rd in science in 2000, 1st in reading and science and 2nd in math in 2003, 1st in reading and 2nd in math and science in 2006, and 1st in reading, 6th in math, and 2nd in science in 2009.

Finland

  • Reading – 6th
  • Science – 5th
  • Math – 12th

United States

  • Reading – 24th
  • Science – 28th
  • Math – 36th

2012 PISA Results

  1. Shanghai-China
  2. Singapore
  3. Hong Kong-China
  4. Taiwan
  5. Korea
  6. Macau-China
  7. Japan
  8. Liechtenstein
  9. Switzerland
  10. Netherlands
  11. Estonia
  12. Finland – 12th
  13. Canada
  14. Poland
  15. Belgium
  16. Germany
  17. Vietnam
  18. Austria
  19. Australia
  20. Ireland
  21. Slovenia
  22. New Zealand
  23. Denmark
  24. Czech Republic
  25. France
  26. UK
  27. Iceland
  28. Latvia
  29. Luxembourg
  30. Norway
  31. Portugal
  32.  Italy
  33. Spain
  34. Russia
  35. Slovakia
  36. US – 36th
  37. Lithuania
  38. Sweden
  39. Hungary
  40. Croatia
  41. Israel
  42. Greece
  43. Serbia
  44. Turkey
  45. Romania
  46. Cyprus
  47. Bulgaria
  48. UAE
  49. Kazakhstan
  50. Thiland
  51. Chile
  52. Malaysia
  53. Mexico
  54. Montenegro
  55. Uruguay
  56. Costa Rica
  57. Albania
  58. Brazil
  59. Argentina
  60. Tunisia
  61. Jordan
  62. Colombia
  63. Qatar
  64. Indonesia
  65. Peru

Since PISA began in 2000, Finland has held 1st place for reading year after year after year (which is why it initially gained such notoriety). The 2012 testing year saw Finland fall in rank from it’s usual top spots; read the theories about why that happened here. One of the theories is that countries like China, who are now showing up in the highest positions, emphasize rigorously preparing for tests via rote memorization which leaves children lacking in social and practical skills, self-discipline and imagination, and curiosity and passion for learning (source). Another theory is that Finland has been so preoccupied with being in a fishbowl while everyone analyzed what made them so great instead of focusing on their continuous progression. Always room for improvement, right?

1. Finland’s Reform

It is important to note that the educational system in Finland hasn’t always produced such pleasing results. In his article in the New Republic, “The Children Must Play“, Samuel E. Abrams, a visiting scholar at Teachers College, explains how Finland turned it’s educational system around in the 1970s.

“Finland’s schools weren’t always so successful. In the 1960s, they were middling at best. In 1971, a government commission concluded that, poor as the nation was in natural resources, it had to modernize its economy and could only do so by first improving its schools. To that end, the government agreed to reduce class size, boost teacher pay, and require that, by 1979, all teachers complete a rigorous master’s program.”

By recognizing the need for change and taking radical steps to do so, Finland is now performing near the top of the list. They faced a lot of scrutiny about their methods until the PISA test results came out in 2000, and now everyone is trying to figure out what makes Finland’s schools so successful.

In the rest of this article, I’ll focus on the hallmarks that have contributed to Finland’s successful educational system with a brief comparison to the educational system in the United States. Please keep in mind that it is all of these components working together that contribute to Finland’s success.

2. Being a Welfare State

As one of the world’s best functioning welfare states, Finland takes care of all of its citizens equally. With a poverty rate of just 5.3%, you won’t find huge disparities between the rich and the poor. Even if you grew up in poverty here, however, you would still get the same resources including high quality education as someone who grew up with more privileges.

Some people say that Finnish people are paid like doctors, but it’s not because teachers get paid more, it’s that doctors get paid less. In Finland, the amount of money you pay for a speeding ticket is all relative to your income. One millionaire was fined the equivalent of $103,000 for going 40 mph in a 35 mph. In Finland, the playing field is made as level as can be.

United States: In the United States, there is not the same sort of equality. The poverty rate in the U.S is 15%, but it’s even higher for children at 21%. That means that there are 15.5 million children, or roughly 1 in 5, that live in poverty. (Check out this poverty map to see the huge variance of poverty statistics from state to state.) In the United States, there is a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, and if you grow up in poverty, you will NOT be afforded the same opportunities as those who grow up with more privileges. In fact, the United States is the ONLY nation in the world where the quality of public education is based on local wealth

So, in the end, Finland’s economy promotes social harmony, but the competitive nature of America’s economy has fueled many innovations…but at what price?

3. A Culture of Literacy and Learning

Finland is a country that prides itself on their love of learning and literacy. Check out this great PowerPoint created by the Finnish National Board of Education that explains what they do as a society (not just as an educational system) to create successful students.

One way that Finnish society supports literacy is by having one of the world’s best library systems. They are constantly getting new books and there is a high check out rate. Most homes subscribe to at least one newspaper, and the typical Finnish family starts the day at breakfast reading the morning paper and commenting on the day’s news.

About half of all Finnish TV is broadcast in a foreign language (mostly English) using Finnish subtitles (rather than dubbing). So when children are watching foreign TV, they need to read everything in Finnish! Bedtime stories are also a very important ritual.

United States: What are the priorities of the United States as a whole? This was kind of a hard one to sum up because the United States is so much bigger than Finland, but I think that this guide to living in America for foreigners gives a very revealing portrayal of what foreigners should expect when trying to fit into “American culture”. First of all, it explains that Americans are individualistic and time oriented as well as friendly and direct. It goes on to say that Americans love their sports, love their hobbies, and are fastidious about their appearance. It also warns of the prejudices and racism found mainly in small towns and in the south often expressed in off color humor where the presenter maybe doesn’t realize that they are sounding racist. 

In my opinion, I feel that there is this pervasive (yet erroneous) notion of the “American Dream” fostered by stories such as Abraham Lincoln living in a log cabin and rising to become president just because he worked hard enough when the reality is best expressed in the story of “The Death of a Salesman”  which gives a much more realistic (and grim) portrayal of this ideal. The majority of American culture that I have encountered (throughout my brief exposure to the entirety of the United States) can be summed up by our stereotype of nerds. They are often portrayed in sitcoms, movies, and life as being very smart yet socially awkward, not into fashion, not invited to parties, and thus a less desirable position to be in. Then you have those who slough of school, who don’t need to work hard, and who have all the friends and popularity portrayed as the ultimate achievement leading to true happiness. The fact that the notion of “nerds being unpopular” even exists reveals that our true opinions are of learning and literacy are that it is more important to look cool than to be smart and that the two don’t typically mix.

4. Teacher Training

I think that one of the most important things that Finland did to reform education was to create highly qualified teachers. They did this by not just requiring all teachers to get a Master’s degree, but by paying for it as well. Not only is college in Finland free, but when teachers are enrolled in the graduate level teacher’s program for three years, they get a stipend for living expenses so that they don’t go into debt while they’re going to school.

Getting into this graduate level program is tough with only 10-15% of applicants being accepted, so the teacher education program is truly getting the top of the pool. Being a teacher in Finland is considered a highly prestigious position because the entire Finnish culture supports learning.

United States: In the United States, most states require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate, but because of teacher shortages, there are many alternative routes to becoming a teacher and private schools do not often require teaching certificates at all. Also, there is no free college here. You may get some financial aid for a bachelor’s degree, but the average debt of a Master’s level degree in education is $50,000.

5. Taken Care of From Birth

One of the hallmark’s of Finland’s success is how they take care of their mothers and children. All working mothers are provided a 4 month paid maternity leave in addition to a free Finnish baby box (or cash value) that includes everything needed for a newborn. Then, either the mother or father can take a paid parental leave until the baby is 9 months old. This benefit is extended to adoptive parents as well.

If a parent chooses to stay home with their child until he/she is 3, they will get a Child Care Allowance in the equivalence of $385/mo. Approximately 50% of all mothers take full advantage of this. *This is in addition to the $107/mo. Child Benefit package that is given until the child reaches 17.

United States: The United States is pretty much the only country that doesn’t provide maternity leave for mothers…or fathers, except for assuring twelve weeks of unpaid paternity leave without losing their job. The Child Tax Credit does take approximately $1,000 off your tax bill per child, a recent increase which is actually pretty cool. 

6. Early Childhood Education (Day Care)

When parents in Finland choose work and send their children to day care, it is not at all considered to be a babysitting service. There are National Curriculum Guidelines that discuss such things as the child’s well-being as the target, the role of the educator, the joy of learning, the role of language, how young children learn through play, parental engagement, and content orientations in the areas of mathematics, nature, science, history, aesthetics, religion, ethics, religion, and philosophy. This is because day cares fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. In addition, most teaching and guidance staff in day cares hold a bachelor’s degree.

About 80% of mothers with their youngest child between the ages of 3-6 are working and most take advantage of the municipal day care system which is heavily subsidized based on family size and income. There is also a private day care allowance if that is the route parents choose.

United States: In the United States, it is a completely different story. First of all, there is no unifying system for day cares, no guiding curriculum that focuses on the “whole child” or any sort of educational or enrichment standards whatsoever, and the Department of Education is not involved in any way shape, or form. Instead, day cares are overseen by the Licensing and Regulatory Affairs that merely provides a massive checklist of possible health and safety violations. (Check out this example from Michigan.) Even though every state is slightly different, most day cares require only a high school diploma for employment. 

A 2007 survey by the National Institute of Child Health Development found that the majority of day care facilities were either “fair” or “poor”, and only 10% were found to provide high quality care. The recommendation is that there is one caregiver for every three infants between the ages of 6-18 months, but only one-third of settings meet that standard. Horror stories like these are way too common in day cares across the United States.

The overall statistic says that 61% of all children ages 3-6 are in some sort of center-based care. The reality is that for poor families, this looks more like 45%, and for wealthier families, it looks more like 72%. And even though the government subsidizes up to $3,000 per family for daycare (regardless of income), this only covers a fraction of the costs which can be upwards of $15,000/year.

7. Pre-Primary Education (Pre-School and Kindergarten)

While kindergarten may not start until children are 7, mandatory preschool starts when children are 6. Before this became mandatory in 2015, 97% of children were already attending preschool.

Just like with the day cares, the preschools are governed by the Ministry of Education and use a very holistic pre-primary curriculum (used for preschool and kindergarten) that focuses on the development of the whole child. This document discusses the purpose of pre-primary education, general objectives of education and learning, the concept of learning, what constitutes a good learning environment, and more. And while yes, they do include paragraphs detailing the big ideas for language and interaction as well as mathematics, they also have sections explaining the instruction of ethics and religion, environmental and natural studies, health, physical and motor development, arts and culture, and more. It is a very well rounded curriculum guideline.

United States: In the United States, preschool starts at the age of 3 or 4, and it is not mandatory. A 2015 report by the Department of Education called A Matter of Equity: Preschool in America, explains how only 41% of 4 year olds attend preschool and that there are racial and socioeconomic disparities that prevent access to high quality preschool programs for all children. It also explains how we know that the preschool education provided is abysmal and that steps are being taken to correct that…but are they the right steps?

Grants were recently given to 20 states to design better plans for teaching young children, and states like Missouri did a nice job of creating Early Learning Standards, but the problem is that the focus is just too narrow and too specific. Instead of presenting a narrative that gives the big idea while still allowing for teacher and student autonomy and flexibility, everything is broken up into core subjects and then extremely specific descriptors are given for every possible skill that anyone could ever imagine covering. The document is so large and overbearing that there is no way someone could teach all of this without carrying around a little guidebook telling them what to say and do every step of the way.

8. A Curriculum That Focuses on the Whole Child

Here are the Finnish standards for the basic education, which covers grades 1st – 9th. Like with pre-primary education, they focus on the whole child and cover a wide variety of topics that extend far beyond just what is measured on standardized tests. While art, music, and PE are being cut for budgetary reasons in the U.S., Finland still finds time to teach crafts, home economics, foreign languages, health, religion, ethics, music, visual arts, physical education, and more. This focus on the whole child is one of the hallmarks that makes their educational system not just work, but thrive.

The Center on International Education Benchmarking, an organization dedicated to learning from the world’s high performing education systems explains how,

“Finnish classrooms emphasize the importance of learning through doing, and place particular emphasis on group work, creativity and problem-solving skills. From primary school onward, students are expected to work collaboratively on interdisciplinary projects. In many cases, students are expected to contribute to the design of these projects as well. In upper secondary school, students are expected to contribute to the design of their course of study.”

They also describe how,

“In the early years of school, Finnish students often stay together in a class with the same teacher for several years. That way, the teacher can follow their development over several grade levels, and they are able to learn in what many consider to be a family-like environment.”

United States: In the United States, we have federally created Common Core Standards that most states have adopted and then adapted for their own personal use. Since I live in Michigan, here are Michigan’s standards. I encourage you to at least browse through their categories. You’ll notice an emphasis on core subjects with standards that give very specific examples for how each grade level should progress through each standard. Check out these English Language Arts Standards for K and 1st grade to see exactly what I mean.

There is this sense in the United States that we have to teach skills to mastery and that it is facts and skills that will lead to knowledge and success, but Finland has touched on something that I have found to be highly successful in my own teaching experience both in the classroom and with my own children, and in my opinion, it is this:

Children are not empty vessels to be filled. They are curious, inquisitive, and imaginative beings that only need to be given the tools to reach their given potential. Our role as teacher should be to guide them towards their interests, to provide them with the skills and resources necessary to take their learning to the next level, and to be an audience as they share their discoveries.

If we can do this, our children will reach greater heights than anything we could ever design for them.

9. How Finnish Children Learn to Read

There is a misconception that because Finnish children don’t start going to compulsory school (kindergarten) until they are 7, they don’t start learning how to read until then, but that is simply not true.

Because the National Ministry in Finland is in charge of the day cares and preschools, it designs a curriculum that supports the literacy growth through all developmental phases. In day care, children are engaged in play based learning that prepares them for preschool. In preschool, they teach phonological awareness and vocabulary through a variety of genres and types of literature.

And this is why the Finnish National Board of Education states that,

“half of the pre-school pupils learn to read as if by chance.”

There is also a lot of support for struggling students. 37% of first-graders get some kind of additional support, but the students who struggle rarely do so because of a lack of basic skills. (i.e. Students enter school with a strong foundation in basic skills.) Early intervention is strongly emphasized, and all teachers have knowledge and expertise on learning difficulties. The cooperation between parents, teachers, and other experts is intense and is a HUGE part of student achievement.

Finally, Finnish is actually one of the easiest languages to learn how to read. The Finnish alphabet is similar to the English alphabet but with only 21 letters (that are used anyways) and no weird exceptions (like the hard and soft g and c and diagraphs). In addition, every Finnish word is pronounced exactly as it’s written, and there are simple rules for everything with very few exceptions. This makes it very easy for children how to read “as if by chance” and explains why the vast majority of Finnish students enter school with strong reading skills.

United States: Children in the United States are taught to read according to the five components of reading.

  1. Phonemic Awareness: Letter sounds
  2. Phonics: The relationship between letter names, sounds, and how they work together
  3. Fluency: Reading with accuracy, speed, and expression
  4. Vocabulary: The meaning of words
  5. Comprehension: Understanding what is being read

The instruction is systemic (meaning that it is carried out by the entire system), and systematic (meaning that it is carried out in a step by step process).

When it come to reading, the U.S. Department of Education supports the notion that, 

“Becoming a reader is not a natural process, but requires direct and explicit instruction.”

Remember how in Finland kids were learning to read “as if by chance”? Well, not so in the U.S. Here, students must patiently wait until their empty little brains are filled with all of the facts and skills that teachers can cram in there.

And how well is this working? Not so well. According to the most recent 2015 national reading test as reported by the NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) otherwise known as the “Nation’s Report Card”, only 36% of 4th graders and 38% of 8th graders were proficient in reading. Yikes!

10. No Standardized Testing

One of the biggest hallmarks of Finland’s educational system is that they have no standardized testing whatsoever. The only test they are required to take is when they graduate high school if they wish to go on to a university. Samuel E. Abrams explains how,

“While nations around the world introduced heavy standardized testing regimes in the 1990s, the Finnish National Board of Education concluded that such tests would consume too much instructional time, cost too much to construct, proctor, and grade, and generate undue stress.”

United States: In the United States, we spend $1.7 billion on standardized testing every year. In her article in Education Week, “Why Bipartisanism Isn’t Working for Educational Reform“, Ann Stuart Wells, a professor at Teachers College points out that since NCLB, we now spend five to six times more funds on testing with 90% of this going to private testing companies. In this environment, teachers can’t help but feel inundated with testing that seems to drive every aspect of their teaching day. Even Obama says that he regrets “taking the joy out of teaching and learning with too much testing”. 

11. Teacher (and Student) Freedom and Autonomy

Not only are all teachers in Finland highly qualified, they are trusted to do what is best for their students. Samuel E. Abrams explains how,

“Teachers in Finland design their own courses, using a national curriculum as a guide, not a blueprint, and spend about 80 percent as much time leading classes as their U.S. counterparts do, so that they have sufficient opportunity to plan lessons and collaborate with colleagues.”

In his article, “Inside of a Finnish Classroom“, Tim Walker, an American teacher teaching in Finland shares his observations of what Finnish classrooms look like.

“In Finland, it’s common to find classrooms that are very different from each other. This makes sense given that a teacher’s individuality is deeply respected.”

He goes on to explain the slow pace of the classroom where the teacher is calm instead of, “anxiously pacing around the classroom, checking in on everyone”, which is so often the mood in the U.S. schools, especially during testing time. Teachers also dress casually, are called by their first names, and students don’t even have to wear shoes.

Check out this video of a teacher in a Finnish school where you’ll notice her calm demeanor, the freedom and autonomy that the children have, the lack of discipline problems, the way that the students are engaged and on task, and the way that each child is given time and attention. At no time does it feel like a script is being followed.

United States: Check out this video of a teacher in the United States teaching literacy. This is pretty much the exact same thing you will see in just about every primary literacy lesson because teachers in the United States must follow a very scripted method of teaching which leaves little room for freedom and autonomy for teachers or students. The teacher is typically either addressing the entire class as a group or working with small ability groups.

12. Less Time in School

In Finland, school starts between 8 and 9 am and ends between 1 and 2 pm. During this 5 hour school day (7-8 year olds attend half days), there is lunch (hot lunches are provided free for every student) with a 75 minute long recess and 15 minute breaks every hour where kids must go outside to play. Their playgrounds are also elaborately designed (sometimes with the help of the children) in ways that encourage lots of movement as well as creative and imaginative play.

In his article published in Education Week, “Classroom Shock: What I Am Learning as a Teacher in Finland“, Tim Walker explains how not only are the kids getting a break every hour, but the teachers are as well. During their 15 minute breaks, teachers are encouraged to catch up with their colleagues while drinking coffee in the teacher’s lounge rather than frantically trying to prepare for the next lesson.

Finnish teachers work on average 570 hours a year, nearly half of the 1,100 hours that U.S. teachers do. In addition, they also have little to no homework.

United States: Students in the U.S. spend about 7 hours a day at school with a 30 minute lunch recess and maybe a 15 minute morning recess for the younger grades. 

13. Smaller Class Sizes

In 1985, when authorities in Finland postponed tracking from 7th to 10th grade (meaning the separation of students based on ability), they knew that they would need to make class sizes smaller to accommodate these heterogeneous groups. Now, the average class size in 1st and 2nd grade is 19 students and in grades 3 through 9, it is 21 students.

United States: It’s very hard to find reliable data about class sizes in the United States because we are governed by a 16:1 student to teacher ratio, meaning that specialist teachers from speech therapists to music teachers who might not be in the room every day count towards this ratio leaving some classrooms to balloon to 30+ students. We saw this in our daughter’s kindergarten class before we switched schools.

14. Play Based Learning

Finland encourages play based learning as the foundation of day care, preschool, and kindergarten.

In an article published in the Atlantic by Finland education blogger Tim Walker, he explains how kindergarten students only engage in desk work, like handwriting, once a week. He goes on to explain what he noticed while observing classrooms:

“Instead of a daily itinerary, two of them [teachers] showed me a weekly schedule with no more than several major activities per day: Mondays, for example, are dedicated to field trips, ballgames, and running, while Fridays—the day I visited—are for songs and stations.”

During his observations, he noticed kids singing songs and chants, attending stations such as fort-making with bed sheets, arts and crafts, and running a pretend ice cream shop.

United States: In select preschools in the U.S. there is a remarkable programs being used Tools of the Mind that uses play based Vygotsky-inspired learning that encourages creative and imaginative play, but this is the exception, not the rule.

15. Cooperation not Competition

In his article, “The Finnish Miracle“, published in Great Kids!, Hand Pellissier, a freelance writer on education and brain development, explains how,

“Americans give lip service to the notion that ‘all men are created equal’, but our appetite for competition creates an intense focus on ranking low and high performers — whether they’re schools or students.”

Without standardized testing in Finland, schools aren’t ranked against each other, teachers aren’t evaluated primarily by the test scores of their students, and the curriculum isn’t organized around these tests. This creates an environment without the pressure to “perform” on one single measure of assessment, but to allow for more open ended model of learning.

Students aren’t ability grouped, and the advanced students work alongside the struggling ones. There isn’t a sense of one group looking down on another, they realize that they all have different strengths and weaknesses, and they work together to help each other out.

There are also no private schools, no schools of choice, and no sense that the best students are being skimmed off the top. Also, most schools don’t even provide organized sports.

In Conclusion

Since their reform in the 1970s, Finland has turned around a stagnant economy by focusing on the improvement of their educational system. As a result, they have a thriving economy and one of the world’s most respected educational systems. They didn’t do this by just having children start kindergarten at a later age or providing more recess time (which are the two big buzz topics that always get all of the attention), they did it by focusing on the entire infrastructure of education from the ground up…from funding, to training, to best practices, to seeing results.

In the end, what makes Finland work is a mindset. They love learning, they enjoy it, they see each child as an individual, not a test score, and they provide an open ended method of instruction that leaves the sky as the limit. By adopting this mindset within our families, within our homes, and within our communities, maybe that can be the first step in a long journey of educational improvement in the United States…and around the world.

Check out my Embracing Motherhood Shop where I am working on creating a system that teaches children how to read!

To Learn More:

In my article, I have provided links where appropriate to all of my sources. These links below are either resources that I didn’t link to in the article or that I thought provided a very thorough and complete look at this topic.