Early Literacy: Other Countries & Conclusion

[This is the final post in a five-part series on early literacy.]

I haven’t spent any time observing pre-school or early grades classrooms in other countries and it is difficult to get a good sense of how things are done by searching the internet. However, from talking to friends and reading over a few sites, it seems our early-literacy focused society could stand to take a look at when children of other countries learn to read. 

Here are a few points about Finland’s educational system curriculum, taken from the Finnish National Board of Education:

  • Compulsory education starts in the year when a child has his/her seventh birthday
  • Pre-primary education is provided minimum 700 hours per year, maximum 4 hours a day.
  • The objective of basic education is to support pupils’ growth towards humanity and ethically responsible membership of society and to provide them with the knowledge and skills needed in life. 

Regarding pre-primary Education:

The general principles set forth in the core curriculum emphasise the child’s individuality and the significance of active learning and the importance of acting as a group member. Pre-primary education is based on the child’s own knowledge, skills and experiences. Its focus is on play and a positive outlook on life. From the educational point of view, working methods that accustom children to teamwork are of the utmost importance. Another central consideration is to promote the child’s own initiative and to emphasise its significance as the foundation for all activities.

The methods and activities in pre-primary education are as varied and versatile as possible. The core curriculum does not divide instruction into subjects or lessons, but it does include various subject fields and objectives. These subject fields are: language and interaction, mathematics, ethics and philosophy, environmental and natural studies, health, physical and motor development and art and culture.

Note there is not a single mention of literacy - from a country with one of the highest literacy rates. 

In Sweden, it is a similar story:

Sweden’s attitude to teaching nursery children seems incredibly relaxed and informal. There’s little structured learning, play is paramount… 

Most Swedish children who leave pre-school at six can’t read or write. Yet within three years of starting formal schooling at the age of seven, these children lead the literacy tables in Europe.

Again, a play-based curriculum for preschool and kindergartner. Literacy instruction begins at age seven.

To conclude this series, I would argue that we do not have adequate evidence to justify an early-literacy curriculum. Furthermore, I would argue that early-literacy instruction results in a significant loss of imaginative and physical play time for children age five and under. 

The type of evidence that would justify an early-literacy curriculum would show that (1) early learners have a long-term advantage in literacy skills as compared to non-early learners and (2) the decreased time spent on imaginative and physical play had no negative long-term effect on cognitive and physical development. Only when research-based evidence for both of these conditions has been shown should we move forward with an early-literacy curriculum. In the meantime, I sure wish we could hold off on the early-literacy and follow the Finnish and Swedish models: let young children play!

What are your opinions on this topic?