Traverse City Record-Eagle


October 19, 2010

Ask Evelyn: Finland's secret to success

A few weeks ago Finland was in the news for having one of the best educational systems in the world. This isn't new; they've had an excellent system since the 1960s.

In 1972 and 1974 my husband and I hosted two Rotary exchange students from Finland. We were impressed with these sisters and their excellent academic skills. We were astounded when they told us that, in Finland, children attend government-supported preschool programs from ages 3 to 5, after which 99 percent go to public school kindergarten at age 6.

But Finnish children do not have formal reading instruction until age 7. Finland makes sure its youngest students get an excellent foundation.

Finnish kindergarten curriculum emphasizes child development, "learning to learn" skills and positive self-image. Teachers have academic backgrounds in early education, and in a classroom of 13-20 students there are two teachers. Finnish curriculum includes language/literacy and interactions, math, ethics, philosophy, health, physical development, culture, art, natural studies and the environment.

Although the children have many experiences with literature, stories and books in these early years, they don't start formal reading until age 7. Finland's education leaders have found that by then, all children are ready and eager to have formal reading instruction. Of course, many children may already have taught themselves to read by age 7, but this is seen as an advantage in the classroom, not a problem.

What is most interesting about this is that Finland has 100 percent literacy rate. So do Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia and Iceland. All six of these countries do not start formal reading until age 7.

The United States has a 97 percent literacy rate, and there are 54 countries that have higher literacy rates than we do. (Online, search "PISA world literacy comparison data.")

Finland and its neighbors have proven that if they fund early education and prioritize child development and readiness in their curriculum planning, children are eager to learn and achieve. They have fewer dropouts than we do and fewer reading problems in the elementary years. They understand and act on the 75 years of child development research that tells us ages 3 to 8 are priority years in education.

We can't replicate the educational system of Finland, but we should try to follow its example of supporting early education and making kindergarten more developmentally appropriate. We cannot "catch up" to Finland's literacy rate by pushing and pulling every 5-year-old to read if some aren't ready.

Yes, some children will enjoy the "pushing" and learn to read and write well before first grade, but others are likely to develop a dislike for school and have reading problems later on.

Think about this: When you buy peaches, you have to wait for some to get ripe; you can't MAKE them ripen.

I asked a local fruit grower recently if there was a way to make a peach get ripe before it is ready. He said that you could change the environment a little by cutting out some tree branches to let in more sun, and you might then be able to force the peach to be ripe a few days earlier.

But, he said, the peach that is forced that way won't ever be quite as good as the peach that you let ripen on its own.

I think we could learn some things from Finland and from nature.

Evelyn Petersen is an award-winning parenting columnist and early childhood educator and author who lives in Traverse City; see her website at For more columns from Evelyn Petersen, visit

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