Five Facts about Children, Youth and Reading

1. Reading children need reading adults

For quite some time, the Finnish education has received international acclaim for its high quality. However, in recent years, national and international evaluations have indicated certain decline in the literacy skills of children and youth. Simultaneously, the reading motivation among Finnish youth, particularly among boys, has deteriorated.

It is well known that the parents’ role in children’s literacy development is decisive. According to the international PIRLS study (2016), the literacy and reading performance of the 4th grade students in Finland is associated with not only the socio-economic background but also to a great extent with the reading habits and attitudes of the parents. The evidence shows that support and encouragement for reading provided at home on one hand and the amount of time the parents spend on reading themselves on the other will have a direct impact on the performance of the child. [1]

Hence, the first step in reading encouragement is providing a reading role model. If the parents read recreationally a lot, the children are more likely to develop passion for books and texts. It is concerning that a growing number of Finnish parents do not enjoy reading themselves. Research shows that while the number of parents with negative attitudes towards reading has increased nationally, the number of students who only enjoy reading a little or not at all has concurrently grown. [2]

At the same time we know that reading role models are particularly important for the development of boys’ reading habits. Especially the reading fathers hold a central role in the reading engagement of boys. [3] This is important to keep in mind because the literacy gap between boys and girls has drastically widened during the last ten years in Finland. [4]

Another effective way to raise motivated readers is to read aloud. However, results of a recent survey reveal an alarming fact: only approximately 30 percent of mothers and less than 25 percent of fathers in Finland read to their children at 2-3 years [5].

Especially boys would seem to benefit from reading aloud. This belief is supported by a German study conducted in 2011. It shows that regular reading to boys can have a particular push on their reading motivation. A comparison between boys who had been and who had not been read aloud to reveals that 44 percent of the boys who had been read aloud to enjoyed reading. Meanwhile, among those boys who had not been read aloud to, only 24 percent enjoyed reading. Interestingly, reading aloud was less significant for girls’ reading enjoyment since over 50 percent of the girls enjoyed reading in any case and among those who had been read aloud, the proportion was 63 percent. [6]

It is vital to integrate the read-aloud sessions into the natural flow of the everyday life. Even more important than what you read is the regular occurrence of shared moments where a child gets acquainted with books and sees reading grownups around her or him. If an adult is interested in a text, the interest is likely to be reflected into the child.

 Even the number of books at home seems to contribute to children’s emergent literacy development [7]. However, reading does not depend on the family income. Reading can also be effectively facilitated by visiting libraries together and borrowing books. In Finland, the number of visits to a library per resident and the social appreciation for libraries are among the highest in the world. [8]

Furthermore, parents are not the only adults who can provide great examples for reading. Grandparents, godparents and other important adults may turn reading into a mutually satisfying hobby with the child. In the Finnish ‘Reading Grandmas and Grandpas’ project, volunteering senior citizens visit schools and read aloud to children, especially to those with poor reading skills. [9]

[1] Leino, Nissinen, Puhakka, Rautopuro: Lukutaito luodaan yhdessä. Kansainvälinen lasten lukutaitotutkimus (PIRLS 2016). Jyväskylä: Koulutuksen tutkimuslaitos 2017.
[2] Leino, Nissinen, Puhakka, Rautopuro: Lukutaito luodaan yhdessä. Kansainvälinen lasten lukutaitotutkimus (PIRLS 2016). Jyväskylä: Koulutuksen tutkimuslaitos 2017.
[3] Duursman Elisabeth: The Effects of Fathers’ and Mothers’ Reading to Their Children on Language Outcomes of Children Participating in Early Head Start in the United States. Fathering: A Journal of Theory, Research, and Practice about Men as Fathers. Vol 12, No 3, 2014.
[4] OECD 2016: PISA 2015 Results in Focus
[5] Lerkkanen, Salminen, Pakarinen (2018). Varhaislapsuuden lukuhetket tukevat lukutaitoa. Onnimanni 1-2/2018
[6] Vorlesestudie 2011: 
Die Bedeutung des Vorlesens für die Entwicklung von Kindern. Stiftung Lesen 2011.[7] Arffman & Nissinen: Lukutaidon kehitys PISA-tutkimuksissa. Millä eväillä uuteen nousuun? PISA 2012 tutkimustuloksia. Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland 2015:6.
[8] Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland 12/2016:
Finland is one of the top countries in the world in the field of library services
[9]
Niilo Mäki Instituutin Lukumummit ja -vaarit.

 

2.    Why early reading is essential for the development of literacy?

Regarding literacy and linguistic development, the first years of a child are crucial. Reading aloud to a baby supports the development of literacy and language capabilities. These findings are also supported by the initial results of recent Finnish studies. [10] Even a newborn enjoys reading, rhythm and rhyme. Eye-tracking and other studies have effectively proven that babies have a wider vocabulary than has previously been expected. [11]

Since midpregnancy, the fetus is able to hear and create memory traits into the brain. Even a newborn recognizes its mother tongue[12] and tries to make sounds using it[13]. During the first year, the baby slowly starts to specialize in its mother tongue. The more successful the specialization process, the more efficient is the linguistic development in the future. That is why language development support should start immediately after the baby is born.

In order to learn a language, a baby needs mutual interaction with the parents and social feedback such as smiles from them. [14] Reading aloud is a great way to build positive interaction that boosts language learning. It also enhances the problem-solving skills of a baby and a small child. The linguistic capacities of a baby are further strengthened by the rhythmic structure of poems and rhymes and the melody of the parent’s voice. [15]

Also the ’joint attention’ situations where an adult steers the baby’s attention to pictures and texts by pointing at them and repeating words, contribute to the vocabulary development of a baby [16]. In terms of linguistic development, it is important to draw baby’s attention to the central features in the speech with the help of intonation and repetition. Secondly, objects and phenomena in the environment should be pointed and named. In read-aloud sessions these vital functions take place simultaneously and almost automatically.

For preschool-aged children, stories and tales provide a safe environment where they can investigate their own emotions and fears. Meanwhile, their social skills, imagination and ability to empathize grow stronger. The infant who is regularly read aloud to, is according to several studies more just and sociable towards other children. [17] But not only the children but the whole family benefit from the read-aloud sessions. They create experiences of togetherness and enhance interaction between a child and an adult and help the adult to understand the points of interest in the life of a child or an adolescent. [18] For instance, a daily bedtime story is a great basis for an everyday reading routine.

Reading aloud is connected to success at school and positive attitudes towards school. In a German study, the researchers found out that 83 percent of the children who were read aloud to on a daily basis went happily to school, whereas among children who were rarely read aloud to, only 43 percent had positive attitudes towards school. Another positive impact of reading aloud is the growth and versatility of the vocabulary. All in all, the future success of a child seems to depend more on the frequency of read-aloud sessions at home than on the socio-economic status or educational background of the parents. [19]

All in all, home, early childhood education, school and library together create the framework and resources for children and youth to develop a desire to read. Literacy is only developed when it is trained in an active and multifaceted manner [20]. The reading habits adopted in early childhood define the habits of adolescence and adulthood.

The Read Aloud project by the Finnish Reading Centre shares information about the importance of reading aloud through child health care clinics and aim at reaching out to all families regardless their social or economic background. [21]

[10] Experts consulted:

Lukivauva project*: PhD Paula Virtala (University of Helsinki). Lukivauva (DyslexiaBaby) research project was established to study the language development of children and the early signs of dyslexia in the developing brain. The project is implemented in collaboration with the University of Helsinki, The Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa and the University of Jyväskylä.

Oppiva vauva project*, researchers Emma Suppanen and Sari Ylinen. In the Oppiva vauva (Learning Baby) research project, the learning capacity of newborn babies is examined in the context of linguistic and language development in neural networks. The project of the University of Helsinki takes place in Finland in partnership with the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa. The head of the project is docent Sari Ylinen.

 

[11] Dunst, Simkus, Hamby: Effects of Reading to Infants and Toddlers on Their Early Language Development. CellReviews Vol. 5 Nr. 4. 2012.
[12] Bergelson & Swingley: At 6-9 months, human infants know the meanings of many common nouns. PNAS 2012.
[13] Moon, Lagercrantz, & Kuhl: 
Language experienced in utero affects vowel perception after birth: a twocountry study. Acta Paediatrica 2013.
[14] Mampe, Friederici, Christophe, Wermke: Newborns’ Cry Melody Is Shaped by Their Native Language. Current Biology 2009, Vol. 19. Is. 23.
[15] Goldstein, King, West: Social interaction shapes babbling: Testing parallels between birdsong and speech.PNAS no. 13, 2003
[16] Oppiva Vauva project, Emma Suppanen and Sari Ylinen*
[17] Baldwin: Understanding the Link Between Joint Attention and Language. Joint Attention – Its Origins and Role in Development, 1995.
[19] Vorlesestudie 2015:
Vorlesen – Investition in Mitgefühl und solidarisches Handeln.Stiftung Lesen 2015.

[20] Heikkilä-Halttunen: Lue lapselle! Opas lasten kirjallisuuskasvatukseen, Atena 2015.

[21] Read Aloud Project
www.luelapselle.fi

 

3.    How to encourage children and youth to read?

While Finland still ranks number one in the world of literacy, the motivation and enthusiasm expressed by children and adolescents towards reading is extremely low [22]. Finnish children seem to have very low interest towards reading, writing and literary arts [23].

Literacy is linked to reading enjoyment. Children who like to read, read more. Because they read more, they read better, and because they read better, they read more. Positive attitudes generate a virtuous cycle where literacy fuels reading motivation and reading achievement. [24] Literacy also supports the learning of other subjects, such as mathematics.

Family and home environment play a central role in the reading motivation process [25]. In addition, the literacy education at school is indispensable. Teacher’s influence may be as significant as that of parents and friends [26]. Therefore, reading motivation should take a central place in the reading education at school. Importantly, in the new national curriculum for basic education that came into force in 2016, literacy and reading for pleasure have gained a more central place [27]. Access to versatile texts and alternative approaches is important in the reading motivation [28]. The students should be given a chance to influence the selection of texts at school.

Children’s reading motivation increases when they join various reading and book-related campaigns at school. For instance, visiting libraries and meeting authors, or completing reading diplomas and book projects encourage the children and adolescents to read for pleasure. [29] [30] [31] The annual Reading Week campaign created by the Finnish Reading Centre as well as the Great Reading Adventure campaign [32] in 2017 are examples of Finnish initiatives that inspire children and youth to read through several events, campaigns and materials. In 2017, the Great Reading Adventure reached over half a million Finns all around the country through events and media coverage.

The nation-wide Reading Clan project coordinated by Finnish Cultural Foundation and a non-profit organization for Kopiosto aims at identifying the best practices in reading encouragement in  primary and comprehensive schools. The preparatory survey conducted at the beginning of the project, mapped teachers’ preferred practices for the creation of reading enthusiasm in a classroom. According to the 885 class teachers who responded to the survey, the most effective methods for enhancing reading motivation were book talks (91 percent of the respondents had used the method) and reading diplomas (84 percent had used the method). [33]

There should be more attention in mainstream media towards reading, especially on reading role models and on newly published children’s and adolescents’ books. It is important to acknowledge that the general attitudes towards reading and literature in the society directly influence the reading motivation and the reading performance of children and adolescents. According to a survey conducted by children’s literature journal Onnimanni (1-2/2018), the Finnish magazines mostly ignore children’s books in their literary reviews. This also applies to the big newspapers where children’s book reviews remain infrequent.

Celebrities and media personas can provide positive reading role models. The Words matter! project (2016-2017) confirmed the assumption in their rap lyrics workshops for vocational school students. The workshop instructors were popular and charismatic young men, one of them famous rapper, and they effectively helped the teenagers to understand better the significance of literacy. [34]

In 2017, altogether 1218 books for children and adolescents were published, out of which 587 were written by Finnish authors [35]. The Finnish Institute for Children’s Literature is an information centre that maintains a comprehensive and open collection of literature for children and youth and related research. [36] The Lukufiilis, a literary journal for young people, published online by the Finnish Reading Centre, showcases both iconic novels and the hottest debuts in the field of youth literature [37]

 

[22] Leino, Nissinen, Puhakka, Rautopuro: Lukutaito luodaan yhdessä. Kansainvälinen lasten lukutaitotutkimus (PIRLS 2016). Jyväskylä: Koulutuksen tutkimuslaitos 2017.
[23] OKM: Valtakunnallinen koululaiskysely 2017.
[24] Leino, Nissinen, Puhakka, Rautopuro: Lukutaito luodaan yhdessä. Kansainvälinen lasten lukutaitotutkimus (PIRLS 2016). Jyväskylä: Koulutuksen tutkimuslaitos 2017.
[25] Arffman & Nissinen: Lukutaidon kehitys PISA-tutkimuksissa. Millä eväillä uuteen nousuun? PISA 2012 tutkimustuloksia. OKM 2015:6.
[26] Merisuo-Storm, Soininen: Esi- ja alkuopetusikäisten poikien itsetunto, lukemisasenteet, lukemisminäkuva ja lukemisen taidot. In Mahlamäki- Kultanen, Hämäläinen, Pohjonen, Nyyssölä (ed.) Maailman osaavin kansa 2020 – Koulutuspolitiikan keinot, mahdollisuudet ja päämäärät. Raportit ja selvitykset 2013:8. Tampere: National Board of Education, Finland.
[27] Finnish National Agency for Education. (2016). Curriculum reform 2016: Renewal of the core curriculum for pre-primary and basic education.
[28] Lukuinto-opas. Lukumotivaatiota ja monilukutaitoa koulun ja kirjaston yhteistyönä. Oulun yliopisto 2015. Rajala: Tytöt ja pojat lukijoina. Lukutaito ja lukuharrastuneisuus neljällä lounaissuomalaisella alakoululla. Jyväskylän yliopisto, Kokkolan yliopistokeskus Chydenius 2015.
[29] Hämäläinen et al.: Kirjailijavierailu lukuinnostuksen lisääjänä. Oppilaiden näkemyksiä Kirjailija joka kouluun -vierailuista. Jyväskylän yliopisto ja Lukukeskus 2014.
[30] Sulkunen, Nissinen, 2012. ”Heikot lukijat Suomessa.” In Sulkunen, Välijärvi (ed.) 2012. Kestääkö osaamisen pohja? PISA 09. Opetus- ja kulttuuriministeriön julkaisuja 2012: 12.
[31] Tarvainen: 100-vuotiaan Suomen uusi lukutaito -hankkeen loppuraportti. Lukukeskus 2016.
[32] The Great Reading Adventure project website
[33] Satokangas, Henri (2018): Lukuklaani-tutkimus kartoittaa alakoulujen lukemista. Virke 2/2018
[34] Sanat haltuun –loppuraportti, Lukukeskus 2018.
[35] Kirjakori 2017, The Finnish Institute for Children’s Literature
[36] Kirjakori 2017, The Finnish Institute for Children’s Literature
[37] Lukufiilis

 

4. Do teenagers realize the significance of literacy?

The amount of time the Finnish adolescents spend on reading has almost halved during the last 20 years [38]. Currently, only 10 percent of the 15-year-old Finns read fiction several times per week, and non-fiction has even fewer young readers, merely 4 percent [39]. Smartphones and Internet have inevitably influenced the reading habits of young people. By and large, their interest towards longer texts has lost ground.

Reading engagement and literacy are strongly connected, and the declining reading motivation has been followed by lower level of reading performance. According to recent studies, every tenth adolescent in Finland has poor literacy skills, and among boys, the respective proportion is 16 percent. The gap between girls and boys has drastically widened in Finland, reaching a point where the difference between genders is now larger than in any other OECD country. [40]

Low literacy skills hold the young people back and endanger their success in studies and in working life, whereas good literacy skills strengthen social identity and increase equity. Literacy also helps at coping with the challenges of information society and contemporary working life. However, literacy does not only mean mechanic skills nor grammar, but it rather refers to the capability to deal with versatile texts and fragmentated information, necessary for the survival of an individual today and in the future society. [41]

Good literacy is a key factor in the prevention of marginalization. Without sufficient literacy skills, a person is at risk of becoming socially excluded. The proportion of marginalized youth is significantly higher in Finland than in other Nordic countries. Almost 16 percent of Finnish youth at the age of 20-24 are completely deprived of education and working life. [42]

It is concerning that the young people don’t see reasons to read. The final survey of the Words Matter! project implemented by the Finnish Reading Centre in 2016-2017 indicated that a significant share of vocational school students did not consider reading important nor did they see a connection between literacy and working life. Only around a tenth of the respondents told they read in order to manage in the working life. [43]

 Hence, it is important to reflect upon the ways we address reading and literacy. The necessity of literacy in everyday life should be elaborated for young people. Literacy provides tools for articulation of emotions and boosts self-confidence and self-understanding. When one is good at expressing oneself, it helps her or him to manage in different social environments and situations. Literacy is connected to speaking and writing abilities, as these skills develop hand in hand.

It is important to find captivating texts and genres for youth, expand their understanding of reading, and help them recognize the importance of literacy. If traditional books are not considered interesting, non-fiction or even rap lyrics may provide a more appealing alternative.

In the Finnish Words Matter! project (2016-2017), literacy was approached through rap music in 24 Finnish vocational schools. According to the feedback gathered from the youth, around half of them stated they had learnt something new. Thirty percent became interested in new kinds of texts, and over 20 percent claimed their attitudes towards reading had changed. [44] The outcomes of the project were quite satisfactory considering the low level of initial interest towards reading among the participants.

Ebooks may also encourage reading. According to a study conducted by the British National Literacy Trust (2015), availability of ebooks almost halved the number of boys who struggled with reading [45].

[38] Tilastokeskus: Uusi teknologia on vaikuttanut koululaisten elämäntapoihin. 05/2014
[39] Sirén, Leino, Nissinen: Nuorten media-arki ja lukutaito. Koulutuksen tutkimuslaitos ja Sanomalehtien liitto 2018.
[40] Vettenranta et al.: PISA 15 Ensituloksia. OKM 2016.
[41]Vettenranta et al.: PISA 15 Ensituloksia. OKM 2016.
[42] Eurostat, 8/2016
[43] Sanat haltuun –loppuraportti, Lukukeskus 2018.
[44] Sanat haltuun –loppuraportti, Lukukeskus 2018.
[45] The Impact of ebooks on the Reading Motivation and Reading Skills of Children and Young People. National Literacy Trust, 2015

 

5. Smart devices versus paper book

The reading habits are changing in all age groups. Even babies and toddlers spend more and more time on smart devices. The results of the Finnish VUOKKO study indicate that children aged 2-3 read more books than watch TV, but watch more TV than use smart phones or mobile devices. However, children at the age of 6 spend much more time on television than on books and use mobile devices as much as they read or browse books and magazines. [46] On the other hand, digital devices and applications can also be taken advantage of in reading promotion, since they may invite parents and children to new environments of reading.

In order to improve literacy, we have to promote long-term deep reading. Deep reading affects the brain differently to superficial reading: studies show that by reading a long narrative text, wide brain areas become activated. [47]

Students who read a lot of fiction and manage well in deep reading seem to perform better also in other subjects [48]. Hence, in the context of changing reading habits, extra attention should be paid to adolescents. They use multiple media simultaneously, communicate with each other in high speed and prefer entertainment and speed-reading over books and deep reading.

The most serious challenges are related to the reading situations that require critical thinking, as young people in Finland find interpreting and assessing the overall content of a text challenging. [49] Critical literacy skills are also paramount in the contemporary online environment where one has to evaluate the reliability of information and recognize trolling. YouTube videos require reading skills, too!

In reading engagement, more important than the format is the easy access to interesting and suitable texts. For instance, in a school library, paper books are easily available whereas, in the realm of digital environments, ebooks may fascinate new readers.

The recent studies suggest that those who read less, especially boys, may find the technology-mediated texts more intriguing than texts in print. [50] Therefore, availability of e-books may potentially create new readers. The deep reading opportunities should intrude the spaces young people move about anyway, meaning social media and smart phones [51]. On the other hand, literacy does not transform itself automatically into digital format, but one also has to exercise electronic reading [52].

Audio books are becoming increasingly popular, and they also attract new listeners.

Last year in Finland the sales of downloadable audio books grew with 181 percent, reaching 1.8 million Euros. However, in comparison with the sales of traditional books, the figures are still modest, comprising less than 2 percent of all book sales. [53]

In conclusion, digital and paper books do not necessarily compete with each other. Different formats do not replace but strengthen each other: e-books, designed to serve busy lifestyles, are consumed in a different manner than printed books. Audio books can also attract potential readers who are not interested in traditional books.

 

[46] Lerkkanen, Salminen, Pakarinen (2018). Varhaislapsuuden lukuhetket tukevat lukutaitoa. Onnimanni 1-2/2018.
[47] Huotilainen, Peltonen: Tunne aivosi. Otava 2017.
[48] Sirén, Leino, Nissinen: Nuorten media-arki ja lukutaito -tutkimusraportti. Koulutuksen tutkimuslaitos & Sanomalehtien liitto 2018.
[49]
 Leino, Nissinen, Puhakka, Rautapuro, J. Lukutaito luodaan yhdessä. Kansainvälinen lasten lukutaitotutkimus (PIRLS 2016). Jyväskylä: Koulutuksen tutkimuslaitos 2017.
[50] Sirén, Leino, Nissinen: Nuorten media-arki ja lukutaito -tutkimusraportti. Koulutuksen tutkimuslaitos & Sanomalehtien liitto 2018.
[51] Tarvainen: 100-vuotiaan Suomen uusi lukutaito -hankkeen loppuraportti. Lukukeskus 2016.
[52] Tarvainen: 100-vuotiaan Suomen uusi lukutaito -hankkeen loppuraportti. Lukukeskus 2016.
[53] Kustannusyhdistys: Neljännesvuositilasto 2017 Q1-Q4.