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Finland's Reading Week reignites young people's interest in books

International test scores show Finnish students' reading abilities have fallen steadily since 2000. One teacher in southern Espoo took this year's Reading Week to heart, devoting an entire week to reading in her school.

Sissi Yli-Hukkala
School teacher Sissi Yli-Hukkala. Image: Mikko Laine / Yle

Pupils at Espoo's Kaita Secondary School are taking part in an experiment: an entire week of reading as part of Finland's new curriculum addition called phenomenon-based teaching. All normal schedules for the week are off.

"In previous years, we devoted the phenomenon-based teaching week to some kind of grandiose project, to promote command of the language. I thought that we could focus on reading as a process, to promote the idea that reading is valuable in its own right. Maybe the students will internalise the idea that they could read in their spare time as well," says their teacher Sissi Yli-Hukkala.

At first the idea inspired scepticism in both her students and her colleagues.

"Some of the students said they would refuse to read a word. The teachers were also worried about how I would be able to motivate the teens to read," Yli-Hukkala says.

A few days into the project, however, the pupils seemed to be coming around to how rewarding reading can be.

"Its has actually been quite fun. I would never have read this much otherwise. I've read a lot this week because we haven't had to be doing something else all the time," says seventh-grader Pipsa Hyvärinen.

"This is a great change of pace from school instruction. When you have to read, you notice that it's actually quite fun," says her classmate Samu Miikka.

Persistence is the key

Yli-Hukkala says she is well aware of the challenges involved with getting pupils to read. In her experience, as soon as a book is placed on her students' desks, they start to dig out their phones or visit – anything to avoid reading.

The decline of young people's reading skills and interest in reading is a reason for concern, and many people are worried about literary rates in Finland plummeting. Mean PISA test scores in reading comprehension have fallen steadily since the year 2000, for example. Young people increasingly reject reading as a leisure activity in the age of mobile phones.

Yli-Hukkala says some of tenacity is required.

"We spend too much time these days asking "Would you like to read?" or "Wouldn't this be a nice choice?" Not everything has to be great from the start. Reading might seem a chore at first, but it becomes wonderful when you stick with it for awhile," she says.

She sees her role as a teacher as acting as a conduit for connecting young people and reading, and removing any barriers between them.

She says that the first job is to help students get past their initial distaste at the prospect of digging into a book. No one is forced to do it, but removing distractions has proven to be a big help.

"No matter how many times a pupil says that they aren't interested or can't be bothered, just keep offering something to read. Tell them that phones and other gadgets have to be put away for awhile because everyone is going to read quietly. When there's no alternative, the reading material does the rest. They are carried away and become enthusiastic about it," Yli-Hukkala says.

Not reading at home - until now

Yli-Hukkala says she had previously tried to have pupils start books in class and continue reading at home, only to notice that no progress was being made. She decided to try asking them to read the same book long enough so they would get drawn in.

"When we returned to books that we had started in a previous lesson, the pupils started to ask me if we could read again next time, or if we could arrange to have more reading sessions," she says.

Her experiment has generated interest in her Espoo community, and the local library has arranged workshops on different topics associated with reading for the class. Discussions about books that the whole group has read have also been popular.

"One way to promote interest in reading is to read books up to a certain point and then sit down in a circle and discuss the book. Many of my students have said that it is fun to talk about the books that they have just read," the teacher says.

The nationwide "Lukuviikko" campaign promoted by the Finnish Reading Centre takes place this year from April 16-22.

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