What Other Countries Do Right When It Comes to Reading

by Laura Lambert

Photo credits (left to right): xPACIFICA, Iconica/Getty Images; Patrik Rastenberger, Folio Images/Getty Images; Stephanie Rausser, Stone/Getty Images; JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

Like many of you, I imagine, I think a lot about what it takes to raise kids who love to read. I don’t know that I’ve arrived at any one answer — it seems to be a mix of practicing what you preach, seeking out good resources, and hoping for the best. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always be on the lookout for those who are, by certain measures, doing it right.

Here are three lessons we can learn from our global friends and neighbors.

Fostering the love of reading
The Stone Soup Happy Reading Alliance (SSHRA), a program in China, focuses not on reading skills, but on the ever-elusive love of reading. Schools, from urban to rural, are rife with books. The program stresses “the emotional and personal dimensions of reading” — which is awesome, because emotional, personal reasons are why us people who love to read read.

There’s a three-pronged approach that includes a few core tenets — lots of books, readily available; time to read; and faculty and staff who are all about reading. They don’t just read books, they put on plays about those books, a wonderful tie back to oral tradition.

While this is not the norm in all Chinese schools, it’s an impressive curriculum with an admirable all-in spirit.

South Korea
Building bilingual brains
In South Korea, bi-lingualism starts early — kids start learning English in the third grade. (They’re not alone — most kids in the UK start learning a foreign language by age seven). I took Spanish in high school, and can fumble my way through restaurants and tiendas, but I lack the ability to think in two (or more) languages.

The data is pretty clear — being about to read and speak in another language is a clear boost to a child’s brain. It’s not just the characters on the page. Studies show that “a multilingual brain is nimbler, quicker, better able to deal with ambiguities, resolve conflicts, and even resist Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia longer.”

Reimagining education from the ground up
In yet another case of the Scandinavians getting it right, Finland completely transformed its education system beginning in the ‘70s, going from one of the worst performing countries to the very top in literacy and mathematics. Two core tenets of this transformation are publicly funded, high quality education for all and a serious investment in teachers. In Finland, teaching is a truly prestigious occupation. Only the best get to do it. And that esteem wends its way down to students.

The secret of Finland’s success has been much studied. Is it because they don’t start academics until age seven? Is it because these well-trained teachers have so much autonomy? Is it because of universal preschool that’s basically free? Changes like equal access and investing in teachers get away from the mechanics of teaching kids to read or the logistics of filling classrooms or bedrooms with books and toward the scaffolding that holds up the entire system. That scaffolding is key.

United States
I’m lucky. When we started looking at kindergarten options for my daughter, I had a buffet of dual language immersion programs (Spanish! Italian! French! Chinese!) to choose from. The school we eventually chose has absolutely fostered a love of reading, with a great curriculum and rooms overflowing with a wide variety of books. And while we’re not exactly winning on the free, high-quality public education system that values its teachers and gives them autonomy part (at least not yet), I am trying to keep my perspective.

This New York Times op-ed is a good reminder:

“Reading, in particular, can’t be rushed. It has been around for only about 6,000 years, so the ability to transform marks on paper into complex meaning is not pre-wired into the brain. It doesn’t develop ‘naturally,’ as do other complex skills such as walking; it can be fostered, but not forced.”

To foster, not force. Those are the new words to live — and parent — by.