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Changes in English teaching in Finnish compulsory education

Written by Benedetta Giuliani

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It is a widely known fact that children learn foreign languages the best while at a young age. Many studies show and suggest that the best time to learn is before the age of ten because at this stage of life the language is learnt and acquired faster, retained better and spoken with good pronunciation.

It is an accepted fact that the younger the learner, the more successful they are at mimicking new sounds and retaining vocabulary. This is because our brain is more open to new words/sounds before adolescence.

Nowadays, many children grow up in bilingual families and environments and have thus acquired two languages as their first ones like the author of this article.

There are many Finnish families who put their children into an English speaking kindergarten to help them to pick up the language more naturally and quickly.

English learning in Finnish Primary and Secondary School

In Finland the first foreign language to learn at school for students has been English for many years. When the author went to school, we  had English two hours a week from 3rd grade onwards.

From 2020 after educational regulations changed, school students are now learning a foreign language (usually English) from the 1st grade, usually two hours a week so that hasn’t changed since the millennium started. As has been noted

According to data from the National Agency for Education, some 83 percent of children learn English as their first foreign language.

In Helsinki, schools have offered foreign languages from first grade since 2018. The capital was a trailblazer in that regard, with schools nationwide adopting that policy in 2019. Even so, the city is working to encourage more families to learn other languages.

‘We started working with pre-primary teachers and groups to introduce languages in those groups. So we tried to raise awareness about languages in these groups. The awareness about language learning has been increasing since then’, said the city’s language coordinator Satu Koistinen.

To summarize, the Finnish education system provides its pupils with a language repertoire of at least three languages: the mother tongue (Finnish or Swedish), the second national language (Finnish or Swedish), and one other foreign language, which is usually English.

Almost 80 % of Finns keep to these three languages. Statistics show that language learning is becoming ever more centered around Finnish, Swedish and English.

A common belief is that learning a foreign language other than English, e.g. German or Russian, is no longer as advantageous as it might have been before.

The dominance of English as the only foreign language that pupils learn is one of the key issues that these experiments were trying to tackle.

Changes in English teaching over the years

About eighty percent (80%) of 1st graders choose English as their foreign language to learn and about ⅓ of Finnish municipalities offer a foreign language from either 1st or 2nd grade.

Nowadays in Finnish schools and especially when it comes to learning a foreign language (English), teachers make maximum use of digital technology.

They also use functional teaching methods for the younger children through playing and singing, the priority being holistic learning. Through playing, the young students can practice and improve their spoken skills and start to feel relaxed using the new language.

The aim for this is to support their upcoming language studies, encourage the children to use the language and arouse their interest in English. Thus, they make the most of the sensitive period of young students’ language acquisition.

These kinds of teaching methods were not widespread while the author was in primary school. Although the actual weekly amount of English lessons has not changed for ten years, thanks to the new education regulation, young primary school students will study two hours a week already from 1st/2nd grade onwards.  

The role of technology

The argument for the learning benefits of digital technology in Finland has been that it offers students future opportunities in lifetime learning and practice in self-guiding skills alongside other learning as well as networking opportunities (Kankaanranta & Puhakka 2008).

Studying with technological tools at an early age ensures that even young students are at ease using them. In primary schools across Finland tablets are the main digital devices in language learning alongside laptops.

The schools provide the tablets and laptops but if they break the families must pay for a new one. When the author went to primary school, we only used books and the audio material was on CDs. 

To summarize, Finland has adopted a blended teaching approach which combines the traditional teaching methods using books, audio and written material and the latest digital technology.

By Sami Jones – Sanako Language Ambassador

Resources

https://yle.fi/uutiset/osasto/news/finnish_schools_teach_languages_earlier_than_ever_but_struggle_to_move_beyond_english/11492669

https://yle.fi/uutiset/osasto/news/finnish_schools_teach_languages_earlier_than_ever_but_struggle_to_move_beyond_english/11492669

https://julkaisut.valtioneuvosto.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/161383/6-2019-Digiajan%20peruskoulu_.pdf

Kankaanranta, M., Puhakka, E. 2008. Kohti innovatiivista tietotekniikan opetuskäyttöä. Kansainvälisen SITES 2006-tutkimuksen tuloksia. Koulutuksen tutkimuslaitos. Jyväskylän yliopisto.


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