Pirjo Hiidenmaa: Literacy is our national treasure

It’s easy to list positive effects of literature and literacy: a broader vocabulary, a more vivid imagination, increased knowledge and understanding, a better ability to visualise alternative realities and perspectives, a reader can live several lives, readers learn to empathise with the lives and situations of others. Life management skills develop alongside cognitive and linguistic skills. There have even been successful experiments of incorporating some literature studies into medical education. This is thought to support empathy and provide an understanding of different life situations.

Reading has also been found to have effects similar to mindfulness: with a book or audiobook, the reader can cut down on the multitude of stimuli and focus on just one thing at a time. Although the most avid readers will even read while doing the dishes.

However, reading as a phenomenon is not confined to the inside of people’s heads. We know from literacy education in schools that the best way to support reading skills is to read together and to discuss the reading. Reading is also a way of being together, sharing ideas, developing interpretations and listening to the opinions of others, learning to see that others may be enthusiastic about a topic that you may think is superficial or clichéd.

There are now more and more varied kinds of spaces for and ways of reading. A new perspective is to see reading as a social activity. This social reading includes book events, which are cropping up with delightful frequency as the book fairs in various cities are joined by the Old Literature Fair, various commercial events as well as an abundance of author interviews and visits. It is particularly wonderful that libraries are currently offering a dizzying variety of different types of reading groups. Other forms of social reading include book blogs and Facebook groups which are emerging in the hundreds to offer readers a place to share their literary experiences.

Literacy and its practices along with the texts readers encounter are changing and evolving into new forms at a rapid pace. Consequently, we constantly need new research in the field, along with new methods for processing new types of material.

The latest PISA results as well as national tests tell a worrying tale of the literacy levels of our schoolchildren. Long texts that require concentration are being read less and less. Not everyone can differentiate between texts that have different functions: they may be reading news reports and marketing texts as if they were the same thing. How can people equipped with deficient literacy skills cope with fake news and propaganda? And what of literature and theatre, which weave together fact and fiction in fascinating ways?

Literacy is a significant part of our national wealth. It has helped our country grow and develop its culture, economy and wealth. With literacy, individuals have been able to create a place for themselves in society. We will continue to need many different kinds of literacy, whether it be to do with deciding how to vote, critical consumerism or the need to understand those who think differently to us. .

We must look after this national treasure.

# Siksitiede # Researchmatters

In the series Science Advocates, people describe the significance of research and research-based teaching for themselves. Read the other instalments on the Researchmatters website (scroll down).





Why do we need science?

The world and, thus, the needs of people and the environment are changing at an ever-accelerating pace. At the moment, we don’t know what kind of questions will require answers fifty years from now. What we do already know for certain is that solving these future challenges requires long-term research.

This is where science comes in.

For the sake of Finland’s welfare, it is crucial to safeguard our high level of expertise from early childhood education to the highest level of education and research. Our future lies in expertise and skilled specialists, which is why we should increase our investments in education and research.

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