Scandinavian Dopers: when did you learn to read?

Okay, Bulgarian kids begin formal schooling at the age of seven in first grade. I’ve known this for a long time. What I just learned is that in general, they can’t read until this time either. I was under the impression that they begin learning to read in kindergarten (which is private and isn’t mandatory, but most kids go).

I was pretty shocked by this. I’m hardly a child prodigy, but by the time I was seven I was already borrowing chapter books from the library. Yeah, sometimes I had to get my parents to help me with a word here or there, but I had been reading for a couple years by then. I felt like the Bulgarian educational system was really falling down here, but I did some googling and discovered that formal school in Scandinavian countries also begins at seven - but that the nursery school/kindergarten teachers are highly trained specialists on working with young children.

I know there are some Scandinavian Dopers floating around there somewhere, so I’m curious: when did you learn to read? Any opinions on when formal schooling should begin?


Swede here. We start going to compulsory school at the age of seven. I had been able to read for two years or so by then, but most kids aren’t. Most of the kids in my class were crap at reading as I recall (it made class extremely boring for me). I don’t remember any reading training in preschool.

I know nothing about Scandinavian education, but you might be interested to know that Waldorf schools, of which there are many in the U.S., do not teach reading until age 7 (in fact, it’s my understanding that they actually discourage it). Wiki link.

C3, that was an interesting link. I knew some Waldorf-educated kids when I was young, so I knew that they did some things differently, but I didn’t know their philosophy on teaching reading.

I guess I’m just having a hard time envisioning how not teaching kids to read early could be seen as okay. I think I’m reading too much into it. Bulgarians don’t seem to read very much as a society, something I noticed a long time ago, and when I found out they don’t learn reading until the age of seven I just went “ah ha! This is why!” But it seems there are a lot more factors at work here.

I phoned my mother on this. She says I was reading by forming syllables at slightly under two (“t-i ti, g-e-r ger, tiger”, except in Finnish, of course) and reading fluently at three. Then again, I’m weird and should not be used as evidence in anything.

For the most part, Finns start school at 7. (Rarely, if the kid is determined to be school-ready, they can start at 6, and sometimes they can wait until 8.) By that time, a lot of the kids have a rudimentary grasp of letters, and some can read quite fluently. We have laws stating that daycare be provided for every child and that pre-education be provided for children attending daycare who are starting school the following year (literally “pre-school”, “esikoulu”). There’s quite a bit of pre-reading done at this level: for example, the following is the “reading and writing” part of a curriculum at a daycare center in Kuopio.

Rudimentary reading and writing skills:


  • the presence of written text
  • playing with letters
  • reading direction (i.e. knowing that you read from left to right)
  • reading comprehension
  • independent reading


  • play writing (i.e. forming nonsense symbols)
  • writing one’s own name
  • copying down model writing
  • interest in writing
  • practising motor skills: writing position and holding a pen
  • writing direction (i.e. left to right)
  • recognizing and writing letters


  • discussions based on texts read before
  • introduction to children’s literature
  • using the library and the bookmobile
  • introduction to one’s own culture and folklore
  • introduction to foreign cultures and languages

Of course, the content of curriculi varies depending on available resources, but this looks quite par for the course when I compare it to what my youngest little brother was doing in pre-school in Helsinki 4 years ago - and pretty similar to what I did 18 years ago. (My reading was awesome, but I had real problems with motor skills; drawing circles was friggin’ hard, as one can see from the preschool workbooks my parents still have lying around somewhere.)

The girls in my girl scout pack were first-graders for the most part when they started, and all of them could read and write, but most of them still took their time forming letters and words, and the end results were pretty shaky (so we photocopied things ready for them instead of making them write it themselves). By the end of the second year, they were all reading and writing fluently.

I just keep wondering what Bulgarian kids have to do with Scandinavian education, but I digress…

When I was a wee lad I started school when I was 7. Nowadays kids here in Norway start school at the age of 6, menaning that primary education is increased to 10 grades from the previous 9.

No, blaming a lack of reading on learning to read late won’t work. Lots of kids become fluent and happy readers at 7 or 8. Many of them will just catch on quicker than they would have done at 4 and 5.

There are a lot of kids who aren’t really ready to read at 4 and 5 and even 6, and forcing them to learn to read too early can be damaging and result in a lifelong dislike of reading. Personally, I think our American system is forcing many kids to read too young. I would much prefer for children to read when they’re ready, without being told that they’re slow and LD if they can’t read in kindergarten (when in fact that is normal), or that they’re extra-brilliant if they start at 4. That isn’t always true.

Americans don’t read a lot either, and they’re mostly taught to read at 5 and started on alphabet activities at 3 or earlier (which is often inappropriate and less helpful for reading than other activities). So it can’t be that. In fact, as our anxiety to read early has grown, Americans’ willingness to read has dropped like a stone in a well. (I do not say that that is cause and effect–there are a lot of causes for our general aliteracy.)

I assume it’s because Yanks like Kyla and I are used to having our noses rubbed in the superiority in all things of the Scandinavian governments. I know that whenever I make a statement about something in the United States in the back of my mind is the fear that somebody will pipe in with how that thing is SO much better in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, or Finland. It’s enough to make me want to stuff a herring down someone’s throat, except my wife usually gets most of the herring and I’m not inclined to share the pittance left for me because I’m only part Norwegian.

As for Bulgarian schools, I don’t think seven is all that elderly. American schools may try to start kids reading a year or two earlier, but for most I don’t think it really “takes” until the kids are older.

I think she was saying that she saw something happening in Bulgaria (no reading education until 7) and thought, “Hmmm, that’s probably not great.” Then she did some reading and found out the same thing happens in Scandinavia. She has always heard Scandinavians have an excellent education system and is now questioning her initial reactions to the Bulgarian methods (and wanting to know more about how Scandinavian countries do things).

In Denmark the kids start in pre-school at the age of 6 and “real school” a year later. I could read when I was 3-4 years old, but most of the people I know learned it in school.

I’ll just note that a large percentage of Scandinavians seem to speak and write really good English, so they must be doing something right.

I always thought Americans generally learned later. I learned when I was about 4 (when I was a lot younger, I was educated elsewhere, in the Middle East, but in the British school). Though part of that was just that I really wanted to learn to read from such a young age–more of a self motivating thing. I don’t know if it would’ve worked if I hadn’t cared so much. I remember when I was at school in the states, kids were a bit slower about. This was in first grade. Things levelled out eventually, but I never had the impression that Americans were pushing kids to read at an early age.

That’s it exactly. Thanks!

FWIW, it seems to me that Americans read a lot more than Bulgarians. Last year when I gave some of my 6th graders a little “about me” worksheet, one of the questions was “my favorite book is…” and the kids had no idea what to write. Several of them told me they’d never read a book. But it looks like this doesn’t have to do with the age they learned to read.

I really appreciate your responses!

As I see it there are a few factors that contribute to this: We start learning English in school very early - I had English from fourth grade, but nowadays they start with it right away in first grade.
Secondly: we don’t dub movies and tv-shows, but use subtitles instead; this means that we hear other languages spoken all the time. It seems to me that people from non-tv-dubbing countries (Scandinavia, The Netherlands) are often more fluent in English than those who come from countries where they dub foreign tv (France, Germany).
A third factor could be that the Scandinavian countries are quite small (in terms of population, that is); we simply need to learn at least one language apart from our own to be able to communicate with the rest of the world. In school we learn English, and German or French, too, and in high school many learn at least one more, which could be Spanish or Russian.

I found a doctor’s thesis from Jyväskylä University which deals on literacy development in pre-school kids (scroll down for the English abstract). It says, in part:

i.e. the differences in the age they learned to read doesn’t have such a big effect on reading skills later on. However,

TV is good for you! :smiley:

My mother also postulated that perhaps so many Finnish children have at least a rudimentary grasp on reading when entering first grade because Finnish is pronounced how it’s written, so if you can recognize letters and just string them together, you can easily form syllables and thus words. By contrast, in a language like English, where spelling and pronunciation do not always go hand in hand, it may be tough to get the hang of different words.

It’s called “direct phonetic correspondence” (if I translated it correctly) and I’ve heard it mentioned as a reason for being able to learn quite fast in several Latin languages, too. Doesn’t mean that people from Spain, Portugal or Italy read much, though; only that we have easy-to-read languages.

Hm, Bulgarian is also pronounced how it’s written (they don’t even have a word for “spelling”!), so this might be why they’re so relaxed about teaching reading, too - it’s relatively easy to pick up. English is much harder to learn to read, imho.

This idea about direct phonetic correspondance having something to do with the age at which children learn to read might be applied in the case of Finnish, and to a large extent Norwegian and Swedish. Danish OTOH is notorious for its very unsystematic correspondance between the written and the spoken language. It is at least as bad as English, perhaps even worse. My guess is that we start out at a slower pace, and then catch up to the rest of you a few years into school.

How old are you? Nowadays, there is a big push to read earlier; kids are expected to learn to read in kindergarten, which is a lot like first grade used to be. The more anxious parents make sure that their child is well on the way to reading by the time they start K. A woman I know who tutors for the schools tells everyone flat out that they need to teach their kids reading before they start school (since she doesn’t trust the schools to do it well).

Panurge, I think you’re right about the Danish spelling. I went to folkeskole for a year (10. klasse) and a lot of people had a hard time with spelling, just like in the US. I had to learn to spell all over again. :stuck_out_tongue:

I’m twenty-three. So when I actually learned to read it, was about 1988, and by the time I was in school in the U.S., in first grade, it was 1990/1991. The other kids weren’t all bad readers–they were at varying levels. It was just a bit frustrating for me since I was so much more ahead, but it felt like we had to go at the rate of the slowest person.