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The Bookseller Advertisement Feature


LITERACY SCHEME GETS A TUNE OUT OF YOUNGSTERS


Finland is unquestionably a reading nation: the country was even named the most literate in the world in a landmark 2016 study by US academic John Miller. (The UK placed a rather lacklustre 17th in that report). Miller’s analysis ranked countries on not just literacy rate—Finland’s is around 99%— but other “literate behaviour statistics” such as the number of libraries and newspaper outlets per capita, and education systems. In his report, Miller particularly


praised the equality in Finland’s schools and noted that it and its fellow Nordic countries—all of which were in the top five most literate nations—had “monolithic cultures of reading”. Yet even in the world’s most literate


nation, people can be left behind. A 2015 government report by Finland’s ombudsman for children showed this starkly, stating that reading standards for teenage males were falling, with one in eight 15-year-old boys disquali- fied from upper secondary education (for ages 16–19) due to poor literacy. A similar report released at the same time, incidentally, by the European Literacy Policy Network showed that Finnish girls of the same age signifi- cantly outperformed boys in literacy tests by the widest margin of any Western European nation. Concerned that some boys were being alienated, literacy NGO The Finnish Reading Centre (Lukukeskus), backed by funds from the paper and forestry conglomerate UPM, decided to act, tapping literary and art critic Aleksis Salusjärvi to develop a programme to motivate reluctant readers and teach them creative writ- ing skills. Salusjärvi was tasked to go into


vocational schools—where boys who have trouble reading are often placed— in part to act as a sort of role model. He explains: “Most Finnish teachers are women and many suggested to


me that the boys might need a ‘male reader’ as a good example. Vocational schools have very little in terms of Finnish studies, and we wanted to change that situation and raise public awareness of the importance of Finnish studies and reading skills.” Salusjärvi’s idea was that in order


to engage these boys, he needed to seem—at least on the surface—unaca- demic. So, he teamed up with the rapper Mikko Sarjanen to create the Sanat Haltuun (Words Matter) project using hip-hop lyrics as the “text”. Salusjärvi says: “The basic idea is to make a text analysis without using the ‘school terminology’ such as irony, metaphor, etc. Our goal is to explain that reading is much more than pure texts. Reading is a skill of survival. If you can’t read traffic signs, you can’t survive in the streets. If you can’t ‘read’ a football game, you can’t enjoy watch- ing it or playing it.


working so well that they have expanded Sanat Haltuun to bring it to prisons and elementary schools. Salusjärvi says: “It is great to see we are doing something good. Many of the boys we have been teaching stay in school, and I have been able to publish some of their writing in maga- zines and books.” Salusjärvi knows first-hand what


many of his charges are going through. He grew up in Espoonlahti, a some- what downtrodden suburb between Helsinki and Espoo. Salusjärvi had parents who read to him, great teach- ers, and he went on to study literature at university. But many of his friends were not so fortunate, drifting into crime and some dying of drug over- doses. He adds: “It might be shocking [for some to find] that this happens in Finland, but it does. So I know where these supposedly illiterate boys come from. I know why they think


READING IS MUCH MORE THAN PURE TEXTS. READING IS A SKILL OF SURVIVAL


–Aleksis Salusjärvi “And rap lyrics work because the


kids know and study them already—if only subconsciously—so they already have an interest, and can analyse the [songs] without having to first read a text. They can just listen. In many cases that is a crucial advantage to engage [reluctant readers] without the initial struggle of reading.” Since the project’s launch in 2016,


Salusjärvi and Sarjanen have taught more than 5,000 students in their workshops. The project has raised literacy rates and performance for over half of its participants. In fact, it is


literature is not for them.” And people need literature,


Salusjärvi argues, the whole human race does. He says: “Victor Hugo once described literature as birds that fly everywhere. I think that’s true: books are the knowledge of everything we know as a species, and they belong to everyone. Whenever there is a society or state that restricts litera- ture—like Hungary, Russia or Turkey today—it is a crisis in humanity itself. It is hard to imagine humanity without literature. I don’t think one can exist without the other.”


RIGHT, FROM TOP FINNISH RAPPER MIKKO SARJANEN DISCUSSES SONG LYRICS WITH RELUCTANT YOUNG MALE READERS IN A FINNISH CLASSROOM, AS PART OF THE SANAT HALTUUN PROJECT; LITERARY AND ART CRITIC ALEKSIS SALUSJÄRVI , WHO DEVELOPED THE SCHEME, LEADS AN ANALYSIS OF THE SONG’S CONTENT WITH STUDENTS. THE PROGRAMME’S SUCCESS HAS SEEN IT ROLLED OUT IN PRISONS, TOO


LITERACY


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