"Sometimes the reputation is better than the reality"

An interview with Maria Jürimäe, member of the board of the Estonian Reading Association (EstRA) and the association’s contact for ELINET.

by Peter Lege

The Estonian Reading Association Lugemisühing is a non-profit reading organisation established in 1992. It has about 150 members and is responsible for a range of projects and activities such as seminars, conferences, and exhibitions in order to promote language competencies amongst children, youths, and adults. All Estonian schools have been connected to the internet since the late 1990s, and Estonia is also home of successful internet startups such as Skype.

Maria, what is your role and responsibility in the Estonian Reading Association?
I am a member of the board and the contact person for ELINET. The board of EstRA meets regularly to plan upcoming events, research and publishing projects promoting literacy. This year, many of our successful projects will celebrate their anniversaries: Reading is Fun was implemented fifteen years ago, and The Reading Nest as well as The Reading Games projects started ten years ago.

In your opinion, what is the most pressing literacy issue in Estonia right now?
It is the attitude towards reading and literacy. Our people are literate, but some of them are literate on a quite basic level only. The instructions in kindergartens and schools allow more child-centred literacy experiences in the last decades, but a teacher-centred approach still dominates. So in some classrooms students learn to read, and at the same time some of them learn to hate reading.
Digital literacy is also an important issue. Estonian people are proud about their ICT skills, but the PIAAC results show that this pride is sometimes not based on the real skills – digital literacy changes so fast and it really needs lifelong learning to keep up with all the innovations.

How does your organisation tackle these problems?
Last year we organised implementation studies of our successful Reading Nest project with the support of ELINET. The results show that the environment – including the physical environment, but also the curricula and instructions – in classrooms with Reading Nest supports literacy development. However, in many classrooms opportunities to support children are not being used as they should.
Thus, at the beginning of this year, we have written a book about the environment supporting literacy development, based on international and local research results. EstRA also offers courses for teachers about this as about many other topics. Some of them are funded by projects, so they are free for the teachers.

Estonia has a reputation for being very progressive in terms of internet and digital technology. Can you give us an example of how you use digital media for promoting literacy?
As I said before, sometimes the reputation is better than the reality. But we use ICT to promote literacy. For example, in the project Reading is Fun children of different schools across the country gather to read, to recommend good books, and to share ideas about reading and books. Some of those schools have Russian as instructional language, and some have pupils with special needs. Most of these activities are done online. Pupils create presentations, slideshows, short movies, animations, etc. about the books, share it with peers, and teachers give formative feedback during the process – all with the help of ICT.

What is so special about the Estonian language with regard to literacy?
Similar to the Finnish language, the Estonian orthography system is quite transparent – it is not difficult to correctly pronounce new words or to spell unknown words if they are not foreign names. This makes it easier for people to learn via written texts.

What is next for your organisation?
Many of our projects have anniversaries this year. So on our last board meeting we discussed the details of the anniversary event on the 15th of June. We also brainstormed about the International Literacy Day in September, and people had some really exciting ideas.

Personally, how did you get involved in literacy work?
I studied Estonian linguistics, and I was interested in phonemic awareness and its importance in learning to read. Because Estonian orthography is quite transparent, many teachers believe that all rules of writing the phonemes with graphemes can and have to be taught. But in schools, an old idea has also been prevailing: that Estonian phonemes have three quantities. Even though lovely and romantic and making Estonian absolutely unique compared to all other languages, this idea is no longer valid from a linguistic point of view. But it was an intriguing question for me: Can this phonemic awareness really help children in learning to read and write even if it is based on a scientifically wrong theory? I also wrote a book about The methods of teaching to read based on my master thesis and introduced the ideas in many in-service trainings.
During the last decade, the theory of Estonian phonemes having three quantities has slowly got into the "history part" of our language textbooks, but it still dominates in special education, and it seems that changes take long.

What do you enjoy reading yourself?
I have to read a lot of research papers and articles at my workplace, and sometimes reading them is really enjoyable and interesting. But in my free time I enjoy to read fiction and poetry. And because my children are quite young, 8 and 11, I still read to them, and I have discovered many good children’s and youth literature. And I am happy that my daughters love stories and reading.