Words matter! Rapping for literacy

'Words Matter' is a UPM-sponsored project that inspires vocational school students to improve their reading skills through rap music. The project is part of UPM's Biofore Share and Care sponsorship programme and a UPM contribution to Finland's centenary of independence celebrations.

Text: Vesa Puoskari 
Photos: Rami Lappalainen and Vesa Puoskari

According to a study on adult literacy compiled by the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), young people who completed vocational training did not show a significant improvement in their reading skills after their basic education.

"The Words Matter project is our way of addressing this issue and helping to improve the literacy skills of these young people," says Ilmi Villacís, Executive Director of the Finnish Reading Centre, coordinator of Words Matter project.

The international PISA study shows that the literacy gap between girls and boys is growing in Finland. This trend worries Villacis, as boys also achieve below-average results in international literacy comparisons.

Boys make up approximately 80 percent of all students in technical fields at vocational schools.

"Literacy is closely linked to mathematical skills as well as success in society as a whole. Boys with poor reading and writing skills find it harder to succeed in further studies and working life in general. Slow readers also find it difficult to improve their other professional competencies."

Making matters worse, vocational schools have recently cut back their Finnish and general knowledge syllabus due to funding cuts. Students today are expected to be more proactive.

Hip hop inspiration

The 18-month Words Matter project had its launch in autumn 2016. The first workshops were taught by literary and art critic Aleksis Salusjärvi and rapper Mikko Sarjanen from the rap group Atomirotta (Atomic Rat).

"The instructors built a positive, spontaneous connection with the young participants to get them thinking about the value of good reading skills," explains Emmi Jäkkö, Communications Officer at the Finnish Reading Centre.

The project's ultimate goal is to challenge young people to read more. "Many of the students have lost the joy of reading and the gratification that comes with it. With this project, we're trying to inspire them to read more on their own."

Plans for the future include a media workshop where participants discuss trolling and analyse clickbait headlines used on internet sites. "The workshops have made them aware that a text may have hidden meanings and that they should pay attention to messages between the lines. Literacy is also particularly important in today's media environment as a guard against fraud."

Two-way learning opportunity

The Finnish Reading Centre will be organizing a total of 100 functional literacy workshops for vocational school students in technical fields all over Finland. The project is also targeting the adults working with these young people, such as teachers and principals at vocational institutions.

"The workshops are only part of the initiative. The lessons learned and the materials compiled throughout the project will become a resource for all vocational schools. After the project, the teachers will be able to use the videos to organize similar workshops on their own.

This project also provides an excellent learning opportunity for us, since there has not been much collaboration between culture and business in Finland yet. We hope that the project will provide us with a good model for the future."

UPM's Biofore Share and Care programme focuses on projects that are relevant to both UPM's business and responsibility goals. Reading & Learning is one of the focus areas in the programme.

"We too are concerned about young people's reading skills, and we want to increase awareness of the importance of reading and lifelong learning. Pictures and videos play an important part in the lives of young people today, but in the workplace the ability to understand texts and write down your ideas is a valuable skill," says Pirkko Harrela, UPM's Executive Vice President of Stakeholder Relations.

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