DITCH THE PEN

It’s not just about learn­ing to read and write. EVELINE GAN finds out what ev­ery par­ent should know about how early lit­er­acy is taught in Sin­ga­pore preschools.

Young Parents (Singapore) - - Contents -

We find out what ev­ery par­ent should know about how early lit­er­acy is taught in Sin­ga­pore preschools.

Re­search has shown that the abil­ity to read and write is tied to ev­ery­thing we do, and kids who are strong read­ers and writ­ers tend to per­form bet­ter in school and later in life.

On the other hand, kids who fail to de­velop their lit­er­acy skills will lag be­hind oth­ers, and this may con­tinue through­out their school years, says Matthew Scott, head of preschool cour­ses at the Bri­tish Coun­cil.

But recog­nis­ing and blend­ing words as well as de­ci­pher­ing a bunch of squig­gles called punc­tu­a­tion don’t just hap­pen nat­u­rally. Re­search has shown that read­ing and writ­ing are not in­nate, but ac­quired, skills, shares Dawn Lim, cur­ricu­lum ad­vi­sor at Star Learn­ers chain of child­care cen­tres.

So, how can you help your lit­tle one get a head start? Here, we ask the ex­perts what ev­ery par­ent should know about their kid’s de­vel­op­ing lit­er­acy skills, and how to find a pro­gramme that best sup­ports him.

Lit­er­acy starts from Day One

Re­mem­ber all those times you spoke lov­ingly to your baby and sang nurs­ery rhymes? Through these in­ter­ac­tions, you have set the pace for your lit­tle one’s lan­guage skills, which help with his early lit­er­acy skills.

Stud­ies that looked at how in­fants ac­quire lan­guage and emo­tional un­der­stand­ing have found that ba­bies’ brains need an emo­tion­ally sup­port­ive en­vi­ron­ment and lots of pos­i­tive stim­u­la­tion to de­velop well.

Kids who are brought up in a lan­guage-rich en­vi­ron­ment tend to pick up read­ing and writ­ing faster, Matthew of the Bri­tish Coun­cil shares.

“Ex­po­sure to a greater range of vo­cab­u­lary will help chil­dren to gain un­der­stand­ing of the mean­ings of words,” he says.

Plus, their abil­ity to put sounds and syl­la­bles to­gether helps them form words when they are learn­ing to write, Coreen Soh, deputy gen­eral man­ager of The Lit­tle Skool-House (LSH) In­ter­na­tional, adds.

Which comes first – read­ing or writ­ing?

Tech­ni­cally, read­ing comes first be­cause it is a re­cep­tive skill; the idea is that you can “pro­duce” lan­guage when there is in­put, Dawn says.

How­ever, both read­ing and writ­ing can be in­tro­duced and ex­plored to­gether, says Diana Thomas, man­ager of Mind­champs Read­ing and Writ­ing.

“Of­ten, the learn­ing process tends to pro­mote read­ing over writ­ing as it is as­sumed that learn­ing… is a mat­ter of putting facts into us. Writ­ing al­lows the child to go through the process of mak­ing mean­ing and en­cour­ages him to break out of the pas­sive learn­ing rou­tine,” Diana says.

When pick­ing up lit­er­acy skills, it is not un­usual for kids to go through cy­cles of lis­ten­ing, speak­ing, read­ing and writ­ing, Dawn adds.

“These skills are usu­ally in­te­grated at any one point, for ex­am­ple, when a teacher reads a story, the chil­dren lis­ten, speak (to an­swer ques­tions) and read in the same ac­tiv­ity.”

In fact, read­ing and writ­ing help each other. The more stu­dents prac­tise read­ing, the bet­ter writ­ers they be­come, and vice versa, ac­cord­ing to stud­ies by Ari­zona State Univer­sity re­searcher Steve Gra­ham.

Get those lit­tle fin­gers work­ing

What do beads, play dough or thread­ing have to do with writ­ing? Plenty, ex­perts say.

While your kid’s read­ing and writ­ing skills can de­velop con­cur­rently, bear in mind that mas­ter­ing writ­ing also de­pends on his fine mo­tor skills, says Coreen of LSH.

“When your child is not ad­e­quately de­vel­oped in his fine mo­tor skills, he might find grip­ping a writ­ing tool (such as a pen­cil) chal­leng­ing and tir­ing. This will de­ter him from writ­ing and dampen his con­fi­dence at the same time,” she ex­plains.

Even be­fore your lit­tle one be­comes ac­quainted with reg­u­lar writ­ing tools, en­cour­age him to work on his fine mo­tor skills. Do this through hand co­or­di­na­tion ac­tiv­i­ties that build dex­ter­ity and hand strength, Matthew shares.

For in­stance, start with sim­ple ex­er­cises like fin­ger paint­ing, ex­per­i­ment­ing with play dough and fin­ger pup­pets, be­fore mov­ing on to scrib­bling with crayons and learn­ing to hold a pen­cil cor­rectly, Matthew sug­gests.

“By the time your child is about 60 months, or five years old, he should have the ba­sic abil­ity to write,” he adds.

Read­ing aloud helps

Read­ing aloud to your kids from an early age is one of the most ef­fec­tive ways to kick­start their lan­guage and lit­er­acy de­vel­op­ment. It helps them un­der­stand the work­ings of the al­pha­bet and be­gin to process let­ters, Matthew says.

Make it in­ter­ac­tive to keep your lit­tle one en­gaged. Re-read­ing sto­ries also helps im­prove your child’s read­ing flu­ency and com­pre­hen­sion, Matthew adds.

“Ask your child ques­tions about the images on the pages, and then re­late them to writ­ten words ac­com­pa­ny­ing the pic­tures. Through a part­ner­ship with a stronger reader, ei­ther you the par­ent or an older sib­ling, the child learns in a safe and nur­tur­ing en­vi­ron­ment where it is okay to make mis­takes,” he adds.

Kids learn bet­ter when it’s fun

Keep this in mind when help­ing your chil­dren learn to read and write, and when choos­ing an English lit­er­acy pro­gramme. Once they en­joy what they are do­ing, they stay en­gaged and learn­ing takes place, Dawn says.

“Kids have short at­ten­tion span, so the pro­gramme you choose should in­clude in­ter­ac­tive el­e­ments to keep them en­gaged. It should be fun and in­cor­po­rate play, story-telling, games and other ac­tiv­i­ties,” ad­vises Diana of Mind­champs.

Matthew says a mis­take many par­ents make is to place too much fo­cus on phon­ics. While phono­log­i­cal aware­ness is the build­ing blocks of read­ing, kids need to be able to con­tex­tu­alise words, which can be done through sto­ries and plays that give life to words on a page, he ex­plains.

“If there’s an over-em­pha­sis on phon­ics, we run the risk of mak­ing read­ing feel like a for­mula for a child, and this may take the fun out of it,” he says.

Another tip: Let your kid start with what­ever in­ter­ests him in­stead of dic­tat­ing what he should read or write.

“For ex­am­ple, when learn­ing to write, your child will only want to write some­thing that is mean­ing­ful to him such as writ­ing a card to Mummy or a shop­ping list for things to get at the su­per­mar­ket,” says Coreen.

Most im­por­tantly, don’t give up if your kid hates read­ing at first. “You will see a change in your child’s at­ti­tude to­wards read­ing over time. The more he un­der­stands what he is read­ing, the more en­thu­si­as­tic he’ll be,” says Diana.

Choos­ing the right lit­er­acy pro­gramme

Con­sider your kid’s learn­ing style and needs be­fore en­rolling in a pro­gramme. For ex­am­ple, if your child is slightly more pro­fi­cient in read­ing, Diana sug­gests choos­ing an in­te­grated English lit­er­acy pro­gramme that would ad­dress read­ing needs and pro­vide a foun­da­tion in writ­ing.

A lit­er­acy pro­gramme should help your child to hone all four skills needed to learn a lan­guage; lis­ten­ing, speak­ing, read­ing and writ­ing, Dawn shares.

That’s not all. A good pro­gramme also teaches kids skills needed for ef­fec­tive read­ing and writ­ing through “mean­ing-mak­ing”, which helps them make mean­ing of what they have read, she says.

The course should also have clear goals and class in­for­ma­tion so that par­ents know where their child’s progress is, and which ar­eas they can re­view at home, Matthew adds.

The ear­lier you start, the bet­ter

Since lan­guage de­vel­op­ment is most sen­si­tive be­fore three years old, early lan­guage and lit­er­acy pro­grammes will pro­vide am­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties for lit­tle ones to use and ex­plore lan­guage from a young age, Coreen says. This will sig­nifi­cantly im­pact their mastery of read­ing and writ­ing at a later stage.

Once the child reaches three, con­sider pro­gress­ing to a more struc­tured lit­er­acy pro­gramme.

“Re­search shows that chil­dren as young as three are al­ready be­gin­ning to recog­nise and fol­low im­por­tant rules and pat­terns as to how let­ters in the English lan­guage fit to­gether to form words,” Diana says.

Once they’ve es­tab­lished the foun­da­tional skills of read­ing, the next step would be to work on their writ­ing skills – usu­ally around the age of six to seven, she adds.

How to tell if a lit­er­acy pro­gramme is work­ing

Kids gen­er­ally de­velop dif­fer­ently and learn at var­ied pace. But you can as­sess if a lit­er­acy pro­gramme is ef­fec­tive by get­ting your child to read to you pe­ri­od­i­cally, Diana says.

One way is to com­pile a read­ing list with books of vary­ing dif­fi­culty, she sug­gests. Start with a ti­tle that is be­low your child’s read­ing level – use sim­ple books and cater it to his in­ter­est. Work your way up­wards grad­u­ally and look for im­prove­ments.

On another level, a pro­gramme is con­sid­ered suc­cess­ful if the child cul­ti­vates a read­ing habit and has come to en­joy the process of read­ing, Matthew adds.

Pa­per ver­sus screens – take the mid­dle ground

Even as tech­nol­ogy im­proves, re­search sug­gests that good old pen and pa­per still boasts unique ad­van­tages. When kids watch a dig­i­tal story on their own, it be­comes a very pas­sive ex­pe­ri­ence, which is like leav­ing him to watch tele­vi­sion, Diana says.

“Read­ing is about ac­tively un­der­stand­ing the writ­ten text, and ac­ti­vat­ing the child’s think­ing pro­cesses,” she ex­plains.

“By vi­car­i­ously en­ter­ing the nar­ra­tive, the child’s emo­tions and in­tel­lect are en­gaged. This deep­ens their com­pre­hen­sion – what we at Mind­champs call “ac­tive un­der­stand­ing” – which is crit­i­cal for a child’s later suc­cess at school,” Diana says.

Still, dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy has its ben­e­fits, say the ex­perts. Kids should not be ex­cluded from the rapid changes that are tak­ing place in ed­u­ca­tion, Matthew ex­plains.

In­stead of avoid­ing tech­nol­ogy to­tally when teach­ing your lit­tle one to read and write, use it in mod­er­a­tion.

For ex­am­ple, set lim­its on the time your child spends on the de­vice, vet the pro­grammes and apps, fol­low-up with your child, he sug­gests. The bot­tom line: Never sub­sti­tute one-on-one read­ing and writ­ing time with your kid with screen time.

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