Research has shown that the ability to read and write is tied to everything we do. Kids who have strong reading skills and writing skills 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
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.
(Also read: 5 games that improve your child’s motor skills)
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.
(Also read: Why reading is more important than tuition classes)
“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.
(Also read: 5 ways to teach your child to love reading)
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.
This article was first published in Young Parents in 2018.