Let’s Hit The Books

What’s the secret to teaching your child to read? Singapore parents and experts share their best strategies.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Young children often like to listen to the same stories over and over again.

This could exasperate some parents, but not Shamsiah Samsudin (pictured right). The 37-year-old reads her children’s favourite books to them repeatedly as part of her strategy to teach them how to read.

For one year, she read Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by author Mo Willems, about a toddler and her stuffed rabbit, to her elder son, Adyan Darius Juffrey, now six.

After that year, Adyan, at age three, could recognise and read some words that could be found in its sequel, Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case Of Mistaken Identity, whose plot involves jealousy over plush toys.

By age four, he was “quite proficient” at recognising words, says Shamsiah, a part-time instructor at an enrichment centre.

Accounts such as hers are not likely to reassure anxious parents whose children are about to enter primary school and are still unable to read.

Teaching a child to read can be such a mysterious, baffling process that it can be easier for parents to send their kids to phonics classes instead.

Read it again, Mum

For parents who wish to persist on their own, experts say that repetition and memorisation are key when it comes to young children learning to read.

“While it can be exasperating for most parents to read the same much-loved book over and over again, it is this repetitive quality that enables a child to recognise story patterns and predict outcomes with the comforting knowledge that the story will always begin and end in the same way,” says Assistant Professor Rhoda Myra Garces-Bacsal from the Early Childhood and Special Needs Education Academic Group at the National Institute of Education (NIE).

It is also important to read aloud to children even before teaching them to read.

Dr Garces-Bacsal says: “I cannot over-emphasise the importance of reading aloud to your children regardless of how old they are. If a child is old enough to be spoken to, then he is old enough to be read aloud to.”

When reading to her sons, Shamsiah rotated Knuffle Bunny every couple of months with other reading materials, such as picture books about cars.

Such favourite tales were read aloud up to three times each night as part of the bedtime routine for Adyan and his brother, Adam Mika Juffrey, three.

She started reading aloud to her children at night when they were about six months old and takes them to the library regularly.

Besides the use of repetition, she was also at ease with Adyan memorising, rather than reading, his favourite stories. “I observed that my kids learn through memory and I read the story over and over again so they would enjoy it,” says Shamsiah, who is married to a 42-year-old accountant.

For example, she would read part of the story and let Adyan read one or more words that followed, even if he did so from memory. Eventually, he started recognising and reading words on his own.

Assistant Professor Loh Chin Ee, from NIE’s English Language and Literature Academic Group, says that “memorisation and reading by imitation is part of learning to read”.

But she emphasises: “Different kids learn differently. Do not feel pressured to get a child to learn to read too early. There is no one-size-fits-all method in terms of learning. Having lots of books and putting time aside for reading is definitely an important element.”

Singing, poems and rhymes are powerful. Even adults tend to remember words when sung to a catchy tune. This applies to very young kids, as well.
Singing, poems and rhymes are powerful. Even adults tend to remember words when sung to a catchy tune. This applies to very young kids, as well.

Sing it, play it

Other ways to promote early literacy include singing, playing and even scribbling, says Raneetha Rajaratnam, the National Library Board‘s deputy director of service development.

“Singing, poems and rhymes are powerful. Even adults tend to remember words when sung to a catchy tune. This applies to very young kids, as well,” she says.

Play elements, such as touch-and-feel, lift-the-flap and pop-up books; as well as role-playing, acting as characters in books and using different voices, help children engage more effectively with books.

“Scribbling and drawing lead them eventually to writing and recognising words,” says Raneetha.

In her own experience as a parent, however, reading did not come as easily for her son, 18, as it did for her daughter, 17.

“I read aloud to them when they were babies. I used to sing a lot of nursery rhymes, which soothed my son, but my daughter would cover my mouth. I acted out characters from books,” she says.

“Somehow, it worked for my daughter, who could read on her own by about five years old. It didn’t work for my son. By the end of kindergarten, he was not a fluent reader and was on a learning support programme for reading and writing when he went to primary school.”

Later, she realised he was more of an auditory person. On a road trip to Malaysia when he was about 13, she got an audio book and they spent their time talking about the plot and characters as the family drove from Singapore to Ipoh.

Use tech with care

Technology, such as audio books, should be used with care in teaching children to read, says Dr Loh.

“Technology is useful when well-selected and used with the guidance of an adult,” she says. But it could also be a distraction.

“Generally, print works best with young children,” she adds. Experts emphasise that children should learn that reading is an enjoyable experience.

Dr Garces-Bacsal warns: “A wrong way to teach a child to read is to be overly critical of his initial attempts to learn how to read, such that it becomes a dreaded rather than a much-anticipated moment of togetherness. Enjoy the reading process, rather than focus too much on specific outcomes.

“Sometimes, there are books that a child refuses to read in a linear fashion. There are also books without words where the child is allowed to interject his own interpretations. It is important that this meaning-making process is not lost amid the intention to teach phonics or proper pronunciation.”

When stay-at-home mother Shanmugam Rekha’s elder son Rakshith Sivakumar (pictured) was in nursery, she started to teach him to read using phonics by blending sounds into words such as rat, hat and cat.

She says: “It was a little difficult, because I expected him to say one thing and he would say another.” In the end, Rakshith, now a Primary 1 pupil, learnt to read by age five through diverse ways, including attending story-telling sessions at the library.

Shanmugam, 30, also boosted her kid’s interest in informational books by buying an atlas after she noticed that one of his favourite cartoon shows, Go Jetters, involved geography.

Rakshith, six, is now an avid reader. He says: “I like books about dinosaurs. I also like books about skeletons because they are like monsters.” 

My Reading Room

Good Reads

The National Library Board offers tips on choosing books and recommends classic titles:


Choose books with large colourful pictures and simple story lines. Books with rhymes, repetition and predictable text are also appealing.

Try these

• Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

• Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr

• Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins


Look for books that match your child’s interests. You can also introduce substantial picture books with longer text.

Books with detailed illustrations will give you and your child more to talk about. Books that address day-to-day life or growing-up issues that may be worrying your child are also useful.

Try these

• The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson

• Timmy & Tammy at the National Library by Ruth Wan-Lau

• Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney