More Than Just ABCs

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.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

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.

My Reading Room

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.

7 ways to teach reading and writing

Use these activities suggested by Dawn Lim, curriculum advisor at Star Learners, to prep your preschooler for Primary 1.

Word hunt Use two identical sets of word cards. Your child looks for the matching ‘lost’ word card that you have hidden around the house. In this way the child will have to practise reading the words to match them.

The who-what-when-where-why game Choose your child’s favourite book. Create a “who”, “what”, “when”, “where” and “why” dice. After reading, have your child throw the dice. When it lands on “who”, for example, ask questions related to it, such as “Who are the characters in the story”?

Picture walk writing Take pictures of events of an outing from the start to the end of the day. Print and paste the pictures in a scrapbook. Encourage your child to share and write about his day.

Print exposure Introduce your child to various media such as books, newspapers, magazines, brochures and even signs. This helps him recognise that print exists everywhere.

Language experiential writing Take your child out for an experience and later, invite him to talk about and record it like a short story being retold. Another fun idea: collate these experiential writings and convert them into an adventure booklet for your child so he can look back and reflect on what he has gone through.

Story adaptations Add or substitute an element in a story your child has read. For example, substitute bears in Goldilocks and the Three Bears with mice.

Play with alliteration Invite your child to create short sentences or stories with alliteration, using the same letters throughout a sentence, such as Larry’s lizard likes leaping leopards.

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.

Nurturing early learners

The literacy programmes at these preschools will help your kid develop a love of the English language and hone his reading and writing skills.

British Council

British Council prepares preschoolers to enter Primary 1 as confident and creative users of English.

As soon as your little one joins its preschool, he will be immersed in a language-rich environment that incorporates the best practices of Singapore and the United Kingdom.

In Nursery 1 and 2, children will develop pre-reading and pre-writing skills through fine motor skills development, as well as key social and communication skills, among others.

In Kindergarten 1 and 2, the focus shifts towards primary school readiness. Your child will be exposed to phonic awareness, be introduced to high frequency ‘tricky words’ with irregular spellings and begin to distinguish some spelling patterns, moving towards being independent readers.

In K2, literacy, comprehension and speaking skills are given a boost through activities such as story-related activities, weekly spelling tests and show and tell discussions.



Forget rote learning and conventional tutoring methods. In Mindchamps’ Reading and Writing programme, your child learns to read and write using creative methods developed by an expert team led by Brian Caswell, who is the brand’s dean of Research and Programme Development.

The programme, which is offered as an enrichment programme and integrated into its preschool curriculum, also equips your child with skills for a “champion mindset” to boost confidence and higherorder thinking.

A key feature is the use of the “Say and Sing Phonics” method. Kids learn to read through a collection of specially crafted e-book stories that encompass a catchy song, an interactive reading or listening experience as well as hands-on integrated phonics activities.

These e-books are accessible through the Mindchamps Read-Along app. Parents can go through the stories and activities with their child at home to reinforce the lessons.

Before starting a programme, your child will take a literacy assessment to assess her current reading and/or writing abilities. This ensures that she is placed in the right level.


Star Learners

Don’t be surprised if your kid reaches out for storybooks, instead of toys after going through the childcare centre’s literature-based curriculum.

Targeted at children aged 18 months to six years, and suitable even for those who cannot read and write, the programme offers a holistic approach to literacy that goes beyond the ABCs.

For instance, teachers harness the magic of stories to immerse children in rich and exciting worlds where they tackle concepts and skills in multiple learning areas, including language and literacy.

It also offers a reading programme and a Write a Rainbow programme to build language skills.

Write a Rainbow gives K2 kids a creative platform where they collaborate to retell, adapt and write their stories.

Children produce their own stories in various forms such as Kamishibai story cards (a form of storytelling that originated in Japan) and e-books.

They also learn to inject life into their writing by associating the colours of the rainbow with different story elements.


The Little Skool-House

Designed to help kids learn strategies for independent reading, its literacy programme focuses on each child’s literacy ability.

Kids who enrol in its programme are assessed using its literacy assessment tool before the start of the academic year and then grouped into one of the three levels – emergent, beginning and fluent.

Learning takes place in small groups of about five, which allows your child to work on specific learning areas such as reading, writing, speaking and listening through fun activities.

For example, your kid may listen to audio stories of selected books at the listening station and he may be asked to pen down his thoughts in a journal once a week.

Besides a literacy programme for preschoolers aged four to six, the preschool also offers a programme for babies and toddlers up to three years old to support their literacy development.