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In this article, it discusses the importance of literacy for preschoolers as part of 'school readiness' preparation and the bilingual literacy in Singapore Primary School education system. The word 'literacy' often brings to mind "reading and writing", but preschool literacy includes much more. Reading is a fundamental skill that can be acquired with the careful planning and instruction of skilled teachers. The use of reading strategies coupled with other contributing factors to help a child to read.
Literacy for Preschooler
The word 'literacy' often brings to mind "reading and writing", but preschool literacy includes much more. In the 2008, Ministry of Education (MOE), Singapore launched the Kindergarten Curriculum Guide (KCG). The KCG is meant to guide preschool teachers in nurturing early learners so that a firm foundation can be built to meet the academic demand of the education system in Singapore. Under the framework, Language and Literacy is one of the main key knowledge and skills to acquire by all who have graduated from any MOE licensed Kindergarten. The main strands of language and literacy are namely: speaking, listening, reading and writing.
School Readiness in Singapore
Singapore, celebrating its forty-five independent years, is a small multicultural country that lacks natural resources. However, it thrives well by the hardworking and resilient citizen together with the influx of one million foreign talents and workers to boost its economy. The then first Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, was the driving force behind to emphasize the importance of education, pushing through the mandate for bilingual literacy with English being the first language and a mother tongue (Chinese, Malay and Tamil) being the second language in the education system.
In recent years, there has being an increasing emphasis in 'school readiness' which is to prepare young children for the compulsory primary education (Kirkland, E.S., 2002). As shown by various research results, early literacy is the key component to achieve that. The term 'bilingual' literacy is to describe a person having the ability to speak, listen, read and write in two languages. In fact, there is an expectation that when a child turns seven, he is to be relatively bilingual by being able to comprehend and use English as the first language and Mother Tongue (Chinese, Malay or Tamil) as the second language. William and Lundstrom (2007) emphasized the need for careful planning and instruction by trained and skilled teachers in order for a child to emerge as confident speaker, listener, reader and writer.
Research Question using case study approach
The research question for this case study is "How is bilingual reading promoted in school for the 4-6 years old?" Since 75% of Singapore's population are Chinese (Statistics Singapore, 2009), the two languages for this study shall be the English and Chinese. The subjects in this case study are thirteen 4-6 years old children from the nursery and kindergarten classes attending a childcare centre in Singapore taught by three teachers. They are the Chinese Teacher who uses songs, rhymes and word games to teach Chinese language; the English Teacher who uses Thematic Approach to conduct her lesson and the Enrichment Teacher who uses flashcards, phonics and word games to teach reading in English.
The goal of this case study is to reveal how preschool teachers in Singapore facilitate bilingual reading in the language and literacy development of young children to prepare them for their next stage of learning. 'Despite the criticism of case studies, it is noted that the main feature of case study is very useful and effective to explore and investigate real-life context between teachers and children. By using interview and observation, researchers will be able to hear the 'voices' of teachers and children when collecting data and findings for the purpose of this research study. As described by Johnson and Onwuegbuzie (2004), both quantitative and qualitative data will be collected to triangulate the results in the mixed research methods' (Ng, E. 2010).
Reading under language and literacy skills is further sub-divided into various components such as Book and Print Awareness; Phonological and Phonemic Awareness; Word Recognition and Comprehension. The KCG lists a 'set of key knowledge, skills and dispositions aims to guide pre-school teachers in developing an appropriate curriculum that would support and promote children's learning and development' (MOE, 2008). This list is meant to guide teachers to provide opportunities for children to acquire the stated knowledge, skills and dispositions. For example, under reading strand, word recognition is not expected of nursery children, however, by the time the child is 5 or 6-years old, it is expected that they be able to blend sounds to read 3-letter-words, read some frequency words, read a range of words by decoding or by sight, and read simple sentences. Upon graduation from his kindergarten years, the ultimate goal for a child is to be well prepared and equipped with skills to handle the curriculum expectation in the primary school years ahead.
Reading is a fundamental skill
In 1998, the joint-position paper of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the International Reading Association (IRA), reported that 'Learning to read and write is critical to a child's success in school and later in life'. The Access Center: Improving Outcomes for All Students K-8 had a similar finding reported that 'reading is a fundamental skill that defines the academic success or failure of students'. During the Emergent and Early Literacy Workshop in Bethesda (2000), Dr. Barbara Foorman from the University of Texas, Houston Medical School, reported that '88 percent of students who were poor readers in first grade were poor readers in fourth grade' and '87 percent of students who were good readers in first grade were good readers in fourth grade' (National Institute of Health, 2000, 9). These studies showed a strong co-relation between the academic success of the child and the ability to read and write in preschool years. To state it boldly - we can almost predict a child's academic success in life upon his kindergarten graduation year. Therefore it has become essential and urgent to teach preschool children to read and write competently, enabling them to achieve today's high standards of literacy (NAEYC and IRA, 1998). However, it has also being reported by experienced teachers that the children they teach today are more diverse in their backgrounds, experiences, and abilities. With this increasing diversity among young children, it is increasingly overwhelming for teachers to be expected to produce a uniform outcome for all.
Reading is a Learned Skill
Reading is a learned skill and not a biological awakening. The ability to read does not develop naturally. It is the outcome of continual development and learning. As emergent reader is constantly emerging, young children will pass through different stages of reading skills and will encounter different sorts of reading difficulties (Adams and Bruck, 1993). During the workshop by National Institute of Health (2000), Nelson, N. of Western Michigan University said that rather than waiting for failure, one preventive priority is for trained and skilled teachers to prepare children to gain good reading skills with specific types of knowledge in reading and writing success during the preschool years. The goal is to read with fluency, accuracy, understanding and enjoyment. IRA and NAEYC (1998) believe that early childhood teachers need to understand the developmental continuum of reading and writing and be skilled in a variety of strategies. They could then make instructional decisions based on their knowledge, current research and appropriate expectations to scaffold children's learning.
Recently, strategies for reading have received considerable attention in the professional literature however it is unlikely for any teaching method or approach to be effective on its own. An ongoing assessment of children's knowledge and skills will definitely help teachers to plan effective instruction (NAEYC & IRA, 1998). Dr. Rao of National Institute of Education in Singapore defines reading strategies as 'how readers conceive a task, how they make sense of what they read, and what they do when they do not understand'. Reading strategies as listed by the National Curriculum for England (1999) are phonemic awareness and phonics knowledge; word Recognition and graphic knowledge; grammatical awareness and most importantly, contextual understanding. These strategies are meant to teach children whole range of reading skills such as knowing the sound and name the letters of the alphabet, link sound and letter patterns, able to identify and blend phonemes in words, read on sight high frequency words and other familiar words, recognize words with common spelling patterns and recognize specific parts of words, understand how word orders affects meaning, decipher new words, work out the sense of a sentence and focus on meaning derived from the text as a whole. Thereafter, teacher could incorporate word games using acquired phonics knowledge to make learning more fun for children.
In the website of the National Institute for Literacy, it states that 'Phonics is the relationships between the letters (graphemes) of written language and the individual sounds (phonemes) of spoken language.' The goal of phonics instruction is to help early readers to recognize familiar words accurately and automatically and to "decode" new words. Phonics instructions need to be systematic and explicit in order to be effective. Weaver, C. (1994) stated some ways teachers can help children to develop phonics knowledge such as pointing out interesting patterns of onsets and rimes during shared reading experiences and engage children in activities that reinforce their natural learning of the letter/sound relationships. These activities can disguise as games to play in class and can be tailored and catered accordingly to the various age groups. The goal is to engage children's mind to acquire phonics knowledge that lead to word recognition skills.
Phonics Word Games
Some examples of phonics word games are introducing alphabet sound, children are to match beginning sound of the alphabet with the pictures using chart and cards, or to list things in the environment that begin with a particular alphabet. If children are older, they can play card game similar to the game 'Snap' where they will snap at alphabets that begin the corresponding picture shown in the centre. Another example of a word game is the fishing game whereby children will fish out alphabets cards attached with a paper clip, and a fishing rod with a small magnet attached to the end so that children will take turns to fish the required alphabet cards. Such games can be played by playgroup children to fish out the alphabets requested by teachers or it could be scaffold for kindergarten children to learn basic spelling skills where they will fish out all the alphabets to spell simple words they have learnt.
Reading Strategies for Chinese Language
Interestingly, the reading strategies and word games are not restrictive in learning the English Language. It can be adapted and used by language teachers to teach children other languages such as the Chinese Language which has its own set of strategies.
Traditionally, Chinese Language has being taught by pure rote learning for generations. With the advancement in technology, primary schools in Singapore are undergoing transformation to advocate teaching Chinese Language in a fun and creative way. The innovative idea of using the 'iFlashBook', an online service incorporating multimedia, speech recognition technology and a content-rich library to compliment the mainstream primary school textbooks. Children can electronics learn also known as 'elearning' by manipulating through the lessons with words being read out to them and their voices recorded as a form of feedback. These ebooks are available by through yearly subscription fee (Creative Technology Ltd, Singapore).
Reading Chinese characters with the help of English alphabets and its phonemes are known as Hanyu Pinyin, the Romanization of the Chinese characters. Hanyu Pinyin was introduced to school about 30 years ago to the upper primary onwards. However, it has made a significant presence in the Chinese Language curriculum such that all Primary one pupils are only learning Hanyu Pinyin during their first six month in school. This is to assist children in reading and be able to key in functions for the electronics resources made available in recent years.
Chinese Characters in Picture
As ancient Chinese characters are derived from the shapes and appearances of objects, another innovative and creative idea is to use pictures to depict its shape and meaning of the words. These pictures make learning the Chinese characters fun and easy by simply associating them with the actual form (Tan, R. 2004). For example, the Chinese Character ç« read as 'huo' means fire has its word picture drawn to look like a flame so as to represent the meaning of the word.
In a report done by The Access Center on the strategy to improve outcomes for all students K-8, research evidence had pointed to three effective contributing factors in order for any environment to improve literacy. These factors are classroom materials, the role of the teacher, and classroom design and layout. Another important factor beyond classroom environment is the role of parent's participation by being active in their children's learning experiences. We will further describe each of these factors presented.
a) Classroom Materials
Research evidence has shown that there is a need to have intentional selection and use of materials in order to develop an environment to support literacy skills in young children. The use of forms and functions of print help to serve as a foundation from which children become increasingly sensitive to letter shapes, names, sounds and words. In the report done by Gunn, Simmons, & Kammeenui, (1995) to gain understanding in the function of print, one of the term to define emergent literacy was the awareness of the uses of print from specific (eg. making shopping lists, reading street signs, looking up information) to general (eg. acquiring knowledge, conveying instructions, maintaining relationships).
b) The Role of the Teacher
To support that, teachers could integrate phone books, menus, and other written materials into student play so that children will be able to see the connections between the written word and spoken language. For students to have access to a variety of resources, teachers are to provide many books in the classroom library to maintain student's interest and expose them to various topics and ideas. Teachers could also provide activities within the classroom such as language and literacy play, reading aloud, storybook reading, reading to dolls, writing notes to friends, making shopping lists, and taking telephone messages. This will allow children to improve reading skills and experience joy and power associated with literacy. Seizing these teachable moments and provide developmentally appropriate materials and interactions will further literacy development (Gunn, Simmons, & Kammeenui, 1995).
c) Classroom Design and Layout
The physical environment of the classroom is crucial for developing literacy growth in children. Studies suggested that physical arrangement of the classroom can promote time with books (IRA & NEAYC, 1998) such as in the library centre to have lots of comfortable spaces for children to curl up and relax with a book; books are to attractively displayed and be accessible to children. By providing puppets, writing materials and listening equipments will encourage children to extend their reading experiences. Place paper, pens, pencils, crayons throughout the room to encourage children to "write". Finally, display children's work and pictures.
d) Parent-Child Mediated Learning Experience (MLE)
Russell, et.al (2008) reported a significant correlation between parent who have given the 'affect, focus, attention, and communication of a feeling of competence for learning' and their 'children's optimal performance'. It has being noted that the parents today are more educated and well-informed. By reading widely, they have kept themselves abreast with latest technology and discovery. Moreover, most family household are now dual-income and younger couples are opting for smaller family unit with just one or two children. This change in family structure is beginning to breed a different culture in modern parents. They are more open to new methodologies and philosophies with the underlying intention to provide the best for their children as stated in the front cover of Tony Buzan's "Brain Child" (2003) that says "How Smart Parents Make Smart Kids". The new breed of parents would go the extra mile to nurture their children. They view it as a wise and shrewd long-term investment in their children's education in order to reach their fullest potential in the future. Thus another crucial factor that is beyond classrooms environment which could develop literacy in children is the active participation of parents in their children's development.
Reading is a fundamental skill and is essential and urgent to teach preschool children to read and write competently so as to achieve today's high standards of literacy. This could be achieved by incorporating reading strategies carefully planned and instructed by skilled teachers.