The holidays are over and school has started. As we start our (new normal Covid) routines, there are some favourite staples – like bedtime stories for younger children – that remain important, regardless of the time of the year.

Reading to our children, whether before they go to bed or at any other time during the day, is a given, yet that is something that many parents take for granted.

Setting up the right environment and taking the lead in reading is easy when parents have time and resources. But the reality is that not all children come from the same background or have the same abilities.

Some children start pre-school already knowing their ABCs and a rare few can even read chapter books when they start Primary 1. Yet not all do, and that can lead to feelings of negativity.

Michelle Yeo is the co-founder of ReadAble, an organisation run by volunteers who conduct reading and language arts classes for underprivileged children. She emphasises that early childhood intervention to help kids read is crucial.

“If children start primary school without any reading skills and early intervention, they already feel like a failure on Day One,” says Michelle, a lawyer. “They get worksheets and they don’t understand the instructions… this leads to all kinds of negative thoughts about themselves.”

Helping disadvantaged children or those with reading difficulties

Michelle Yeo_ Founder of Readable
Michelle Yeo (wearing glasses), co-founder of ReadAble. Image source: ReadAble

She is speaking as a guest on a new educational podcast series, How We Read, produced and hosted by Associate Professor Loh Chin Ee, Deputy Head (Research) in the English Language and Literature Academic Group at the National Institute of Education.

The third episode, Helping Others Read, focuses on the work of educators who make it their mission to help children with reading difficulties – whether they are affected by home circumstances or learning ability.

On the podcast, Michelle shares about a 6-year-old boy who started with ReadAble not knowing how to read words like ‘shop’ or ‘dog’. However, after four months of weekly phonic-based programmes and games, he could read simple children’s books, such as those by British author Roald Dahl.

For primary school children, ReadAble also uses speech and drama to inculcate and grow a love for the written word.

ReadAble has a team of 50 weekly volunteers, and has set up a community library space at Jalan Kukoh’s Catch+ Centre, where some of the literacy classes are conducted. The library has over a thousand titles for beneficiaries at every reading level.

Another way children can be disadvantaged in their reading journey is when they have learning difficulties such as dyslexia.

Edmen Leong, Director of Specialised Educational Services, who started working at the Dyslexic Association of Singapore (DAS) as an educational therapist 10 years ago, shares on the podcast about the struggles that children with dyslexia go through.

He says: “Reading is challenging for these children, and they often dislike doing it. The key to success is how to motivate them to overcome their challenges.”

A:P Loh Chin Ee and Edmen Leong DAS
Edmen Leong on the podcast. Image source: Memphis West Pictures

Edmen’s advice is to celebrate the child’s enjoyment and understanding of the stories, instead of focusing on the academic part of reading and writing.

“Even if the child has dyslexia, the love for reading can still happen. A dyslexic child loses interest as learning the words is a slow-going process, and they want to understand the big picture of the story.”

Economic background plays a big role

Students from poorer backgrounds have fewer books at home and are less likely to see their parents reading. For example, fewer students on the Financial Assistance Scheme reported they enjoy reading. This may be partly attributed to fewer resources and fewer reading role models at home, according to Assoc Prof Loh, citing her research on Singapore teenagers’ reading habits.

A:P Loh Chin Ee
Professor Loh Chin Ee, host of the podcast series. Image source: Memphis West Pictures

Last year, she called for teachers to keep children reading at home even as schools transitioned to full home-based learning last year, to prevent the trend of “summer reading loss”, which commonly happens in schools in the northern hemisphere.

“Ultimately, while I am interested in all aspects of reading development, my main concern is with children from disadvantaged homes where they may have fewer resources to develop that enjoyment. It’s important for schools and teachers to develop strategies to encourage students to enjoy reading and integrate it into their curriculum, even as home-based learning is integrated into the routine of schools,” Assoc Prof Loh tells The Pride.

The bedtime story and helping children read

In the first podcast of the series, Assoc Prof Loh talks about the importance of the bedtime story.

Victoria Yong Ep1
Victoria Yong on the first podcast. Image source: Memphis West Pictures

She says: “[The bedtime story] is really a proxy for dedicating time to read with a child. It represents a time of intimacy and bonding over a good story. It’s an occasion for the parent to teach the child how to read by role modelling what it means to read. Children learn how to handle a book from handling it with others.”

Guests, such as actor and storyteller Dwayne Lau and comedian Hossan Leong, share their secrets on how to read to children so that stories come alive.

Says Hossan on the podcast: “I would always encourage parents and adults when they go into storytelling for kids to let their guard down and let their inner child take over because the joy of seeing a kid laugh, you know, and it’s so pure when they do it with no ulterior motive. They’re not laughing to please you. They’re laughing because you’ve made them happy. And I think that’s something that you cannot quantify.”

Hossan Leong
Hossan Leong. Image source: Hossan Leong

Mother of three, Valerie Yong, and children’s author Lianne Ong also share about their bedtime story routines and how those led to understanding their children’s reading choices.

Dr Jo Ann Netto-Shek, who lectures at NIE, explains in the podcast how stories are a great way to help the child get a peek into your world and how you are processing your experiences. She says: “Allow the child to talk with you about the story and what they like about the story and what they don’t like about the story.”

The educational podcast series, launched on Jan 4, is funded by NIE and aims to uncover the art and science of learning to read. The series takes listeners into the world of reading, from childhood to old age.

The episodes cover various topics like whether reading on print vs. on digital has an impact on the way we read, the neuroscience behind a child’s reading journey, as well as how comics are produced in Singapore.

“Reading is a topic we are very concerned with as a society and I felt that it would be helpful for the public to have access to some of the ideas and strategies we cover in class. This is one way [NIE] can contribute to our community,” Assoc Prof Loh tells The Pride.

Through her research on youth reading trends with fellow academic Sun Baoqi, she has found that there has been a decline in reading enjoyment for children and adolescents.

“We have found that children and adolescents who enjoy reading will read more for leisure compared to those who don’t like reading. So it’s important to help kids to enjoy reading from a young age.”

Role of parents in nurturing a love for reading

Schools and educators have their role to play, but what about our role as parents?

In Pamela Paul and Maria Russo’s book, How to Raise A Reader, the editors of The New York Times Book Review have this to say: “Let’s think about the long-term project of raising a reader not as an obligation but as an opportunity to bring some wonderful things into your child’s and your family’s life.

“The parent’s part in encouraging a reader is in many ways more interesting, joyful, and open-ended than the school’s part of the project, which is focused on things like phonics, assessments, and benchmarks.”

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Perhaps you’ve made new year resolutions to foster your child’s love for reading (and be less dependent on digital devices), but don’t know how. As a parent watching your children grow up, it may seem like they don’t have the same inclination to fill empty pockets of time with a good book like you once did. But the battle isn’t yet over.

Pick up the book that’s been sitting on your desk untouched. Schedule that trip to the library. Make time for the bedtime story. And restart your reading journey with your children today.

The How We Read podcast series is available on the following platforms: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Omny.

Episode titles and their launch dates:
4 Jan The Bedtime Story
11 Jan The Bilingual Reading Brain
18 Jan Helping Others Read (with an extra episode on Dyslexia)
25 Jan Comic Relief (with an extra episode on The Adventures of Sherlock Sam)
1 Feb Reading Poetry (with an extra episode on the Importance of Literature)
8 Feb True or Not? How to Spot Fake News
15 Feb Reading into the Future

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Top Image: Nattakorn_Maneerat