The right way or the Singapore highway?

Importance of Continuity in Teaching Strategies from Preschool to Primary

Dr Susan Harris-Shaples

Grainy cameraphone picture of Dr Harris-Shaples and her well-meaning audience.

The austere Chamber Room proved apt for Dr Harris-Sharples’s weighty discourse on the criticality of continuity in education. She maintained that the teaching of reading and writing must be sustained through pre-and primary school and ideally, for the rest of one’s life. To stop or stifle learning at even the most rudimentary stage would be insidious.

Dr Harris-Sharples began by identifying a common Singaporean trend: our undying penchant for tuition classes. Being a product of this very system, I can testify. For decades, Singaporeans have been born and bred on overpriced tuition sessions for various subjects, regardless of necessity or effectuality.  Our glorious garden-state is indeed, an incorrigible “Tuition Nation”.

Still from insightful documentary, The Tuition Nation (2011).

With tuition sessions for (barely) one-year-olds on the rise, this extracurricular drilling is also starting at increasingly early ages. This disturbing trend goes beyond being commonplace “kiasu-ness” in Asian parenting to being a fundamental flaw in child development. Sure, children here can read and write rapidly but do they do it meaningfully? Is there an understanding of the words and genuine motivation?

Dr Harris-Sharples raised these oft-overlooked questions and emphasised developmentally appropriate strategies in place of tuition, tuition and more tuition. Being a paper on teachers for teachers – as part of the Asian Primary and Preschool Teachers Congress – the teachers were then called upon to take up their role as educators, implementing these strategies and ensuring their continuity as children progress from grade to grade.

The goal of teachers, and of educational continuity, is to inspire motivated and independent readers and writers, stressed Dr Harris-Sharples. She then detailed the following concepts for better reaching this goal:

  • Children should learn to read and spell simultaneously. There is a misconception that spelling and writing must be taught first in order for the children to be able to read those same letters and words in books. However, writing without simultaneous emphasis on reading makes the words meaningless and hollow as the children are unable to place them into context. Writing without reading also makes words more difficult to retain as there is no associative memory with the meaning of the word. As the child reads more, he writes better and is more motivated to do so. Reading also becomes easier with spelling and writing.
  • Teachers should not stop reading to children the moment they can read independently. Learning is a continuous process and the children will be able to continue learning how to better pronounce and retain words from the teacher’s phonetic sounds. Children will also glean motivation and passion for writing, reading and literature if a teacher expresses enthusiasm and genuine love for a particular piece of writing. By sharing one’s favourite book with a child, they are more likely to remember it better and subconsciously learn to share the passion for reading and writing.
  • Environmental print is an unconventional yet effective way to teach children how to read and recognise words. It refers to print in our surroundings, be it on billboards, signboards, juice cartons or cereal boxes. Children will continue to learn even out of the classroom if they are encouraged to read everything around them. A ‘word wall’ is one of the methods to incorporate environmental print in the classroom.

A word wall! Fun times.

  • Children learn not just from printed material and physically writing but also through verbal interaction. By listening to their teachers and their peers, they learn the sounds of words, and by speaking, they learn to use the words in a meaningful and realistic context (i.e. in real-time conversation). Thus, children should not be completely shushed in class but provided opportunities to talk in a constructive manner, such as group work or drama.

Dr Harris-Sharples then concluded by bringing the role of parents into the picture. While teachers are indispensable to the facilitation of continuous learning, parents should be involved in the process as well. Instead of giving children worksheets to bring home to complete, Dr Harris-Shaples suggested setting homework for their parents instead: Guidelines for parents to read and write to and with their child, and, timesheets to be filled up after, indicating how frequently and long they did.

Despite all her enthusiasm for early childhood education, Dr Harris-Shaples did acknowledge her idealism as just that. She operated on the assumption that all teachers and parents genuinely wanted their child to learn and grow and were willing to put in time and effort to achieve continuity and passion in the child’s education. In this tuition-centric meritocracy we live in though, change may take a little while longer to come knocking.

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