Even at preschool level, the acquisition of basic literacy looms large. There is inevitably some anxiety associated with monitoring children’s progress with their reading and writing. That being said, it is not so easy to think about literacy in binary terms: illiterate/literate, unable/able to read.
In fact, we might be better off thinking of literacy as a bit of a messy multi-dimensional collection of continuums. Some children might be very quick to learn the mechanics of phonics, but they might fall behind those of their peers who have stronger retention of stories; some children might excel at recognising words on flashcards, but they might still have a long way to go in terms of being motivated to pick up a book of their own accord.
THE SOCIAL ELEMENT
Reading and writing ought to be an organic extension of a child’s progress towards joining a larger community of language users. A child’s first contact with language, after all, is almost always interactive and immediate. There is a social element in a child’s learning of spoken language: from babbling to the voicing of first words to the exploration of word combinations – all of this takes place within a warm, responsive context, where the child gets to cooperate and connect with another human being.
Print, on the other hand, is silent: ink on a page or pixels on a screen can never be as responsive or compelling as a real, live person. Many preschools address this issue by embedding the practice of pre-reading skills within emphatically social activities. Mont Kiara International School’s early childhood programmes, for instance, takes great pains to integrate literacy activities into play-based environments, and puts a great emphasis on shared and interactive reading. Children can get a sense of the immense power of print by joining forces with the teacher to access new information and narratives.
Sticking to prescribed frameworks can be too rigid for this level of learning. Formal schooling has its requirements and standards, and these do serve some purpose in outlining broad goals. However, it is so important to take into account each child’s individual needs. As Joanne Rice, Head of Early Years Centre at Garden International School notes: ‘Reading and readiness to read is developmental and so different for each child.’ She also adds: ‘we have children from a wide variety of backgrounds and many have English as an additional language.’
The main solution to supporting this wide diversity of needs is to allow learning to be decentralised. At Garden International, there is a ‘freeflow environment’ where ‘staff work with children individually and in small groups throughout the day’, allowing children to pursue their various interests at their respective developmental levels.
Datin Nona Azlan, founder and director of Children’s Discovery House, also emphasises child-directed learning at her establishment: ‘The child-directed route follows the development and pace of each individual, setting comfortable goals that are non-forceful and non-threatening. Children naturally ease into the learning process.’
At Children’s Discovery House, child-directed activities see children choose what materials they want to work with. Teachers do not set up rigid schedules; instead, they ‘act as guides, challenging children to push their limits.’
FROM THE CONCRETE TO THE ABSTRACT
Presently, the dominant method of reading instruction is phonics. Phonics is effective because it breaks the task of learning to read down into manageable, discrete steps: children are taught how to link particular sounds to particular letters, and then they are taught how to blend combinations of these letters together. One major stumbling block with phonics, though, is that it is sometimes just too abstract for many children.
Four- and five-year-olds often struggle to relate to operations on printed symbols and content-less sounds. Preschools have to work very hard to make phonics more concrete. Jolly Phonics, a programme that is used by many preschools brings letter sounds to life by building in actions and multi-sensory stimuli.
At Children’s Discovery House, various methods are employed to make literacy quite literally a ‘hands on’ experience. Children might trace out letters on sandpaper or handle stiff cut-out letters. In fact, it is widespread preschool practice to encourage children to form letter shapes from yarn or pipe cleaners or playdough.
Beyond the alphabet, there is also joy to be found in exploring the physical materiality of books themselves. Ms Rice comments on how wordless books are a great starting point for developing pre-reading skills: ‘Encouraging children to tell a story from the pictures not only supports language development but helps children see themselves as readers. They learn how to handle books and share stories together.’
AN INCLINATION TO READ
It is all well and good for children to acquire the requisite decoding skills to make their way through a text. However, children also need to develop the motivation to apply those skills. In fact, developing a positive attitude towards reading is probably one of the most fundamental goals of preschool. Ms Rice notes: ‘Some of our learners will be confident reading longer texts independently, while others will require support with sounding out simple words. However, we aim for all of our children to leave the Early Years Centre with a love for reading and a passion for books.’
There are two reliable methods that preschools use to nurture their students’ love for reading. The first is to make sure that the content resonates with these early readers. Stories with relatable characters and storylines are popular; and it helps if these young readers are regularly allowed to pick their own reading material. The second method is to demonstrate just how powerful print can be. Teachers might model how written words can influence others’ behaviour (‘No entry’), serve as reminders (‘Buy eggs’) and convey information (‘This is John’s book’).
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
There are so many moving parts that contribute to the development of literacy at the preschool level. Writing contributes to reading; reading contributes to writing; lived experience helps with comprehension but reading also extends the internal world; oral language supports the initial acquisition of literacy but a positive feedback loop ought to develop between oral language and written language.
Given the complexity of the task, it is important for preschools to prioritise. As we have seen, the most reliable approaches are to embed reading within a social context, to make every effort to link reading with the tangible, concrete world, and also to motivate students by convincing them that the written word opens up new communication possibilities.