Although Singapore ranked first in the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study for reading, more can be done to help low-proficiency students learn to read - and to read well.
Data from the highly regarded Pisa - which is run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development - shows that while Singapore's high performers have improved from the 2009 study, the low performers have not.
Reading is a foundational skill for economic gain, civic participation and lifelong learning. Proficient readers are able to access more information and process it meaningfully, whether in print or online. They are able to use what they read to learn independently, make decisions and generate new ideas. Non-proficient readers will lag behind in the knowledge economy.
However, access to reading materials and resources is not equal across Singapore's population, going by some findings in my ongoing "Building a Reading Culture" study, a nationwide inquiry into reading and school libraries in Singapore secondary schools.
We used the Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS) as a measure of poverty in the Singapore education context. Students are eligible for FAS if their gross household income does not exceed $2,500 per month or their per capita income does not exceed $625 per month.
The survey of 6,005 secondary school students showed that four in 10 FAS students have fewer than 10 books at home. In comparison, non-FAS students tend to have more books at home.
FAS students are also less likely to report seeing parents read at home. If they do see their parents read, they are less likely to see their parents reading different types of texts. FAS students are more likely to lack reading resources and role models at home.
International research has shown that family background may have more impact on reading and academic achievement in developed countries, compared with developing countries. Middle-class parents are able to provide rich literacy environments at home and invest time and money into helping their children learn to read.
Although resources such as the public library are accessible to all students, middle-class parents tend to use them more, and more effectively. Interestingly, the research shows that students who have more books at home tend to visit the library more. Visiting the library to look for books is a learnt habit and students who come from reading homes tend to have reading parents to teach them to navigate the public library system. As such, they feed their reading habit by using public resources.
Conversely, students who have little exposure to the public library may find visiting one, to borrow books and to read, an unfamiliar and daunting activity.
IMPORTANT ROLE OF SCHOOLS
Schools are crucial for developing reading habits, particularly when students come from non-reading homes. In interviews, students from non-reading homes who enjoyed reading shared about teachers who read or who encouraged them to read in their primary schools. Students who did not like reading were unable to recall a pleasurable memory of reading.
Three factors are important for encouraging reading in school.
•Read for pleasure, not just achievement.
Firstly, it is important for the school to focus on reading engagement, and not only reading achievement. Students surveyed reported overwhelmingly that they preferred to read for pleasure than for functional reasons. To cultivate a habit of reading, students need to see reading as something that is enjoyable. If they see reading as enjoyable, they are more likely to engage in more reading, leading to increased practice and proficiency.
This is not to say that there is no need to focus on proficiency. Rather, pleasure and proficiency must go hand in hand.
• Set aside time for reading.
Secondly, time needs to be set aside for reading and reading-related activities in school, whether during morning assembly or class time. Students who are less proficient tend to benefit from time set aside for reading.
In two schools studied, students reported that they read daily because of their schools' dedication to sustained silent reading during morning assembly. Low-proficiency readers in these schools were more likely to report enjoying reading than in the schools where time was not set aside for reading.
•Beef up school libraries.
Finally, school libraries should be made integral to the reading strategy of the school. The survey showed that while most students preferred to read at home, more FAS students than non-FAS students preferred to read at school than at home. This may be because they lack the conducive home environment for reading.
As part of the research process, the researchers spent 15 days in each school library, observing student behaviour for eight hours each day. Every 10 minutes during peak hours and every 20 minutes during non-peak hours, we would count the number of students in the library and code their behaviour as reading, research, study, collaborative or leisure behaviours.
In one case study school where the library was deliberately designed to encourage reading, 21 per cent of the total behaviours observed in the library in one term were reading behaviours. In comparison, only 2 to 7 per cent reading behaviours were observed at the other five schools.
Thoughtful book selection and display, interesting programmes and comfortable furniture encouraged students to browse, linger and read in the library. A dedicated library team consisting of the head of department of English and four other team members from various departments ensured a sustained programme that was aligned with the school's reading focus.
Schools matter for ensuring all students have equal access to reading. What matters now is how educators and policymakers make use of what they know to create an environment where students will want to read.
•The writer is an assistant professor in the English Language and Literature Academic Group of the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2017, with the headline 'Schools hold key to improve needy students' reading skills'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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