News analysis

Go beyond proficiency to nurturing love of the written word

Children in Singapore are among the top readers in the world, a recent study has found.

They are adept not only in understanding text in print, but also do well in navigating online material, according to the latest results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) released last month. A good number are capable of higher-order reading skills such as assessing complex literary story plots and interpreting non-fiction texts.

Singapore has gone from being ranked No. 4 out of 45 education systems in 2011 to being second out of 58 territories, in terms of how well students read.

Experts attribute this to factors such as their being surrounded by more reading material, with greater access to the Internet.

Also, as Assistant Professor Loh Chin Ee, an expert in reading from the National Institute of Education, said: "Generally, our literacy rate is high, and as parents become more educated, more of them are spending time reading with their children at home."

Many believe in reading and talking to babies long before they utter their first words, as research shows this boosts development in language and cognition.

Dr Loh also noted that the English language syllabus is revised every 10 years to ensure it is up to date. For instance, in the past decade, schools have placed greater emphasis on speaking and using language in real-world contexts - strategies which have contributed to students' stronger literacy skills.

An encouraging finding is that 81 per cent of the 10-year-old pupils who took part in the PIRLS questionnaire said they like reading.

But reading habits change with competing demands, and many read less as they get older. A National Arts Council survey in 2016 found that older people here read less than those in their teens, 20s and 30s.

Beyond proficiency, experts say more attention can be paid to the affective side of building literacy, such as motivating students to be readers, and letting them read according to their interests. Dr Loh said: "We need to create an environment for reading. We are good in instruction and curriculum, but there are other areas for improvement - in the design of spaces to encourage reading, to recommending books to students."

Academically weaker pupils, in particular, need to also enjoy reading so they have more reason to continue the habit.

Someone who enjoys reading is more likely to keep on picking up books - and other reading material - even as an adult, contributing to a society that is not just proficient in a language, but can also use it to understand and construct the world around it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2018, with the headline 'Go beyond proficiency to nurturing love of the written word'. Print Edition | Subscribe