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Singapore: A Diverse Education Landscape
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The Kindergarten Curriculum and the Teaching of Reading and Writing

Dr Lynn Ang Ling-Yin

 

The theme of this issue, ‘Thinking about Reading and Writing’, is particularly appropriate in light of current government initiatives to move towards an approach to education and pedagogy that is more diverse, creative and experimental. The subject of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s inaugural National Day speech in 2004, ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ (TLLM), is in part a precipitation for this call for a more innovative education provision, in order to encourage students to strive, not just for academic excellence, but to do so in an innovative and creative way. It is a strong statement of the need to develop the ‘whole child’, to promote a culture of lifelong learning, and to encourage a thirst for education beyond the classroom and school environment. This vision of education, of teaching and learning, was further encapsulated in the national framework, ‘Strategies for Effective Engagement and Development (SEED), introduced by the Ministry of Education in 2005, to support the government’s vision of using more interactive and experiential teaching to engage with students, in a bid to enhance ‘teaching programmes, pedagogy and assessment approaches’ (MOE Press Release, 2005).


Within this context, the teaching of reading and writing in the Early Years, is about looking beyond the mere delivery of standardised lesson plans and assessments. It is about providing a curriculum for pre-school children that is flexible, creative, and enjoyable, and one which emphasises more than just the conventions of literacy. The ideal student, as Gopinathan describes, should more than just excel in the basic skills of reading and writing. The model student, in twenty-first century Singapore, should be able to 14‘collate, synthesise, analyse and apply knowledge to solve problems; capable of being creative and innovative; not riskaverse; be able to work independently and in groups; and be a lifelong learner’ (Gopinathan 2001, p.11). For educators, what this means is a challenge to explore more innovative teaching approaches in the classroom. In the voice of the teacher Pearly Chai, in her article on ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ published in the 2005 issue of REVIEW, she writes, ‘[t]he teacher must be creative, dare to be different and dare to try out ideas, bearing in mind the needs of the students’ (Chai, 2005). This drive towards creative and innovative teaching, I argue, should be the cornerstone of every curriculum and the mantra of every teacher, especially those working in pre-schools.


The new pre-school curriculum
In 2003, a national curriculum for all preschools entitled A Framework for a Kindergarten Curriculum in Singapore was launched by the Ministry of Education (MOE, 2003). With this, a significant milestone in Early Years education was reached, as for the very first time in the country, it reflected the beginning of a government endorsed curriculum for preschool children aged 3 to 6. The introduction of the new curriculum was a formal recognition of the importance of the Early Years as a distinct stage of education in its own right, and an official statement of what a ‘quality pre-school education in Singapore’ should entail (A Framework for a Kindergarten Curriculum in Singapore, p.6).


The Framework provides a reference for practitioners to draw upon and plan their curriculum, and is structured around six areas of learning: aesthetics and creative expression, environmental awareness, motor skills development, numeracy, self and social awareness, and language and literacy. It is accompanied by a compilation of six booklets, with each booklet focusing on a specific area of learning. Alongside this, there are also two DVDs on ‘Nurturing Early Learners’ and an additional booklet on Putting Principles into Practice which offers guidance for educators in planning the curriculum, developing the learning environment, and monitoring children’s development.


In the section on language and literacy, the Framework offers a guide to practitioners in helping children develop their reading and writing skills, with a list of recommended resources and suggested activities for educators to use in their daily practice. It emphasises the importance of language and literacy as ‘crucial to young children’s learning’, and the role of the adult in facilitating this development. It states explicitly the task of the educator in enhancing children’s language development, and to cultivate in children a ‘positive disposition for language learning’, through:


• valuing children’s talk by taking time to listen and respond
• simulating verbal interactions between children
• immersing them in a literacy rich environment
• encouraging their efforts to use language to record their ideas and thoughts
(‘Language and Literacy Development’, 2003, p.4)


The four tasks above are defined in the‘Language and Literacy Development’ guide as fundamental to the role of the educator. To achieve these tasks, practitioners are provided with a list of‘examples of what children can do’ and a set of general learning goals for children such as ‘listen attentively and respond appropriately’, ‘enjoy books, stories and rhymes’, ‘develop phonological awareness’ and ‘communicate meanings in writing’. They range from broad and generic goals such as ‘display appropriate reading behaviour’ to more specific ones such as‘discriminate between different letter sounds’. The learning goals specify the 15 competences and experiences that children are to acquire in the area of language development at pre-school stage. Guided by these goals and principles, the Framework has therefore clear aspirations for children and educators. It offers general advice to educators in helping children achieve their goals, by asserting that the educator needs to ‘provide opportunities in both informal and formal settings for children to develop their command of spoken English …’ (‘Language and Literacy Development’, 2003, p.11) and that the‘teacher needs to be a clear and exciting communicator, and careful and thoughtful listener’ (‘Language and Literacy Development’, 2003, p.4).


The Framework is therefore centred on a series of tasks, activities and goals in helping children develop their literacy skills. It is prescriptive in stipulating the types and level of reading and writing skills that children at pre-school stage need to develop, and is didactic in its approach to literacy development, emphasising that children ‘need to know …’, and ‘children also need to …’ (‘Language and Literacy Development’, 2003, p.34). However, as prescriptive and structured as the Framework purports to be, in reality, the implementation of the curriculum is subject to the autonomy of the educator. While the Framework stresses the importance of introducing children to reading and writing through multiple ways of learning, in practice, how this is implemented depends essentially on the educator’s interpretation and application of the curriculum. The challenge for educators then, is to work out for their settings a curriculum that takes into consideration the importance of innovative learning, and one which focuses on the competencies and potential of the child.


Challenges ahead
With the introduction of the Framework, pre-school teachers and educators must now transform principles into practice. They need to be encouraged and empowered as interpreters and innovators of the new curriculum, not just as mere implementers of a prescribed document. Beyond the confines of the Framework, teachers must be willing to create conditions for discovery and experimentation in the classroom, leaving the children to enjoy their experiences with reading and writing, while engaging them in new intellectual challenges.


To begin with, educators have to broaden their understanding of what counts as‘reading and writing’. While there is general consensus amongst educators, parents and the wider community that literacy in a vital aspect of early childhood education, there is less agreement about what the word actually means. In contemporary context, the term is associated with more than just the traditional activities of reading and writing. It is increasingly used to take into account newer competencies, such as computer literacy, media literacy or visual literacy. Cope and Luke (2000) uses the term ‘multiliteracies’ to refer to literacy skills apart from reading and writing, such as the ability to interpret, decode, critique, and to 16 engage with texts on different levels. As Cope and Luke go on to argue, this creates‘a different kind of pedagogy’, as educators have to look beyond conventional notions of literacy and traditional approaches of teaching reading and writing to enhance the learning experience for the child. This creates a challenging environment not only for children as learners, but for early childhood teachers who are expected to possess a wide range of pedagogical skills in the classroom. For practitioners, the
challenge is to integrate the teaching of reading and writing within a pedagogical model that is appropriate for the pre-school stage, while at the same time valuing preschools as essentially places for play, exploration, socialisation, and a love for learning.


At the level of assessment, being innovative in teaching reading and writing also means having to reflect, evaluate, and develop new instruments of measurements to link the issue of literacy more closely to the new curriculum. Assessments can be made more formative rather than summative, where the teaching of reading and writing is not necessarily associated with tests, targets or levels of attainments. The teaching of literacy during the Early Years should not contribute to a process of‘schoolification’, and the pre-school Framework should not be interpreted as a simplified version of the primary curriculum; nor should the early childhood stage of education be treated as preparation for later stages. The challenge for all educators is to prevent the teaching of reading and writing from being reduced to a checklist of outcomes, based on tests and worksheets. The main aim of literacy, especially at preschool level, should be about helping children develop a desire and curiosity for reading and writing, and confidence in their own learning, rather than achieving a prespecified level of knowledge or proficiency. Practitioners therefore need to move away from a so-called ‘attainment-target’ approach to a ‘process-developmental’ one, and strive for autonomy to decide on new pedagogical and assessment approaches, and freedom to adopt these methods.


The Framework for a Kindergarten Curriculum in Singapore provides a reference for curriculum implementation and pre-school pedgagogy, but like any curricular document, it should also allow scope for interpretation. The introduction of the Framework meant that all children aged 3 to 6 would be provided a basic, common pre-school education, with the aim of ensuring equality in Early Years provision, but at the same time, children’s diversity must also be recognised. Each setting has to formulate its own interpretation of the Framework and adapt it to its own conditions, to allow for the curriculum to be contextualised. Teachers and educators should also develop the curriculum and curricular projects that responds to the needs of the children, and their social and cultural environment. In this way, early childhood education as a whole will be the first step towards achieving the government’s vision of lifelong learning, and Early Years educators can continue to be innovators and interpreters of the curriculum, daring to change, question, and be different.


References
Cope B. and Luke C. (2000), Introduction: Multiliteracies: the beginning of an idea, in Cope B. and Kalntzis M. (eds.), Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures, South Yarra: Macmillan.
Ministry of Education (2003), A Framework for a Kindergarten Curriculum in Singapore, Singapore: Tien Wah Press Pte. Ltd.
Ministry of Education (2003), ‘Language and Literacy Development’ in A Framework for a Kindergarten Curriculum in Singapore, Singapore: Tien Wah Press Pte. Ltd.
Ministry of Education (2003), Launch of Pre-School Curriculum Framework, Joint Press Release by Ministry of Education and National Arts Council.
Tan J., Gopinathan S. and Ho W.K. (Eds.) (2001), Challenges Facing the Singapore Education System, Singapore: Prentice Hall.

 


Dr Lynn Ang Ling-Yin is a Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies, School of Education, University of East London. E-mail: L.L.Ang@uel.ac.uk.

 

 


 


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