Remember your first day at Primary 1? I do. It’s impossible for me to forget it due to my English teacher. You should also know that during my growing up years, Singapore was a far cry from the English-speaking, Anglocentric society it is today.

Musings of an Ex-Vice-Principal: How to R.E.A.D.

Remember your first day at Primary 1? I do. It’s impossible for me to forget it due to my English teacher. You should also know that during my growing up years, Singapore was a far cry from the English-speaking, Anglocentric society it is today.

I have a story about how I learned to read. On my first day at Primary 1, my English teacher, Mrs Chia, spoke to the class in Hokkien. It was necessary as plenty of children could not understand a word of English. Nonetheless, my mother was astonished. That evening, on the journey between the bus-stop and our home, she complained to everyone she met that my English teacher had spoken Hokkien to her pupils. The Hokkien lingered on for a period of time. However, as it turned out, Mrs Chia was a fantastic English teacher. She not only taught me how to read, but also made sure that I read properly. Mrs Chia turned reading into a habit for me, and that is the best gift I have received from any of my teachers. I still remember her for the oversized spectacles that framed her eyes, the long hair that swept past her shoulders, and the yellow Volkswagen Beetle in which she drove herself and her daughter to Rangoon Road Primary School.

Reading is important. No one would dispute this universal truth. However, I have found that many children – and their parents – do not understand what it means to truly read. Having been asked many times over the years how one should read, I have come up with an answer to these questions. This is the acronym I use: R.E.A.D.

I begin with the letter “R” and you will not be surprised to discover that it stands for “read”. On this note, let me pay tribute to Johannes Gutenberg, the German guy who invented the printing press way back in 1439. His invention gave the world printed books, broke the monopoly of religion over knowledge and education, and made reading possible for the masses. We should tell our children that reading, whether they like or loathe it, was out of reach for most people in the past. It still is for the poor and destitute, especially in developing countries. Reading is a global culture, entrenched in our thirst for knowledge and our need to be transported outside of our own limited environment. (Don’t forget that Jeff Bezos started Amazon as a bookstore.)

Next, we have the letter “E” for “extensively”. Paired with the first word, I invite you to consider the phrase “read extensively”. This phrase suggests that when we read, we should read for variety. Faithfulness to one author, one genre or one medium is not a virtue in reading. Are we involved in different publications? Do we have relationships with various titles? Have we engaged ourselves with multiple writers? When Borders was operating at Wheelock Place, it was a favourite haunt where people would get a taste of diverse texts before making a purchase. Today, there are a myriad of apps on the internet that curate content for us to read. Technology may change, but the importance of reading widely remains a timeless constant. In the curriculum I oversee, we believe it’s our duty to ensure that our students are exposed to as wide a range of texts as possible.

To take it further, I propose that “A” stands for “actively”. As far as possible, we should make it an active habit to read every day. Some people have a voracious appetite for books. They read endlessly. This is a virtue! A good habit requires some diligence and discipline to maintain. It does not need to be measured by time spent and volume read. It could just be a couple of pages of a book, an article or two from the newspapers or a magazine, or a very short story. Once again, technological development means that you can browse through the enormous selection of content that is available online. Just do not slack and stop reading. As teachers, we have come to realise that children these days are incredibly distracted by their technological toys. It is up to parents and teachers to work hand in hand, ensuring that there is sufficient reading material – in their curriculum, or at home – to sustain a child’s developing mind.

The last letter is “D” for “deeply”. Reading deeply is a deliberate task. It demands attention to detail, efforts to penetrate and understand the text, and thinking to explore the truth, relevance and value of what we read. In short, deep reading is about comprehension. How much we actually gain from reading often boils down to how deeply we pore over the reading material. Skipping an unfamiliar word, glossing over a short conversation, omitting an insignificant sentence to you may cause you to miss the subtlest and most rewarding parts of a story. Good writers often fill their texts with nuances, clues and inferences that engage the reader in a process of self-discovery. Try reading deeply a book or an article that you have previously skimmed over. You may find the experience entirely different. Of course, for your child, sometimes reading deeply requires guidance, and they may need some handholding along the way.

This is how to read – you need to “Read Extensively, Actively and Deeply”. It yields a number of benefits, of which I shall highlight three. First, extensive reading widens our knowledge. And knowledge powers ideas. I am inclined to say that reading, therefore, helps to make a person more interesting. A friend of mine has the knack of striking up and sustaining interesting conversations with anyone, a skill that is highly important in this day and age. She attributes it to reading.

Second, according to research, active reading expands vocabulary knowledge and grows the understanding of words already known to a person. Think of the word “eclipse”. What comes to your mind? Is it a solar eclipse? I suggest it is likely to be. That is because “eclipse” is often used to indicate the astronomical phenomenon that happens when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, blocking out the latter from our view. Yet the same word may also be invoked in the realm of human affairs, when someone has been overshadowed, as in the example, “Despite giving her best performance, Mary had to settle for the second prize as she was eclipsed by Gloria’s flawless rendition of the same song.” I propose that it is this level of vocabulary competence that unleashes higher-order thinking and more abstract conceptual thought. (It is often said that the Germans have so many philosophers because of their language.)

Third, deep reading builds various cognitive abilities. Together with extensive reading, it leads us to different contexts, varying styles of writing, and complicated author intentions. There are whimsical grammar rules, diverse sentence structures, complex linguistic devices and non-linear organization techniques to be learnt through reading. Content and information, absorbed during deep reading, provide opportunities for us to ponder and establish new neural connections. For those highly trained in Mathematics and Science, one’s brain may be structured in a more linear fashion. Language, however, can endow children with a more non-linear or networked form of cognition, as language itself is a web of relationships, with constellations of meaning that are context-dependent. It is this type of non-linear, context-dependent thinking that, as a society, we are still not very good at.

I am grateful to Mrs Chia for cultivating this reading habit in me. What was acquired in childhood has persisted into adulthood. Through reading, I have gained and achieved a great deal. As an educator now, I hope we can develop the same for our pupils. Start by offering your child a variety of texts that make for an interesting read to establish confidence. Over time, encourage your child to venture beyond his or her reading comfort zone. My dream is to say that all our pupils read extensively, actively and deeply.

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