085 How Far Can This Child Go?

Everyone is good at something!

This is a real story about how a teacher uncovers the extent of a child’s potential out of a genuine curiosity to find out “how far can this child go?”.

Two days ago, Ms. Lim, a special needs school teacher, decided to tell her class an important message, “Remember this—everyone has something that he or she is good at.”

Knowing that Cairn, a 16 year-old student, who has moderate autism and speech difficulties, is good at simple Maths calculations, she asked the boy to perform an addition of two six-digit figures in front of the class.

Ms Lim was astounded to hear the boy saying out the correct answer before her fingers even finished keying in the numbers on the calculator!

Testing the child’s limits!

Encouraged by Cairn’s mental calculation prowess, Ms Lim asked Cairn to solve subtraction, multiplication and even division of six-digit figures. The boy answered every question correctly without pen and paper!

Testing the child’s limit, Ms. Lim wrote 2 to the power of 3.

The whole class watched the question in bewilderment, “What’s that? Miss Lim, what’s that? How come we had never see this kind of question before?”

Before she could explain, Cairn answered, “Eight!”

Surprised, Ms Lim thought to herself quietly, “Wow! Cairn knows how to do indices! Let’s test him a little more!”

Randomly, she wrote 16 to the power of 3 on the whiteboard, half thinking that he is unlikely to solve it mentally, even if he knows indices.

To solve this question mentally, one has to perform a series of calculations on the head:

(Step 1) 16 x 6= 96;

(Step 2) 16 x10 = 160;

(Step 3) then add 96 and 160 = 256;

(Step 4) 256 x 6 = 1536 which involves several carry-overs;

(Step 5) 256 x 10 = 2560;

(Final Step 6) 1536 + 2560 = 4096.

Cairn took a while to think as the class waited in silence. The moment he said the correct answer, the whole class erupted in applause. Classmates went up and gave Cairn a huge pat on his shoulder and congratulated him after he could answer all of the questions! The students were saying to him like they were talking to their younger brother, “Ah boy!!!! Good ah!” Their euphoria also attracted teachers from other classes to see what Cairn was doing!

Keep Searching What Your Strength Is

Cairn’s spectacular performance had many students started thinking, “How come he is so good at math? What am I good at then?”

This was a great teaching moment. Ms Lim took the opportunity to encourage the class, “Like I said, everyone is good at something. All you have to do is to keep searching what your strength is!”

The next day, Ms Lim took a video of how Cairn learns and performs square root for the first time.

Looking at the examples she created for Cairn on the whiteboard, I could tell how much she believed in my boy’s ability to figure the logic on his own. All this while, I am fully aware of Cairn’s strength in Maths, but unlike Ms Lim, I had stopped asking, “how much more can his strength be expanded?”, after I had switched my focus to work on enhancing his employability.

Do not underestimate the intrinsic value of learning

That’s the problem with most typical Singaporean parents. In the face of practical concerns, we would encourage children to learn only what is of use, instead of what is in their interest and strength.

I do not think that I am wrong to focus on my son’s employability, but I had unwittingly neglected on expanding his strengths further. Yet, I have kept on polishing my writing and photography skills as a hobby in recent years. And I know how much personal satisfaction I had gained from doing such endeavours.

Although I do not know how Cairn’s strength in mental calculation can be translated to employable skills, I now know the intrinsic value in encouraging Cairn to pursue a subject or area where his interest lies. Can you feel the enthusiasm that overflows from his back when he is trying to learn a Maths concept on his own?

William

p.s: Special thanks to Ms Lim Wan Ting for your passion and commitment in discovering children’s potential! And for being such a wonderful teacher!

Ms Lim is not the only wonderful teacher I know. Over these years at Grace Orchard School (GOS), Cairn had encountered many excellent Teachers and therapists who had gone the extra mile to help him. Thank you, GOS principal, Mrs Goh and your team!

#specialneeds#autism#strengths#sgenable#discoverstrengthe#teachers#greatteacher#

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078 How To Choose Schools Wisely?

A Grave Mistake That Parents Make

On the 21 November, the results of the this year’s Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) were released. Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to chose a suitable secondary school for the children.

Source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/psle-results-2019-primary-6-students-secondary-school-express-12113634

As the school-posting system is entirely based on the merit of academic results, many parents tend to make their decision around their children’s PSLE score.

But I know one of the gravest mistakes parents make is to allow their decision to be dictated by their children’s PSLE score.

Four years ago, the good news of a friend, AP’s son’s admission to a premier school turned into a story of hectic struggles for the family. They even moved house to be closer to the school to make life easier for their son. My friend reflected, “The first year was rough. My son did not expect tests to cover stuff that the teacher didn’t teach in class. Over the years, he is coping better, but his self-esteem was somewhat dented. I started to question if it was a good decision.”

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Another friend, BQ lamented that her relationship strained terribly after she influenced her daughter to change her choice of school to a premier one where she had few friends. She was heartbroken one day when her daughter made an outburst in tears while struggling with her school work, “You made me choose this school!”

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And there was this friend, CR who revealed, “I resorted to emotional blackmail and tried all ways to make my son choose the school I thought was in his best interest. My boy stubbornly refused. Now, looking at how he has blossomed in the school he chose, I am embarrassed to admit that my son’s judgement was better.”

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Over the years, I have become convinced that it’s prudent to look beyond the cut-off-points of schools, and ask ourselves one question: what kind of school suits my child best?

Know Your Child’s Personality

Last year, I had to confront the same question as my younger son, Conan took PSLE.

Conan’s score of 270 could get him into any school of his choice. It seemed like a no-brainer to choose the most sought-after premier school, the Raffles Institution (RI), that accepts only students scoring around 260 and above. His school teacher also suggested Conan choose RI like the other top boys.

Source: http://www.ri.edu.sg

But my wife and I reckoned RI would attract the top students from most primary schools. A fiercely competitive environment like that might not be a good fit for Conan’s personality.

We saw what he was like in the last three years when he was placed in the GIfted Education Program (GEP). The boy loved to be in the company of his smart and boisterous GEP friends, but dreaded being repeatedly told by his teachers to work harder in some subjects like Maths which he paled in comparison to others. Subsequently, he even dipped in Science at Primary five, a subject that he used to excel in.

Conan knew what worked for him. He said, “I thrive better when I am not compelled by others to do their bidding. I do best when I pursue things at a pace that I enjoy. What’s the point of getting good grades if I don’t enjoy the subject and would give up eventually anyway?”

So, we eliminated the obvious choice that everyone thought we would chose.

How To Reach A Consensual Decision?

More important than the decision itself is the decision-making process. My wife and I agreed that Conan must be involved in the decision-making. But we were hesitant to let him have the final say.

So, I set the rules, “You can have a bigger say in the choice of school. But you cannot make a unilateral decision on a matter that may affect the whole family. So, it has to be a consensual decision that everybody agrees as one family.”

Conan agreed. But he had his mind set on only one school — River Valley High School (RV), a reputable school in the furthest western part of Singapore. His rationale was that RV is co-Ed, offers the Integrated Program (IP) that allowed him to study up to senior high school level in six years, and the school was clearly not the choice of fiercely competitive top students.

Source: https://m.facebook.com/River-Valley-High-School-Singapore-Official-352563478111277/

But we had a practical concern— it would take nearly one and a half hour to commute between home and school.

We explained, “The school hours in secondary school are longer. And the workload is also heavier. It will be dreadful to spend so much time on the road, depriving you of your rest time, personal and family time.”

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But the boy was not easily persuaded. He argued, “Travelling time is not a problem to me. I can always find something to do on the move.”

Then he changed tack and made a pitch,

“Dad, didn’t you always want me to be better in Chinese? As RV is very strong in Chinese language and culture, it will be good for my Chinese studies.”

I replied in laughter, “That’s a good sales pitch! But I am not falling for that. Long commute time is a real concern, especially during the rainy season and the exam period. And it affects the quality of your school life more than you believe it matters.”

So I decided, “Let’s keep an open mind to consider at least one more school. Meanwhile, we will travel with you to RV by public transport for the next few days to experience how it is like.”

Who Played Into The Hands of The Other?

On a Saturday morning, our family travelled together to RV. Along the journey, I told Conan anecdotes of students who are studying in RV that I gathered from friends and the chat room of RV students. And we discussed the other schools that meet his requirements of co-ed and IP.

Conan agreed that National Junior College (NJC), which takes 30 to 40 minutes lesser time to commute, is a viable alternative. And the school offered unique and interesting programs like the compulsory 4-6 weeks annual boarding school program.

Source: https://nationaljc.moe.edu.sg

But Conan still insisted that RV was his first choice.

On the second day, during our commute to RV, I shared my thoughts with Conan,

“Both RV and NJC are good schools. But I think the ethos in NJC may be a better fit for you because the principal of NJC spoke more about their values and the uniqueness of their programmes , while the principal of RV emphasised on their scholastic achievements and results.”

Conan listened thoughtfully but he did not say a word.

On the way back, I remarked, “The journey is tolerable without the weekday crowds. But you may not find seats during peak hours and have to stand all the way for ninety minutes.”

Source: https://medium.com/mozzer-expressions/the-art-of-standing-up-on-a-bus-dcbf85a20e37

Having stated the disadvantage, I threw in a carrot,

“You know that I don’t like to give monetary reward. But since you did so exceptionally well this time, and I have not figured what to reward you.. I will give you a monetary reward of $500 if you choose NJC.” Then I feigned regret instantly, “No, it’s not right. Forget that I suggested it.”

His mum intercepted and said to me, “No way! How can you retract your words to your son so quickly?”

Then turning to Conan, she suggested, “Since it’s the first time that your Dad is so generous, get him to give you more!”

Conan took cue from his mother and said, “Dad, I can take up NJC, depending on what’s your best offer?”

I laughed, “You are opportunistic. $200 more, that’s as far as I am willing to go!”

“$700. It’s a deal!” Conan laughed heartily. And his mother joined in with laughter of triumph.

“Are you two in cahoots?” I looked at them with suspicion. The mother and son laughed even more.

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Conan said, “Actually, I am fine with both schools. Just wanted to see how generous you can be. You must keep your words now!”

“Okay. A deal is a deal.” I nodded, “But your old man is a poor man. I can only give you in instalments of $100 per month over seven months.”

To me, it was just an extra amount I would probably have to fork out as his allowance anyway. To Conan, however, he told me later that he was actually fine to make NJC his first choice by the second day, so the $700 incentive was actually an extra windfall.

Somehow till today, however, I cannot help feeling that both of us had played into the hands of someone else.

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Important Considerations

Nonetheless, the decision turned out good. Fast forward one year, Conan has made new friends, continues to do well in his studies and has enjoyed the boarding experience at NJC tremendously!

To parents of PSLE students who are finalising on the school choices before 27 November this year, hopefully you find my personal anecdotes entertaining and meaningful.

Find a school that suits your child best. Making a wishful decision can turn a good news today into a nightmare, whereas a good decision can turn even a disappointing news today into a blessing in disguise tomorrow.

Think again:

(1) The kind of school environment – Will you be comfortable with the type of students and their family backgrounds?

(2) The rigour of their curriculum – Will your child’s self-esteem be adversely hit when they are compared to their peers?

(3) The travel time between school and home – Will the child become too tired?

(4) The school culture and ethos – Find out reviews from friends with kids studying in the schools you are choosing.

A good decision is made when your child feels good in his or her new school, not when everyone else, ironically except your kid, thinks that the school is good.

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Bear in mind, children are the ones going to study in the school you choose for the next 4-6 years. Parents, please set the rules, listen to them and find consensus!

All the best!

William W K Tan

25 Nov 2019

076 How To Prepare Children For Unexpected PSLE Results?

If parents are already stressed out, what about the children?

On a Saturday morning, I greeted a neighbour, “Have a happy weekend!”

“It’s a sad weekend,” he replied unexpectedly before going on to explain,

“The children are having a grilling time preparing for examinations.”

My neighbour’s daughter was one of nearly forty thousand twelve-year-old children taking the national examination, Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) in Singapore this year. His words reminded me that PSLE was around the corner at the third week of September.

Source: https://sg.news.yahoo.com

PSLE is widely perceived as a one-time life-changing event that greatly affects children’s future. Parents with children taking PSLE do get jittery. Many parents will take leave from work and some even resign from work to support their children in preparing for the examination.  

I overheard a mother complaining to a friend how stressed out she felt. Her complaint drew a blunt remark from her friend,

“Your child is the one taking the exam, not you. If parents are already stressed out, how are children going to take it?”

Is the stress real or imagined?

People who are unfamiliar with the Singapore education system probably cannot fully grasp what makes the PSLE so stressful. At one glance of the statistics, nearly every student passes and advances to secondary schools. With only a meagre 2% of the cohort failing, onlookers may be forgiven to think the fear for PSLE is more imagined than real.

The devil is in the details. Children are pigeon-holed into different academic streams according to their PSLE results, which directly affects their chances of gaining admission to the preferred national universities in the long run. And a difference of one point in the PSLE aggregate score may cost children to miss the cut-off point for admission to the premier schools they covet. A less-than-expected performance at PSLE inevitably brings big disappointment to parents who have done whatever they could to support their children. Most detrimentally, it is not a blow that every twelve year old student is ready to deal with.

Source: https://www.asiaone.com/singapore/parents-compile-list-top-psle-scores?amp

A friend X told me, “My daughter was utterly shocked to receive her PSLE score four years ago. She cannot go to the same secondary schools with her better-performing friends. Overnight, the world she knew collapsed. My daughter felt she was not good enough compared to peers. Her self-esteem never quite recovered since. And it got worse over the years. At sixteen now, she starts questioning why she has to go to school since she is not cut for studies.”

By many measures, Singapore is highly regarded for having one of the best public education systems in the world for producing a large pool of academically excellent children. But the deafening voice of promoting meritocracy has drowned the voices of those whose self esteem has been scarred . It is only of late that it dawns upon the ministry of education to abolish, in five years’ time, the streaming of students.

What matters most is always the child!

Knowing that my friend X has another daughter taking PSLE this year, I wondered what I could do to assuage her anxiety. Immediately, I shared with her a thoughtful message written by a well-meaning teacher to her primary-six student,

“You are about to sit for your first major examination. I know you are getting the jitters so in the midst of all this, I want to tell you that this test does not assess all that makes you special and dear to heart.

The people who scored these tests do not know how creative you are. They have not seen how well you design or draw. They have not seen how great you are at coming up with games, improvising them to entertain and amuse your friends. They do not know how confident you are when speaking in a large group. They have no idea how you have always been a teacher’s trusted helper, handling every task assigned well.

The scores that you get in this examination will tell you of how you did that day but not everything about you. They will not tell you how you have improved on something that you felt was once difficult. Neither will they tell you of how you had shown resilience in this examination and pulled through.

Whatever it is, it will not make you any less than who you really are… ”

**Special thanks to KQ for sharing her cherished message from her teacher Michele.

I was moved. The thing that matters most is never the results, but the child. And my friend X was also nearly brought to tears after reading this heartfelt message. She said, “This teacher is so thoughtful and wise. She makes me want to write a similar personal message to my daughter!”

I hope more parents and teachers would do the same!

Be prepared for the unexpected results

Last year, a few weeks after the PSLE examination, I thought there was a need to have a conversation with my then twelve year old son, Conan, about the impending release of the results. 

“We all hope for the best. But we must also be prepared for the worst.” I prefaced the topic before asking Conan, “So, what’s your prediction?”

“Well, I hope to get a score of 260. I guess it will be alright if I get 250s.” Conan spoke carefully as he made his prediction. Then he mischievously changed his tone, “But if I get 240s, that is definitely a no-no! I don’t wish to get a lower PSLE score than you did.”

I laughed at his remark before correcting his view,

“Do you know that the PSLE score is computed by a formula that compares your marks against all other students in Singapore?” That means even if you have done well enough, but everyone else is doing better, you may still end up with a lower score than you expected.”

Source: https://mothership.sg/2018/10/how-to-calculate-psle-t-score-aggregate

Conan frowned. I took a jibe at him,

“Well, it’s a possibility. You didn’t push yourself as hard as some of your classmates did. Did you not say so yourself?”

Conan disagreed with a cheeky smile, “Pushing hard is a bad idea. A balance of work and play is always important to do well in exams. ”

“Let’s hope you are right. My point is to be prepared for unexpected results.” I said before adding,

“At best, you will get to be happy for a few days. Or at worst, you go to a secondary school that you least expect. It’s not a big deal…”

Before my sentence could finish, my wife abruptly stopped me, “Oh please, stop saying things that may jinx my son’s good fortune!”

Picture from WordPress Photo Library.

After the results were out, my wife gleefully called to tell me the good news. Clearly, my words did not bring my son any bad luck.

Examination stress may leave a lasting impact on a person

Even in adulthood, I have had occasional nightmares about making a frantic search for the correct examination hall. Those nightmares started from the time I took the Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (GCE A -level in abbreviation) at eighteen years old. I am not sure how many children can handle exam stress well at a vulnerable age of twelve.

Examination stress may leave a lasting impact on a person. I think it’s still better to prepare our children for the unexpected results, don’t you agree?

Finally, I wish to say a big Thank You for spreading my messages. We hit more than 2300 views for the previous article! That was a big encouragement to me.

William W K Tan

4 October 2019, Friday

Like, share, comment, follow or subscribe if u like to encourage me to keep writing ✍️.

066 The Boy Who Brings Sunshine

Last evening , a friend VK asked me, “How is your elder son doing?

VK is a kind man who is temporarily taking care of a child in neglect. Out of concern, he asked how I coped with the challenges of raising a child with special needs.

My elder son, Kyan, aged fifteen, is a boy inflicted with autism, a lifelong developmental disability that is characterised by difficulties with social interaction and communication, and limited by a fixation on repetitive activities.

Source: http://overthebrainbow.com/blog/

I told him, “I am thankful. He is doing great!” In fact, it gladdened me to hear others asking about him. Just last week, Kyan’s former school teacher, ST also told me, “I love to read about Kyan. It always brings sunshine to my heart just to see his name. ”

ST is so right. Kyan is a child who brings sunshine. Raising a child with special needs is challenging, but it also comes with rewarding moments.

My Reward: A Cup Of Sweet Corns

Last Saturday, I was engrossed in a novel while waiting for my children to finish their breakfasts at McDonald’s. All of a sudden, the reading spell on me was broken by the voice of my son.

“Papa, eat!” came a thunderous voice. It came from Kyan, who looked intently at me as he shoved me a half cupful of corn.

My heart was melted by his gesture to share his cup of corns with me. After all, it was uncommon for autistic children to show generosity and affection.

Excitedly, I sent a text to my wife, “Kyan just shared his cup corn with me on his own accord!”

“That’s just his habit,” came her reply.

I know my wife has always taught Kyan to split his cup of corns into two portions to share with his younger brother Conan, who gives him half a piece of hash brown in return. But that morning, Conan had bought his own cup of corns, so Kyan turned to me instead.

Even if it was just a habitual action, it made me feel good. At least he thought of me.

A Magic Moment

For a long time, I was worried that autism had incapacitated Kyan’s ability to think of others in their absence.  It seemed to me that when people are out of sight, they are out of his mind.

Over the last 15 years, four maids have come and gone. Some were close to him.  But he had never asked for anyone of them after they left. Even if he cared, he never showed. Or more rightly, he was unable to express how he felt.

Occasionally, when I was overseas, I would ask my wife, “Did Kyan ask for me?” Her answer was always a no. I stopped asking completely.

Then something happened in early March this year. I was on my way back home from airport when I received a text message from Conan. He wrote, “Dad, come back home quickly! Kyan has been asking for you.”

Accompanying the text message was a photograph that I would never forget.  My son was looking out for me behind the steel gate of the house.  It was the magic moment that I had been waiting for years.

Photo taken by Conan on 2 March 2019

Little Strokes Fell Great Oaks

Depending on the condition of the child, there is no telling how long it would take our child to give us these rewarding moments. But as the saying “little strokes fell great oaks’ goes, do not underestimate the power of persistent small efforts. Even dripping water can penetrate through rocks, it is just a matter of time that autistic children will show us that they can be as affectionate as any other children.

Perhaps, by now you can guess why I have been singing a self-composed song to Kyan all these years.  The lyrics go like this, “Papa loves you so. Papa loves you so. Papa loves you so much so.” 

I would always sing this part first, and my boy would always follow with, “Papa loves me so. Papa loves me so. Papa loves me so much so.”

One day I asked Kyan in front of his mom, “Who loves you most?”

He replied spontaneously, “Mama!”

Then on second thoughts, he quickly changed, “Papa loves me most!” to the chagrin of my wife.

My wife protested, ‘Conan, your dad has been brain-washing your brother!”

We all laughed heartily.

Raising a child is joyous as long as we never cease to look at the positives.

William W K Tan

25 May 2019, Saturday

065 Time to Clean Up Our Act

A Boy Who Thinks Cleaning Is Somebody Else’s Job 

One Sunday, a ten-year-old boy interrupted the swim coach, SC, who was giving my son Kyan individual coaching.

“Yucks!  Coach, there is tissue paper in the water over there.”

The coach replied, 

“So, what are you going to do about it?”

“I don’t know. It’s so dirty! That’s why I tell you.”

Coach SC told him, “I am teaching now. You think of a way to solve it yourself.” 

The boy looked surprised. He probably thought that it was none of his business after alerting the coach. But, within seconds, he came up with an idea, “I will complain to the Management Office!”

SC looked at me with a helpless smile.

Thinking that a teaching moment had appeared, I suggested to the boy, 

“Why wait for someone else to solve it? Since it disturbs you so much, just pick it up and throw it away!”

“No way! I am not a cleaner!” The boy protested loudly. Then he added, “Anyway, my mother will not allow it!” before swimming away.

I felt troubled by the boy’s words. What kind of young man would he grow up to be if his attitude remains unchanged?

A Young Man Who Refused To Clean Up His Mess

The boy made me think of a real-life story a friend NS told me. 

NS, a science teacher in a secondary school, spoke of a student she remembered vividly,

“From the first day of lesson in the laboratory, I have told all students, ‘We are dealing with all sorts of chemicals here. If you have made a spillage, clean it up yourself immediately because no one else knows how hazardous it could be. Simple and clear, isn’t it?’

Yet, there was this young man who refused to clean up the mess he made no matter what. He looked at the mess and said, “That is the job of cleaners!” And he even added, “At home, all the cleaning is done by the maid.”

I was mad inside me, but decided to teach him the right thing.  I moved close to his ear and whispered gently in a very soft sweet voice, “Bring your maid with you the next time,” before saying firmly, “But today, your maid is not here, so clean up!”

The young man relented and cleared up quietly, to the surprise of everyone. 

NS smiled triumphantly, a tiny dimple playing at the corner of her lips. 

Perhaps, we can learn a thing or two from this plucky young teacher in her early thirties. 

Schools and Families Must Come Together

Schools are finally doing what they were supposed to do long ago. When the Ministry of Education (MOE) decided to make it compulsory for all school-going children to help out with cleaning responsibilities in schools two years ago, many parents gave their thumbs up.

Photo: Straits Times Dec 12, 2016 “All schools to have cleaning activities daily from January”

I asked a secondary school boy, JC, about the cleaning duties he has to do in school.

He said, “Nothing much really. We have a duty roster that assigns us our duties which mainly involve cleaning the whiteboard and sweeping the floor.”

“That’s good. Everyone plays a part to keep the classroom clean.” I continued.

“Teachers just leave it to us. It doesn’t matter if you do it or not.” JC remarked.

“Did you do your duties?” I enquired, half expecting him to say he did.

“No…” He smiled sheepishly, “Many people did not do either. ”

“Teachers should check on you guys,” came my rebuttal.

“No. What is the point of having teachers  to check on us? It boils down to home training. It wouldn’t work if children are not expected to do the same at home.”

I mulled over his words. Yes, the boy is right. Double standards won’t work.

Lost Opportunities

Parents must play our part too. While most of us are generally in favour of imparting good living habits such as cleaning to children, some see cleaning duties as a distraction or burden.

Photo: WordPress Photo Library

Concerned that their children may be overloaded with school homework, and outside school activities such as tuition classes and sports, parents are reluctant to involve their children in housework.

A friend SM, who is a full-time home-maker, told me in a mix of resignation and jest, “My children used to help out more when they were young. It has become much harder to get them to do housework now. I have become the maid for the entire family.”

I laughed, but I am no better in getting my children do housework. Like many working families with young children in Singapore, we have a stay-in domestic helper who does all the cleaning and other household chores. The opportunities to impart values to children through housework become lost.

Be Considerate Towards Others

Perhaps, many parents and teachers missed the point about the value behind teaching cleaning responsibilities–to be considerate towards others.

Many years ago, at the end of a public seminar I conducted, I found a Japanese colleague KS going in between the rows of seats to pick up used plastic bottles and rubbish that were left behind by the participants. Embarrassed by the littering habits of fellow Singaporeans, I followed suit to clean up the place.

Source: http://www.zerowastesg.com

Later, KS told me, “Japanese are taught since young to think about others when we do cleaning at home and in schools. Imagine how the next person would feel and think if we do not clean up.”

Be considerate towards others — it’s such a simple and beautiful reason. Don’t you agree? 

William WK Tan

17 May 2019

064 What If Children Suddenly Dislike Reading?

Know Why Children Suddenly Dislike Reading

Parents are blamed for the things that their children do, and not do. When children do not read books, parents are told to read more books to them. And parents are questioned if they are setting a good example of reading books themselves.  But, has anyone observed children who enjoy reading up to a certain stage, but lose interest in reading all of the sudden? Surely, that cannot be the fault of parents.

Some parents are quick to point the fingers elsewhere. Electronic devices are pulling children away from books. School work is too much. Children have too many other things on their plates. For one reason or another, there is simply not enough time for book reading.  

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Few parents, however, take a closer look at their children’s reading situation. Too often, the reason for children to develop distaste for reading is simple — the text has surpassed children’s reading ability without anyone noticing.

That causes children to feel the burden of reading, hence they grow to dislike reading.  

The Joy of Reading One Book after Another

I have a soft spot for children who are labelled as poor readers. Several years ago, I volunteered to read to such children in my children’s primary school before going to work in the morning. I was told that these children did not like reading, had problems coping with school studies and their parents couldn’t help them.

I would always read a book to them animatedly, and chose books for each of them to read on their own. Without exception, these children smiled and read with joy when given books that matched their reading ability and interest.

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I knew how they felt. Like them, I picked up book reading late too. I had hardly read any books outside school before the age of nine. In those days, parents worked hard to eke out a living, and public libraries were few and in-between. Raised in an environment where Mandarin and Chinese dialects were spoken, my reading was limited to English textbooks. And I lacked even a single English storybook at home.

The turning point came at Primary Three, when my mom allowed me to return home from school by public bus on my own. I started dipping into a bookstore near the bus stop. Inside the bookstore, I became mesmerised by the collection of beautifully-illustrated books (the Ladybird series) of classic stories and nursery rhymes— The Gingerbread Man, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Three Little Pigs etc. Each day, I picked up a book, stood there and finished the whole book.

Photo: The Gingerbread Man. Source: ladybird books list

Then, I went there again the next day to read another book. Day after day, I would go to that bookstore, until I finished the last book. And after I ran out of books I could read, I searched for more books in the school library during recess. My journey as a young book reader finally took off.

From my personal reading experience, I know first-hand how children feel about reading.  Whenever I meet adults who deride older kids for reading books that they deem as too easy, I would speak in the latter’s defence,

“Parents today are reading nursery rhymes to their children before the age of three. But I only started reading them when I was nine. And you know what, however easy that might seem to others, the joy I derived from reading one book after another on my own was so empowering. I felt that I could read any book of my choice! Do not take that joy of reading away from children.”

Always have children read at a level that matches their ability and interest. Not the other way round.

Two Golden Rules to Nurturing Readers

Still, many parents worry if their children cannot read books expected of their school grade.  Here are two rules that have worked very well on my children.

The first rule is not to be overly-worried with catching up with school grade.

I understand parent’s anxiety completely. I had placed my elder son, Kyan in a mainstream school for four and a half years before transferring him to a school for special needs students. During those years, however hard-working Kyan was, and no matter much progress he made, the gap between the school demands and his reading ability was a rift that could never be narrowed.

Look beyond the hurdles placed by schools, and focus on the well-being of your child. For a boy who used to be restless and clueless in the library for many years, Kyan now enjoys browsing his favourite books quietly in the library.  And the most dramatic progress he made is that he reads aloud with beaming confidence when given the right books.

Photo: Kyan reading in the library

Do not let others impose their views on your children. Just continue in encouraging your children to read.

The second rule is to make a deliberate effort in strengthening your child’s reading ability.

Like many parents who read to their children when they were young, I read the same books my children were reading, while searching for more interesting books ahead. One difference, perhaps, is I set exciting goals for book reading. I was driven by ideas like “It will be great to see my kid reading that classic someday!”

Conan enjoyed reading the illustrated versions of “Peter Pan” from a very young age. I intentionally bought several abridged versions of the same title, to the bewilderment of my wife who thought that I had mistakenly purchased the same books. We started with various abridged illustrated versions of Peter Pan by Disney and other publishers. From read-along story book with CD, to stickers, flap-ups and other interactive books of Peter Pan, Conan was enthralled by the world of Neverland, where he joined Wendy, John, and Michael on an adventure with Peter and Tinker Bell to battle the evil but hilarious Captain Hook.

Photo: An abridged version of Peter Pan I read to Conan. Source: Amazon

I also remembered reading to Conan retold versions like the Classics Starts, which were written like a griping adventure that made fantastic reading-aloud for the boy, who laughed and giggled at every turn and twist of the story. Step-by-step, Conan successfully advanced into reading editions that were wordy and complex.  He was one step short of reading the original unabridged version, which I felt heartrending to put him through, considering his tender age. That experience of reading books of the same title with incremental difficulty paved the way for him to make a quick and complete departure from illustrated books at around six years old.

Conan recounted the day that I brought him to the Young Adult (YA) Books section, “I remembered that you grabbed a few books from the shelves at the YA section and showed me. I loved those books and kept going back for more from that day onwards.”

He was barely nine years old when he “graduated” from the children section of the library that catered to children up to the age of twelve.

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Be a lighthouse to let your children show you how far they can go.

William W K Tan

10 May 2019, Friday

063 The Unfinished Business of Book Reading to Children

Are You Done With Reading To Children?

I thought the days of reading books to my children were over. I do not know how many parents still read books to their adolescent children. Like many parents, I read books to them when they were young. Now that they have grown up, the idea of reading books to them seems obsolete.

But that idea resurfaced recently when I lamented to a friend HJ that my younger son, Conan, only enjoys reading English books and displays scant interest in reading Chinese ones. Conan, who has just entered secondary school this year, dismissed Chinese books as “lame and boring” at my recent suggestion that he should read more.

 

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HJ and I share a common concern over the low rate of reading Chinese books among children in Singapore. While I did nothing about the situation, HJ writes book reviews regularly to encourage her friends to read books to their children. She gave me a sound piece of advice,

“Reading books to children is highly important. Do not frighten them off with wordy books. Start with books that are filled with more illustrations and less words. Engage children with story-telling before passing them the book.”

The truth is I had done all that. Perhaps, a tad too much on English books and too little on Chinese books.

Conan could read books meant for pre-school children when he was barely three years old. By the time he entered primary school, Conan was making heads turn in school with the books he read. Today, Conan remained a voracious reader of English books, but the last time he read Chinese books was like in the yesteryears. That was when he was drawn to reading “The School Adventures of Cool Crawlies” 《酷虫学校》that I recommended him at Primary Three, more than three years ago.

Photo: “The School Adventures of Cool Crawlies”

“The School Adventures of Cool Crawlies” was a series of Chinese fiction that piqued his interest at that time. It was a delightful read written in simple Chinese prose that mixed science fiction, comedy and adventure all rolled into one for young readers. And every crawling creature was comically illustrated in the books.

Photo: A page taken from “The School Adventures of Cool Crawlies”. Source: https://item.m.jd.com/

But Conan’s appetite for Chinese books ended the moment he finished the twelfth and the last book available in the library. Thereafter, the boy had had a 3-year-drought of Chinese books. From time to time, I borrowed other Chinese books for him to read, but only to see these books returned untouched.  

I thought that the problem lies in the dearth of interesting Chinese books for children in Singapore. But HJ’s advice of “reading to children is highly important” kept ringing in my ears. Above all, her efforts to encourage book reading moved me. It takes time, money and efforts to find, buy and read books first in order to write those excellent book reviews.

Photo: A book review written by HJ

Instantly, I saw the problem differently,

If my friend can do so much for others, surely I can do no less for my children.”

It’s Not Easy to Find The Right Book

At the Central Library’s Chinese books section, surrounded by thousands of books, I was clueless over what to choose. Apart from reading books about the healing methods of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), I hardly read any other Chinese books nowadays. I had no idea what to recommend Conan. I thought hard to myself, “What will interest Conan to pick up reading Chinese books again?”

It has to be something uniquely Chinese that is not found in the English genres that he reads. And it must be interesting enough to keep him wanting to read more. The idea of recommending him to read wuxia novels (武侠小说) emerged.  

Photo: A collection of wuxia novels written by Jin Yong. Source: https://item.m.jd.com/

Wuxia, which literally means “martial art heroes”, is a genre of Chinese fiction that tells the adventures of martial art pugilists in ancient China.   This genre of Chinese novels has become so popular that its presence has spread to television series, movies, comics and video games in the Chinese-speaking world. This genre would be a safe bet to choose for young people!

Randomly, I picked up a book authored by Louis Cha Jing-yong, better known by his pen name Jin Yong (Chinese: 金庸), who was arguably the most reputed and favourite wuxia writer of all times. But I frowned at the first page I set my eyes upon.

The text was printed in Chinese characters of the traditional form (繁體字), which is more popularly used by people in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In Singapore, we are more attuned to mainland China’s simplified form of Chinese characters (简体字). To make matters worse, the characters had to be read from top to bottom along vertical lines, and from right to left for each line of words.  That made the text look too formidable for a beginner reader of a new genre.

Source: https://dlsdc.com/blog

Find Something Interesting and Readable to the Child

I cast my own preference of authors and stories aside. There is only one consideration that matters: the book must be interesting and readable from the child’s perspective.  

In a stroke of luck, I found a wuxia novel that is printed for mainland Chinese readers. The Chinese characters were in simplified form, the words ran horizontally from left to right, and the lines went from the top to the bottom of the page. This looked much easier to read!  The novel was titled “A Step into the Past”, xunqinji《寻秦记》 written by Wong Yik (黄易). I had neither heard of this author nor read this novel before.

Photo: “A Step Into The Past” by Wong Yip. Source: https://www.kanunu8.com/wuxia/

But I remembered vividly a 2001 Hong Kong television series of the same Chinese title. That TV drama told an intriguing story of a protagonist, Xiang Shao Long (项少龙), a top-notched special agent who was teleported into the Warring States period of ancient China some 2000 years ago. Armed with the knowledge of ancient historical facts and the modern world, combined with his intelligence in military strategy and prowess in martial arts, Xiang quickly became an invaluable player in a warring game to unite China under a single kingdom.

Photo: A poster of the television drama “A Step Into The Past”. Source: https://www.tvb55.com/video/detail/64.html

I borrowed the entire collection of six books under the same title without hesitation. Conan shrugged his shoulders when I told him these Chinese books were meant for him.  He beckoned me to look at the thick English books he had borrowed, “Look, I already have four books to read. They have to come first.”  

Turn It Into A Memorable Reading Experience

I expected it to be an uphill task, but I came prepared. I said to Conan,

 “No worries, I am the one reading. All you need to do is to sit back and listen. Then tell me if the book is a good read.”

To capture his interest, I had to tell the story well with plenty of expression and emphasis. I had read through chapter one beforehand and deliberated on how and where to modulate my voice like an experienced audio-book narrator. And I considered carefully where to place pauses and how to engage him.

Conan was at first sitting across me. But as the plot thickened, he quickly jumped to my side, leaning close enough to read the book along with me. Encouraged, I continued reading and chuckled along with him at the parts when Xiang walloped up the bad guys in a brawl. Then I hesitated whether to continue reading aloud. Conan gazed at me, puzzled.  

 “Are you sure you really want me to continue reading this?” I asked him intently.

Photo: a page taken from ” A Step Into The Past”

Conan sensed something amiss and quickly searched down the lines below. Before he could reply me, I deliberately raise my voice loud enough for everyone to hear me,

Xiang pulled the nightclub beauty queen Zhou out of the pub. Zhou asked him flirtatiously, ‘Where are you taking me to?”

Xiang lifted her into the seat next to the driver seat of his Jeep, and laughed, “Where else? Home, of course! I can’t afford to pay for expensive hotel room.”

Conan blushed and stopped me before I could read the next line. “Dad, I think it’s better that I read the rest in silence myself!”

I laughed heartily. Next, I found my son continuing to read the story on his own.

Photo: Conan continued reading the Chinese novel on his own.

And he continued to read the book over the next few days, taking it with him to school. A week later, we had a conversation about the book. I asked Conan,

“Don’t you find the storyline of this novel strikingly similar to the Games of Thrones? The plot surrounds powerful men and pretty women– playing a deadly game of life and death to seize control of an unified kingdom.”

Conan beamed in smiles, ” Absolutely so!”

Reading to children is an unfinished business. If anyone thinks that you have done enough, perhaps you might want to rethink.

William W K Tan

3 May 2019

Friday