Monday, August 1, 2011

When kids read

Book Nook
ONE evening, while I was in the kitchen of our home in Sydney, my daughter was scribbling on a card she had made for her cousin in San Francisco. She was going to write “I Love You”, she said. Zehn will need my help to write those words, I told myself while peeling the onions and garlic. Or so I thought.

She wrote those three words flawlessly with a full stop neatly placed at the end, and signed her name in the right place, too. How could that be? She’s not even four yet!
Little Zehn is freaking out mum by using similies correctly!
My eight-year-old son came into the kitchen and praised Zehn for having done such a marvellous job in both designing the card and writing on it. “She has miraculously become literate, mum, and she seems so nonchalant about it,” he said casually.

I was further dumbfounded as I had no idea when and from where my son had learnt the meanings of “miraculous”, “literate” and “nonchalant”. 

“They were part of my spelling words and I had seen them before in Roald Dahl’s books,” he deadpanned, walking off to play with his Lego blocks since there was no homework to complete – Australian primary schools do not give work in the first week back after a two-week winter break.

That is the magic of Australian primary education. Children learn without parents knowing much about it. While children are content with the relaxed learning environment in which they acquire knowledge through play and God knows what else, parents, Asian parents in particular, worry because there is no way of knowing what their children are learning every day at school.

There are no textbooks to bring home, and homework is often minimal – one page of math and another of English. There are no impromptu tests nor is there a ranking system that tells parents how their children’s academic performance compares with others in the class. Some Asian parents I know have resorted to sending their children for tutoring; others simply accept the system and learn to be equally relaxed. I am one of the latter group.

Though I do look for pieces of papers in my son’s school bag in hopes of finding clues to what he has done at school, I can never get anything more than just the school’s weekly newsletter that provides updates about the school. I have attempted to ask him but his replies can be unsettling. “We watched a movie,” he sometimes says. But he does not say anything about the play they have to put up after the movie. He learns to speak in various intonations through role-play and grasps the importance of punctuation by reading scripts. “Commas give your sentences tones,” he mutters, as he sits doing his homework, which is to write a suspenseful narrative.

I can only listen in wonder at these times when he unconsciously releases these intriguing clues to his development as a reader and writer.

“Please, thank you. Please, thank you,” my daughter, who attends pre-school, repeats this little song as she warms herself in the bathtub. “I said ‘thank you’ when Isabelle said my shoes were pretty, mum.”

I struggle to come up with a sensible response: “That’s right. We should not feel shy when praised and we thank people for the compliment.”

“Thank you, please. Thank you, please,” she continues singing.

Tie neatly done up and shirt tucked in, my son is ready for school on a rainy morning. “This rain is unremitting. It has been raining for five days in a row now, hasn’t it, mum?” he says casually. I can only smile. His choice of words is simply too much for me to comprehend on this rainy day – and, no doubt, will be on many other days in the future.

“Don’t lament about the weather, Jonn. I love rainy days, they are so romantic,” my daughter adds, as if to give her mother the final push round the bend.

When I say to my husband in Mandarin how crazy our kids have become in their choice of words, my son throws me a wry look. “I am not crazy,” Jonn says firmly.

I gave up. My mother’s lament about my children’s loss of a second language had just been proven groundless. My son learns Mandarin in school because his mother lacks the will to teach him.

“This is going to be the best day ever,” exclaims my daughter, as she looks eagerly forward to another day at preschool.

What wonders can be wrought with a relaxed learning environment at school and a bookworm “infestation” at home!

‘My face is as soft as putty, mum,’ says Abby Wong’s daughter, terrifying mum with her use of simile.

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