How to build strong foundations in English from a young age

How to build strong foundations in English from a young age
July 8, 2022

English is the bridging language in Singapore, as well as the language of choice in many industries and companies. While an understanding of our mother tongues is also important historically and culturally (and for certain languages, also economically), it is undeniable that English is something that most youth will have to master in order to communicate well. That said, how can your kids build strong language skills that will last them through their adulthood and set them apart from their peers?

Exam English and Non-Classroom English

While most English classes in school are undeniably dry, there is no denying that the skills they teach are incredibly useful for students. Reading comprehension teaches pupils to read between the lines and infer what is being said – a skill that is applicable not just for the long exam passages but also in future conversations and interactions. Essay writing teaches students how to express themselves clearly in writing. PSLE English and Secondary English classes – and training kids for English exams – teach students crucial life skills through paper exercises.

This, of course, is generally insufficient and often breeds a hate for language learning that seeps into adult life. Classroom learning when it comes to languages is always best when paired with external aids and experiences – specifically, there are two things you can do to encourage your children to expose themselves to good English. The first is communication, which naturally happens between children already, but it is also important to encourage them to communicate in unusual situations. One of the examples we like is to bring them to local museums and have discussions on the artifacts, items, and works on display there. This allows them to learn how to communicate about more serious and more academic topics.

The second is, of course, to read outside of class. Here is what is crucial: that your children read at all. What they read is secondary; there is no need to force them to read the dictionary, or complicated classics. Rather, if they seem to drift towards romance, cookbooks, or sci-fi, allow them to do so and enjoy the language in the context of something they like. It is easier for them to consume the work this way, and good writers are fantastically descriptive regardless of the genre. Children and teenagers need plenty of stimulation; this is one of the best ways to do it. They are perfectly able to pick up descriptive language, grammar skills, and good vocabulary via fun and interesting novels too, and with far less resistance.

Interest in English

English is a fantastic and fascinating language. Outside of PSLE English and Secondary English, it is easy to see that the language itself arises as a mishmash of several other languages. Tracing the historical and cultural steps of English is always fun – for instance, teenagers find that tracing the history of swear words can be interesting, and once hooked they find themselves looking at the curious and sometimes-morbid histories that arise surrounding the contexts of certain vocabulary. This, of course, translates very quickly into an interest in history in general, as well as curiosity about other cultures. This level of enthusiasm is what keeps the flames of absorption burning when it comes to languages: they may not love English itself, with all its counterintuitive pronunciation and grammar, but if it is spoken regarding a topic of interest, they will naturally become invested in it by virtue of association.

For instance, a child or teenager who is desperately interested in baking will consume inordinate amounts of literature when it comes to the art. They will naturally pick up vocabulary surrounding it – all of the fancy French terms, even – but they will also be exposed heavily to the appropriate grammar structure surrounding how the book or article was written. That recognition becomes embedded into their memories and skills much better than a classroom grammar lesson could ever do. Similarly, a pupil who has much more interest in physics could ostensibly be convinced to read a book on Einstein’s relativity and similar be exposed to the rules of English. They may not like learning about the rules, but if they can absorb the applications of the rule as they read something they are absorbed in, this translates relatively well to the exam paper too.

In summary

English is a mandatory subject, but it does not mean it is easy at all. Classroom skills are important, but to build an ongoing interest in your child, we recommend that you allow them to advance their English education in the context of something else they do enjoy – especially if they are resistant to English classroom education. Children and teenagers are more likely to pick up the nuances of English if they are consuming material related to their interests, whether that looks like the history of a swear word, an article on their favourite K-Pop group, or a romance novel that makes them cry. This is a two-in-one method: advance their understanding of one of their interests, but also learn about how English is best used in real-life applications.

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