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My Child Cannot Read!

By Jackie Li

As a paediatric speech language therapist who works exclusively with children under 7, I meet many, many parents in the course of my work. One of their greatest concerns is that their child will fall behind their peers in school if academic concepts such as colours, shapes, 123s and ABCs are not mastered by age 3.

Education is a hot topic among Singaporean parents mainly because being “smart” and scoring well academically is viewed as a predictor of success when their child grows up. There’s no denying that parents feel pressured for their child to learn different academic concepts as early as possible. The assumption is that the earlier the child masters these concepts, the better students they will be. However, renowned professor and developmental psychologist Dr. David Elkind, author of such bestsellers as The Hurried Child, points out that “there is no correlation between pushing children into early reading and later academic success.” No doubt, young children who are formally taught to read early on will, at first, read more than their peers who have not been taught. Nevertheless, within a few years the difference evens out.

What’s even more troubling is that children who had attended academic, rather than developmental preschools, tend to exhibit higher levels of anxiety and self-esteem issues, along with reading scores that, in the long term, are no better. Pressure and anxiety are not necessary components of a solid education for your youngster and conversely, can have long-term negative effects.

What is more important is for us to recognise if our children are developmentally ready to learn these concepts at such a young age.


Developmentally, children start knowing some letters at age 3. Three-year-olds and four-year-olds are expected to identify some letters and make some letter-sound matches, as well as try to write some familiar letters. By age 5, they learn to recognise letters and to do letter-sound matching. They also begin to sight read some familiar words, and to write letters that they use and hear often. At age 6, children have good phonological awareness and can attempt to read new words on their own. They can also write simple sentences on topics that interest them. These are based on the milestones published by US-based organizations. Some may wonder if the education requirements in Western countries are slower-paced than Singapore’s, but a crosscheck with MOE’s Kindergarten Curriculum Framework reveals that the developmental milestones listed by US-based organisations are similar to MOE’s curriculum framework developed for our Singaporean kindergarteners aged 4 to 6.

Toddlers should be able to sort items of similar colours, sizes, or shapes by age 2.5. Children are expected to know five colours by age 3, and ten colours by age 4. By age 4, many children can recognise and name various shapes. The average child at age 3 can rote-count up to 5 (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and can understand the number concept up to 3 (e.g. give me 3 balls). The average child at age 4 can rote-count up to 10 (e.g. 1, 2, 3, ….10), and can only count up to five accurately (e.g. “How many ducks do you see?”).


(1) Let them learn through play

As a pediatric speech language therapist, I cannot stress enough the importance of play. Play is an important tool for cognitive development, as well as language development. Cognitive development refers to how children make sense of their world. They do this by building on what they already know to interpret new experiences. The essential elements of cognitive development (Perkins, 1984) are problem-solving, mental planning, self-monitoring, and evaluation. Much of the research on play shows its relationship to the development of children’s thinking and more sophisticated classification skills (Frost, Wortham, & Reifel, 2001; Perkins, 1984; Santrock, 2003) and the ability to use what they already know to construct new knowledge.

The American Speech and Hearing Association has a great series on the role of play here. Katie of Playing With Words 365, another pediatric speech language therapist, also talks about “The Importance of Play and Language Development” here.

(2) Expose academic concepts in naturalistic settings

Instead of using flashcards and other “educational toys”, incorporate the use of academic concepts in your daily activities. For example, when dressing up your child, emphasise the colour of his shirt, e.g “Let’s wear a BLUE shirt today.” When you are out grocery shopping, count the apples as you bag them, e.g. “Let’s put the apples in the bag, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5!” When playing blocks with your child, talk about the shapes and colours of the block casually without testing him “What colour is this? What shape is this?” When you talk about such concepts in everyday conversations while your child is engaged, the likelihood of him picking up these concepts are much higher than when he is being taught explicitly.

To foster your child’s language development, be mindful that you are using a variety of sentence combinations. Combinations include action + colour + noun (e.g. wear blue shirt), number + colour + noun (e.g. three orange balls), shape + noun + preposition (e.g. circle block in). The possibilities are endless! The length of sentences you use depends on the age of your child and his language abilities.

(3) Beyond shapes and colours

Shapes and colours fall under the category of adjectives, also known as descriptive words. Shapes and colours are adjectives that taps on the child’s sense of sight. Other adjectives that requires a child to look and observe the object include location words (e.g. in, on, under, in front, behind, middle), size words (e.g. big, small, tall, short, fat, thin, thick, full, empty, clean, dirty, long) and quantity words (e.g. all, many, none, full, more, few, less, empty, lots, some, any, each).

You can also make comments based on the senses of touch, hearing, taste, and smell. Descriptive words include rough, smooth, prickly, sharp, loud, soft, sweet, sour, spicy, smelly, stinky, fresh, delicious, hot, cold, wet, dry, fast, slow


I would like to conclude by reassuring parents that it is not necessarily bad to expose your child to academic concepts of recognising letters, numbers, shapes, and colour. There is a fine balance between exposure and drilling. There is a difference between your child displaying spontaneous interest in these academic concepts, and you intentionally steering your child’s attention to such concepts. The key is to be in tune with your child and teach concepts when he is developmentally ready to learn.

Early language and literacy skills are learned best through everyday moments with your child—reading books, talking, laughing and playing together.

Further reading:


Jackie is a pediatric speech language therapist who works with children with special needs in the community setting. She is passionate about helping her young clients to communicate meaningfully to the best of their strengths and abilities. In her free time, she enjoys power lifting, testing out paleo/gluten-free recipes, and reading articles about respective parenting. She can be reached at

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