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Literacy and Its Importance (Part 1)

11 Oct 202219 Mins Audio

Transcript

Speakers:

Dr. Duriya Aziz, SUSS alumni and Senior Vice President at Scholastic 

Dr. Lye Kit Ying, Senior Lecturer, Centre for University Core at SUSS (Host)

Speaker

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Transcript

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00:00:01:00

Welcome to the SUSS series of podcasts that shares, questions, and dives into all things personal development. Because learning never stops, especially after graduation. This series will share insights, ideas, and advice, on shaping ourselves to prepare for a future of uncertainties.

Kit

00:00:28:00

Hello. I'm Lye Kit Ying, a senior lecturer at SUSS (Singapore University of Social Sciences). Now, imagine you are 10 years old again, you're making a food order and you're staring at a menu for what feels like the longest time.

Kit

00:00:41:00

There are no pictures, only words and numbers printed on it, and you're feeling at a loss because you can neither understand any of the words you see, nor can you calculate how much the order is going to cost you.

Kit

00:00:54:00

If you're listening to this story, chances are, it may sound ridiculous to most of us, but according to UNESCO and the World Bank, over 390 million children in the world are facing a learning crisis. These children failed to gain basic literacy and mathematical skills by the age of 10.

Kit

00:01:14:00

The significance of literacy is huge, and educators claim its importance begins right at the developmental years of children. So whether you are a parent or someone who loves to see how literacy can be applied to shape society, you will be excited to hear from our guest today, Dr Duriya Aziz. An alumna of SUSS, Duriya studied English Language and Literature, and graduated as the valedictorian of her class before embarking on a journey to pursue her Masters and Doctorate.

Kit

00:01:48:00

Today Duriya is Senior Vice President at Scholastic, the world's largest publisher and distributor of children's books and educational materials. Leading an international team, she develops software and products in reading and math for markets globally.

Kit

00:02:06:00

Welcome to the show Duriya. So, both of us studied very similar subjects in university. Can I invite you to share with us what inspired you to major in English language and literature?

Duriya

00:02:17:00

I've always loved reading and have been passionate about language, literature, and writing. In fact, the stage for this was set all the way back in my childhood with the stories that my mum told me and my brothers at bedtime. That was an unbreakable routine. We loved those stories so much that I told those stories to my sons. And now, I tell them to my grandchildren.

Duriya

00:02:40:00

My home was always full of books. My mum was an avid reader, so was my dad. She used to buy books all the time. We had a wonderful bookshelf. When I came to Singapore, we had a big discussion about which books I should take and there were so many we both loved, but she lovingly parted with many of them.

Duriya

00:03:02:00

So throughout school I loved reading, writing, elocution, and drama. I was [an] editor of the school magazine. I was on the editorial board of my college magazine. So publishing and/or journalism was very much set for me I think. I grew up in Mumbai and I was madly in love with my husband, I still am. I convinced my parents then that it didn’t make sense for me to continue my studies.

Duriya

00:03:32:00

I convinced them since Singapore did not recognise Indian qualifications at that point in time, I might as well marry my husband, and continue my studies in Singapore. Because I had kids, going back to college, to university full-time was not an option for me. But 10 years later, 2 kids later, it became possible when this programme was offered and so I embarked on this journey. And it was very critical because I was very set on a career in publishing. However, if you don't have a degree, you really don't get recognised as an editor. It was a minimum requirement.

Duriya

00:04:11:00

I remember in my first job in publishing, even though I had the same job scope as my colleagues, I was designated assistant editor. And when I enquired about it, I was told it was because I was not a graduate, whereas all of them were graduates.

Duriya

00:04:27:00

Ironically enough, less than 6 months later, I did graduate as a valedictorian with a gold medal. It’s been a great journey of learning, not just for me but I think also for my sons. My younger son was in Primary 1 when I started my degree programme. When I finished my doctorate in 2010, he was in university.

Duriya

00:04:49:00

Time flies. I’m sure that there were challenges. Right now it just seems like it was so worthwhile. I have memories of sitting with my sons at the dining table - them doing their homework, me doing my assignments, and us discussing it. So, it’s been a very interesting and fulfilling journey.

Kit

00:05:06:00

This is great. I really liked your story about how your mom has been reading to you and you have tried to carry on this practice with your children and your grandchildren.

Kit

00:05:16:00

I also love reading and I find that I’ve often been lost in the world of stories but I also recognise that not everyone enjoys reading or has the ability even to develop the love for reading. So in your opinion then, how important is it for us to encourage more people, if not everyone, to learn to read and to learn to love to read?

Duriya

00:05:38:00

Well, literacy is not just a gateway to academic success, it is a means for preparing for the future. Because through literacy, children embrace the future. They are able to envision the future - they are able to create the future.

Duriya

00:05:54:00

Never has this been more critical. Without the ability to read, a child faces significant challenges in navigating the mid-21st century. Reading allows children to develop the skills they will need to do the work of tomorrow. Work we can't even envision today. It’s a well-known and often quoted factoid that many of the jobs kids will do five years later have not even been created today.

Duriya

00:06:20:00

But reading therefore can provide an ability to visualise what language means. It allows you to think critically. To envision the possibilities. To connect the dots that you hadn’t thought about before. The child who has access to reading is a child who is better prepared to face the challenges of the future.

Duriya

00:06:41:00

It’s also a well-known fact that literate people have well-developed minds. They have a better understanding of things - they are able to better handle finances, the everyday business of figuring out which healthcare plan to take, which insurance policy, which airline ticket should I buy. These basic things - if you have developed those basic literacy skills. You will feel more competent, you will feel more positive. This will make you a better citizen because you feel that you can be part of a better tomorrow and you have a role to play in it.

Kit

00:07:17:00

So, in your professional opinion, would you define literacy as such?

Duriya

00:07:20:00

That's an interesting question. It used to be that literacy meant the ability to read and write. But no more. Literacy is critical in helping us make sense of our world.

Duriya

00:07:34:00

We have to consider, in today's context, what is it that literacy has to do? What is it that language has to do in order for us to live successful lives? So it's not just the ability to read a book. It's the ability to discern fact from fiction. So, today it encompasses financial literacy, internet literacy.

Duriya

00:07:55:00

All of these are important for us, in order to live successful lives. So the concept of fake news, for example, imagine if we were not critical readers and if we believed every WhatsApp that we got. So, it's important that children develop these critical thinking and reading skills as well.

Duriya

00:08:15:00

So therefore the definition of literacy encompasses the capability, the competence, and the willingness to use language to understand, construct and communicate meaning in all aspects of life, in order to live as social human beings. From the moment a child is born, their literacy journey begins. Children's literacy journeys are nurtured through their families and their communities.

Kit

00:08:40:00

I particularly liked how you point out that the journey to literacy actually starts from young, and we know that Scholastic publishes educational material for children aged one to thirteen and even beyond. Could I invite you to share with us why there is so much focus on literacy at a young age?

Duriya

00:08:58:00

Well, there's so much research on this. The brain develops faster than at any other time between the ages of zero and three. Because of this, it is important to foster literacy during the early stages of life. There's a real opportunity in providing parents with books and encouragement to read to their children regularly, sing with their children, and engage their children in conversation.

Duriya

00:09:22:00

All of which prepare our next generation to be successful in school. We know, for example, that the brain of a toddler is two and a half times more active than that of an adult. Reading development starts before formal instruction, with book sharing as one of the facets of a stimulating home literacy environment. Books provide a meaningful context for learning to read, not only as a way of stimulating reading comprehension but also as a means of developing technical reading skills in early childhood.

Duriya

00:09:57:00

Increasingly, we understand that an early frequent exposure to print has benefits that last a lifetime, including academic success and the prevention of reading challenges later in a child's life. A deep engagement with books and repeated exposure to print, has long-lasting impact on academic success.

Kit

00:10:19:00

That’s great. I think you've kind of pointed out that literacy and this exposure to print is something that, kind of, is a building block for a child's development. And when you push it out to the wider cohort, you can actually prepare the generation for future challenges and of course, it enables society to thrive.

Kit

00:10:38:00

Then in your experience, which subjects should young children be exposed to, and with the help of literacy, would they be best able to master and achieve a kind of competency?

Duriya

00:10:49:00

I think that children's brains are like sponges. They can learn many things and anything.

Duriya

00:10:55:00

It is important to expose them and to immerse them in rich learning experiences. The human brain is not divided into subjects. You don't have a math centre in the head or a language centre or a geography centre. These are all man made constructs. I mean, it's part and parcel of the mass education system of getting, you know, classes of 40 and above to learn at the same time.

Duriya

00:11:20:00

But the child's brain is an open canvas. And so it is important to immerse them in rich experiences to explore these learning opportunities with them to discover the joys of learning, of problem-solving. Literacy and numeracy undoubtedly form the foundation of learning. So for example, if you take project work, the joke among parents is about, you know, who's done the best project because it's the parents who are having to do the projects for the children.

Duriya

00:11:49:00

But unfortunately, in doing this, they are depriving their children of a very valuable opportunity to learn. Because the process of doing the project, of doing the research for the project is the process of learning valuable skills and of building that critical knowledge that they need to go ahead. But because we think that the project has to be perfect so that the child will get a great grade, that's not the purpose of project work.

Duriya

00:12:15:00

And so this is something that as parents, we should bear in mind. Also the foundational thinking skills of classifying, categorising, comparing, and contrasting – this is what we should be focusing on in early childhood.

Duriya

00:12:29:00

And these are common to both reading and math. Confidence in reading, for example, gives students the confidence to do math, and confidence in math gives children the confidence to deal with challenges and to solve problems in life – it gives them agency. So we have to be clear about what the purpose of learning is.

Duriya

00:12:55:00

“Is it just to pass exams to get a grade?” So that is a means to an end. That is not the end itself. An exam is a means of checking how much you have learnt. In fact, I would go forward as to say, exams are a means of checking how well teachers have taught.

Kit

00:13:09:00

Yes, I agree with you.

Kit

00:13:10:00

Picking on what you said earlier, I think this is actually very interesting. You pointed out that because of this kind of obsession with how well you've done, your exam grades, your final assessment grades, parents take over some of the process of learning and the process of understanding the nature of the task.

Kit

00:13:27:00

And you are still advocating for children to actually embrace the process of learning. And of course, with literacy, understanding numbers and everything at the same time. How would you propose that we can maybe use some of the literature that we have out there? How would they help to encourage teachers, parents and students to immerse themselves in this process of learning?

Duriya

00:13:50:00

Well, how much time do we have? I can go on and on.

Duriya

00:13:54:00

So, young children, for example, who are read aloud to at home and have access to books, have the best chance of becoming successful readers. At Scholastic, we are very mission-driven. We are very focused on helping children around the world to read and learn. As part of our work, we conduct the Kids & Family Reading Report every two years.

Duriya

00:14:17:00

And the findings of this report inform the work that we do. So for example, according to one of the Kids & Family Reading reports, having parents who serve as reading role models, or with many books in the home has a greater impact on kids' reading frequency than household income. So it's not so important how affluent the household is.

Duriya

01:14:39:00

It's more important how many books a child has access to. And the great thing is, particularly here in Singapore, we have so much access to books. Look at the libraries!

Duriya

00:14:50:00

When I first visited the National Library, I realised that you could borrow seven books at a time. At that time you could borrow seven books on a single card. We still had those physical cards. I thought I was in heaven. It was just amazing to be able to borrow seven books. And I would actually even, I took over my husband's cards, my sister-in-law's cards, and I would borrow books in their name.

Duriya

00:15:14:00

So, we are very fortunate in Singapore that children actually have so many opportunities to have a literacy-rich environment. And likewise adults too. There's nothing stopping us from getting the latest in whether it is in fiction or nonfiction, business, self-help, all of that is available in our wonderfully stocked libraries. And I'm sure also in the university libraries.

Kit

00:15:41:00

Thank you. So let’s go back a bit to the idea of literacy again. How would you describe the way literacy affects a person’s social development? Because just now I think you mentioned it a little about how literacy can prepare the new generation for future challenges. Could you elaborate on how we could equip them for life?

Duriya

00:16:00:00

So I'd like to quote Professor Rudine Sims Bishop, who discusses the importance of providing all young readers with diverse books. Because books, she says, function as windows, mirrors, and sliding doors. To emphasise the need for all children to experience diverse stories through the characters and real-life people that they meet in books.

Duriya

00:16:24:00

Books serve as mirrors, when children are able to see themselves in the stories that they read. They can see aspects of their own experiences and culture, so they feel important. They feel that they are a part of the world. Books function as windows, when children are able to experience worlds that are different cultures and people that are different to them, this builds an understanding and empathy.

Duriya

00:16:48:00

Books function as sliding doors when children and people are able to participate, and go beyond their own understanding of the world to embrace a different understanding of the world. So stories in this way can go a long way to build perseverance, resilience, motivation, and self-belief.

Duriya

00:17:09:00

All of these are vital ingredients for creativity and problem-solving for two reasons – stories offer role models and examples for the reader to emulate, aspire to and reveal the potential and possibilities. Also in presenting problem-solving situations. So essentially a story will have a problem and a solution. Stories present safe opportunities for children to understand and practice problem-solving by considering the solutions presented and thinking about alternative solutions.

Duriya

00:17:43:00

So every child should find himself or herself in the pages of a book. This may be in the role of the self, or it could be an empathetic other, or an active supporter of a character. Every child should learn to see the characters in a book, diverse books, and themselves as members of common humanity.

Duriya

00:18:02:00

So it's not only about seeing the differences in a character from themselves but also seeing the commonality. That both of us face the same problems and sure, this child may look different from me, but at the end of the day, we are both children, we are both loved by our parents, we both have a family that cares for us.

Kit

00:18:22:00

I particularly liked your point about how stories are not just mirrors and also windows to other worlds. It helps the child to actually build a sort of confidence when they see themselves being represented or their struggles being represented as well. So this is something that, I think, is a topic of discussion lately where there's so much emphasis on maybe mathematics, science with coding.

-

00:18:49:00

You’ve been listening to the SUSS series of podcasts. The next part of this episode will be available at suss.edu.sg/podcast. Stay tuned!


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