My daughter, Bea, will be going to primary school next year. With six months to go, I wondered if she would be prepared for Primary 1?

Based on feedback from her teachers, she is doing fine. But I decided to do some reading of my own and I came across this seminal study led by Professor Greg Duncan from Northwestern University, which involved six study data sets.

The amazing thing is all six studies pointed to three key elements that had a correlation with later academic success1. The winners, in order of importance are: maths skills, reading skills, and attention skills.


The same three elements applied to both genders and the researchers had already taken into account family background.

So what does this mean for us?

Well, this is my interpretation of how to strategise to ensure that your child can excel in Primary 1:

1. Make sure she knows her numbers

I have my own opinions on this. I don’t think she needs to be a human calculator. There are enrichment centres that tell you that they can teach children to do three-digit multiplication by the time the kids are three years old. What’s the point of that? That her brain can process numbers at the speed of a calculator?

What I think is more important is to understand the concept of numbers. This is why I am in agreement with her preschool when it comes to learning multiplication and division. Bea just started learning this about three months ago. One day she came back to tell me proudly that she can do multiplication up to the 10 times table.

I was amazed! I asked, “What’s 9 × 6?” and got a blank look from her. It took some will power not to say: “Huh? And you said you knew multiplication?” Instead I said, “I will ask your teacher how you are learning it.”

The next time I met her teacher, I asked how the children are learning multiplication, and was shown the multiplication board. Then I understood that what my daughter was learning was the concept of multiplication (unlike during my time when the times table was printed at the back of every exercise book and we were expected to memorise it!)

multiplication board.jpg

2. Make sure her reading skill is above Primary 1 level

One aspect of parenting which I am glad to have done correctly is to have exposed Bea to the world of books since she was a baby. Since she was a wee little thing, crawling around, she has had her cloth books and later on, hardcover books. We read to her constantly because we ourselves enjoy reading.

I broke the rules a little when it came to the type of reading: those books with a single picture on one page and a single word on the facing page – like “CAT” or “BALL” – moved me to tears of boredom. I read her books with sentences (probably meant for four-year-olds) when she was one or two years old.

We read every night before bedtime. I used to read together with her and even now that she’s older, I still read with her first, then she reads on her own and I read my own book at the same time.

When we go out, and I know that there will be some waiting time, we pack a few books to read during that time. I am glad to report that her reading skills are not bad. I think she should be at Primary 2 level at this point.

3. Make sure she can pay attention

Ah… this is dicey for Bea. On the positive side, my daughter is very sociable. But as her teacher tells me, give her some individual work and it won’t be long before she is moseying around the other kids who are also doing their own work. Luckily, her teacher tells me that she can pay attention in class but she is just a bit “kay poh” (busybody in Hokkien). I have found that limiting her TV and smartphone time to no more than two hours a day has improved her concentration levels tremendously.

Although the study pointed to these three skills needed for academic success, as a parent and educator, I think there is another factor that we want our kids to go to Primary 1 with – a love for learning.

We want them to go in, as cliché as is sounds, bright eyed and bushy tailed, excited about school and raring to learn. That’s what childhood is all about, having fun and learning at the same time. We have to be careful that we don’t drown and bore them with specific targets of learning skill sets. It’s all right not to be perfect. After all, in life, there will always be someone better than you. Our role as parents is to make sure that they have enough skill sets to have a smooth ride in school and yet balance it with character building blocks such as kindness, tenacity and honesty.

I wish you and your child a wonderful start to the primary years.

Dr Cecilia Leong has PhD in Communications and teaches tertiary students life skills. She also conducts Emotional Intelligence workshops. Her book, Perfect Match Health Education for Primary 4, 5, and 6 is being used by many primary schools in Singapore. You can read more parenting tips at Cecilia’s blog.

1. Duncan, Greg J.; Dowsett, Chantelle J.; Claessens, Amy; Magnuson, Katherine; Huston, Aletha C.; Klebanov, Pamela; Pagani, Linda S.; Feinstein, Leon; Engel, Mimi; Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne; Sexton, Holly; Duckworth, Kathryn; Japel, Crista. (2007). Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 7, 1428-1446. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.43.6.1428

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