With recent changes to school-based assessments in primary schools, Singapore’s education system is looking beyond mere academic results to appreciate the importance of the joy of learning. In this vein, Reading Odyssey – a community-based project by Educational Psychology Service, SHINE Children & Youth Services – has been empowering disadvantaged children to enjoy reading with meaning, knowledge and understanding via this novel programme since 2013.

Supported by multiple donors from the Community Foundation of Singapore (CFS), Reading Odyssey currently collaborates with various community partners to run in seven centres across Singapore and serves 120 children from Kindergarten Two to Primary Six, many from lower income families. “Many of these children are two to three years behind their peers in their reading abilities and have limited learning support and exposure. They usually have low confidence and a poor academic self-image,” says Magdalen Loh, Reading Odyssey Captain and Lead Learning Specialist.

One of the root causes, adds Magdalen, is lack of exposure. Due to complex issues in their family backgrounds, these children do not have wide learning opportunities, or have difficulties accessing help.

Unlike academically-focused tuition centres, Reading Odyssey focuses on inspiring interest in reading and offering opportunities for exposure and building confidence. Another key objective is to help children understand the meaning of words and knowledge. Here, reading is used as a tool to expose the child to the wider world. Genres are intentionally varied; children are exposed to topics, from robotics to the environment, that may be beyond their scope of interests. Materials are targeted to each child’s ability, and the programme incorporates a guided reading approach involving helpful guided questions for volunteers and children to discuss.

Improving a child’s confidence and inner motivation may not be an easy task, but with time and dedication, the programme has seen rewarding results. In the past years, more than 70% of participants showed an increase in confidence from observable behaviours across its centres, and more than half showed improvements in their reading age or reading levels. “Many of the children are motivated to come regularly. They want to learn more once they know they have improved,” says Magdalen.

Part of the programme’s success is due to its volunteer-driven model and close partnership with the local communities to identify those in need. Each child is matched one-on-one with a trained volunteer, who partners the child to work purposefully through the text and stories. Such exposure and engagement, says Magdalen, helps build confidence and increases their understanding of the different topics.

“With confidence in learning, even if you are a weaker student, you dare to approach someone older and not feel embarrassed. With inner confidence and motivation, you will find ways to help you improve,” she expresses.

With increased demand from the ground, Reading Odyssey is looking to scale its centres from seven to ten by 2021, and increase its reach by 50% to 180 children. Plans in the works include formalising its volunteer training, events to deepen a sense of its community and developing new games and testing tools to enhance the programme’s impact.

Ultimately, the goal is to offer an avenue for disadvantaged children to access opportunities beyond their personal circumstance. Magdalen expresses, “We want to do our part to use stories to help children ask questions and think about the wider world. When their motivation is innate, they can help themselves in the long run.”

Photos: SHINE Children & Youth Services