The preschooler’s building blocks for academic success

Bea is going to start primary school next year. So I thought, hmmm… with 6 months to go, is she prepared for Primary 1?

Well, 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 6 longitudinal study data sets .

The reseachers looked at 4 elements:

1. attention skills

2. socioemotional skills

3. reading skills

4. mathematics (math) skills

The amazing thing is all 6 studies pointed to 3 key elements that had a correlation with later academic success**… and the winners, in order of importance, are:

Math skills, reading skills and attention skills.

The same 3 elements applied to both genders and the researchers have already taken into account family background.

So what does this mean for parents with young children?

Well, this is my interpretation of how to strategize:

1. Make sure the kid knows her numbers.

I have my own opinions on this – I don’t think she needs to be a human calculator – those enrichment centres that tell you that by 3 years old, they can get the kid to do a 3 digit multiplication – 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 which is why I am in agreement with her school when it comes to learning multiplication and division. Bea just started learning about 3 months ago, and one day she came back to tell me proudly that she can do multiplication up to 10x. I was amazed, so I asked, what’s 9×6? and I got a blank look… it took some will power not to say ” Huh? and you said you knew multiplication?!!” and instead I said, “I will ask your teacher how you learn it.” So the next time I met her teacher, I asked how is she learning multiplication, and I was shown the multiplication board. Then I understood that what she was learning was the concept of multiplication first (unlike my time where the times table was printed on the back of every exercise book and we were expected to remember it by hard!)

Learning on the Montessori Multiplication Board

Learning on the Montessori Multiplication Board


Montessori Multiplication Board (3 x 7)

Montessori Multiplication Board (3 x 7)

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

One aspect of my parenting which I am glad I have done correctly is to have exposed her to the world of books since she was a baby. When she was a wee little thing, crawling around, she had her cloth books and later on the hard cover books. We read to her constantly  because we ourselves enjoy reading and I broke the rules a little bit when it came to the type of reading… those books with a single picture that said “CAT” or “BALL” moved me to tears (of boredom)… so I read books with sentences, probably meant for 4 year olds when she was 1 or 2.

I loved Dr Suess books and got her a whole set. I don’t discriminate, hand-me-downs are always welcome, so we received many used books from friends, and I also couldn’t resist numerous from the thrift shops too., Who can resist a 50 cent book in good condition? Of course, I wiped them with a disinfectant and it’s as good as new.)

We read every night before bedtime.  I used to read with her but now that she’s older, I still read with her and then she reads on her own and I read my own book at the same time.  I figured this modelling method should benefit me too, except when my own book gets too exciting, it’s really had to put it down after 15 minutes.

When we go out, and I know there is some waiting time, we pack a few books to read.

So I am glad to report that her reading is not bad, I think she should be a Primary 2 level at this point.


3. Make sure she can pay attention

Ah… point no 3 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 noseying around with the other kids around her who are also doing their own work. On the other hand, I’d rather deal with this than to teach a child who is too introverted to speak up. Luckily, her teacher tells me that she can pay attention in class but she is just a bit “kay poh” – (busybody in Cantonese).  I have found that limiting her TV and smartphone time to no more than 2 hours a day has improved her concentration levels tremendously (see my earlier blog on smartphone use:

Although the study pointed to these 3 skills needed for academic success, as a parent and educator, I think there is another factor that we want our kids to go to Primary1 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 honestly.

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


*  School readiness and later achievement.

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
Developmental Psychology, Vol 43(6), Nov 2007, 1428-1446. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.43.6.1428
** Academic success is defined as a culmulative process of mastering new skills and improving existing skills
( Pungello, E. P., Kuperschmidt, J. B., Burchinal, M. R., & Patterson, C.
(1996). Environmental risk factors and children’s achievement from
middle childhood to adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 32, 755–

2 Responses to “The preschooler’s building blocks for academic success”

  1. This is a great article ! hey pt 3 is the same for Y, her class teacher said “she is very interested in what her friends are doing”, what a long sentence, had to give her credit for trying to be subtle, the singlish single word “kaypoh” just sums it up.

    Jo ( Spartanburg, US)


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