Australia

The Vietnamese refugee who wants Australian children as young as three to learn to read

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Education advocate David Chiem is hoping early education can help turn Australia's poor literacy rates around.

When David Chiem arrived in Australia as a nine-year-old refugee, he didn't know a single word of English - now, the former actor and early education advocate is leading the charge to reduce the age at which children are taught to read.

It's his memories of being put in a primary school without the ability to understand the language that has driven his passion for early education.

David Chiem is passionate about encouraging young children to love reading.
David Chiem is passionate about encouraging young children to love reading.
SBS News

He recalled one moment on his first day of school in Australia when the teacher asked his name and he couldn't answer, prompting another student to call him "stupid". 

"I still remember that moment and, look, when she said that word I did cry on that day and that was when I had this reflection that just because I don't speak the language doesn't mean I'm that word that she said," he told SBS News.

"For me, it was very important that immersive process of being able to understand the literary world. It's something that is so important, to give that gift from young."

Children should be reading with their parents and pre-school teachers from the age of three, Mr Chiem said.
Children should be reading with their parents and pre-school teachers from the age of three, Mr Chiem said.
SBS News

Mr Chiem believes the answer to turning around Australia's poor literacy rates is introducing children as young as three to the world of books.

"There are people who can decode, get their grammar sheets all correct and get good marks for grammar and even decode those words but it doesn't mean they love reading and building the love for reading is something we nurture from young its what we call pre-literacy," he said. 

"I am truly passionate about wanting to lift education, and in particular literacy standards, because currently even though we are a first world country, and an English speaking country, we are ranked number 21 globally."

Author Brian Caswell says parents need to read with their children more often.
Author Brian Caswell says parents need to read with their children more often.
SBS News

He has now founded 20 preschools in Australia his and his vision for early readers has the backing of well-known Australian authors, like Brian Caswell. 

"If you say, 'you've got to read' and then go off and play with your phone or watch TV, the message you are giving is opposite to what you are saying," he said.

"A child will always imitate what you do."

Mr Caswell encouraged parents to sit down with their kids and read together, at least "a thousand books" before the child has started school.

Dr Tanya Serry believes a lot can be taught in children's pre-school years.
Dr Tanya Serry believes a lot can be taught in children's pre-school years.
SBS News

Education experts agree that early exposure to literacy could help turn Australia's poor literacy rates around, but made clear there was no evidence that three-year-olds could learn to read in the way we understand it. 

"Three is absolutely critical for what we call pre-literacy or emergent literacy skills as well as building up oral language, and that will all position a child to be ready to learn to read at whatever age their country or system starts," speech pathologist Tanya Serry told SBS News.

"Parents and childcare workers, anyone involved with children, have such an opportunity and I would say a privilege to really build up children's early language skills, their emergent language skills and importantly engaging with books and learning how they work."

With additional reporting from Tom Stayner

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