Monday, October 22, 2012

How to Get Sraight A's in the PSLE - Part 1

It's not difficult to get straight A's in the PSLE.  What the candidate should strive for is straight A-stars.  There is a distinction in the PSLE between an A which is quite common and an A-star or A* as indicated in the cert above and 4 A*s should be the goal of most students.  You need 4 A*s to get into the No. 1 school in Singapore and you need them to qualify comfortably for the EESIS scholarship.  You may still succeed with 3 A*s and 1 A provided your 3 A*s are very strong A-stars.  and your single A is an A that almost hit an A*.  But to be cautious, it's wise to aim for 4 A*s.

I shudder whenever I see ads from tuition centres that boast of their top students having scored 2 A*s and 2 As.  If I were a tutor, I'd hide this fact as a disgraceful confirmation of my failure as a private teacher.  Before I continue, I should make it clear that I'm NOT and have never been a teacher and I have never been in the education business.  The only time I have given private lessons was as a volunteer in a charitable home.  I have never taught for remuneration of any kind so this is not a sales puff.  I'm just a parent who's seen my kids through the PSLE and if I may add in as modest a fashion as I can possibly manage, I'm totally satisfied with their PSLE scores.  I would not have brought up this personal fact but for the fact that I think this should at least give me the licence to speak with some authority.

What really motivates me to write this post is I'm amazed at the trouble parents go to for their kids' education in Singapore but many of them seem to have got it all wrong.  There are parents who are top professionals themselves and they must have done very well at school in their time but their kids don't seem to take after them in the academic arena.  Why is this so?  I know of poor parents who scrimp and save to be able to afford expensive private lessons for their kids and despite all these sacrifices, their kids do badly in the PSLE.  I know of parents who quit their jobs just to be there for their children's education and yet their kids achieve merely mediocre grades at best. I know of parents who jump for joy when their kids manage to clear by a small margin the extremely low PSLE score required to remain in a mediocre school.  Obviously something is terribly amiss; what would be reason for unbearable disappointment to me is reason for celebration to them.  I have wanted to talk about this for a long time but I was afraid of offending my readers. People don't want to be told they have been remiss as parents and they are perfectly right to feel angry when someone offers to tell them they are wrong.  But this is my personal blog and I think if I do know a winning formula, I should at least share it in my blog.  Those who are offended may skip this post.  Those who don't mind seeing what ideas I have are welcome to continue reading and to look out for subsequent segments - this topic is too large to cover in a single post.  I don't profess to have a magic formula but having seen my kids through the same examination, I really think acing this examination is not a problem but first, you must get the basics right.

I have an important rider which must govern my entire post here and all my subsequent posts on the PSLE - my knowledge is entirely limited to what I do know and can remember.  Some of my information may be dated or inaccurate and it is incumbent on every parent to do his own research and verify what I say here.

Before I begin, I should say a few things about something that's strange about parents when it comes to the PSLE.  They can be divided into 3 groups:

1.  They are really concerned about their kids' PSLE but to people outside the family, they give the appearance that they are not bothered and they might even go so far as to discourage other parents who want to do something extra for their kids.

2.  They are truly not bothered about their kids' PSLE

3.  They are really concerned about their kids' PSLE and they are honest with the outside world about it and they are willing to share whatever they find helpful with others.

From my observation, Group 1 above consists by far of the largest segment of the Singaporean society.  Group 2 comprises mainly parents who aren't highly educated and who probably didn't do very well in school themselves.  Those in Group 3 can easily be counted on the fingers of your hand and it's not easy to be in this group because many parents will hate you for this.  I was told by a friend once not to give tips on the PSLE because that would make it more difficult for his kids!  PSLE tips, in their books, should be kept a secret.

I'm sorry but I'm decidedly in Group 3 and I will tell all.  So, if you happen to be a Group 1 parent and you wish to chide me in the comments below, you may do so but other readers will know you're selfish and nasty and only want to keep your secrets to yourself.  Good things ought to be shared and even if you don't want to, I will share what I know.

It's been said and quite accurately too that the PSLE is the most important examination in a child's entire school life.  It's an exam that will decide which secondary school your child will go to and although they may say that all schools are the same, we all know that's utter rubbish.  I've talked about schools in my other posts so I won't repeat myself here but make no mistake about this - a child can make or break on his choice of a secondary school.  And that choice is not his to make; it's entirely dependent on his PSLE grades.

After having looked carefully into various aspects of the PSLE, I'm confident that most parents should be able to ensure their child score 4 A*s or at least 3 A*s and an A for Chinese.  Chinese is the most difficult subject in the PSLE and I'm afraid I am at a loss to give good advice here.

I've heard horrendous stories of parents physically abusing their kids for doing badly and I must say these are stories that give me nightmares.  If you are one such parent, you must put a stop to such abuse immediately.  As an Asian parent myself, I believe in strict discipline but physical abuse is a definite no-no.

First, why do kids do badly in the PSLE exam or any exam for that matter?   Why are some kids ill-disciplined?  I have only one answer to both questions.  The parents are to blame.  Parents who are in the habit of caning their kids should really take the cane and beat themselves soundly with it if their kids do badly or are ill-behaved.

What I say is backed by research.  Recently, the BBC analysed a huge study that was carried out on 10,000 subjects throughout the whole of the US and the results are astounding.  The researchers conclude from the study that parents are the reason for a kid's exam results, not the school he is in.  Let's digest that.  If your kids do badly in an exam, YOU are the reason for his poor grades.  Don't blame the school and don't find fault with the teachers.  You may read the report here.

I once met a father who asked me how I instilled discipline in my children.  His son who was a bright and intelligent boy was a computer game addict and he was doing badly in class because he focused too much of his time on the computer game.  The father knew I was a Christian and he asked me if I prayed regularly for my kids and taught them good Christian ethics.  I confessed to him that the only time I "prayed" was in church and the liturgy compelled prayer on my part and even then, my mind wouldn't be on the prayer.  I explained that my family was the least religious people in all Christendom.  By my family, I of course meant my wife and kids.  My parents are entirely different; they're deeply religious.  What I made clear to that father was religion and prayer had no part to play at all in the discipline of a child.  Neither do they have a part to contribute in exam performance.  As evidence, I need only refer to schools that hold regular prayers for PSLE students - they do far worse and consistently so than many secular schools that I can think of.

So, let's get off our religious high horse.  No, religion isn't the answer to good grades and a disciplined child.  I told that father to just stop his son from playing games.  I'm not familiar with computer games but I imagine there is a console you need to plug to a tv set or computer monitor.  I told the father to lock up the console so his son had no access to the game.  You won't believe the father's reply and I almost dropped the glass of water I was holding when I heard what he said.  He told me he could not do that.  His son would most certainly be violent.

What kind of relationship does a father have with his son that when the father wants to remove an object which is obviously harmful to the son, the son will physically fight back?  I cannot believe his son could be that unreasonable.  I'm sure if the father would just take me to his son, I would be able to talk to the son and persuade him to give up his game console.  There's obviously a serious breakdown in communication between father and son and there is mutual distrust at play here.  I have since met other parents who say the same thing of their sons.

Parents must remain parents to their kids and removing a game console can't be something that should lead to violence.  This is so incredibly wrong and I'm surprised some parents can't even see that.  That parent subsequently drew up an agreement with his son on the number of hours he could play the game each day.  When he told me about the "agreement" I tried very hard to conceal my disgust.

It may seem like I'm digressing from my original topic on how to score A*s in the PSLE but I'm not.  I need to get the basics right.  Parents can only think about helping their kids score good grades if they haven't abdicated their responsibility as parents.  A parent must lead by example.  If he isn't academic and takes no interest in intellectual pursuits and all he cares about is money, which happens to be the nation's chief interest, it would be unreasonable to expect his kids to be any different from himself.  So, my first point is parents must instil discipline in their kids and assume their role as parents and they should lead by example and never resort to physical abuse.  This leads me to my second point.

The second point is for the parents to be really honest with themselves.  This is all about the parents and it's got nothing to do with their kids but it's important because genetics do play a part in good grades.  Parents should ask themselves if they were good students in their time.  Were they usually recipients at Prize Giving Ceremonies in school?  Were they A students themselves?  Did they go to a good university and a good faculty of their choice?  Do they read regularly and I don't mean newspapers and magazines.  We have to be realistic.  If the honest answers to these questions are a resounding "NO!", do we have the right to expect our kids to do what we ourselves do not?  Have we the right to expect them to achieve in school what we ourselves did not?   If parents don't read books habitually, it's unrealistic to expect their kids to read.  Don't forget - these are questions for BOTH parents.  Both parents contribute the genes which the kid inherits and both parents set an example for the kid.  This is a matter beyond our control.  I'm only saying that we should be realistic in our expectations.  I know it's not fashionable in this day and age to talk about genetics but when we are talking about getting straight A*s in the PSLE, we've got to get real and forget about what's politically correct.

But I'm aware that there are many PSLE candidates who do remarkably well but whose parents aren't at all the intellectual sort.  I'm not saying only intelligent parents will have intelligent kids.  I'm aware of issues in genetics such as regression to the mean and I'm sure we have all seen intelligent kids whose parents are bafflingly the opposite and brilliant parents with slow children.  But this is something we must bear in mind when we place onerous expectations on our kids.  All I'm suggesting is that parents should be realistic.

The third point has to do with the child.  Some children are diagnosed with learning difficulties and they may need more help than what any parent can cope with on their own.  This is where the professionals come in.  Parents should be supportive and lower their expectations according to their kid's particular condition and the therapy available.

The three points above are extremely sensitive and I'm sure to have ruffled some feathers.  But these are basics that we must come to terms with before we start placing expectations on our children.   Now that I have covered the basics, I will be going on with the more substantive part of my post in Part 2 of "How to Get Straight A's in the PSLE".  I will be dealing first with the Maths paper.

But before I go on to Part 2, my post would be lacking if it did not also contain a small reference to the Direct School Admission or DSA.  The other way one could get into top secondary schools such as RI and Hwa Chong is by the DSA route.

One important criterion for the DSA is music.  Many music teachers are aware of this but many of them don't tell you the secret.  If your child is strongly gifted in music by Primary 6, he can go for the DSA selection of the school of his choice.  His credentials (ABRSM or Trinity College certificates) are examined and he has to go for an audition.  But your child has to be exceptional and therefore deserving of a place.  It is also getting increasingly difficult because more and more kids are now doing music exams at an earlier age.  It used to be that a child who had completed his Grade 8 in ABRSM and had an ATCL by June in Primary 6 (May and June are important months for the DSA selection but please check with the schools since my knowledge may be somewhat dated) would most likely qualify for the DSA but now, the competition is greater because from what I hear, many kids get their ATCL by Primary 6!  Bear in mind too that if your child takes the ATCL exam early in the year when he's already in Primary 6, the results may not be ready before the DSA selection.  Check with Trinity College and ABRSM on when the results will be released if you intend to apply for the music DSA. 

If your kid is a national player in sports, he too can qualify for the DSA.  But my knowledge on this subject is limited.

Bear in mind that there are conditions imposed on those who enter the school on the DSA.  The sports route is not very attractive.  The kid MUST go for all the very time-consuming and back-breaking training if he's selected through DSA (sports).  If it's the music DSA, the child must opt for the MEP (the Music Elective Programme).  All this is very restrictive on the child and ultimately, it's far better to gain admission into a school based purely on your PSLE score.  There are no strings attached and you can do whatever you want and join whatever extra-curricular activity in school that you like.  Besides, it's not difficult to do well in the PSLE.

There is also the academic DSA but I really think that's quite unnecessary.  If your kid is at all academic, he should have no problems with the PSLE and hence no need for a DSA.  But if your kid is strong in the sciences and maths, he should apply for the NUS High DSA selection.   He will be given a test on the sciences and maths and this test is notorious because usually a huge percentage of them would be axed.  A small percentage of them who qualify will then have to attend a two-day selection camp in the school.  They will be given a wide range of scientific experiments to do in the camp and they will be assessed and a small number will be selected.  Even if your child is not selected through DSA, the fact that he has done well at the first test will be noted by the school.  If he scores a high PSLE score with A*s in at least both Maths and Science, chances are high that he will gain admission into the school.

But I should warn parents that NUS High is not a school for every child.  I personally know of kids who drop out of the school after a year or two because they realise (too late) that they aren't passionate about maths and science.  Again, here is where we parents come in.  Do we know our kids well enough?  Has he or she always been a science or maths child?  Has she taken and won medals in the various Maths Olympiads while still in primary school?  When you hand him a novel to read, does he trade that for a science book?  These are indications that a child might very well be suitable for that school.

I hope I have covered all the basics in this Part 1 of my PSLE series.  For Part 2, I will deal with PSLE Maths.

I have started a series which I expect will be extremely long because I want it to be comprehensive. It's my How to Excel in English at PSLE and Beyond series. The posts are divided into different Rules. Some rules are better illustrated by real examples and these are taken from mistakes made by the Speak Good English Movement and others including those who are touted as language experts of the Ministry of Education. It may take me a long time to complete the series but I'm persuaded that parents who read through my entire series will be able to guide their kids in securing an A-star for English at PSLE. When both my kids did the PSLE, I was absolutely certain that they would get nothing less than an A-star for at least English. I would have considered anything less an unnecessary failure. I hope to be able to transmit what I know to my readers so that they too can achieve for their kids the same results. And it's not difficult at all.  There are pitfalls you must avoid. One of the greatest mistakes parents make is they buy books for their kids without going through the books themselves. I bought the Speak Good English Movement's book in two volumes and I was shocked to see that almost every page contained at least one major grammatical error and I'm not exaggerating. That has prompted me to write more than 50 articles on the errors of the Speak Good English Movement alone. A summary of these articles and other language-related articles can be found in my one-page post that has the links to all the articles on the subject.

If you find these articles tedious, as some of my readers have complained, you may go straight into my new series which begins with How to Excel in English at PSLE and Beyond Rule 1. I hope to be as brief and succinct as I can in this new series.


  1. cool. although i dont understand a single thing, heh heh.

  2. yo, cool stuff. i dont really get it though.

  3. Nice article, an eye opener for parents like me trying find more about PSLE.

  4. Hi guys, I just noticed the comments you guys posted and I feel so encouraged. I actually wrote a Part 2 on PSLE Maths but I kept it in draft form because of the negative feedback I got from writing this series. Anyway, since you guys like it, I have posted Part 2 and it can be found here:

    I hope it is helpful. What I'm sharing in my blog helped me and really worked for my kids. May it work for yours too.

  5. Truly sad to hear "Chinese is the hardest". I believe no one method works for all children. You just got to trial and error. Scoring sufficiently well is good enough for PSLE. All the top results barely converts into anything by the time you reach Sec 4 or JC. It's important to let your children discover and really like the subject. For myself, I really started to like math, science and chinese, which allowed me to study even without any pestering by my parents. Buy DVDs, those science encyclopedias, go out into the nature and experience with them. All these will motivate your children. Hard measures are needed at this age, such as confiscating certain game consoles, but give in a little to distract their attention after a day or two. Eg. you confiscate the computer games, but give them a chance to watch their favorite cartoon. This tactic kinda work.

    btw, dear author, by proclaiming you are not an expert in such such such field, or i am only merely stating my stand, etc doesn't diminish the fact that we are going to interpret what you are gonna say with less scrutiny, in fact, it increases the reader's attention to fault you in whatever that you are gonna say. (You know those ppl who object for the sake of objecting). So i advise just type whatever you wanna say. Anyways, it is less tedious to read your article if you do that cos your article is kinda long and windy. *I'm not gonna put just my two cents worth cos that sounds stupid :)

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mr Lee. What you say is very true. The top results in PSLE don't mean a thing once you get into university. But the problem with not getting top results is the child's chances of getting into the top secondary schools will diminish significantly. If you look at entry into the most coveted faculties in NUS, more than 50% (I was told for medicine, it's as high as 70%) of the intake comes from Singapore's No. 1 school. The same goes with the other most-sought-after faculty. PSLE is important. Whatever the government may do to appease the masses, meritocracy must be upheld and top students must be allowed to go to the school of their choice. To allow mediocre students to have priority over top students would be unthinkable in any sane society. Hence the importance of the PSLE will continue even if the masses want it to be scrapped. In the last PISA survey, Singapore ranked among the very top in the world in all-round education. If we scrap the PSLE and allow students to be uniformly mediocre, you can be sure our education standards will be as mediocre as that of most of the countries in the West. We will immediately drop out of the China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea cohort and join the ranks of the mediocre West.

  6. Yes,
    When it come to PSLE, I'm not sure what to make of it. Parents become our kids private tutor and tuition teachers.. hahah.. at least for that year for extra support.
    Wish all the PSLE students all the best this year for their exams :)

  7. how u get A* for Eng and Maths? Pls share your strategies..