Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Getting an A* in English at the PSLE

I have explained elsewhere in this blog that getting a score of 4 A's at the PSLE isn't of any value at all. A child can't go anywhere with only 4 miserable A's. He can't be enrolled into Singapore's top school. He'll miss it by at least quite a few points; that's how steep the competition at PSLE is.  Four A-stars are what a child must aspire to get.

Admittedly, getting 4 A-stars is not something you can sit back and hope for. One must put in some effort. But it's not difficult to achieve. When you look at all the four subjects at PSLE, the easiest A-star (or A*) that a child can secure is English. It really doesn't matter what the background of the child is. An A* for English is so achievable that I can understand the anguish some parents must feel when they see their kids getting anything less. But then, who can they blame but themselves? The reason I say this is parents are the best teachers of their own children for something as practical as language. And I have a real personal story to recount.

Some time ago, a friend rang me up and she was completely distraught. Her only child who had just started classes in P6 had done very badly in the P5 English paper. She wanted me to help "coach" her kid for "less than a year". In other words, she wanted me to be the child's tutor for the entire duration of about 9 to 10 months leading to the PSLE. Teaching kids was the last thing I wanted to do with my time and so I told her I was busy. She told me that she could see that I was fond of "wasting precious time" hitting out at bad English teachers on my blog and if I could just spare a bit of my time teaching her kid, she'd really be grateful. She told me that I had no experience teaching and my blog on language teachers lacked that special depth that only those who had been through a teaching stint could really have. Why not experience teaching firsthand and I could blog about it too? I thought for a while and I told I would give it a try.

The first thing I asked for was the boy's last exam script. I almost threw in the towel when I went through the exam paper. My exposure to pupils taking the PSLE before that was limited only to my own kids. I could see that this boy had absolutely no notion what English grammar was all about. He could not construct even a simple sentence without some glaring error. There was no way I could secure an A* for this child and teaching him would really be a waste of my time which could be more fruitfully employed slamming the "experts" from the Speak Good English Movement in my blog.

I telephoned my friend and told her the whole idea was a huge mistake. I explained in great detail what I saw in the exam script, how bad his vocabulary was, how poor his grasp of simple grammatical rules and how impossible it was for him to construct basic sentences without mistakes. I told her that she should take him to a good teacher who could teach him well. I reminded her that I had neither the training nor the experience in teaching and while it might be fun to see if my untried method could work on a child, it'd be foolish to subject her own kid to my experiment.

She told me that her kid was already attending classes at a very famous tuition centre which my kids used to go to before I pulled them out. She begged me to just give her kid a try. I told her I could not promise her anything but I would try to manage about an hour every week or fortnight with her son but if her son conducted himself in a manner which did not agree with me, I would have to terminate the arrangement. She assured me her son was not fidgety and he would be a compliant learner.

Before the first lesson, I asked my friend for all the worksheets that the boy had done both in school and at the tuition centre. I wanted to see where he stood and what his problems were. The evening before his first lesson, I ploughed through his work and it soon became clear to me what the boy's problems were.

You see, what I did the night before was no different from what an oncologist does when he goes through the x-ray report of his patient. He needs to identify the cancerous area in the patient's body. What I needed to do was to identify the problem areas that the boy had. There's always a simple reason why someone makes grammatical errors. There's always carelessness of course but a teacher must be sure to ascertain if the mistake is due to carelessness or ignorance. Perhaps he just doesn't understand the rules of grammar or he can't apply them to a sentence. What he needs is not more grammar exercises. Those are of little value. A cancer patient does not need a health tonic. He needs targeted treatment.

I had a shock of my life when I read the boy's composition or essay-writing exercises. Because he went to the same tuition centre as my own kids, he used the same chunks of unsightly monstrosity that these tuition centres all churn out for their students. Hideous vulgarisms were liberally strewn all over his essays. Although I'm not a teacher, I have years of experience with English language teachers in Singapore, mainly through my kids and also from the books and articles that they write. All English language teachers in Singapore, whether they teach in private tuition centres or our mainstream schools, are fond of giving pupils a set of trite and hackneyed expressions that 90% of PSLE candidates are sure to use at PSLE. The one stark example that I can remember is "I stood, rooted to the spot".  This is what I jokingly call the "It was a dark and stormy night" category of bad expressions.  Just think how an examiner feels if he reads 500 essays written at the PSLE and 499 of them contain the same old expressions that schools have been dishing out to their pupils for the past 10 years. Out of those 500 candidates the A* grade will most certainly go to the candidate who's written a more original essay.

The grammar section is another major component in the English paper. A good teacher must be able to identify what the child's problem areas are. But before he does that, the teacher must himself have a proper knowledge of grammar. Readers of my blog must by now know that a knowledge of grammar is not exactly what MOE's teachers have a strong point in. My personal experiences with Singapore's language teachers did not leave me assured that my kids could do without some major input on my part. And if you have been following my blog, you will know it's not just our school teachers who are afflicted with grammar problems; English "experts" from MOE and consultants to the Speak Good English Movement have shown themselves to be quite hopelessly unable to teach proper English grammar.

If you want a full list of the articles I've written in this blog on the grammar errors made by MOE, the Speak Good English Movement and other English language teachers, please click here. You will see that the list of errors include those that appear in that outrageous grammar book, English As It is Broken Parts 1 and 2 which is written by MOE's panel of English "experts" and consultants to the Speak Good English Movement. That's a grammar book that is so shockingly erroneous that I'm willing to bet that you can't flip through two pages without encountering some egregious blunder that even a child won't make.

The mistake most parents make is they assume that anyone certified by MOE to teach English must be qualified, equipped and competent to teach the language. I assure you that in all my experiences with English teachers in Singapore, I have yet to come across a single teacher who is competent to teach my kids English. Throughout their primary schools, I was the sole English teacher they could rely on. I discouraged my kids from turning to their teachers whenever they had a question on the language. They had to ask me.

This article is not a puff and I'm not advertising anything. I am not a professional teacher and I have no intention of making a foray into the education industry. I'm writing this post with only one purpose - to encourage parents to be their kids' English language teachers. I have no faith in Singapore's English language teachers and it doesn't matter if they are MOE's teachers or teachers from private tuition centres.

My friend's son had numerous problems with grammar. He was especially weak in tenses, concord, prepositions and phrasal verbs. He needed a great deal of help with vocabulary and proper usage. Once these problem areas were identified, it was easy to help him overcome his difficulties. With the help of examples from grammar books and from novels and poems, I was able to work with him and help him understand the pattern and orderliness behind each grammar rule. Contrary to what many people think, English grammar is very orderly and logical.

Singapore teachers are quite able to teach all the other subjects and I have no qualms leaving my kids with them without any supervision from me. But alas, they can't teach English and if parents don't bother with their kids' English language education, they shouldn't be upset if their kids do not score in their English paper that coveted A* which I'm pleased to say my friend's son obtained.


  1. Hi, my daughter is P5 now and going P6, exactly like your friend's son as described. She is sadly very weak in her grammar and sentence structures too. I'm so amazed by how you have managed to turn the boy's results around!! Could you please share some ways I could use to help my girl to improve? (especially for sentence structures). I just don't understand how she can write in fragmented sentences and not realise they are wrong!! It's so frustrating because she says that the sentences are right, even though they are far from it. Hope you can share a few things you did that was helpful to the boy. Also, how much time did you have to spend with the boy during the 9 months? Will a once a week tuition help? Thanks a lot in advance!

    1. I'm tempted to ask you what you've been doing all these years. Were you not aware before of your daughter's poor grasp of grammar and syntax? But it's not too late to do something now. You must first go through the work she's done especially her exam papers. It's easy to identify the problem areas by going through her work. You only concentrate on those areas she has a problem in. Since she's your own daughter and she needs help, you really should spend more time teaching her and not limit the lesson to once a week. I'm assuming that you live with her in the same house. My friend's situation was different. She didn't always have custody of her son and any neglect on her part is more understandable.

      Once you have identified the areas of weakness, it's easy to focus your attention on them. Bear in mind always that some areas are linked. E.g. a child who is bad at prepositions is most probably weak in phrasal verbs. A child who hasn't got a wide vocabulary will probably have serious problems in his essay writing.

      I'm sure all will be well and I hope your daughter does well in her PSLE next year.