Tuesday, 26 December 2017

The PSLE English Paper Is Tough, And So…

The PSLE English Paper is tough, and so it is important for us to be clear and accurate about some basic assumptions. For parents overly worried about PSLE English, please be calm. Realise first that you may hold some assumptions that may sabotage your child’s progress. Let me prove it now. I have heard and read about how many Singaporeans employ the drill method to prepare their kids for the PSLE English exam. What is the drill method? Like footwork drills of soldiers, students practise, practise and practise until they master the content and skills of the English paper. Unfortunately, the drill method does not work for all English components. If it has, our students would not be facing problems in reading comprehension and writing.

Let's examine the components of the English paper carefully and sincerely ask ourselves which components can be effectively taught by the drill method. Do you know that some language components ought to be taught quickly and some components ought to be taught slowly? Do you realise that components that can be taught fast can be taught by the drill method and components that cannot be taught fast cannot be taught by the drill method? Although I myself have not seen this point in a book, this is actually basic stuff. Why? This is because effective teaching of a language is dependent on this assumption.

To help you further, let me state the points plainly. For Vocabulary and Grammar, you can use the drill method. However, for writing and reading comprehension, using the drill method will backfire, sabotaging the entire learning process. Understand this crucial point, and adjust your teaching styles. You cannot rush the mastery of reading comprehension and writing skills by students. It is process-oriented and it takes time; it is a synthesis of many skills. If you insist on using the drill method for comprehension and writing skills, well, as some of you have discovered, your child may be turned off, and he loses interest in writing and doing comprehension exercises; for some students, they simply write their answers mechanically, never really taking the time to ponder deeper. If your child has reached this stage, then you have built a wall to hinder and sabotage your child’s learning. Please correct your mistake. 

It is unfortunate that we live in the 21st century and yet our perception of education boils down to a couple of key examinations, the PSLE, O-levels, etc. It is really sad that schools are overly concerned about these exams too. For the moment, since we cannot change this reality, we need our kids to excel in these exams. But we have a choice still – to take the holistic road or take the non-holistic road?

The non-holistic road has been taken by the majority students since the PSLE began. It is the teaching or learning English for the sake of exams only. Students do not see the purpose of learning language skills beyond the exams. This problem is more glaring for second language learners who have convinced themselves that they would not need the language of study. So the academic study of English becomes fragmented, emphasised and bloated in certain areas but without much practical or meaningful use. 

The holistic road to learning English is to teach the language components with meaning. For example, when I teach Vocabulary, usually in the first lesson, I will teach the students words like ‘defecate’ and ‘excrete’ – terribly meaningful words that always produce a giggle and an immediate mastery but unfortunately, are almost never taught by school teachers. Shouldn’t students know these words when they are carrying out such action daily? Maybe I am not a polite teacher, but in my class, the students cannot help themselves but learn new words with enthusiasm, even the most mischievous of students. Why? Because the lessons are meaningful and interesting. Children learn more for meaningful usage and interest than they do for the exams.

What I am merely saying is to relook at how we teach our kids English. The search for the holistic approach creates headaches and more work for the teacher but with time, the English teacher becomes so conscious of meaningful and transformative learning that his lessons are a cut above the rest. The content learnt in such classes are not only more valuable for life, but they can be remembered better by the students.

So the approach to the teaching and learning of PSLE English should be rethought. Perhaps we have forgotten to empathise with our kids today. When I was young, I did not have to study as hard as kids today do. The PSLE was not that tough as it is today. And in those days, many of us had a wonderful childhood, not one of studying, tuition and more classes. But we played marbles, chased after kites and were left to roam the neighbourhood without much parental supervision. Today, we expect our kids to sit like chickens in a cage, listening endlessly to teachers with the hope that they master the subjects taught. Strange modern people we are. Do we not realise that the holistic approach to teaching PSLE English creates meaning and injects interest and enthusiasm into our kids when they learn? What good reason is there for teaching English un-holistically? All of us have had a good taste of un-holistic teaching of languages. Did it do us any good? Whatever was taught in many of those lessons were simply forgotten.  The holistic teaching of PSLE English is long overdue in classrooms, homes and tuition centres. Empathise with our kids please.