What are some tips for acing English exams for Singapore primary school students?
Let me start by making a radical statement. This is the wrong question. And I’ll tell you why.
Previously, I gave a talk entitled “What’s the Big Deal with 21st century skills?" In that talk, I asked the participants, mostly teachers and parents: What do you want the children we are teaching in schools to be like as adults? The room was almost instantly abuzz with words such as happy, curious, passionate, resilient, empathetic, kind, creative, ability to problem solve, a risk taker, a critical thinker, a lifelong learner.
At no point did ANYONE mention “a good test taker" or a “high PSLE score". Although, I was inspired by the big hopes, dreams and goals that we had for children, this isn’t an unusual answer. This is what most people want for children.
However, there is a big disconnect between what we, the education community, say and what we do. Children spend a lot of education careers focused on tests. The literature and research around test preparation shows that this kind of work has very little impact. In fact, I would argue that it is detrimental in developing the attitudes and dispositions that the community wants education to promote.
My intention is not to minimise the impact of the PSLE and other tests on a child’s academic career and their future. Fear of the test is real and I don’t deny that those tests do, unfortunately, have ramifications for the opportunities of children.
I am, however, suggesting that we can take a different approach that serves both the higher goals of education to put a capable, well-adjusted adult into the world and the more immediate goal of needing to do well on tests.
Improving comprehension skills
Let me give you an example. Recently, I had a teacher, Sally, come to me for some advice about a student she was tutoring one-on-one. Sally had been hired to help the student with “comprehension". She was nearly in tears when she told me about the problem.
The problem was that the student hated her lessons, hated “comprehension" and said as much every time she came to work with him. He would hang his head and sit passively while she tried to engage him in ‘comprehension’ work.
[caption id="attachment_188768" align="alignnone" width="670"] Are kids reading enough?[/caption]
Sally is a wonderfully warm hearted person and a great teacher, so I knew that she wasn’t the problem. I asked her to tell me a little about what else the child had going on. She mentioned that she was one of 8 tutors for this child, who is in Primary 3.
My response was “You need to stop what you are doing. Immediately. Ditch the workbooks. Ditch the ‘comprehension’ questions. This child is in danger of consequences much bigger than not doing well on a test.
He is losing his motivation to read. Every minute of his day is scheduled and spent in some kind of learning activity that is determined for him by an adult. This poor child is completely disempowered and you need to empower him."
Letting the child choose
I suggested that the teacher talk to the mother and ask if they could have their sessions at a branch of the National Library Board that is close to their house. I recommended that Sally ask the boy what kinds of things he’s interested in and then help him find books that suit him. The most important part of this process is that the book choice is THE CHILD’S CHOICE.
She could guide and support, but ultimately choice is a powerful motivator and as Paul Jennings says in The Reading Bug “whatever a child wants to read is the right thing." Then, and this is the radical move, I suggested that Sally and the child just sit down together and read the book and talk about it. She said “That’s it?"
I said “That’s it! The most important thing right now is that the boy enjoys reading. You can ask questions and see what he understands but not if it gets in the way of him enjoying it."
Two weeks later, I saw Sally again and she had a huge smile on her face. She said “he is totally transformed and reading all the time! He’s so motivated in our sessions and he is a complete joy to work with. And, you know what? I can already see an improvement in his reading skills".
The washback effect of exams
Here’s what I think happened to this child. In testing there is a phenomenon that is referred to as “washback". This means that we change our teaching to meet the needs of the test. It can be dangerous as we end up losing sight of the larger goals of education and we move into test preparation mode.
The PSLE has a massive washback effect. So much so that ‘comprehension’, a section of the test, has become synonymous with reading. This means that a lot of instruction is actually just test practice. I worry about this because children don’t get the opportunity to read whole books and to experience the joy of following a character through their journey.
They don’t get to see their own experiences, fear, and challenges reflected in a text or get the opportunity to be transported to other places, worlds, times. They don’t get to experience the satisfaction of following a curiosity about something and trying to find out more about it.
Because of the messages we send when we call the magical process of reading ‘comprehension’, I worry that children are under the impression that reading is a tedious process of trying to understand a decontextualised piece of text and answer boring questions about it. They don’t get to experience texts as a reader- as someone who has reactions, opinions and makes connections with other things they know and have experienced. Is this really the message we want to send?
Importance of reading
Coming back to my story of the Primary 3 boy, I have to commend the bravery of this mother to step outside of the workbooks and try something outside of the norm. Workbooks are a comfort because you can easily check if something is right or wrong. Reading feels a bit nebulous, ambiguous and complicated because it isn’t as easy to measure. But here is why it works.
Children who read are exposed to a significantly wider range and greater quantity of words than students who don’t read. When it comes to developing vocabulary, it’s simple, you can’t know words you have not seen before.
By reading whole texts, students will have a sense of how texts are organised and the kinds of features that they can expect. When they encounter a snippet of text on an exam, they can understand how this piece fits into the bigger picture and that gives them a lot of information.
Reading supports writing. Professionally written texts are the best model for writing. Not only are children exposed to a wide range of vocabulary but also grammar structures, turns of phrase, expressions as well as a sense of personal style and voice.
So, my advice? Use the amazing resources of your public library system. Let your child pick a book. Read it together. Help your child understand that they are in the driver’s seat of the reading process by asking questions:
- Why did you pick this book/ article/ comic?
- What attracted you to it?
- What did you notice as you were reading?
- At what point in the text did you decide whether you liked it (or not)?
- Were they any parts that confused you?
Use the text as a springboard for writing. Have them write a letter to a character or as a character or keep a reading journal. By doing this, you will prepare your child for life and for the exam.
Also READ: Acing secondary school English exams in Singapore!
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