Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Tips on English composition

One of the school topics I find hardest to teach is composition. And as luck would have it, this is one of Andre's weakest areas. After two years, I still haven't found any magic formula but I thought I'd share my experience trying to teach this and a couple of methods you can try.

Compositions in school are marked on two aspects: content and language. Both have equal weightage. I'll talk about language first. One of the main problems leading to poor compositions is simply poor usage of English, due to limited vocabulary and/or weak grammar. For Lesley-Anne, I never had to sit with her and go through her compositions because language came intuitively to her. Through reading, she gained an instinctive grasp of how sentences should be phrased and she can automatically reach into her vocabulary bank when writing.

Andre is completely different. Even though he may have come across a word several times, he often doesn't register its meaning until someone explains it to him. Nuances are usually lost on him, he takes meaning literally and that's why books which are loaded with figurative speech, implied meanings or dialogue just defeat the purpose. I've come to realise that he may be able to read the book but he doesn't fully comprehend it.

I'm also aware that comprehension does not equal application with Andre. For example, he may understand the phrase "terror seized him", but it would never occur to him to use it in his writing. To help jolt his memory, I've compile a list of 'good phrases' or alternative words. For example, instead of writing "happy", he can use "delighted" or "elated". The list is not very long because he can't remember beyond a few, but at least it gives him options. In Singapore, extra marks are given for good descriptions, so unfortunately, some parents have made their kids memorise pages and pages of descriptive sentences to be used wholesale. I'm not for this - offer some alternatives to spur more sophisticated usage, but not force it to the extent that it kills creativity.

To me, this is a stop-gap measure. My conclusion is that the best long-term solution for better usage is still extensive reading of a variety of books. When you've read more, the language will eventually become more familiar and comfortable, though the pace of improvement will differ from child to child. Since we've upped the ante on reading for Andre recently, he has been surprising us with his usage. A couple of weeks ago, he came home and told me casually, "I met Paul at recess, he was in such high spirits." I went, "What? What did you say? Where did you learn the phrase 'in high spirits'? That's very good! You can use it in your compositions!!" Haha, I realise I must have sounded quite nutty but Andre was so pleasantly surprised by the unexpected praise that I'm sure it's a phrase he won't forget for a while.

Next, we come to content. I'd always taken for granted that this should come naturally, afterall at the primary level, the topics aren't very complicated. Boy, was I wrong! Being able to write a realistic composition requires the child to be able to imagine the scenario appropriately, which can be quite a challenge if the child has never actually experienced it. Like, how would you write about a camping trip if you've never been on one?

One situation that Singapore exams love to dish out for compositions is the accident. I'm guessing that it's a scenario that allows the child to describe a whole gamut of emotions, that's why it's a popular topic. The problem is, majority of kids have never been in an accident! For a 7-year-old to be able talk about it realistically, either he is extremely perceptive and empathetic, or he is able to reproduce on paper what he had previously read (the latter is a much more likely explanation).

This was one of the early compositions Andre wrote in p1, based on four pictures depicting an accident (spelling and other errors are his):

One fine morning, I went downstairs to play with my freinds. I played soccer.

When my team was winning, the soccer ball rolled to the road. I went to get the ball. When I almost reached the ball, a car was coming. The car excitedly heat me. My freinds were frantic. The driver in the car called the ambulance.

When my mother came down and she look at me. The driver said sorry, then my mother replied back. She said it's all right.

Strange language aside, he couldn't fathom how his mother might react - to him, that was perfectly reasonable behaviour. It was only when I walked him through the imaginary scenario ("if you're lying on the ground injured, what do you think I would say? Will I really say it's alright? What do you think daddy would do?"), then he thought for a bit and said, "I think daddy will kill the driver." LOL!

Andre is very imaginative so if left to his own devices, he can come up with off-the-wall content, as shared in an early post. What I've done is to expose him to compositions featuring a variety of common scenarios. Not for the sake of memorising them (which he wouldn't be able to do anyway) but for him to understand what are realistic behaviours and emotions in those situations. I've also found that talking him through the situations step by step helps him visualise them better, and this has improved the way he structures his stories.

At the end of the day, reading is the best way to hone writing skills, but I hope this post gives you some ideas on what you can do in the meantime, to help your kids improve their compositions.


Lilian said...

Thanks so much for this. Of all the PSLE subjects, I'm most apprehensive about English, for Brian (if he does take the exams). He writes quite well in class assignments (in UK and here) but when it comes to Singapore composition, omigosh, I'm at my wit's ends. Don't know how to advice him, how to help him; it's like what you said about coming up with realistic scenarios. I dunno, maybe it's lack of practice, but I can already sense that he is losing heart cos I'm always shaking my head at his output, yet I'm not able to give any constructive criticism.

eunice said...

I just had my parent teacher conference today and Sean's writing skills have not been improving. He used to be very good when he was younger but now....so his teacher and I discussed how we could help improve it. I'm going to do what you did and assign a specific time for reading. I too believe that if you read more, it will somehow translate when you write.

Btw, thanks for recommendation for Beast Quest. He loved it and am going to get more for school hols (next week).

Sean came back one day with 'Ms kari was weeping when she said good-bye'. Me; "weeping??? why not crying?"
Sean:"weeping is (boo hoo..big heaving of shoulders) while crying is (sniffle...)" Well, at least he knew the difference :)

monlim said...

Lilian: I think it's tough for Brian cos he has been out of SG context for so long, and the compo topics here are always locally based and simple so that even the less privileged can relate to them. The problem is that the topics then tend to be quite boring, like going on an outing, accident, lost wallet, etc. Doesn't inspire at all!

Perhaps you can give him some of the scenarios and let him think of possible interesting ways of describing them. I don't think the story has to be too complex, but should be narrated well, which I'm sure Brian can do. At the end of the day, let him know this one is for exam only lah, he can go back to writing his fantasy stories the rest of the time :)

Eunice: Do persevere with the reading. Sometimes I'm tempted to give up on that cos the results are not immediate. But I'm trying to be patient and I can see the improvement, albeit slowly. I'm sure we'll reap rewards eventually!

Great to know Sean loves Beast Quest too!

bACk in GERMANY said...

Wow Mon, you should be in school teaching English!

Yes, I don't know what's with accidents, but it's a topic I can't avoid either in lessons. Exam requirements, you see. Worse still, for foreign languages, ski accidents are a common topic. So imagine our kids from the tropics trying to dramatize a ski accident scenario in a foreign tongue!

Yes, reading does hone writing skills, although there are usually different types of language learners, e.g. the productive, the creative, the passive, the imaginative etc. L-A is definitely the productive/creative sort and can dig into her vocabulary bank with ease whenever the situation calls for it, while A is probably the more passive learner. He might have a huge reserve of words in his head, but they are mainly passive vocabulary, rather than the active one. So you're right, reading alone isn't enough for him. Fear not, he's got an intelligent mom who works with him on that. :)

And A wrote that piece on accident in P1? That's really excellent, albeit the lack of mature emotions (gotta be forgiving, he's after all only 6 going on 7). I really can't imagine B writing anything similar to that standard in a year's time. Seems to be a huge jump from K2 to P1.

monlim said...

Cindy: Happy to have you back! We've missed you, work keeping you real busy huh?

Nolah, cannot teach to save my life. This one is out of necessity! Good to know about the creative/passive learner, I didn't realise that there was such a difference. So you mean even if Andre becomes a voracious reader (which I can't imagine at this point), he may never be able to dig into his vocab reserve? That's a bit sobering.

And don't worry about B - once he goes through the drills at p1, he'll get the hang of the basics, like how to use the helping words, etc. Andre too made a big progress from k2 to p1.

breve1970 said...

Monica and Cindy

Thanks for sharing. Below is a copy of Hannah's work done in December (end of P1) last year (Adeline has a copy as well). This is her standard despite the fact that she reads quite a bit... how else do you improve a script like this?

The Rainbow

Leslie wanted to play in the backyard one afternoon when it started to rain. He was so sad that he went into the house and ate his tea instead. After half an hour, the rain stopped and Leslie walked to the window and spotted the rainbow. He cried out with joy to his mother. While pointing at the rainbow, Leslie explained to Mother how rainbows are formed. Leslie commented (mis spelt as commted) that when the sun shines on the rain droplets, it will cause them to split into seven colours. These colours are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

Leslie mentioned (mis spelt as meithoded) that the rainbow is circular in shape because the other half is hidden by the horizon. Mother praised him for his good knowledge in Science.

Simple piece of work but the sentence structures are not quite right.

monlim said...

Ann: I think this compo is pretty good for p1! She used quite a variety of words like "commented", "mentioned", "explained", etc... most kids would just write "said" over and over. I suspect it's more the topic that she has a problem with, maybe she understood it as needing to explain something about a rainbow instead of having to form a story (with plot) about it.

Maybe try to talk her through working out story lines and using questions, spur her to come up with possible ideas. Not based on any method, but that's what I'd do :)

justpassingby said...

Hi there... I'm a lurker on your blog... was reading with much interest about Andre's struggles with EL because it all sounds so similar to my own son, who is in P3 this year...

From young, he breezed through phonics and devoured reference type books... in P1, picked up Geronimo stilton, but still preferred ref bks.

He was messy, disorganised, had terrible writing... in your post "to teacher with love", my son had the same problems as mentioned in points 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9... heh. And I thought... oh, just boys lah. Kept scolding him for being inattentive and lacking in concentration and only wanting to play...

But his Chinese continued to be a major struggle... so eventually, took him to see an EP (Ed Psych). Results came out this jan... know what? He's dyslexic. Never would have guessed.

So started him on dyslexia intervention (at home, I teach - am trained - also teach his little sister whom we caught earlier) and lo and behold... much much improvement. With strategies and aids, he's so much better! And he actually got top marks in his class for EL twice so far.

Not to frighten you... just some food for thought. There is always the possibility that there is an underlying problem... esp when they don't perform as well as you think they should and could be doing. :)

monlim said...

Wow, thanks so much for sharing! dyslexia did cross my mind but only in passing cos Andre didn't seem to have problems forming words. Although when he was younger, he he would sometimes mix his consonants in longer words, like he might read "camera" as "carema". But I think it's also because he has no patience with long words and just skips past them.

Did you suspect dyslexia before you sent him to the EP and what made you do it eventually? Would be great if you could elaborate on the types of problems he had with Chinese. Andre has issues with Chinese but mainly in remembering how to read the characters.

Thanks for the comment!

justpassingby said...

For Chinese - well, despite being in "school" from age 20mths (childcare), and later going for Berries and also having private tuition (at one stage he had both going on at the same time), he really couldn't pick up the language to save his life. Even at p2, he couldn't even string a sentence together. Oral, can get 0 because he didn't understand what the laoshi was saying, never mind form a coherent reply. So when I saw the EP regarding my daughter's dyslexia, I mentioned the problems my son had, and she commented that it was highly unusual that a child who had had that much exposure would have picked up so little.

Basically, it's all aspects of the language - from the pronunciation (and the tones, oh! the tones) to the writing (he remembers them as pictures, so can "pass" for one tingxie, but forget about him remembering much of it thereafter (as we say, give back to teacher) to learning the vocab to everything. Thank God he's exempted from Chinese now! He still attends lessons, still has chinese tuition, but the focus is conversational. And it seems that now that the pressure is off, he's more willing to go out on a limb and try... although most times, if you hear him, you just want to literally LOL... :p

He was also struggling with Maths concepts - anything arbitrary was a struggle for him, so measurement, time, money... aiyoh. Actually initially I thought he was dyscalculic (like Maths dyslexia?). But I knew he isn't slow, cos he can do the MPM puzzles and stuff... and he didn't seem "slow" when we talked to him.. you know what I mean? So we knew it wasn't the IQ or anything (turns out he has a surperior range non-verbal IQ - so anything that involves language, be it verbal or written, hampers him and brings him down to just on the verge of Average).

He's also very literal, like Andre. Still is. At age 7, he believed me when I told him that I found daddy under a rock by the beach (he had asked me where I found daddy) when my then 2+yo baby laughed her head off when she heard me say that. So we're working on social cues as well.

No, didn't suspect dyslexia at all cos he seemed to read fine - although on hindsight, he did show symptoms, all of which I mostly attributed to his not focusing/being careless/being inattentive etc. As I told the EP, "My son is dys-something.. I just don't know dys-what..." LOL.

So the Chinese became such a burden , and with the EP's comment, I finally decided at the end of P2 (Dec) to send him for an assessment. So we got the diagnosis in mid-Jan this year... and we celebrated the end of his chinese woes! woohoo!

You can go browse my blog - I've written quite a bit about it I think...

Of course, he has other issues like verbal processing problems (not being able to process info given verbally all at once - must be broken down) and verbal memory (cannot remember verbal info - does so at a level way below that of his peers - so he was always coming home, not knowing what his teachers had said, not knowing what spelling was on that week etc)... and all that we work on closely with his teacher (who assigned him a buddy in class) so things have improved as well.

monlim said...

Andre has the problems with intonation too - his tutor says he speaks Mandarin like an ang moh :P

Thanks very much for the detailed reply, it's extremely informative. Will definitely check out your blog.

breve1970 said...

Thanks Monica for your advice on Han's composition.

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica
I love reading your blog. My going to be 8 son has trouble with spelling. He has no clues how to spell even simple words. Do you have any tips on teaching spelling? Of course he has big problems with compo writing!

Would appreciate any advice. Thanks

monlim said...

Alice: Thanks for reading my blog! Re: spelling, I have friends whose kids have the same problem. I think it would be helpful to figure out what type of learner your son is. From what I know, some kids are visual learners, some are verbal. With Andre, he learns better if he sees the words on the page (like you can't tell him how it's spelt and expect him to learn it). My friend's daughter just cannot handle spelling because she goes by sound. Like she might spell "crocodile" as "krokerdile". When she hears a word, she says she doesn't see the spelling in her head, even though she may have come across is many times. Unfortunately in this case, some memory work is needed, like she has to remember in general, the rules of spelling and how specific words that are exceptions to the rules are spelled.

I'm no expert but I may write about it if I have time to do a little research because it's an interesting topic. In the meantime, it probably would be useful if you could find out what type of learner your son is and cater to it. Each child is different, so do try different ways! Hope this helps :)

justpassingby said...

Hi Mon, just jumping in here to shoutout to Alice... if you need some help, do feel free to email me at jr4email-blog at yahoo dot com. My heart always goes out to those who struggle with reading, writing and spelling. :)

Mon, I think your friend's girl could do very well with learning spelling the OG way, because besides phonics, it teaches spelling rules... so it makes it less haphazard, as we all know English to be with all its exceptions... yes, I know what you mean about seeing the spelling. That's exactly how my son copes... and that's why he often transposes the letters... you know... "whistle" becomes "whstlie"... haha.

monlim said...

JPB: Thanks for the tip! I did go to your site but haven't had the chance to read in detail. Just a suggestion - perhaps you can include a contents list on your blog so it's easier to search for past listings.

Forgive my ignorance but what is OG? :P

justpassingby said...

OG is short for Orton-Gillingham. It's the method used for intervention for dyslexics... but they actually teach it too all children in hawaii... it's a great system. Wish it was taught in Singapore... anyway...

OK... will probably put up a keywords thing... :) I also have an OG blog that I haven't updated for a while... you can read that too. It's called OG Journey, but I didn't link it on my profile. You can find the link on my blog itself.

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