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.
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