Thursday, March 4, 2010

Let's change the way Chinese is assessed at PSLE

I've been mulling over the Chinese issue for a while now. When MM admitted publicly that he was wrong to assume that people could master Chinese with equal dexterity as English, I thought to myself, "Finally!"

Hordes of people will tell you that they've known this to be true for decades but nothing was done to help them. Just ask all my convent counterparts. Many of us only had tuition in Chinese, yet we continued to struggle with this subject. In school, I was always pretty good at my studies but I just couldn't master Chinese. We came to the conclusion rather quickly that you simply cannot become fluent in a language by swotting (we were all the jiak kantang types, our only exposure to Chinese was scolding from the characteristically fierce Chinese teacher for our total non-comprehension). Then came the inevitables - phobia, even extreme hatred, for the subject and the inadvertent sigh of relief when we finally passed the final compulsory exam for Chinese. No more Chinese!

Or so we thought. Sometime during the past two decades, China became an ecomonic powerhouse and there was a resurgent interest in all things Chinese, if only for pragmatic reasons. Suddenly, it was fashionable to be Chinese and in Singapore, more Chinese started realising the value of embracing their Chinese heritage.

In education, things changed too. The Chinese syllabus underwent several evolvements, slowly the focus shifted from the written to the spoken language, from mundane rote memorising to more interactive and relevant methods.

All this is great but you know what I found? Like me, my kids STILL struggle with Chinese. Despite all the changes in curriculum, the hard sell, the soft sell, my kids face the same problems I did 30 years ago. And this struggle has pushed them to the precipice of hating the language.

I thought long and hard about it and came to the conclusion that changing the Chinese curriculum is not enough to change the mindset of our kids. One of the biggest hurdles in my mind is the assessment approach, particularly in primary school. I find the issue less daunting in secondary school partly because the kids are more mature and also in secondary school, there is less pressure to ace Chinese. At the primary school level, for some inexplicable reason, instead of instilling the joys of learning and discovery, the kids are put through a rigorous channel aimed primarily at acing exams, culminating in the PSLE.

The PSLE is a strange animal. To do well in the PSLE, a child basically needs to ace or at least fare above average in every subject. There's no concession. You can't really do very well in one subject and hope to pull up bad performance in another subject, it just doesn't work that way. Because the scores are all in relation to others in the cohort, a bad grade in one subject completely drags your T-score down.

From where I'm standing, this is bad news for kids who struggle with Chinese. You see, unlike maths or science, I believe it's much more difficult to simply study your way into an A* for Chinese. In Lesley-Anne's GEP class last year, two very bright kids scored less than 245. Both have this in common - they are non-Chinese taking Chinese. It was the Chinese that pulled their scores down, despite having spent much more time on this subject than the other three put together.

I think this is such a shame and sends the wrong message. We should be applauding these kids for having the gumption to take up Chinese. Instead, we are basically penalising kids who for various reasons, their Chinese will never be on par as the Chinese nationals or those who speak Mandarin at home. There is another backlash - more and more parents, especially those who have been abroad, are trying to seek Chinese exemption for their kids for PSLE because they know it would be highly disadvantageous for their kids to sit for this dreaded exam. Our system is deterring them from even attempting to learn the language because unfortunately once you do, you will have to sit for the exam and God knows, your PSLE score can have such a great impact on your choice of schools and your future.

So here's my suggestion: if education authorities truly believe that Chinese cannot be "studied" so easily and want to promote the love of the language, then reduce its importance at the PSLE. Calculate the T-score based on either the four subjects OR the three subjects without Chinese, whichever is higher. The latter is what is currently being calculated for kids exempt from Chinese anyway so it's not new.

This system is fair for who can ace Chinese and for those who can't, without putting pressure either way. If the authorities are afraid that kids will then throw Chinese to the wind altogether, put a minimum requirement, ie you have to still pass Chinese. This is similar to the O level system. I think conversely, once the pressure to ace the exam is off, kids can focus on actually enjoying the language.

I think it could work - anyone from MOE listening?


YY said...

You should write direct to MM Lee! MOE basically has no say unless MM Lee says so..

YY. :-)

Mom said...

Hello Monica,

Chance upon your blog as I was looking for education materials for my 3 children... thank you for taking the time to blog your journey with your kids... seems like all parent struggle through the same pressure here in Singapore and glad to be able to be able to read about your journey with your two wonderful kids.

I agree with you that the Singapore education system is somewhat in a crossroad... the chinese syllabus may have evolved over the years but one can't change the culture of the school nor the teachers that we have. My 3 girls struggle through Chinese and the pressure does not go away even in Secondary 2 where my eldest is now doing higher chinese. She has no interest in Chinese and has really persevered through this as she believes that HCL will give her an advantage in getting to a good Junior college.. However being in a girl school more well known in producing strong english speakers, she struggles daily as the school does not provide the environment for her to thrive in the language. Most of the teachers teach the language almost with a sense of duty versus truly imparting the love of the language! The same for my two younger girls in the same school though at primary level. I totally agree with you and wish something could be done to make Chinese a non examinable subject and teachers will make it fun and lively...

monlim said...

YY: I don't think I've reached that level of garang-ness yet! :P

monlim said...

Mom: Thanks for reading! I agree that the culture of the school and the teachers are v impt. While there are many "enlightened" Chinese teachers these days, others still hail from the old school and "fun" or "interest" certainly doesn't exist in their vocab.

As for Higher Chinese, the extra 2 pts given for O levels is another area I have a big issue with. In this day and age where kid are scoring perfect scores at the drop of a hat, giving someone 2 extra pts for HC is a BIG DEAL. I mean, why isn't this given for Higher Maths? Or Higher English? The fact that it's given only to Mother Tongue throws the whole exam out of proportion and again discriminates against those who simply cannot ace MT. If it were up to me, I'd remove this in a heartbeat.

Elan said...

Once again Monica, I can totally identify with what you said. In primary school, I hardly needed to study for my other subjects and was always near the top in class except for Chinese, which I really struggled with. In secondary school (SAP school to boot) I had to spend 90% of my study time on Chinese and Chinese tuition and only 10% of the time on my other 8-10 subjects. The result – As for the other subjects and never more than a C for Chinese.
It was the same vicious downward spiral from not understanding, not enjoying it, fearing the fierce teachers , to dreading lessons then hating and then finally just giving up totally defeated and changing my second language to French in JC!
The bane of my life was the chenyu (those 4 word phrases) . In Sec 1 we had to buy a thick 500 page orange chenyu dictionary and we had to memorise 1 page a day. Soon it became something ridiculous like 10 pages a day as it became obvious that we were never going to finish it by Sec 4 otherwise. I simply gave up at that point and failed all my Chinese tests and could hardly string Chinese sentences together to write an essay! The big joke was that a very gracious God guided my hand (ie tikam-tikam) during the MCQ section of the “O” level CL2 exams, which we had to take in Sec 3 and I got A1 while the star Chinese pupil got A2. That shows you how ridiculous the exam must have been!
To this day, I can tell you that all the chenyu I have learnt are from watching Chinese drama serials!
My kids are going through the same struggle even though I have tried hard not to transmit my fear of Chinese to them. Thank God, in the last 2 years, my younger son has had really good young Chinese teachers who encourage them to watch TV in class and allows them to draw cartoons in their worksheets (Chinese dialogue) and even comments on the doodles. Suddenly he seems to be struggling less in Chinese. The teaching method really does make a difference.

monlim said...

Elan: I remember those chen yu! I was so desperate I drew pictures for each of them to help me remember what they meant :P Not that I could figure out how to use them anyway, but it certainly helped in the tikam! Thank God for MCQ, is all I can say. I'm pretty sure I flunked my composition, it was just the MCQ and the compre (in those days you could just copy passages wholesale) that saved me!

Anonymous said...

Hi I've been quietly and faithfully following yours and Lilian's wonderful blogs. Have been quiet till I see this post. I am very opposite from you - I LOVE Chinese from young and have no problem with the subject at all. My daughter likes Chinese but my son is also jiak gantang so I can relate to your frustration with learning the language. BUT I defer from you on lowering weightage for Chinese or counting 3 subjects (excl Chinese) for PSLE. Because if so, our gantang children would simply relax and turn monolingual. Please do not just focus on PSLE grades. Look at the two non-Chinese GEP students. Their parents obviously are not focussing on the grades when they chose Chinese for their children. In fact, they know the children will benefit as adults with knowing Chinese. Pardon my comments because I really love Chinese and would like to stand up for this wonderful language. I encourage my kids a lot to love the language like me. I buy Chinese magazines for my daughter and record late Chinese news (with Chinese subtitles) so that she can watch the next day. I encourage her to read Chinese newspapers,watch Chinese drama and I cut out good Chinese newspaper essays since she's P1 (she's now P6). More importantly, I showed my children my love of the language and how beautiful Chinese characters are. Children are blank pieces of paper, whatever we say or do can affect them. Really sorry if my comments at any point are too strong as to me, Chinese truly rocks!


Karmeleon said...

Back when they came up with "Subject Banding" in p5, I thot it meant some of our kids would be able to do Higher Math, Higher Science, Higher English, too! *haha* Then I realised it was concerning Foundation level subjects only. *so sad*.

Yes, I do wish it's the best of 3 subjects instead. That's fairer. Bc unlike some of our kids, not all kids are poor in Chinese. Some could be good in Chinese, but poor in Science for instance. My no.3 is that way. So if the PSLE t-score were to exclude Mother Tonuge, it'd be so unfair to him.

In any case, we experienced the very same issues with our no.2. He spent like 3x more effort and time on Chinese just to get an A. ;( . He was ranked very highly for Math in his cohort, as well as for Science, but altho' his t-score is not as low as your LA's classmates, it's nothing to shout about. We are sure it's his Chinese to "blame". His classmate who usually performs quite similarly but is exempted from CL scored quite high.

Anyway, I have a feeling that MOE has been very lax in recent years in approving exemptions for mother tongue, as I know of quite a number of students who get approvals quite easily. Probably top-down directive on policy governance.

monlim said...

SL: Glad you decided to make your presence felt! Actually, I agree with you completely that we should encourage our kids to love Chinese. Like Elan mentioned above, I've tried not to transmit my fear of Chinese to them, but the struggles are very real. The reason I suggest lowering the weightage for Chinese is precisely so kids can focus on loving Chinese instead of mugging it for exam purposes. I think Singapore tends to place too much emphasis on exams, like if a subject is non-examinable or not given equal weightage, it's somehow not as important.

As for the 2 non-Chinese GEP students, I'm sure their parents started out with very noble reasons but I saw them on results day - they were crushed. Based on their scores, there's no way they could have gotten into any of the IP schools that the rest of their classmates went to. So the consequences are very real, and for these two kids, it's not for the lack of brains or the lack of trying. In fact, their cases will probably discourage other non-Chinese kids from following in their footsteps! So I think lowering the weightage will actually help kids like that.

Your comments are not too strong at all, I love that you're expressing what you feel and clearly, you're very passionate about Chinese. Very glad to hear that you're motivating your kids in this area :)

Cheng: I think there's less of a case for allowing any 3 subjects - they're what the school curriculum considers core skills. Maths and science can be learnt as they're largely factual/informational, of course with differing aptitudes. But I feel Chinese is a different matter because of the way the human brain learns languages, it's more about usage which puts certain kids at distinct disadvantages. I know many kids who spend hours at Chinese and can't do well in it, whereas if the same amount of time was invested in maths or science, I'm pretty confident the results will show.

Like your son, I'm also pretty sure L-A's score was pulled down by Chinese. It doesn't matter now since it's over but I feel strongly that it's something that needs to be corrected.

Anonymous said...

Write to the forum, then MOE would have to reply. Please, pretty please.


naggo-nitemare said...

I TOTALLY agree with what u said abt those returning pupils who can opt out of doing mother tongue. Doing that will free up a helluva lot of time for other subjects.

my p6 son spends, i estimate, 50% of his studying time on HMT but is still oceans apart in standard in comparison with those female classmates with parents from mainland China. Tk God his other subjects, w/c he spends so much less time on, keeps him close to their total aggregate scores.

So those s'porean kids who are allowed to be exempted from doing HMT, should theoretically hv tons more time and energy to prepare for the remaining 3 subjects, with plenty of time left for other pursuits, and hv little excuse not to produce superior PSLE scores. So unfair lor. MOE must address this odd situation to appease the majority of parents.

monlim said...

T: LOL!!

NN: That's exactly what I discovered last year when L-A was doing her PSLE - her classmate exempt from Chinese not only had the advantage of not having to count the subject in her T-score, she also had lots more free time to focus on the other 3 subjects. So unfair for local kids :(

Jo said...


Hear hear !! I know exactly what you mean but to play the devil's advocate...I think parents with kids proficient in chinese will always beg to differ and I guess there will always be 2 camps on this issue. I was in a chinese school from P1 - my mom followed MM's 1970s advice to "send your child to a chinese school if you come from an english speaking family." So both my bro and I ended up in chinese schools. Then I continued in my SAP school for Sec instead of moving to a good English school. Goodness knows why ! I guess I got persuaded by these "SAP" MOE pple. Hubby, on the other hand, is true blue ACS boy but spoke cantonese at home.

The result ? I struggled with CL1 in school all the way. My command of english is good but no where as good as my hubby's and I attribute that to the schools we went to. I mean...his vocab and spelling is way better than mine...when we watch celebrity spelling bee on tv, I do not know half of the words, let alone spell them!

Hubby on the other hand has an acceptable level of chinese and got As for his CL2, hubby told me not all boys from ACS are pathetic in chinese you know ! He even did French as well - for me - I was already struggling with time to take on another lang :P

So my kids have gone to "English" was a considered choice for both of us and although I did think about sending my girls back to my alma mater, I was hesitant as I heard abt the high chinese standards there.

Karmeleon said...

Well ... can't really blame the returning students. I'm more inclined to question a growing trend of parents testing their children for dyslexia or other learning disabilities. ;P Easily get exempted these days, get extra time for every psle paper, and get to take the exam in nice aircon room! Somewhat extreme?

Re: aptitude for Science - yeah, that's the crux of the problem for my no.3. Haha. Working v hard, but it's tough for the little dreamer boy (his turn for psle next yr!).

monlim said...

Jo: Actually your case reinforces what MM Lee's daughter says, that it's very difficult to be equally proficient in two languages (I wouldn't say impossible as there are always the exceptions). Like, something has got to give.

Sure, I understand those parents with kids proficient in Chinese will protest against my suggestion but that's where MOE has to balance between what is good and fair for kids and what is purely based on vested self interest. It would be hard for any of us to hold a 100% unbiased view!

Cheng: I guess MOE is trying to be more sensitive to special needs kids these days. I don't think it's that easy to earn that privilege, though I could be wrong.

Good luck with the PSLE, it's such a cross to bear for parents!

Unknown said...

Hi Mon

Our daughter, Siobhan takes Mandarin and she goes to Tien Hsia for 3 hrs and 45 mins every Saturday for enrichment & comprehension classes, she still does not get band 1 all the time...poor girl, she tries v v hard but as we hardly speak a word of Mandarin at home, save for me and and my wonky Mandarin, i shudder to think of PSLE Chinese...God help us all!!!

monlim said...

Y: I totally empathise with you! I assume Siobhan had a choice of 2nd lang? That's why I feel the scoring system needs to change, to encourage kids like Siobhan to take up Chinese and not penalise them for it.

Anonymous said...

If the pupils' T-scores are pulled down by Chinese, Chinese should be considered for exclusion in T-score computation.

So how about those pupils, whose T-scores have been pulled down by English, who come from Chinese-speaking families, should English then be for exclusion for them?

monlim said...

Anon: It's not the point that Chinese shd be excluded in T-score just because some students don't do well in it, that's a gross over-simplification of the points I made.

English is different IMO cos English is the designated official language of business and instruction in SG. It's therefore a core part of SG education unlike MT where the main intention in the first place was to ensure that kids maintain their cultural roots.

Anonymous said...

Dear Monica

I have been following your blog for many months and want to thank you for such wonderful sharing on family and education. Your thoughts and views are always so caring, practical and unbiased and truly reflect great virtue and morality. Your essays should deserve a weekly centrepage publication on Sunday Times. If anyone from ST is reading (which I suppose they do in order to gather intelligence) please do the justice to share Monica's view with more readers.

monlim said...

Anon: Wow, I'm flattered! I'm not sure ST tunes in here but thanks a lot for the compliments, I'm glad you enjoy my posts :)

danlow said...

Not true. ive a half indian in my class getting full marks for CL.

monlim said...

Danlow: Well then, good for him!

Anonymous said...

Mon, I posted something a few days ago but seemed to have gone missing. Maybe I did not type "publish" after saying my piece. LOL

In any case, I have to differ here because more and more I feel that PSLE is just an exam-smart exercise. People no longer keen to really learn something.

To me, this is not only sad...but very sad. I feel too tired to re-write what I have written earlier but this is certainly not the way to go, just so to improve grades at PSLE? I always feel that people who wrongly make it to the wrong secondary school will also suffer its consequences, 4 subjects are already very few for T-score...3 is like not much left.


monlim said...

QX: Didn't get your previous comment, sorry.

I agree PSLE is just an exam-smart exercise. But can't really blame the parents for treating it as so cos nowadays the route towards higher education starts so much earlier, there are fewer opportunities for later-bloomers.

True, 4 subjects are very few for T-score but unlike say the American system which has a much broader base curriculum, there are only 4 subjects in our primary school system so basically the kids are expected to excel in everything. As for making it to a secondary school despite a T-score, that's where I feel the discrepancy in the Chinese score. Cos for those 2 kids I mentioned, I'm pretty sure they would hold their own in any of the top schools except for Chinese. But due to this one grade, they won't be given a chance. Whereas I hear all the time of kids who mugged their way into 4 A*s at PSLE but struggle later on in the IP schools cos they actually don't have the higher order thinking skills that's often called for in those types of curriculum. Which shows that the T-score is not truly accurate in school allocation anyway. So I feel some adjustments need to be made.

Lilian said...

Wow, discussion here is fast and furious. A rather explosive topic here.

Actually, I think MOE has already done something about those who might fall through the cracks; DSA! In the past, very bright kids with bad Chinese grades would miss out on going to the top schools. But with DSA, kids identified with higher-order thinking skills, or outstanding leadership abilities etc, are now accepted to the IP schools so the PSLE results (and hence Chinese grades) aren't so crucial anymore.

It is tough call, can't be sure what the impact will be in reducing the importance of Chinese in PSLE. For sure, more kids are likely to take the exam cos parents know it's important to take Chinese with China's economic rise. But for many kids, I'm sure they'll put in less effort than now. So it's a trade-off, you get more kids doing Chinese. But more kids who would otherwise cram like mad to get the A* are likely to work less hard.

So which is more important? For me, I'd rather have more kids learning Chinese and accept the trade-off. But I'm not MOE lah hahaha!

Perhaps there can be a tweak to your suggestion:

i) Calculate the T-score based on either the four subjects OR the three subjects without Chinese, whichever is higher.

ii) For those using 3 subjects, their T-score automatically gets reduced by say, 3 points...or 5 points to assuage those who are against dilution of Chinese's importance.

iii) Those doing HCL still get their 3 extra points cos that's only for applying to SAP schools.

monlim said...

Lilian: Actually this suggestion would not only benefit those not so good in Chinese but also those good in Chinese. Think about it - T-score for a subject is in comparison to the rest of the cohort. So if a certain portion of the kids decide not to work so hard in Chinese, the other portion who do very well will actually get a HIGHER T-score cos relatively, they would do even better! So it might still motivate kids to work hard.

DSA is great and I'm grateful for it, but I think only a small proportion of kids get offered so it doesn't address the issue on a larger scale. Those 2 kids I mentioned, for eg, didn't get DSA and they were both from GEP. So it's not automatic.

Lilian said...

I had forgotten about how ingenious the workings of T-score was hahaha! You're right, those who are good will benefit greatly if most decide to slack off. This T-score thing really creates a culture of Kiasuism! I remember Brian, who never bothered to compare how other people did in school, when he heard how the T-score works, remarked, "So to do well, I don't just have to do well in the exams, others have to do worse than me right?" hahahaha!

Yup, DSA caters to a small group, but the places available in the top schools are also limited anyway. Someone is bound to fall through the cracks. Maybe we are getting too caught up in the brandname school game. I don't see a solution that will please everyone.

People like us would probably be accused of being the English or Jiakgantang-mafia :P

But like you, I too am hopeful for change.

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica

It's on the front page news today in the Straits Times. Perhaps you should write in to the forum about your suggestion of tweaking the PSLE t-score, based on either 4 or 3 subjects whichever is higher.


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