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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Of What Use The Textbook?

I realized something odd about our primary school language textbooks today. The level of difficulty of the language printed in a Primary 5 textbook is about 2 years easier than the level of difficulty in the Primary 5 exams. After examining Little Boy's Chinese textbook in detail (something I have never done because I had never found them useful in preparing Little Boy for the exams, and therefore intuitively ignored them). It occurred to me to ask myself why today. Why don't I find school textbooks useful in preparing Little Boy for exams? Why did I spend years fighting with Grandma trying to get her to ignore the Chinese textbook when helping Little boy with Chinese? And why was it that Grandma's stubborn focus on the textbook produced a steady downward trend in Chinese grades?

These are obvious questions that I, like most parents, did not ask.

I asked Grandma to read passages from the Chinese textbook for me, and compared these to Little Boy's latest Chinese Composition, which has been graded 16/20. This is something of a miracle because in November last year, Little Boy's score was 8/20 on the P5 marking scheme. However, the meteoric rise in Little Boy's Chinese Composition grades was largely due to a combination of memorizing Chinese Compositions by students in the People's Republic of China AND the method steps proposed by The Foster Daughter AND an Amy Chua wannabe (me!) who sat by Little Boy implacably encouraging him right through 6 hours of sustained effort at writing ONE compo. Yes... I do mean " implacable". When we embarked on this crazy Compo Memorizing Venture, Grandma remonstrated with me. These Chinese Compositions are far too difficult for him. They're more appropriate for Secondary 2 or even 3. I was too desperate to care. I was a blind man clutching at a straw. Happily, my straw turned out to be a rope.

On hindsight, I learnt something. If you want a child to write at a certain grade level, he must be READING stuff that is at least 2 grade levels above the language level he is expected to produce. No child can produce language on par with his reading level. Hence, it made perfect sense for me to get Little Boy to memorize essays printed in a 15 year old's textbooks, so that he can produce language printed in a 13 year old's textbooks, which is still 2 levels higher than the language printed in Little Boy's textbooks.

The same thing applies to English. In order for Little Boy to comfortably tackle his English homework, I have assessed that he should be reading Time, Newsweek and the National Geographic regularly. In fiction, he should be reading Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Arthur Conan Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse and Michael Crichton. All are adult writers. Meanwhile, the text printed in his textbook looks fine for a 10 year old.

This begs 2 questions. Of what use are the textbooks if they are pitched at 2 levels below what the child needs to produce, when they should be pitched at 2 levels higher than what the child needs to produce? And, do the people who WRITE textbooks in the Ministry of Education ever talk to those who DEVISE exams?

Hopefully, parents who read this post will realize that to get an 'A' in schools exams, there is a need to expose the child to reading material at least 4 or 5 years beyond that written in the textbooks. Not all parents know this. I surely did not.

Does this not go against the MOE's stated intention to use education to lift people out of poverty? Lower income parents have little means to pay for the enrichment classes to fill the gap between textbook and exams. Lower income parents also have not the skills to coach and help their children to bridge the gap between textbook and exams. Lower income parents may not know that there is from where one can source Model Chinese Compos, and if they knew, would they have the money to buy? Lower income parents may not even have heard of Isaac Asimov, P.G. Wodehouse and National Geographic.

Click here for Little Boy's opinions on this matter.


Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

ah, u made sense here! no wonder my Mandarin was so good in my Sec school days, 'cos i inhaled all those Qiong Yao subtitled drama serials over TV! they were awfully difficult compared to my textbook stuff.

i had to check up the dictionary for some words to understand them, while for most of the rest, i inferred rather easily. them actors have all the emotions written on their face anyway. =P

Wen-ai said...

This is getting depressing and I genuniely feel very sorry for my unborn Beanie already. All the stress and anguish awaiting for him/her... Haiz. Poor kid.

petunialee said...

Fry - whoa! You check dictionary when you watch TV? Got ink!

petunialee said...

Wen-Ai: I am trying to say this with as much sarcasm as I can muster towards the system... By the time Beanie gets to PSLE, he may need to do research and publish research to get an A. This system is ridiculous.

Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

too much to leave the words unchecked, u know, the actor's face is so in agony....i gotta know wat the meaning of 龌龊 is. lol

but i pity the kids these days, TV content is very near trash to get any good out.

Anonymous said...

PetuniaLee...Your son is so fortunate to have a mother who cares about his education!

petunialee said...

Theanne - Thank you. You are so encouraging.