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Friday, August 17, 2012

Preparing for PSLE Oral (Picture Description)

When I helped Little Boy strategize his approach towards PSLE Oral (picture description and conversation), I realized that most parents and teachers used the following...
(1) vocabulary lists
(2) sample written scripts
(3) sample written scripts with words taken out so that it doubles up as a cloze passage
(4) homework requiring children to write out scripts

No one, it seemed believed in oral recordings, whether of
(1) positive models of good picture descriptions OR
(2) student performance

To a psychologist like me (even one who does not specialize in Learning and Education) this made no sense. The cognitive processes underlying speech are not the same ones as those that underlie oral comprehension. Click here for more details. Indeed, the parts of the brain that process written words are different from the parts that process spoken words... which are both different from the part that produces speech. See here.

To me, preparing for PSLE Chinese Oral Picture Description by reading and writing scripts didn't make sense. If you have read the above 2 links given above throughly, you will realize that it won't help in your picture description even if you READ your script out loud because reading out loud uses different parts of the brain than producing speech from thin air. If you view the brain as a muscle, the reading and speaking use different muscle groups. Would you prepare for a swimming test by running everyday? The PSLE Oral tests mental skills, not knowledge. The moment I see the word SKILLS, I think MUSCLE. You must USE the right muscles to get the right skills.

I must commend schools that actually do produce vocabulary lists and scripts. It takes effort. Little Boy's school did not give out ANY vocabulary lists nor scripts. I sourced around oral scripts and vocabulary lists from friends' schools. Little Boy used them as references when he was stumped for vocabulary... but he did NOT spend the bulk of his time studying nor memorizing them.

Here is what I did with Little Boy.

Identify Resources of High Quality
Grandma and I pored over the Chinese Language Oral Resources in the bookstores and picked 2 books of written resources. We compared the standard of these written resources with these videos from Henry Park Primary School. It seemed to me that the resources we purchased were nowhere near that standard. Grandma decided to enrich one of the books with better vocabulary. We also liked the stack of scripts provided to us by a Chinese tuition teacher recommended by a Mommy of a GEP boy who has (1) Chinese Compo tuition with ANOTHER tutor (2) 3 subjects tuition at Mindstretcher (3) English Creative Writing classes (4) Math Olympiad enrichment. This Mommy pointed me to many extremely good resources and the Chinese Tutor she recommended was a treasure trove of high quality Chinese resources. Her PSLE Chinese Oral Picture Description scripts were the Pi├Ęces de R├ęsistance in our valiant efforts to help my Potato Son (see definition of Potato Son here) get to top 3 positions in class in Chinese Oral quite consistently.

Make Digital Audio Recordings
Once we had identified the resources we needed, Grandma made digital audio recordings of each script. These scripts were intentionally pitched at as high a level as we dared. A music teacher client of mine explained it thus... music is a language like any other. To get good in music, the child must first LISTEN to music... and not just listen to simple no-brainer music that he/she is capable of playing. The child must listen to GOOD music of far greater complexity than what the child can produce. We wanted Little Boy to listen to good stuff... even if we knew he would not need to produce at as high a level.

Listening and Producing
Then, we set aside 10 full days where we did nothing but Chinese picture description... all day. It was complete immersion for 10 days. Little Boy listened to the audio recordings as many times as he wanted (usually 2 or 3 times) before he started to verbalize his own picture descriptions. At the start, he tried to reproduce what he had heard but since it was impossible to memorize everything that he had heard, Little Boy began to insert phrases he already knew from having memorized-recited-written them from PRC model compositions. See here for details. He produced his own original work even whilst he made use of the phrases he heard from the recordings.

He recorded his own productions. If he wasn't happy, he would start again and re-record. If he wanted to, he could go back and re-listen to Grandma's recordings. Then, he tried again and recorded himself. Once happy, he and I listened to his recordings carefully and critiqued them. Then we re-recorded... until we had produced something we thought rather good. We looked out for the following...
(1) Describe the situation
(2) Venture a guess as to the time of the day... day of the week... explain why this guess...
(3) Verbalise the physical location of the activity cluster in the picture (i.e., top left... bottom right). It is acceptable to use these terms in Chinese Oral but not in English Oral but that might change. You don't know what the SEAB will throw at you to outwit you and throw your kids off. PSLE isn't really about whether your kids are ready for secondary school but whether SEAB can set exams that nobody scores 100 at.
(4) Describe every person's physical appearance (i.e., silver-haired old man... balding middle-aged man... disreputable youth... elegant young woman... woman in Malay costume... man in a suit... man wearing shorts)
(5) Describe people's attitude where possible (i.e., mischievous, naughty, sad, cheerful...)
(6) Describe their actions.
(7) Pass a moral judgment on their actions.

Automating the Cognitive Processes
We were able to do 3 pictures in one day. At the end of 10 days, we had gone through 30 different scenarios (i.e., bus stop, traffic, library etc...). In each scenario, Little Boy was exposed to the names of all the different items... he learnt them and remembered them well because he had previously gone through the arduous Potato Chinese™ brain exercise. But as you can see, knowing the names of objects in the picture is only a small part of what one needs to know. One needs to ALSO know...
(1) descriptors for physical appearance
(2) descriptors for attitudes
(3) vocabulary to pass moral judgment

One also needs to be able to DO the following...
(1) Speak loudly
(2) Speak expressively, co-ordinating facial expression and content of verbalizations.
(3) Make eye contact

Happily, with practice, Little Boy made it easy for himself to recall a pool of phrases to describe physical appearance and attitudes. We made sure we threw away descriptors that appeared often in assessment books found at Popular bookstore. Every other child in Singapore would have memorized those. We made sure we collected and hoarded expressions that were evocative and unusual... so as to impress the examiner with good expressions of the rare sort. Often, we found these from model compositions written by PRC students for China's equivalent of the PSLE.

With practice he developed automated cognitive processes for the recall of the necessary phrases. This reduced the quantum of the unfamiliar to a minimum. At the exam, he only needed to cope with unfamiliar object names. He found strategies to circumvent objects he had no term for... by wowing his Teachers with fabulous descriptive vocabulary. All that talking to the computer and listening to himself gave him automated speech reflexes too. It gave him good control over tongue and throat muscles.

Don't laugh. This is important.

My son got tongue tied in English picture description (a language he is highly competent in) but he spoke like he had verbal diarrhea for Chinese picture description. In English, he said he knew what to say... but his muscles froze (and he kept wanting to say descriptors in Chinese because these were more easily retrieved). This is odd for a boy who speaks only English at home. After our Chinese practices, his Chinese speech reflexes were more automatic than those he possessed for English). For natural introverts like Little Boy, who don't speak much on a daily basis, tongue and throat control is NOT a given.  In short, one needs to step through every part of the Chinese Language Oral exam in vivo (including spontaneous recall of words... throat and tongue control etc...) and not expect the child to ace the exam from just reading and memorizing scripts and lists of vocabulary. He managed to top the class in SA1 of Primary 5 Chinese Language Oral.

We were AMAZED... as was his Teacher.

The best thing though... was that after these practices, Little Boy became way more confident in speaking Chinese to his Grandma. He also lost his phobia of speaking Chinese to strangers. He did develop some degree of true competence in spoken Chinese because he had to keep on speaking it... recording himself... listening to himself and comparing his speech with a very good positive model - Grandma's recordings.

He really LEARNT something and became familiar and comfortable with talking Chinese.

Coping With Unfamiliar Object Names
This was where the various vocabulary lists and scripts from various schools helped. Just before the actual PSLE, Little Boy went through every single picture in his files, wrote out and shouted out (shouting is important so that the words stimulate the auditory centers of the brain) to himself the names of unfamiliar objects on the picture. There weren't many unfamiliar objects because he had been practicing these pictures in the week just before the school's oral exams ever since SA1 of P5. From one exam to another, since P5, Little Boy learnt more and more.

Timing Is Everything
We spent 10 full days in March-April of his P5 year on 30 different picture descriptions. By that time, all the major muscle groups in his brain had stepped through the whole PSLE CL Oral experience. It's like riding a bike. Once the muscles develop a memory for bike riding, they don't really forget. The skills can get rusty but one does not truly forget. From that time on, we would set aside the 5 afternoons on the week JUST BEFORE his school orals to oil the muscles and get rid of the rust. It didn't make sense to keep on doing this all year because there were other subjects to worry about. Getting in some intensive practice the week before any oral exam (using the same audio-recordings and making audio-recordings of Little Boy's speech productions) was enough for us.

When PSLE Orals came around, we did that again... one week before. For the 2 days before the exam, we played. We relaxed. We allowed the brain to steep in the intensive practice from the week before. We rested to husband energy. On the day of the PSLE Chinese Language Oral, there were no object words in the actual PSLE Chinese Oral Picture that he did not know.... and he did his best... and he was happy with what he did.

It is Parents' Job to Teach
PSLE Chinese Oral is over for us. Little Boy's school did nothing like this for us. Parents, you have to help your children. Classes are too large in mainstream schools (at 40 per class). Teachers have no time to really bring your Potato children to such levels of true competence using IT. In our experience, Little Boy's Chinese Teacher made very little use of computers. It was mostly chalk and talk centered around the textbook which is useful in perhaps 25% of the entire PSLE Chinese exam (inclusive of oral and written). The assumption is that if your child evolves in a Chinese speaking home, then he/she will do well in Chinese without such teaching from the school.

That is true.

However, Potato Parents should not despair. There are ways to help our children. We can and we must, because many schools cannot cope with teaching to such high levels of PSLE performance, and thus, do not. If this post was useful to you, please do me a favor. Facebook Like it below. You will still remain anonymous. All this does is that the link to this post will appear on your Facebook Timeline for your friends to see.


Rachel Tan said...

Once again, thanks for your generous sharing.

It strikes me that a child's performance at the PSLE can be greatly enhanced with extra effort, whether the effort comes from parents, grandparents, or tuition centres.

On dear, and I am so not prepared to put in the Herculean effort of this scale. Oops. My poor kids. Heh.

Corrine Esse said...

OMG just reading what your kid and you did to prepare for the Chinese orals gives me palpitations!! Incredible the effort expended- kudos to you and your boy!! Ours is a "potato" household, and I am not even conversant in the language! But I am motivated by what you achieved, that I am going to give it a go at trying out what you did. If my child and I can even come half way close, I will be pleased:-) As a start, i would need good materials, any chance that you would be able to share the Chinese tutor's contact or perhaps point me to what / where to get good quality materials? Thank you.

Petunia Lee said...

Rachel - Actually, if Teachers were more in tune with (1) How People Learn... (2) had smaller classes (3) used IT wisely... we don't have to help our Potato Kids thus. This is stuff that can be done in school. Skills need practice. Skills development a feedback loop. Chinese Teachers assume that kids speak Chinese in Singapore and will get enough chances to practice... even though it is KNOWN that many do not.

Petunia Lee said...

Corrine Esse - You're not the only person who asked. The tutor costed $120/month. In the end, we stopped after 3 months after we got a handle on what was the level of competence we should target. If you want her contact, do leave me your email in a comment. I will email you without publishing your comment here.

Else, if you give us a few weeks, we are CONSIDERING working on re-recording our stuff and then we MIGHT launch for sale. I kind of didn't think through the after effects of this blog post very much... I am tentative because we adapted some material from printed materials from Popular (i.e., we added phrases and made them more difficult) and are wondering how to manage the copyright issue.

You might have to buy the book from Popular and then listen to recordings from us that aren't QUITE like what is in the book (i.e., with additional phrases inserted hither and thither).

Still thinking. Check with us again next month if you want.

anita yap said...

I've started reading aloud and getting DS3 who is in P1 to read short chinese stories and compositions aloud. He likes the idea of recording his own voice so I'll be trying it out. We're doing it like a performance so he thinks he's doing a show and tell so he's quite thrilled. I figured it's better DS3 prepares for P6 using his remaining 5 years with more enjoyment rather than getting me and himself stressed later.

I'm thankful that I've sufficient linguistic gifts so I can handle han yu pin yin pretty well to get good intonation & rhythm in our readings.

Thanks for inspiring me with these ideas. I'm also now picking up Chinese all over again and I must say it's quite a good brain workout for me to read aloud too!

Coco Koh said...


Only this morning (today is the actual 2013 PSLE Chinese Oral exam)then I comes across this blog of yours. A bit late. Hope my boy can cope with whatever school, tuition help.

Well, I may try some of your method on my daughter currently in P4. Thanks for sharing.