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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

New MOE English Syllabus 2015

The Singapore Ministry of Education announced changes to the PSLE English Syllabus yesterday here. In a nutshell, the PSLE English exam for 2015 has been tweaked in order to make it even harder to drill for using assessment books. Please note that I did not write "harder to score". I wrote "harder to drill for".

English Comprehension 2012 VS English Comprehension 2015
In it's present day form, the PSLE English Comprehension ALREADY tests True Competence in English. To do well, our kids need perfect grasp of vocabulary and syntax... AND they must have the relevant life experience to INFER from what they have read. These are not skills you can drill for. To do well in PSLE English Comprehension 2012, it is necessary to be truly competent in English, as well as rather mature and worldly wise. I don't think the MOE will take away inference questions from the PSLE English Exam in 2015 because that would mean they are lowering standards. They don't like that, at our MOE. Standards must be chased all the way UP because Singapore's economic future is in jeopardy!

Teachers in Little Boy's school are equipped with only a thin textbook to teach with. They have to write up everything else... which they don't. Not surprisingly, English Comprehension skills are not really taught in class. Yes... yes... teachers DO give out English Comprehension exercises to do... but that is testing and assessment, NOT teaching. You give out exercises for children to do to...
(1) test their mastery on skills they should have learnt prior
(2) get them to practice the skills they should have learnt prior

As far as I saw, Little Boy did little learning prior since his Teacher taught from his lousy textbook and gave out no other learning materials. True competence in English Comprehension can only be learnt through text interpretation NOT infrequent Comprehension exercises. So, when the MOE announced yesterday that to support teachers in preparing students for the 2015 PSLE English Exam, it would extend STELLAR (Strategies for English Language Learning and Reading) to Primary 4... I thought it a rather good thing. At least, with STELLAR, teachers are given a set of materials to teach from. Each individual teacher does not have to write their own. Surely that goes some way in helping teachers teach better?

So hey... Yay for MOE! Now, how about "stellarising" the other 3 subjects?

The only problem is that all this STELLAR juice needs to come through the Teacher. See here. If you have a poor teacher (and ummm... these do exist in the system), then good luck to you. The School or Teacher controls your access to learning materials. The Teacher makes decisions on whether or not to give you this or that learning material based on...
(1) his/her own capability to handle the material
(2) the average level of competence in your class
This means that you can't yourself engage in personalized and individualized self-learning even if you wanted to. Your progress towards true competence is dependent on the quality of your teacher. If STELLAR materials allowed for some measure of self-study, then students with poor teachers can still help themselves. At least some self-directed and independent learning is possible by the child himself, using materials from STELLAR. Else, faced with Little Boy's very very poor English Teacher this year and the last, I think I would still need to homeschool Little Boy in English... and parents who can't homeschool will still turn to enrichment/tuition.

PSLE English Composition 2012 VS PSLE English Composition 2015
Currently, the PSLE English Composition is not a good test of true competence. Schools give out long vocabulary lists which students memorize. As long as students are able to include the Big Words somewhere in the essay, and make no grammar nor spelling mistakes, they'll score. Little Boy's school has given out awful pieces of writing with top scores, which remind me of a X'mas tree with too many lights and mismatched decorations. The biggest joke was that when I wrote a composition for Little Boy to pass up, my score was only a miserable 28/40. Nothwithstanding that I actually scored in the 98th percentile of the GMAT verbal (a standardized American English test that all PhD candidates needed to take) based on global norms.

The PSLE English Composition 2012 leaves little room for creativity since story lines needed to be REALISTIC and follow the pictures exactly so. Little Boy learnt that story lines had to be predictable and boring or he would be heavily penalized. Till now we haven't really figured out why he loses marks for content because there are always realistic details Teacher accuses him of having left out. Gee... it's a piece of fiction written in 50 minutes, not an ethnographic report!! It's too short to contain all the details AND none of it is real since it's fiction!! It really doesn't matter how well you write. Marks are deducted for stuff that has little to do with good writing skills. A well-written elegant piece written by Tolkien would fail the PSLE Composition 2012.

The PSLE English Composition 2015 looks to be a better test of True Competence. There is more scope for creativity in terms of content. Though I am not sure whether the style of a badly designed X'mas tree will still score. Perhaps so if the Teacher herself equates good writing with bombastic words.

However, the better the test of True Competence in English, the more fear it will engender on the part of parents. Firstly, there are no short cuts. Parents who wake up suddenly in Primary 5 will find that there is very little that can be done to help the child towards excellence. The child needs to be well taught from Primary 1. Secondly, most parents are still stuck in the era where assessment books still helped children to score, whether or not competent. That's all these parents know... and they keep throwing assessments at their kids not knowing that these assessments actually get in the way of achieving True Competence in English. When parents realize that assessment drills don't work in Upper Primary, these parents panic and by then, it is too late because you can't undo the damage done by assessment drills in Lower Primary.

This happened to Little Boy for PSLE Chinese, which already tests True Competence in Chinese. In Lower Primary, Little Boy got by with assessment books that Grandma piled on him. We all got a shock at the end of Primary 4. In English however, I taught him the STELLAR way, and in PSLE Prelim English, Little Boy topped the class even without practicing any assessments nor top school papers.

Are You a Have? Or a Have Not?
I was, however, bitterly amused by one parent's comment reported in the newspapers. Housewife Sajina Apok said that the new syllabus will give her own child a "competitive edge". I assume that this is because her child evolves in a family environment that predisposes her to True Competence in English. Well then, the competitive edge her child has, is also the competitive disadvantage for kids who don't have access at home to STELLAR like materials and teaching. This will be especially so if the disadvantaged child has a lousy English Teacher like Little Boy has had in Primary 5 and Primary 6. Parents have said that STELLAR is as good as the Teacher teaching it. This brings me back to the same point above.

Access to STELLAR materials should be opened to students for self-learning instead of being completely controlled by Teachers.

Lousy teachers have existed since parents were children. The difference was that textbooks in our time documented enough material for us to learn from EVEN IF we were unlucky enough to get a lousy teacher. There used to be systemic redundancy in the way knowledge was transferred. Teachers were backed up by reading material. If you had a bad teacher, you could still make it if you worked hard on your own. In today's system, you need another Teacher (usually a tutor or a parent) if your school teacher is not good.


Wen-ai said...

Hopefully all these changes are towards the right direction... *pray*

Petunia Lee said...

Wen-Ai: I hope so too. MOE has many smart people. If they can augment their intelligence with some compassion, I think they will do just fine.

sara said...

Nice post about GMAT i like it.

Anonymous said...

Students can assess STELLA in LMS(e-learning website), thus can this be consider a remedy if they have a lousy teacher(very common).

Petunia Lee said...

If I taught in the MOE context, I would be lousy too. Actually, I think all MOE teachers are lousy NOT because they are really lousy. They are lousy because classes are so large that even I would be lousy.