A non-technical guide to Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence or AI is the hottest buzzword in most industries, and education is no exception. In schools, MOE is working on an “AI-enabled adaptive learning system to support teaching and learning”, while at home, many parents use websites like KidStartNow’s Pet Battle or Koobits to revise intelligently.

But have you ever wondered what exactly is AI? In this post, we give parents a non-technical rundown of AI using an example everyone can appreciate – getting our kids to read more.

WHAT IS ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE?

AI has notoriously many definitions, but I like IBM’s explanation that AI is using computers to mimic the problem-solving and decision-making capabilities of the human mind.

To the average person, AI means robots like Skynet in Terminator or J.A.R.V.I.S in Ironman – intelligent machines that are indistinguishable from the human mind. That is called Strong AI, and what most don’t realise is we are still far from that. Rather, most AI applications today are Weak AI, which is focused on teaching machines to do a specific task like sweeping your floor or assessing your child’s Chinese pronunciation. 

Pro-tip: Note that Weak AI does not mean that the AI does the task poorly, just that its intelligence is confined to a narrow scope. For instance, chess-playing AI is stronger than the best human players but it is considered a Weak AI as it’s only good at playing Chess. 

Strong AI
Weak AI

In today’s post, we will be exploring two broad kinds of AI – Expert System and Machine Learning, with the goal of building an intelligent system that can choose a good book for a 6 year old girl to read.

EXPERT SYSTEM

Expert System is an old-school AI system that emulates the decision-making ability of a human expert, typically through if-else rules.

So let’s say I’m the robot, and my wife is training me to go to the bookstore to select a book that is both educational and also appealing to a 6 year old girl. You can think of me as a proxy for a robot.

My wife, being an expert on both shopping and what my daughter likes, could write down a list of rules that help me select the right book. For instance, I could

  1. Consider only books that are cheaper than $10, have pictures and do not have pinyin
  2. Reject books if they have more than two sentences per page or contain overly complex vocabulary (based on MOE syllabus)
  3. For each book, give 1 bonus point if it is about a topic my daughter likes (e.g. animals, princesses, fantasy). So a book with animals and princesses is worth 2 points.
  4. Select the book with the highest score. In the event of a tie, choose the cheapest book with the highest score.

Congratulations – we have just created a basic Expert System!

At this point, you might go – “Dan, that doesn’t sound very intelligent”. But while rule-based systems are rudimentary, they work well for certain domains like education and healthcare.

For instance, the KidStartNow vocab revision app combines rule-based systems with forgetting curve models to track the words your child knows and the optimal set of questions to review.

MACHINE LEARNING

Machine Learning is another kind of AI and is the cool kid on the block, and is basically teaching a computer to identify patterns from examples in data and make predictions (see youtube video below for a great explanation on what is Machine Learning).

Alright, let’s go back to the book selection example. What if my wife doesn’t actually know what sort of books our daughter likes – how should she train me to go to the bookstore to buy books?

One way would be to first show my daughter a list of books that we have at home, and for each book, ask if she likes it or not. After showing her enough books and recording her preferences, I will naturally gain an intuition of what she likes, which I can use to select a book with reasonable accuracy.

But wait, machines aren’t as smart as humans – we can’t simply tell a machine that my daughter likes Three Little Pigs, and have it automatically understand why. 

One thing we could do is associate each book with certain identifying features – for instance, a Three Little Pigs story would be a book about animals that has pictures, while the Frozen novel would be a book about princesses without pictures. This way, when we tell the machine that my daughter likes Three Little Pigs, it is able to start to reason “maybe she likes animal books with pictures”. And all we need to do is repeat the process with a large amount of books (aka data).

TitleCategoryPicturebookDaughter likes it?
Three Little PigsAnimalsYesYes
Three Little Pigs NovelAnimalsNoNo
CinderellaPrincessYesYes
Cinderella NovelPrincessNoYes
FrozenPrincessYesYes
Frozen NovelPrincessNoYes

Congratulations – we have just created a basic Machine Learning System that can predict what books my daughter will like!

WAIT, THAT WORKS?

You might be wondering: the approach we just described sounds relatively simple, and how could that possibly work? The answer is data.

In his AI course, famous AI scientist Andrew Ng talks about how the rising amount of data, together with cheap computation power and improvement in algorithms, is powering rapid improvements in Machine Learning performance, especially in the field of Deep Learning.

Given sufficient amounts of good data, we can train machines to do very specific tasks like personalising a Spotify music playlist or predict bank fraud. In the next section, we will talk about specifically how machine learning is used in the education space.

Machine Learning In Education

Speaking Mandarin is a big problem for many Singaporeans given that the majority of families now speak predominantly English at home. For many preschool parents, a concern is that their kids are speaking Chinese with an English or “ang-moh” accent. At KidStartNow, we are working on a machine learning audio pronunciation feature, where students can record and upload an audio clip, and our system can determine both accuracy of pronunciation as well as fluency and dictation.

Another use of machine learning in the education space is in universities, where AI can identify struggling students that are at risk of dropping out, so that officers can provide academic support. The way it works is that universities train a machine learning system with data from previous years, and it learns to predict at-risk dropouts from information like attendance records, grades and socio-demographic information (controversial).

SUMMARY

While Artificial intelligence has been extremely hyped over the last few years, we believe it has transformative potential in the education space, and hope this non-technical explanation has been helpful

At KidStartNow, we believe that the secret to improving in Chinese is through effective revision – that’s why every time your child uses our vocabulary revision app, we track his or her progress, and then use AI to personalise an optimal learning plan. If you are interested in finding out more about our app or regular Chinese enrichment classes at Bedok, please leave your details below and we will contact you within 2 working days.

Chinese Comprehension Deep-Dive (Upper Primary)

阅读理解 or Chinese comprehension is the minefield where many exam marks are lost. We previously did a case-study of a lower primary comprehension; today we will be analysing an upper primary Chinese comprehension passage and examine common mistakes students make.

REFRESHER ON COMPREHENSION GRADING

Students can get a maximum score of 200 for PSLE Chinese, and there are a total of three comprehension passages with a total score of 42 marks.

The first comprehension passage is 10 marks and consists of five multiple choice questions. The second passage is a short announcement, advertisement or letter (通告、广告、便条) worth 10 marks, and consists of three multiple choice questions and a short writing task.

In this post, we focus on the third (and most scary) passage, or 阅读理解二B组 worth a whopping 22 marks and consists of all open-ended questions involving writing.

PaperSectionMarks (%)
Paper 1Composition40 (20%)
Paper 2Language Use 30 (15%)
Cloze Passage10 (5%)
Comprehension 1 (Multiple Choice)10 (5%)
Sentence Completion8 (4%)
Comprehension 2 – Module A10 (5%)
Comprehension 2 – Module B22 (11%)
Paper 3Oral50 (25%)
Listening20 (10%)
PSLE Chinese marks allocation

THE THREE FACTORS FOR COMPREHENSION SUCCESS

In our Chinese enrichment classes, we emphasise three key factors to ace the comprehension passage – vocabulary, exam techniques, and checking. It’s not rocket science, but not something easily learned overnight.

The best but longer-term solution to acing comprehension is to simply read more. Reading is one of the best ways to change students’ attitudes towards Chinese and improve vocabulary but we understand exams are just around the corner, so here are some fast tips to improve.

Factor One: Vocabulary

Reading is the core bedrock of comprehension, especially for upper primary. In lower primary, it is possible to rely on exam techniques to do well even without full understanding the passage. However, as we explain later, this is much harder to pull off when passages get more difficult.

So as a parent, what should we do?

If you have very limited time, the biggest bang for your buck is to revise the textbooks and make sure your child can recognise and understand all the keywords covered this year. Don’t focus only on Textbook B (下册), and make sure to revise Textbook A (上册) too.

Revise the keywords in your textbook

Another good way to revise is to skim through some of the recent comprehension passages done in school or at enrichment centres – circle words that you can’t remember, look it up, and commit to memory if they are important.

Pro Tip: Get your child to read the textbook aloud – many studies show reading and speaking text aloud is a much more effective way of remembering information vs silent reading.

Lastly, if you have more time or if your child’s standard is weaker, be sure to revise previous levels as well (e.g. revising P3 words if you are P4). While previous level words aren’t tested directly, they will appear in both language-use questions and comprehension passages.

Factor Two: Exam Techniques

As we previously discussed in our lower comprehension post, the general approach we advocate is as follows:

Step 1: Skim through passage to get an overall understanding of the passage and to identify its broad theme, topic or storyline.

Step 2: Identify and underline the question words in the questions (i.e. the 5W+1H questions).

Step 3: Do a detailed read of passage while using question words and context from Step 2 to find the sentences where answers are found.

However, there are minefields for upper primary. There are tricky questions that “punish” students that just copy and paste. Some questions require retrieving information from different paragraphs to get full marks, while other questions require students to omit certain irrelevant information to avoid getting penalised. We cover more examples in the case study below.

Factor Three: Checking

It’s hard to overstate the importance of checking, especially as passages become harder. It’s one thing losing marks to a question you don’t know, it’s another losing marks on something you know but was careless.

The three things to check:

  1. Check that you haven’t made mistakes when writing the characters – depending on level and grader, you could lose up to two marks for wrong characters (or 10% of the comprehension score!!). Whenever a student copies wrong (照抄都能抄错), it makes a teacher sad so please be careful!
  2. Check that what you wrote fully answers the question; if it’s a two part question, have we answered both parts? If it is a two mark question, does our answer have two points?
  3. Check if there is irrelevant information in our answer that might be penalised

P5 CASE STUDY – 阅读理解

学校举行庆祝活动,老师让同学们表演音乐剧,她安排每个同学扮演一个角色。

玛丽回到家后,就一直站在窗前看着外面的大雨。妈妈看到她闷闷不乐的样子,便问道:“你看起来很不开心,发生了什么事?”玛丽答道:“老师让我演狐狸,可我不会演狐狸,我想放弃演出。”

 妈妈指了指窗外的雨,问玛丽:“雨声好听吗?”玛丽点点头。妈妈说:“雨点原本是没有声音的。雨点想要落到地面,有时却没办法直接到达地面,会遇到石头、屋顶等障碍物。但是,雨点仍然勇敢地落下来,与障碍物碰撞,发出声音。我们因此才能听到好听的雨声。”妈妈拍拍玛丽的肩膀,又说:“我们要像雨点一样,勇敢地克服困难。虽然你不会演狐狸,但是你只要肯付出努力,就一定能够演好这个角色,最终赢得喝彩。”玛丽眼前一亮,说:“妈妈,我知道该怎么做了。”

玛丽抓紧时间练习。她查找有关狐狸的视频,学习狐狸说话的语气、神态和动作,不断地模仿练习,改进自己的表演。

演出当天,玛丽扮演的狐狸受到同学们的称赞。从此,玛丽遇到困难时,也会勇敢接受挑战,努力克服困难

The first two questions are worth two marks each, and requires us to look for a synonym in the passage based on the keywords in the question.

The general approach for the first two vocabulary questions is the following:

  1. Underline keywords in the questions
  2. Based on the keywords and our initial skim of the passage, try to think about what are potential answers
  3. When doing a detailed read of the passage, look for the correct answer

Q1. 文中形容“用坚强的意志和力量战胜或消除”的词语是:

Answer: 克服

We underline the keywords 坚强 and 战胜, which hints to us that the answer is probably related to being resilient and overcoming something (e.g. difficulty). We pick up on the phrases 努力克服困难 and 勇敢地克服困难, and arrive at the answer 克服. 

Q2. 文中形容“大声叫好”的词语是:

Answer: 喝彩

We underline the keywords 大声叫好, so we know we are looking for a situation where people are cheering, which bring us to the phrase 最终赢得喝彩

This question is harder as the term 喝 has multiple meanings and pronunciation (多音字). Most students will automatically think of “to drink – hē” but it has another meaning “to shout – hè”.

Q3. 玛丽闷闷不乐原因是什么? (2 marks)

Answer: 因为老师安排玛丽在音乐剧表演中扮演狐狸,玛丽不会演狐狸,想要放弃演出。

Reading the question, we know we are looking for a reason for why Mary is unhappy, and look for 闷闷不乐 or a similar phrase in the passage.

Just like the question we previously encountered in our lower-primary comprehension case-study, we need to convert what Mary said to reported speech.

However, since this is a two mark question, we expect to furnish two points, while Mary’s speech about wanting to give up as she doesn’t want to perform the fox role is just one point.

We notice there is more relevant information from paragraph 1 about Mary’s teacher organising a musical that is not reflected in Mary’s speech. If we leave that out, we won’t get full marks.

Pro Tip: Upper Primary questions tend to require students to piece together information from different paragraphs, so students need to read and answer carefully!

Q4. 玛丽认为雨声好听吗?妈妈告诉玛丽雨声是怎样产生的?

Answer: 玛丽认为雨声好听。妈妈告诉玛丽,雨点想要落到地面,有时却没办法直接到达地面,会遇到了石头、屋顶等障碍物。但是雨点仍然勇敢地落下来,与障碍物碰撞,发出声音。

There are always questions with “free marks” for students – this is one of them.

Potential areas where students might lose marks on this question are a) only answering one of the two questions, b) not converting from directed speech to reported speech, and c) writing characters wrongly.

Q5. 玛丽为什么眼前一亮

Answer: 因为玛丽从妈妈鼓励的话语中,明白了自己要像遇到石头、屋顶等障碍物的雨点一样,勇敢地克服困难,为演出付出努力,最终也能赢得喝彩,所以她眼前一亮。

The question asks us why Mary’s eyes shone. We look for the keyword 眼前一亮 in the passage, and notice it precedes Mary saying she knows what to do. So what does she know to do?

The same paragraph involves a dialogue between Mary and her mom, where her mom tells her a story about raindrops and overcoming difficulty. This is where it gets slightly tricky – most of the conversation is in reported speech, and some of the information in the paragraph is not directly relevant to the question.

If your child “copies and pastes” the entire paragraph without omitting irrelevant information and without converting to reported speech, he or she might be penalised.

Q6. 玛丽之后是怎么做的?她的表演结果怎么样?

Answer: 玛丽抓紧时间练习,她查找有关狐狸的视频,学习狐狸说话的语气、神态和动作,不断地模仿练习,改进自己的表演。最终,她的表演受到同学们的称赞。

This question is quite simple but note that it has two parts, and students need to make sure they fully answer both parts to get full credit.

In particular, as most of the answer comes from paragraph 4, a common mistake is for students to copy and paste from paragraph 4 and neglect to include the information from paragraph five that she received compliments from her classmates.

Q7. 如果你是玛丽,听了妈妈的鼓励,你会像玛丽那样做吗为什么

Potential Answer: 如果我是玛丽,听了妈妈的鼓励后,我会像玛丽那样做。因为遇到困难时,我们不能逃避,要勇敢地接受挑战,最终克服困难。如果我们克服了所有困难,我们的人生就会越来越精彩。(答案合理即可)

The final question is usually the hardest as it requires students to understand the passage and then reflect on it. In this question, we are asked what we would do if we were Mary and why.

Rule of thumb: if the subject of the question is doing something morally correct (like Mary), you are highly highly encouraged to say you will do the same thing, while if the subject is doing something wrong, say you will not do the same thing because doing so will lead to negative consequences. Moral relativism does not exist for primary school comprehension!!

Generally speaking, most students are comfortable with describing or summarising what happened in the passage, but lose marks when it comes to reflecting.

Usually in class, we ask students to first recall when they were in a similar situation, and reflect about the experience. However, more often than not, students will say they have never been in a similar situation, and find it difficult to put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist.

This doesn’t only apply to comprehension – one of the PSLE oral topics this year was about cleaning your room, and if a child has never had to clean his room before, would she be able to reflect on it? Unfortunately there isn’t a silver bullet for such questions besides practice as they require not only language skills, but the ability to reflect or 举一反三.

Typically, there are two ways to get better at such questions: the first is to practice a lot of comprehension questions as there are common patterns (at KidStartNow’s enrichment classes, we practise 1-2 comprehension passages a week).

The second way is for parents to read fables or stories with our children and then ask them for their thoughts afterwards. Or to have regular discussion sessions with our children in Chinese. Many of these reflection questions tend to have a moral message, and the more our children practise, the better they get at answering such questions. 

SUMMARY

Chinese Comprehension can appear to be extremely complex, but given the proper techniques and vocabulary foundation, any child can tackle it.

Lastly, if you are looking for help with Chinese, KidStartNow runs weekly Chinese enrichment classes that combine time-tested teaching methods with proprietary AI technology to make learning Chinese effective and engaging. 

We are recommended by 20+ parent bloggers and 95% of our parents continue with us every term because they see their children improve week after week, month after month. We provide physical N2-P6 classes at Bedok and online P3-P6 classes, and please leave your details below and we will contact you within two working days.

Three free ways to really thank your teacher

It’s Teachers’ Day tomorrow (3rd Sep), and rather than the usual Teachers’ Day gift ideas, I’m going to suggest three free ways to really thank the teachers that have made a difference.

Great teachers change our lives. Personally, I am eternally grateful for my P4 English teacher for believing a naughty boy that was constantly falling behind could make it. His belief in me gave me the confidence to believe in myself.

💡Side note: You don’t have to wait until Teachers’ Day to thank a teacher. Teaching can be a thankless job outside of Teachers’ Day, and honest appreciation goes a long way in motivating teachers to continue.

THANK A FORMER TEACHER

Almost all students will thank their current teachers during Teachers’ Day in some shape or form, yet most students will overlook thanking former teachers even if they previously made a huge difference in their lives. It’s not that students have forgotten their previous teacher; rather, it’s not the norm to do so.

Yet for many teachers, their most treasured gifts are sincere messages or handwritten-cards from former students that tell them how their efforts made a difference in their lives.

Because while teachers pour endless hours trying to help their students succeed both in life and academically, there will inevitably be moments of doubt as to whether all their efforts and time spent actually resulted in anything.

Case in point: One of the best P6 Math teachers I know re-reads whatsapp thank-you messages from his graduated students when he needs motivation – knowing his past efforts were not in vain have paid off gives him the energy to educate the next generation.

Genuine thank-yous from former students cost nothing, yet gives teachers a great sense of accomplishment and motivation. Especially because it’s unexpected.

LEAD BY EXAMPLE

One of the most common parenting/leadership techniques is to lead by example, and it applies to thanking as well. As parents, it’s very common for us to remind our children to thank their teachers, but it’s even more powerful if we ourselves express gratitude to our children’s teachers in both words and actions.

One of my favourite “thank you” techniques is to include a concrete example. If you feel your son’s Science teacher has really made a difference in terms of getting him interested in the subject, tell them that during the next parent-teacher meeting. 

Another way we parents can show our appreciation is to do our best to work with teachers. For instance, if my child’s English teacher says he is falling behind and recommends reading more to improve his vocabulary, it’s natural for me to feel unhappy (and I might even wonder what the teacher is doing).

But it’s important for us parents to realise while teachers do their best, they only see students for a few hours a week, and they can’t force our children to do homework or reading. Listening and implementing feedback and advice from teachers is a great way to help our children improve and show thanks.

And if your child follows the feedback and improves, why not tell his or her teacher? Saying “Thank you for suggesting that we read with him daily – we’ve been doing that and can really see his interest and vocabulary improve.” will really make your child’s teacher feel valued. 

LIVE UP TO YOUR POTENTIAL

But above all, the best way for a child to thank a teacher is to work hard and do well, both academically and in life. A “Best Teacher Ever” mug or a bouquet of flowers is nice, but nothing beats the feeling of seeing a child work hard and live up to his or her potential.

Great teachers see potential when others see none, and believe when even the child doesn’t. My wife was from a rural town in Taiwan, and as her grades in high school were merely above-average, she planned to attend a mid-tier university near her home. But her form teacher saw potential in her, and challenged her to strive for Taiwan’s best university 台大. No one except her teacher believed it was possible, but after months and months of hard work, she finally made it. Going to 台大 changed a rural girl’s life by exposing her to the best and brightest, and none of it would have been possible if her form teacher didn’t see her potential.

Conversely, a surefire way to make a teacher sad is 恨铁不成钢, where a child squanders his or her potential by not trying.

SUMMARY

Teachers shape the lives of both us parents and our children, and let us show our gratitude to them, by telling them that we appreciate all they have done and showing them that we will live up to our potential.

Happy Teachers’ Day!

Does Singapore really need Chinese enrichment?

The biggest news last month is China’s crackdown on the private tuition sector, prompting renewed discussion on Singapore’s own enrichment sector, and leaving many parents and educators wondering if Singapore is next?

In this post, we discuss why China is cracking down on the private education market and whether Singapore really needs Chinese enrichment?

WHY IS CHINA CRACKING DOWN ON THE PRIVATE EDUCATION MARKET?

In end July, China announced strict regulations on the private education, including forcing education firms to convert to nonprofit status and banning tutoring during weekends and holidays. 

To fully understand the situation, one must understand how investment has changed China’s education market. For more details, I highly recommend watching this Chinese video.

In the past, China’s education market was more akin to Singapore’s current system, with a single teacher teaching in a physical classroom. Such a system was limited by both quality teachers and classroom sizes, and did not attract much interest from large investors.

TWO-TEACHER SYSTEM

Everything changed when education companies introduced the 双师 or two-teacher system, where you have a superstar teacher that streams to multiple classrooms, and each classroom has an assistant teacher to handle questions, marking, etc. The two-teacher system meant the private education market could benefit from economies of scale since a superstar tutor could now reach thousands of students at one shot.

Source: https://edtechchina.medium.com/two-teacher-system-the-new-model-for-the-education-training-market-in-china-63da97df0d4b

This attracted the attention and capital of deep-pocketed investors such as China’s tech behemoths Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent. Flush with cash and amidst the COVID-19 situation, educational companies became increasingly aggressive in their marketing efforts, with ads allegedly like “Did you include your child’s future in your shopping cart” or “If you don’t sign up for enrichment, we will nurture your child’s competitor instead”.

And thus the crackdown, purportedly to increase fertility rates to counter China’s major demographic challenge of an aging population as well as to reduce the rising gap between the haves and have-nots.

💡Interesting Note: Just like China, Singapore is also facing a tremendous demographic challenge – our total fertility rate dropped to a historic low of 1.10 in 2020, way below the replacement rate of 2.1. I believe should China successfully reverse its low fertility rate by curbing tuition, curbs on our local enrichment industry are highly likely.

A MISSION TO HELP THE NEXT GENERATION OF CHILDREN

Do our children really need Chinese enrichment?

The short answer: it depends on us parents. A child can definitely excel in Chinese without enrichment as long as parents spend sufficient effort building a conducive environment.

On the flip side, if we parents don’t regularly communicate and teach our children Chinese, it could be difficult for them to become fluent in Chinese as there are much fewer opportunities for children to pick up the language organically compared to the past.

For instance, in our previous post, we talked about how in 2000, a mere 1 in 3 children spoke mainly English at home; fast forward 20 years, nearly 4 in 5 children speak English most frequently. In primary school, most students use Chinese only during Mother Tongue classes, and switch back to English immediately after.

For many such parents, Chinese enrichment is not so much a nice-to-have vitamin but a necessary pain-killer to prevent their children from hating and failing Chinese.

CHINESE ENRICHMENT TENDS TO BE CHEAPER

At the same time, while many news reports focus on the eye-popping fees of some enrichment centres, they often overlook that Chinese enrichment tends to be significantly cheaper compared to English, Mathematics and Science (EMS).

The Singaporean enrichment market is typically broken down into the EMS and Chinese segments, with the majority of enrichment centres specialising in either one or the other. Enrichment centres that do both tend to brand them separately (e.g. Julia Gabriel + Chengzhu, Tien Hsia + Morris Allen) or provide different price points.

Comparing both mid-range and high-end centres, Chinese enrichment tends to be significantly cheaper compared to EMS enrichment. A mid-range Chinese enrichment tends to charge between $20-25/hour* for P6 classes compared to $30+ for EMS.

Meanwhile, high-end EMS enrichment centres that promise stellar results charge up to $50/hr, while there’s not really an equivalent** in the Chinese market. For instance, Wang Lao Shi and HCL are typically considered to be among the most academic of Chinese centres, and their fees are roughly $25-30/hour, much lower than their EMS equivalent.

*Quick note on methodology: some EMS centres lower the upfront price tag by offering shorter terms (e.g. 11 lessons vs 12) or shorter lesson durations. I’ve chosen to compare prices on an hourly basis since I believe it’s the fairest method.

**There are some Chinese enrichment centres that are that are more expensive, but they tend to cater to a more niche audience (e.g. international students)

CHINESE ENRICHMENT DOES HAVE ITS PROBLEMS

That’s not to say the Chinese enrichment industry is blameless, for it has accentuated the difference between those that attend classes vs those who don’t.

Consider Hanyu Pinyin (HYPY). Officially, the teaching of HYPY is supposed to start in primary school. While many government affiliated childcares and kindergartens do not teach HYPY, most private childcares and kindergartens as well as Chinese enrichment do teach it.

This pressures many parents who enroll their kids in government affiliated preschools to seek out enrichment or holiday camps to ensure their children won’t fall behind in P1, causing a vicious cycle.

THE BENEFITS OF BILINGUALISM

Despite the above, I believe the upsides of having enrichment to promote excellence in Chinese greatly outweigh the downsides, because of the importance of being bilingual.

Cultural and heritage factors are obviously important plus-factors when it comes to learning our Mother Tongue. But as a pragmatic Singaporean, let’s also talk about the practical benefits of our kids being effectively bilingual (aka actually being able to communicate and work in Chinese, not just being able to pass an examination). 

China is projected to become the biggest economy in 2028 (5 years ahead of schedule), is currently our biggest trading partner, and we are also China’s biggest foreign investor. At the same time, given Singapore’s neutral geopolitical stance, there’s a trend towards large Chinese companies setting up regional offices here. Personally, my wife is from Taiwan, and works in a Fortune 500 company that targets China from Singapore, and there are many large companies in the same boat.

We strongly believe in an ever-changing world, giving our children the gift of bilingualism is the best way to ensure their future. Yet while China grow increasing important, the climate for our kids to learn Chinese organically grows increasing difficult.

Therefore, in my arguably biased opinion, considering the lower cost of Chinese enrichment as well as the importance of bilingualism, there is a lot of value in having the option of Chinese enrichment for Singaporean parents who have neither the time nor ability to coach their children.

Comprehension Deep Dive (Lower Primary)

Ask any primary school parent which Chinese topic gives their child a headache, and the answer is either comprehension or composition. We have previously discussed how to tackle composition and a general approach to acing comprehension, and in this post, we are deep diving into a specific comprehension passage (P2) to show how parents can apply these concepts.

As a quick refresher, we advocate the following three-step approach when tackling comprehension passages.

Step 1: Skim through passage to get an overall understanding of the passage and to identify its broad theme, topic or storyline.

Step 2: Identify and underline the question words (疑问词) in the questions (i.e. the 5W+1H questions; click here for more information). Knowing what kind of question word we are dealing with will give us clues on how to identify the answer.

Step 3: Do a detailed read of passage while using question words and context from Step 2 to find the sentences where answers are found. Underline or highlight these sentences and write the relevant question number next to it.

We are big advocates of reading the passage twice vs reading just once and it doesn’t take much longer since the first read is just a quick skim. From our experience, this simple tip greatly improves marks especially when it comes to tricky and “what do you think (感想)” questions.

CASE STUDY: PRIMARY TWO

Step 1: Skim through passage 

The very first thing we should do when we get a passage is to do a quick read-through to get a rough idea of the passage. From our first scan, we know the passage is about an ant bragging to his friends that he killed a tiger.

💡Pro Tip: Some students prefer to skip this step and read the questions first before reading the passage. From experience, students who do that tend to only read the passage once, which can cause them to lose marks. In comparison, skimming the passage first before reading the question will naturally “force” students to read the passage twice.

Step 2: Identify and underline question words

Now, let us take a look at the questions, while highlighting the important question words. For Q1 and Q2, we underline the question word【什么】- which tells us we are looking for objects, events or incidents (WHO/WHAT). In Q2, we also underline 【告诉】, which tells us we are probably looking for some sort of speech.

Q1. 小蚂蚁在路上捡到了什么?

Q2. 小蚂蚁拿着毛,告诉朋友们什么?

For Q3 and Q4, we underline【为什么】- this suggests that we are looking for a reason or justification (WHY). For Q3, we also underline 【说】as it implies the answer is probably related to some sort of speech.

💡Pro Tip:【为什么】questions should usually be answered with【因为】

Q3. 为什么小黄鸟那根毛是自己的?

Q4. 听了小蚂蚁的话,朋友们为什么笑了?

For Q5, we underline 【怎样了】-  which suggests that we are looking for an outcome or state. We also underline 【最后】which tells us the answer is likely to be at the end.

Q5. 最后,小蚂蚁怎样了?

Step 3: Do detailed read of passage to find the sentences where answers are found

Q1. 小蚂蚁在路上捡到了什么?

Typically, the answer to the first question is found in the first paragraph, so we start looking there. We know the question is asking for an object and also notice that the phrase 【小蚂蚁在路上】 is repeated in both the question and the passage, and we have our answer.

Answer: 小蚂蚁在路上捡到了一根黄色的毛。 

Q2) 小蚂蚁拿着毛,告诉朋友们什么?

From our question words, we look for some sort of speech that the ant says to his friend, and identify the sentence with the answer.

Importantly, we cannot just “copy-and-paste” because this question requires us to convert Direct Speech to Reported Speech, or the equivalent of converting  [Sam said, “I went to the movies”] to [Sam said he went to the movies].

Answer: 小蚂蚁拿着毛,告诉朋友们它刚刚打死了一只老虎,它手上的毛是老虎的。

💡Pro Tip: An easy way to lose marks is for students to answer only half of the question, by not including【它手上的毛是老虎的】. It’s not uncommon for students to correctly underline the correct answer, but only include half of it because they don’t want to write so much. Don’t give up free marks!

3) 为什么小黄鸟那根毛是自己的?

Based on our underlined question words, we know we are looking for some sort of spoken explanation by 【小黄鸟】, and easily identify the sentence with the answer. Similar to Q2, we need to convert Direct Speech to Reported Speech.

Answer: 因为小黄鸟认为那根毛的颜色和它身上的毛一样,所以它说那根毛是自己的。

4) 听了小蚂蚁的话,朋友们为什么笑了?

We see the question word【为什么】again, so we know we are looking for a reason or justification, and that our answer should start with【因为】.

Since this is a passage for Primary Two, it’s easier and we can use phrases that appear in both the passage and question like 【听】 and【 笑】 to easily find the answer. Harder passages are likely to use synonyms instead, which underscores the importance of having a solid vocabulary foundation.

Answer: 因为朋友们知道小蚂蚁没见过老虎,却说自己打死了老虎,所以朋友们笑了。

5) 最后,小蚂蚁怎样了?

【最后】and 【怎样了】tell us we are looking for what happens to 【小蚂蚁】 at the end, and that the answer is probably near to or at the end of the passage.

As we mentioned above, since this is a lower primary question, the passage and question repeats the word 【最后】, making it easier to identify the correct answer. However, the passage could had used a different term or omitted【最后】, and thus it’s important for students to know 【最后】means “finally”. 

Other important temporal terms include 【然后 / 后来】* and 【一开始】**, etc.

Answer: 最后,小蚂蚁的脸红了,飞快地跑掉了。

* after

** at the beginning

SUMMARY

Comprehension can appear to be extremely complex, but given the proper techniques and vocabulary foundation, any child can tackle it. Having said that, answering techniques and vocabulary do not appear magically, but require constant practise and regular reading. Hope you find it useful, and please feel free to leave comments and suggestions!

Lastly, if you are looking for help with Chinese, KidStartNow runs weekly classes that combine time-tested teaching methods with proprietary AI technology to make learning Chinese effective and engaging. 

We are recommended by 20+ parent bloggers and 95% of our parents continue with us every term because they see their children improve week after week, month after month. We provide onsite N2-P6 classes at Bedok and online P3-P6 classes, and please leave your details below and we will contact you within two working days.

Feature Spotlight: Multiplayer Classroom

In this short post, we introduce a collaborative learning feature for our online students to promote a more social learning experience.

As parents, the announcement of a second Phase 2HA sparked a sense of Déjà vu – yet another month of juggling different home-based learning while dealing with our own Zoom meetings and/or household tasks. Not to mention most of us need to get our children to pay attention in online classes compared to physical classes where we can simply drop off and pick them up later.

From a teacher’s perspective, online classes also present unique challenges – it’s harder to determine how well each student has understood concepts vs a physical class where a teacher is walking around and constantly peeking at each child’s worksheet while they are doing it.

At KidStartNow, we believe in the power of using technology to make learning engaging and effective, and we are pleased to introduce a collaborative feature to allow online students to learn together (primary school level).

During the lesson, teachers will ask students to login into the KidStartNow Portal to answer lesson-related short questions, and at the end of the quiz, students will be able to see how they fared relative to each other. This should take only a few minutes each lesson, and will also allow our teachers to gauge how well the class has understood key concepts and immediately remedy any knowledge gaps.

Please see a short video below to see how to use the portal (note: the “Multiplayer Classroom” feature is only available during lesson time).

  1. Login to http://learn.kidstartnow.com/ using your username and password. You can also click on “Forgot your Username or Password?” to reset your password.
  2. Click on “Multiplayer Classroom” on the top right hand corner.
  3. If your teacher has taken your attendance, you can click on “Enter” to access the classroom. If you get an error message, tell your teacher over Zoom.
  4. Once you enter the room, click the correct answer. Once you are done, wait for the teacher to proceed.

Questions answered during the online lesson are also automatically tracked by our AI-powered personalised engine. For instance, questions that your child answers incorrectly in class will be flagged for revision when your child revises at home by doing a pet battle, while questions your child answers incorrect during home revision are also analysed and sent to our teachers. This goal of this loop is to efficiently close any knowledge gaps and help your child improve quickly.

Thank you for reading, and please feel free to contact us at support@kidstartnow.com if you have any questions or if you would like to enquire about our classes.

Myth: My child will pick up Chinese naturally in school, just like I did

As a principal of a Chinese school, I get daily questions from new parents worried that their children will fall behind as they are raised in English-speaking families. “My child gets zero exposure to Chinese at home, how ah?”

The good news is you aren’t alone: last week, Singapore’s Department of Statistics released its latest census, revealing nearly four in five children use English as the predominant language at home. The bad news is MOE hasn’t really reduced the difficulty of the Chinese curriculum, so you still have to find a way to help your child enjoy learning Chinese.

The importance of environment

If your children mostly speak English, you might be wondering: what does this mean for you?

We all know that having a conducive family environment is one of the best ways to pick up languages.  Young children have an amazing ability to learn languages through immersion – children can grasp unfamiliar words and concepts simply by being exposed to it multiple times, even without formal instruction.

What’s less known is that insufficient exposure to a second language can affect a child’s willingness to use the language. Pearson, Fernández, Lewedeg, & Ollerin studied Spanish-English bilingual children with different levels of language exposure and found that if a child was exposed to the language less than 20% of waking hours, he or she would be very hesitant to use the second language.

So does being an English-speaking family mean our children will suck at Chinese, especially if our Chinese aren’t great too? The short answer is no, but we parents will need to put in more effort. 

Myth: My child will pick up Chinese naturally in school, just like I did

A common misconception is that our children will naturally pick up Chinese in school without any real issue. Afterall, when we were young, our parents didn’t send us for enrichment or teach us Chinese, and we picked it up fine in primary school. So shouldn’t it work for our children?

However, this ignores the tremendous demographic shift that has taken place – in 2000, a mere 1 in 3 children spoke mainly English at home; fast forward 20 years, nearly 4 in 5 children speak English most frequently. (Note: 2000 data is obtained from a previous census)

The situation in primary schools has also changed – just like at home, most students in schools use Chinese only during Mother Tongue classes, and switch back to English immediately after Mother Tongue classes. I recall 20 years ago when I was in Primary School, that was the exact opposite – we spoke English during lessons and Chinese at most other times. 

So what can we parents do?

We highlight the demographic shift not to be pessimistic but to be realistic about the challenges that our children will face.

The good news is while many Singaporean Chinese parents worry they cannot help their child with Mandarin because they worry their own Chinese standard is too weak, the reality is we can still provide rich immersion opportunities at home even if our pronunciation or grammar aren’t perfect.

In their seminal book “Bilingual Edge”, Georgetown University linguistic professors King and Mackey explain that the belief that only native speakers can teach their children a second language is simply a myth.

They say that imperfections do not harm or impede children’s language learning, and children language acquisition occurs even if adults do not speak perfectly. What is critical is not that children hear complete sentences, but that they are directly engaged in conversation. Even parents with limited Chinese proficiency can interact with their young children in Mandarin, providing important language input and vocabulary foundation.

💡Pro Tip: Don’t be afraid of speaking to our children in Chinese. We do way more harm not speaking to them in Chinese because it deprives them of a healthy language environment.

Indeed, many parents will speak to our teachers in Mandarin, saying they are afraid to speak to their children in Chinese because they either find it unnatural or they aren’t sure about their abilities. But if parents can have a proper conversation in Mandarin with teachers, we are more than qualified to have short conversations with their children in Mandarin, setting them up for future success in the language.

Making reading with your children a regular activity

Another great way to provide rich immersion opportunities is to read to your children regularly. 

As we mentioned in an earlier post, reading builds both vocabulary and interest in Chinese; indeed, research shows children can increase their vocabulary substantially through incidental learning, where students encounter new words from reading, even when they do not receive explicit explanation of these new words. 

And if you are worried about not being able to recognise all the words when reading to your children, we recommend using Pleco, a great Chinese dictionary app that allows you to scan words to look up meanings. 

Closing note

We understand parents are very busy, and if you would like to “outsource”, KidStartNow runs weekly classes that combine time-tested teaching methods with proprietary AI technology to make learning Chinese effective and fun. We are recommended by 20+ parent bloggers and 95% of our parents continue with us every term because they see their children improve week after week, month after month. 

We provide onsite N2-P6 classes at Bedok and online P3-P6 classes, and please leave your details below and we will contact you within two working days.

How to encourage revision

This is the second post of a three-part series on the common problems primary school students face when learning Chinese. In this post, we examine how to encourage students to revise Chinese.

In our previous post, we talked about how most of the common problems students faced stem from vocabulary, and the importance of regular revision to “beat” the Forgetting Curve. The million dollar question is “yes, but how do I get my child to revise?

Three pronged revision approach

While every child is different, something that has worked for many of our students is a three pronged approach towards making revision easier, more bite-size and more game-like.

Make revision easier

The first tip comes from our star teacher Hong Mei lao shi: “many students don’t want to revise because they find it hard. A simple yet effective method is to get students to first read the textbook before doing their homework, and to do the revision/homework as soon as possible. Reading the textbook and practising sentences builds vocabulary, which is the foundation for composition writing in the future.

If you are going “duh, that’s obvious” right now, hear us out.

The last thing most kids want to do after coming home from class is to immediately do their homework or revision. However, the longer they put it off, the more difficult it will be. Consider the Forgetting Curve below – when we learn something new, we forget half of it within a day, and almost everything within a week. So the longer your child puts off revision/homework, the more he or she has forgotten, which makes revision more painful.

And when students do start revising, it’s quite common to jump immediately to the questions and call their parents for help if they get stuck. This is bad for two reasons – a) it does not train their self-reliance, which is important as students go into Upper Primary, and b) it’s annoying for us parents too if we are being honest.

Instead, get your children in the habit of first reading the textbook, especially if more than 1 day has elapsed since class. New content is most easily forgotten, and revising the textbook first will make doing the questions easier. The easier revision becomes, the more likely our children will revise regularly.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

💡Pro Tip: To really consolidate the content, get your child to read the textbook aloud rather than silently. The act of reading and saying text aloud is more effective in remembering than silent reading.

Make revision bite-sized

One of the most famous Japanese business philosophies is Kaizen (改善), famously used by Toyoya to grow from a small division to the second largest automobile company in the world. Kaizen means Continuous Improvement, across all levels, in a gradual and methodical process.

You might be wondering what has Kaizen got to do with learning Chinese.

One of my favourite books is The Spirit of Kaizen, which talks about how we can use Kaizen to improve our personal lives. When trying to improve ourselves or our children, we tend to gravitate towards drastic actions like “I’m going to get my child to revise 2 hours of Chinese everyday” or “I’m only going to speak Chinese to my child”.

However, most parents who have tried the above revert back to old routines pretty quickly. This is because our brain is hardwired to reject revolutionary changes.

The key to creating lasting change is to instead take small incremental steps. When our children equate revision sessions to long 1-hour affairs, they are likely to procrastinate and reject it. However, if sessions are a minimum of just 5-10 minutes, they are more likely to revise since it’s so short. And once they start, they are likely to continue for much longer than 5-10 minutes.

💡Pro Tip: We learn much more effectively doing regular bite-sized revisions compared to irregular cramming sessions.

I’m applying the same techniques to learn Artificial Intelligence. The last thing I want to do after a long day of work is to decipher complex Math equations used in AI, but I commit to a minimum of just 5 minutes of practise, which usually ends up becoming an hour.

Make revision game-like

As someone who used to hate Chinese, I totally get why many kids find revising Chinese painful and boring – assessment books are dry and provide zero feedback, and it’s just a slog.

But consider a similar case study: Math. Interestingly, many parents tell us their kids love doing questions on sites like Koobits even though they normally don’t like Math. It’s the same story in North America, where Prodigy helps hundreds of millions of users revise Math through games.

But why do these same students not like to revise Chinese on e-learning sites? Our hypothesis is that many Singaporean students dislike Chinese more than Math and most Chinese e-learning systems are just not engaging enough to overcome this dislike of Chinese. 

We spent the last two years testing this hypothesis, and after many different attempts, we found the most success with a pet collection game. Your child becomes a pet collector, and captures cute pets by answering Chinese questions correctly. This motivates your child to revise Chinese, as the more questions he or she answers, the more pets captured.

While we still have a long way to go, the initial results are encouraging – more than 1m questions have been answered on our platform, and students who regularly use our portal see an 80+% improvement.

We provide 7-day free trials of our portal, and if you are interested, just click on this link.

SUMMARY

As we mentioned in our previous post, building a strong foundation in vocabulary is critical to long-term success in Chinese. Vocabulary issues naturally trickle down to composition and comprehension; and many kids who don’t like learning Chinese do so because trying to read and write a language where they don’t know many words is tedious.

Try out the above three revision strategies to build a strong vocabulary foundation, and we are sure it will help your child improve in Chinese!

Lastly, KidStartNow runs a Chinese enrichment centre at Bedok, and if you are looking for help with Chinese, please also leave your details below and we will contact you within two working days.

The importance of reading for learning Chinese

As parents, we instinctively know the importance of reading in second language acquisition. Unfortunately, it’s also not that simple to get students to read Chinese stories. In this article, we explore the importance of reading, reasons why many children dislike reading Chinese, and reading strategies you can implement immediately.

INCIDENTAL LEARNING FROM READING IS KEY TO GAINING VOCABULARY

Reading is extremely important in learning, and this is backed by research that shows that children can increase their vocabulary substantially through incidental learning, where students encounter new words from reading, even when they do not receive explicit explanation of these new words

When we read and encounter new words, we are able to contextualise and eventually learn these words even without a teacher or consulting a dictionary. In fact, UIUC’s Center for the Study of Reading found “incidental learning from context during free reading is the major mode of vocabulary acquisition during the school years.”

Chinese storybooks is a great way to expose our children to new words and language patterns in a natural and relatable way, rather than only relying on the traditional approach of force-feeding good words (好词佳句).

READING TRIGGERS THE RETRIEVAL EFFECT

While most people assume learning occurs when we study and memorise new content, many studies have shown better results when we are instead tested or are required to “retrieve” the material learnt. In particular, the act of retrieving information from memory helps strengthen the concept or word being retrieved.

💡Pro Tip: the process of reading naturally triggers the retrieval effect as we recall the meanings of the Chinese characters, and serves as vocabulary revision

To many students, vocabulary revision via reading is more organic and pleasurable vs word drills or flash cards, especially if the content is selected correctly (more on this later in the post).

SO WHY DO STUDENTS DISLIKE READING CHINESE?

Despite the benefits of reading, many parents struggle with getting their students to read.

A common story I hear from parents is that they will bring their children to the local library, and tell them to select a few Chinese stories to borrow. Yet half an hour later, their children will report back with a bag full of English stories and zero Chinese storybooks.

ARE ENGLISH BOOKS JUST MORE ENGAGING THAN CHINESE BOOKS?

Yes and no. The problem is there’s often a big gap between what your child finds interesting and what he can read in Chinese.

Most of the Chinese storybooks you buy in Singapore are actually originally meant for much younger children in China since there’s obviously a huge gap between what an 8 year old Singaporean child can read in Chinese vs a child of the same age from China.

If Chinese book you purchased for your 8 year old was originally meant for a preschooler in China, is it surprising if your child finds it boring? Especially when compared to the English books he or she is reading like Geronimo Stilton or even Harry Potter?

The reverse is also true: at 8 years old, my Taiwanese wife was reading Wuxia novels (金庸小说) in Chinese and Three Little Pigs in English. No prizes for guessing which she preferred.

READING IN A SECOND LANGUAGE CAN BE FRUSTRATING

Reading in a second language requires more effort – we are more likely to come across new words or characters we have forgotten.

Earlier, we talked about the usefulness of incidental reading and retrieval effect in strengthening our vocabulary. However, searching through our memory is also tiring – it might be good for you, but it doesn’t mean it is easy.

It’s human nature to avoid hard things – when given a choice, since reading english books are both more enjoyable and less frustrating, is it any surprise that students gravitate away from it?

STRATEGY 1: FIND CONTENT THAT IS ONLY AVAILABLE IN CHINESE

Sometimes, the best way to “force” us to do something is when there’s no alternative. Find books that are genuinely exciting and meaningful to kids that are only available in Chinese. For instance, many of our students enjoy reading Monkey God stories (TMall, Amazon), and since they are not available in English, it’s a great way to get students to read Chinese. For older kids, Chinese Manga is another useful source of unique material and there is plenty of free content on any of the popular Chinese manga websites.

💡Pro Tip: we avoid buying Chinese storybooks from Singapore – buying directly from TMall or other Chinese retailers is both much cheaper and allows for substantially more choice.

It doesn’t have to be only books – any sort of content that is only available in Chinese is a great way to increase exposure. A friend of mine sets the language settings of his Nintendo Switch to Chinese, so if his kids want to play games* like Breath of the Wild, it has to be in Chinese.

Playing games in Chinese forces us to read in Chinese

STRATEGY 2: UTILISE TECHNOLOGY TO MAKE READING EASIER

As we mentioned above, part of the problem is many of the storybooks available in Singapore weren’t written specially for second language learners but for native speakers. One solution is to look for content that is more complex and engaging to kids, but utilise animation and read-aloud to help our children understand the material.

Even if our children don’t fully understand the content initially, the animation and read-aloud help our children comprehend the meaning and support the text. Over time, our children will naturally absorb the words and improve their vocabulary.

KidStartNow has developed over 100 animated books targeting children between 3-8 years old, each with read-aloud, animation and vocabulary quizzes that help students learn through reading. 
Importantly, these stories are written specifically for Singaporean students, and incorporate words taken from the primary school syllabus.

We provide a free 7-day trial, and click here for more information.

Our reading portal combines stories with animaation, read-aloud, and vocabulary quizzes

A new approach to compo writing

Writing composition is perhaps the biggest problem many primary school students face when learning Chinese. And while the PSLE weightage of composition has been lowered over the years, the mere mention of writing compo can trigger opposition and boredom in many kids.

We will be exploring why students dislike writing in a future blog post, and a quick summary is that remembering and writing Chinese characters is hard even for native speakers, and the way composition is taught in Singapore involves tons of drilling and regurgitation.

REFRESHER ON COMPOSITION MARKING

Let us first examine the marking rubric that is used to assess your child’s composition.

Students can get a maximum score of 200 for PSLE Chinese, of which composition comprises 40 marks or 20%. Students can attempt either Picture Composition (看图作文) or Topical Composition (命题作文), and we typically recommend the former as it is easier to visualise and harder to “go out of point” (usually means failing grade).

Picture Composition involves 4 or 6 pictures, depending on level, and always include a blank image at the end for students to craft their conclusion and reflection (感想)

Compo marks are evenly divided between content (内容) and language expression(表达和结构). 

Content is based on how well a student has described every picture, whether the conclusion and reflection makes sense, and whether the essay is “out of point”. Most content marks are lost in the conclusion and reflection due to lack of creativity or experience, or when students lack the vocabulary to correctly describe each picture.

Language expression refers to both the essay structure (开头结尾), proper sentence structure as well as how descriptive the language used, which highlights the importance of learning good phrases (好词佳句). Marks are also deducted for mistakes in writing characters. 

THE TRADITIONAL APPROACH TO COMPOSITION

The marking structure of Chinese composition explains why for decades, the Singaporean approach towards teaching Chinese composition has been geared towards memorisation. Admittedly, for many enrichment centres, including ours, we are somewhat forced to during the regular school terms, where the focus is on delivering academic excellence.

Let’s walk through a typical compo class, on the topic of Dragon Boat festival. This approach is teacher-led, and starts with an explanation or class discussion of the festival. Students then learn good vocabulary associated with the topic, as well as model openings and endings, before writing their own compositions with teacher guidance.

There are many advantages to this traditional approach – it is extremely aligned with the exam format and is quickly applicable. Moreover, it’s effective as students can be taught a relatively large amount of vocabulary in a short period of time.

As a result, at KidStartNow, we also utilise the traditional approach to composition teaching during our weekly enrichment lessons. However, we are aware of the problems of overusing such an approach.

WHAT IS THE DOWNSIDE?

From a pure MOE examination standpoint, learning Chinese is a 12-year marathon not a sprint that ends after the upcoming exam or Primary Six. 

From experience, endless memorisation and regurgitation of model passages and idioms can cause students to hate writing, and by association, Chinese in the long-term. Disliking Chinese often causes a vicious cycle of students not wanting to practise the language, leading to a decrease in language competency, and looping back to more loss of interest in Chinese.

Learning a language is a marathon

The teacher-led, traditional approach to composition typically has low levels of interaction between teacher and students. Besides being uninteractive, students also have less opportunity for creativity and independent thought, important qualities for a rapidly changing world.

WHAT’S THE SOLUTION

We’ll be the first to admit that until there is a major change in the way PSLE composition is evaluated, some memorisation of vocabulary and passages is necessary to ace exams.

However, memorisation shouldn’t be the only approach, and we have found two methods that greatly complement the traditional approach – reading & experiential learning.

Reading is extremely important in learning, and this is backed by research that shows that children can increase their vocabulary substantially through incidental learning, where students encounter new words from reading, even when they do not receive explicit explanation of these new words. In particular, “repeated encounters with a word, provided through extensive reading, would lead to the long-term, cumulative effect of vocabulary growth.”

EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING

“I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”

Many parents are familiar with experiential learning from their children’s preschool years – it’s a learning method where children participate actively in the process and most importantly, reflect on the activity.

Experiential learning is both effective and engaging – reflecting on an activity encourages students to retrieve and apply newly-learned content, a highly effective way to remember. Considering how much more engaged students are when they are doing activities in our experiential compo camps, we can attest that it is also much more fun for children.

As a way of comparison, let us revisit the topic of writing about the Dragon Boat festival in an experiential format.

Before students actually write a single character, they are first invited to explore the topic, by creating their own unique rice dumpling while learning about the process, ingredients and its origin story (previously, students made real dumplings, but due to COVID, we changed to a digital version). Students further immerse themselves by playing a game, where they steer a dragon boat by answering vocabulary questions and competing with their classmates.

Students are encouraged to share their thoughts and after finishing all the activities, they then reflect on what they have learned, before writing a composition with teacher guidance.

Through experiential learning, students similarly learn good vocabulary and model passages that are important for doing well, but are also encouraged to be creative and have fun in the process.

The biggest downside of experiential learning is simply the amount of preparation required, as it takes our teachers at least 4-5x longer to plan a compo in our holiday camps vs a normal compo used in our regular enrichment class.

CONCLUSION – HOW CAN I HELP MY CHILD?

For parents who have the time to coach their kids at home, we recommend three things: firstly, to establish a regular reading and writing habit. Reading Chinese stories is one of the best ways to naturally build interest and vocabulary through incidental learning, while journal writing is a great way to get students to regularly practise writing. 

Secondly, you can implement experiential learning at home through role-playing. For instance, many picture composition questions portray real-life situations like helping an elderly lady in a train, a naughty child at a playground, etc. Why not act out the different scenes with your children, and teach them relevant vocabulary during the process?

Lastly, a friend of mine spends 20 minutes a day having discussions with their primary-school children in both English and Chinese. From local matters like how Singaporeans are handling covid to their thoughts on their favourite cartoon. Getting students to verbalise their thoughts (口头作文) is a great way to improve both sentence structure and vocabulary, which naturally improve writing skills.

JUNE HOLIDAY CAMPS

If you don’t have the time to regularly help your children with compo, you can consider KidStartNow’s 4-day compo camps (P2-P5) held during the June holidays at our Bedok branch. 

We have been running these camps since 2018, with extremely positive feedback from parents and students. The camp focuses on building interest in writing compositions, teaching important writing techniques, and building vocabulary foundation through idioms, metaphors and good vocabulary.

If you are looking to improve your child’s compo writing skills, please also leave your details below and we will contact you within two working days.

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