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.

The importance of revision

This is the first post of a three-part series on the common problems primary school students face when learning Chinese. In this post, we examine the reason why many students struggle at Chinese.

Learning Chinese can be hard for children, especially if they grow up in an English speaking family with little exposure to Chinese outside of school. According to a report by the Institute of Policy Studies, younger Singaporean parents are more likely to use English when speaking to their children, with 58-61% of parents between 25-45 years olds using English most frequently. 

The lack of exposure at home, compounded by Chinese being one of the hardest languages to learn, presents several challenges to students learning Chinese. In our years of experience, whenever we get a call from a new parent enquiring about primary school Chinese classes, it almost always involves one of the following:

  1. My child finds it hard to read Chinese
  2. My child needs help in composition and/or comprehension
  3. My child has very little interest in learning Chinese

While the three aforementioned concerns seem unrelated, they have a fundamental root cause driven by lack of exposure to Chinese, particularly vocabulary.

WEAK VOCABULARY IS THE ROOT OF MOST PROBLEMS

When students struggle with vocabulary, they naturally find it difficult to read because there are words that they cannot recognise. While there are heuristics like 【有边读边,没边读中间】,  it doesn’t work all the time, and a student needs to already have a vocabulary base to properly utilise the it.

Vocabulary issues naturally trickle down to composition and comprehension, since the former requires a repository of “good vocabulary” and the latter involves reading long passages to derive meaning. And while it’s important to learn exam techniques to do well at composition and comprehension, students can’t apply these techniques unless they have a stable vocabulary base.

And from experience, we find that 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. As a thought experiment, imagine how annoying it would be to read a difficult Chinese novel where you have to check the dictionary every sentence.

Humankind is hardwired to avoid pain, so is it surprising that kids with a weaker vocabulary tend shy away from Chinese?

SO DOES IMPROVING VOCABULARY SOLVE THE PROBLEM?

Pretty much. From our years of experience, we notice that as children’s vocabulary improves, reading and writing become easier, and they naturally become more interested in Chinese. 

So problem solved?

Not quite. Because there are two villains that make it really difficult to improve vocabulary.

VILLAIN A: THE FORGETTING CURVE

In 1885, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus introduced the concept of the forgetting curve, or the idea that when anyone learns something, he or she forgets half of it within a day, and almost all of it by next week. 

This explains why many students can get full marks at ting xie by cramming the night before, but forget almost everything soon after. Or why some students don’t improve as much as they should despite attending school and enrichment.

So how should we learn if we forget new materials so quickly?

Notice that each time we revise a word, the deeper it is embedded in our memory, which is why it’s so important to do regular revision and read.

Every time our children revise or read Chinese, they are reinforcing any previously learnt vocabulary, which strengthens their foundation. Conversely, if our children don’t regularly read or revise Chinese, their vocabulary foundation will naturally weaken, creating a vicious cycle towards Chinese.

The finding where the more times we revise a content, the less we forget it underpins a popular learning method called “Spaced Repetition”. This is where learners review content using increasingly longer time intervals, and is used in many adult language learning apps like Duolingo and Anki.

At KidStartNow, we utilise the power of revision in several ways – firstly, we utilise spaced repetition in our AI-powered learning portal, to help students revise materials effectively. Secondly, we teach materials ahead of primary schools, so when students learn new chapters in school, it’s a form of revision. Lastly, we have multiple mock tests every term to ensure students retain the knowledge.

VILLAIN B: CHINESE REVISION CAN BE PAINFUL

If regular reading and revision using spaced repetition are all it takes to improve Chinese, why do many students still struggle with Chinese? 

It’s one thing to know that revision is important, it’s another actually getting our children to revise regularly. As most parents can attest, getting a child to revise Chinese can be a tricky affair. Revising Chinese usually involves drills and flashcards, both of which can be quite boring for students. After a busy day at work or at home, the last thing many parents want to do is to force an unwilling child to revise Chinese unless it’s really urgent like an upcoming spelling test.

Another really common story parents tell me is that when they bring their children to the library to borrow Chinese books, they usually wind up borrowing English story books instead.

SUMMARY

At this point, it’s good to reflect by asking two questions:

  1. When was the last time my children read a non-school related Chinese book?
  2. When was the last time your children revised something non-urgent (e.g. revising words tested on a spelling test after it is over)?

If you are like most Singaporean parents, the answers to both are “quite long”, which can be detrimental to building a strong vocabulary.

Hopefully we have conveyed the importance of revision in this post, and stay tuned for our next post where we will talk about how to encourage our children to revise Chinese regularly.

At KidStartNow, we 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 are located at Bedok, and if you are looking for Chinese enrichment or June holiday camps, please also leave your details below and we will contact you within two working days.