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 IS HARD

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.

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