What does removing mid year exams mean for our children?

MOE announced yesterday that mid-year exams for all primary and secondary school levels will be removed by 2023, and follows previous removal of all exams in P1 and P2, as well as removal of mid year exams for P3 and P5.

We are big advocates of having students find meaning in Chinese beyond exams. However, from experience, we noticed that prior removal of the P1 and P2 exams has led to more students entering P3 with a weaker Chinese foundation; we highlight the risk of complacency below and outline tips on what we parents can do to help our children.

Finding Meaning Beyond Exams

A common opinion is “learning Chinese is just for exams.”

This is partially due to demographics. 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. If young children use Chinese predominantly or solely in an academic setting, is it surprising that they think Chinese is just for exams?

As parents, we naturally want the best for our children, and most of us have probably tried to introduce more “engaging” ways of learning Chinese, from reading Chinese stories to fun learning activities.

But if you are reading this post, I’m assuming that those initiatives had mixed outcomes. This is because languages are built on vocabulary and grammar foundations, and for primary school students, many “fun activities” are only fun if a student is able to comfortably understand the material.

So what does this have to do with removing exams?

The Hidden Side Effects Of Removing Exams

Since 2019, P1 and P2 students have had exams removed in a bid to reduce academic pressure, while still keeping the PSLE exams for P6.

A less-talked about effect is the change in learning attitudes: post the change, we noticed more students and parents becoming significantly more complacent with regards to revision or doing their assignments. Indeed, a common opinion we got from many parents was “no exams anyway, why worry so much”.


Languages are not like Math or Science where once you understand a concept, you can go from zero to hero in a short span of time.

Languages require regular practise to build vocabulary and grammatical building blocks, and the stronger your foundation, the easier it is to either enjoy the language through books and cartoons, and eventually ace harder academic tasks like composition on comprehension.

Conversely, over the last two years, we’ve noticed more P3 students with weaker foundations and laid-back learning attitudes vis-à-vis Chinese. In addition, many teachers choose P3 as the year to “shock” students with harder questions, which can cause students to lose confidence and hate Chinese.

What Can I Do As A Parent?

Complacency is the enemy.

As busy parents, it’s easy to think that since there are no more mid year exams, it’s okay to put off revising Chinese, and just wait until it’s closer to SA2. That’s what I used to do all the time as a child, and is also why I sucked at Chinese and hated it my entire childhood. The key to doing well in Chinese is regular revision.

We previously talked about how to help your child revise vocabulary, and the concept of the Forgetting Curve: when anyone learns something, he or she forgets half of it within a day, and almost all of it by next week. And the more times we revise the word, the longer we remember it.

Let’s look at the typical schedule of a busy parent. We help our children prepare for their spelling or 听写 the night before the test. One week later, we repeat the cycle for the next chapter.

But how often do we go back to previous chapters to revise older words? Typically very rarely, unless there is an exam looming. That’s why with the the removal of mid year exams it’s even more important for parents to be extra vigilant, and continue to schedule regular revision with their children.

How To Revise?

We understand that it’s not easy for parents to know what to revise, especially since getting our children to willingly revise Chinese isn’t the easiest of tasks.

That’s why over the last year, we built a Chinese equivalent of Koobits for our students, and we found most students who practised just 10 mins a day saw tremendous improvement in vocab, language skills and language confidence.

In the portal, you can do the following:

  • Revise a personalised vocabulary list that targets your child’s weak areas
  • Pet Battle, where your child takes on the role of an aspiring pet collector (think Pokémon). Capture and train pets by answering Chinese assessment book questions correctly
  • Watch weekly video lessons (P1-P4) and fun animated stories
  • Work on Hanyu Pinyin through topical quizzes

And to thank your loyal blog-readers, we are happy to provide you with a free account with selected features. Simply sign up for a free account here, and begin revising.

Hacking Chinese With High-Frequency Phrases

Over the last two weeks, I’ve received a number of enquiries from P1 mothers on how to help their children learn Chinese. Besides P1 being the first major milestone for children, the pandemic has also made it harder for children to use and learn Chinese organically.

My typical response is to focus on both oral/listening and vocabulary. If your child cannot understand what his or her primary school teacher is saying, Chinese lessons are going to be both useless and boring. Meanwhile, a strong vocabulary foundation makes understanding and using Chinese simple.

We’ve been on the “Vocabulary is the key” boat for a long time, which was what inspired us to create a Chinese clone of Wordle to help primary school students revise vocabulary daily. But what happens if a child hasn’t had that much preparation prior to P1?

Is there a way to smartly accelerate the process of vocabulary learning?

TLDR: High-frequency lists are a common way to learn a language, but most lists focus on characters (单词) rather than phrases (词语), which can be challenging for young children. We used Data Science to determine the 50 most common phrases (词语) that appear in the P1A textbook, spelling lists and assessment books.

Read on if you’re interested in our methodology, and here’s the top ten most common phrases. By definition, high-frequency phrases will seem extremely simple to an adult since they are so commonplace. Yet this also makes revising them extremely high-value if your child has limited time.

1. 喜欢 (xǐ huɑn) - to like
2. 什么 (shén me) - what
3. 妈妈 (mā ma) - mother
4. 今天 (jīn tiān) - today
5. 爸爸 (bà ba) - father
6. 老师 (lǎo shī) - teacher
7. 星期 (xīng qī) - week
8. 哥哥 (xǐ huɑn) - older brother
9. 生日 (shēng rì) - birthday
10. 我们 (wǒ men) - we

80-20 Rule

One of my favourite principles is the 80-20 rule, which states that 80% of outcomes come from 20% of actions. 80% of exam questions come from 20% of the textbook material (hence the concept of “spotting questions”), 80% of a company’s revenue comes from 20% of its customers, etc.

So how can we identify the 20% of vocabulary that appear 80% of the time to “hack Chinese”?

High-Frequency Characters

My first thought was to look for high-frequency characters. This is a common strategy for improving English vocabulary – by focusing on the most commonly words, kids are able to improve reading dramatically.

High frequency words are a common strategy for learning English

So surely this should work for Chinese?

I did some research on Chinese high-frequency lists, and a disclaimer I found is that high-frequency lists are extremely dependent on the material that the lists were derived from, as a list that is built from formal learning texts would differ from a list build from storybooks, etc. That introduces the problem below.

The unique difficulties facing Singaporean kids

If you are were born and raised in Singapore, you might not realise the peculiar challenges facing our children when they learn Chinese.

Singapore has one of the largest Overseas Chinese populations in the world and 70+% of our population is ethnically Chinese, yet the primary language used is English. Many of Singapore’s official Chinese textbooks, learning materials and standards are heavily influenced by China, yet the majority of our day-to-day reading is English.

Hence, materials created for native speakers in China and Taiwan are too difficult, while content meant for foreign learners are too simple. So how do we find a high-frequency list that is suitable for Singaporean kids?

Since we can code, the obvious first approach was to create our own high-frequency list based on the most common words that a P1 child would encounter.

Based on our experience, the typical P1 child mainly reads two things in Chinese: 1. the P1 textbook and 2. his or her Chinese homework (and yes, we agree this is a sad state of affairs). Thus, we created a text corpus by combining the P1A textbook together with the thousands of P1 questions in our digital database with appropriate weights. And lastly, we ran the text corpus into a frequency counter to derive the most common characters.

It’s extremely easy to create a frequency counter (this is for the textbook only)

Houston, we have a problem

And so I happily showed my teachers the list of 50 most common characters to my teachers. Only to sense a bit of reluctance.

“Dan, these characters might appear frequently, but some of these characters can be hard for young kids to visualise.”

– Teacher Jia Jia

Let’s look at the list of top 10 most common characters in the P1A textbook:

To an adult, characters like 什, 么, 是, 的 are obvious and it’s hard to imagine anyone struggling with them, but to a child, the easiest words to remember are concrete items, ideally things that they can see, touch, using multiple senses.

In addition, I neglected a key difference between English and Chinese. In English, words largely have distinct meanings, and combining different words typically does not change the meaning. In Chinese, each character is nuanced, and combining different characters together results in different meanings. Even 上楼 and 楼上 have different meanings, despite comprising the same characters.


Introducing chunking, a memory technique where we take individual pieces of information and group them intro larger units to make remembering easier. For instance, it’s much easier to remember a phone number if we break it down into chunks (9120-62-62) than if we tried to remember the sequence 9-1-2-0-6-2-6-2.

Similarly, from experience, students tend to find it easier to remember Chinese phrases (词语) that consist of two characters rather than individual characters. In addition, phrases tend to have a specific meaning that don’t change based on the following character, making it easier for students to remember.

Approach #2 – High Frequency Phrases

Given the above, we decided to try an alternative approach of looking at high frequency phrases instead of characters. While this made sense from an pedagogical perspective, it introduced coding challenges.

Given a sentence “我喜欢上学”, determining how frequent a character appeared was trivial since each character is a single unit. So the characters “我”, “喜”, “欢”, “上”, “学” each appear once.

But how about phrases? A human could easily tell you that the above sentence contains “喜欢” and “上学”, but how would a computer know that an item like “欢上” is invalid? What about the phrase “喜欢上”?

One approach would be to have a human manually inspect and split every sentence into characters and phrases (e.g. converting the above to “我”, “喜欢”, “上学”), before using the frequency converter, though this would take an extremely long time.

I won’t bore you with exact implementation details, except to say that we created a reusable program that allows us to quickly determine high-frequency phrases from any body of text. We will be revisiting this topic in near future because while high-frequency phrases will seem extremely simple to an adult, revising them is extremely high-value if your child has limited time.

What did you think of our approach? Feel free to leave us a comment with your feedback and suggestions!

Wordle For Primary School Students

Wordle has been taking the world by storm. If you haven’t heard about it, it’s a daily word game where you need to guess a five letter word within six tries. It’s fun, addictive and quite a good way to revise vocabulary.

As a principal of a Chinese enrichment centre, I naturally looked for Chinese versions of Wordle to help students revise. Unfortunately, while there are Chinese Wordle clones, most of them focus on idioms (成语), and are far too difficult for Singaporean Primary School students.

Thus over CNY, we created a Chinese Wordle clone aimed at helping P1-P6 students revise daily. The game tests one phrase a day taken from the MOE syllabus, and can be completed within a minute. Fast, effortless revision, with the goal of making your child feel good about his or her Chinese. The game is completely free and requires no login, so if you find it cool, please share with your friends.

In the remainder of this post, I go into more details about the approach and problems I face in the process of creating Chinese Wordle. Continue reading if you want to know how the sausage gets made.


I love Wordle – I play it daily, and my sister and I like to compete to see who solves it faster.

When creating a Chinese version of Wordle (KidStartNow Wordle), we had two main goals. Firstly, we want students to experience the same sense of excitement we got when we successfully solved an English Wordle, the satisfaction of “feeling smart”. If students feel good about successfully solving a KidStartNow Wordle, then they will hopefully be more willing to practise Chinese.

Secondly, we want kids to practise vocabulary. As previously mentioned, improving vocabulary is one of the fastest ways to getting better at Chinese, just that the process can be tiresome. A daily 1-min practise session is a great way to help students revise.

However, when I tried a number of Chinese Wordle clones, I often felt frustration rather than enjoyment. Why?


Most Chinese versions of Wordle focus on idioms (成语), and if you tried it, you probably experienced the demoralising feeling of staring at a whole line of Chinese characters, trying to form a valid idiom.

Some versions have 20 characters to choose from, and trying to form idioms is hard because a) idioms are naturally more difficult and you can ONLY form idioms using the 20 characters given (think Scrabble), and b) most adults can only hold 5 to 9 items in their short-term memory, as proposed by Harvard Professor George Miller (this is also why many students struggle with 组词成句).

Try forming an idiom from these characters

You might think – the alphabet has 26 letters, isn’t that worse? No, because you can input any 5-letter word to reduce the word pool, and most Wordle players have go-to starter words like ADIEU or SOARE. Players also have heuristics like using common consonants to strategically remove characters, making Wordle’s difficulty curve smoother and more enjoyable. None of these work for Chinese versions.


The first design decision we made was to test two-character phrase (词语) rather than four-character idioms (成语). This would mean fewer number of characters to choose from, and would make initial guessing less frustrating for students. From an academic standpoint, there are significantly more phrases than idioms to practise in the MOE syllabus.

The second design decision was to only take words from the MOE syllabus to make the material more relevant to students. Currently, only words from P1-3 are utilised, and there is no differentiation by level, though Upper Primary words can easily be added if people find this game useful.

Attempt 1 – Simple Pairing

Our initial approach was to randomly select four phrases (词语), and use their characters as the choices. For instance, if we selected 军人, 超市, 生日, and 下雨, then we could use the eight characters as the choice pool.

A choice pool created by combining four distinct phrases

However, after testing, we found that this simple approach didn’t work well. This creates a game where students need to find pairs, and since each character is only used in one phrase, they wouldn’t be able to use the Wordle colors (i.e. green colour for a correct word and position, yellow for a correct word but wrong position) to strategically guess a word.

Attempt 2 – Clustering

The next algorithm we tried was to select a “seed” character (e.g. 道), randomly select phrases that utilised the character (e.g. 味道,街道,知道), and then used them to form a word pool (味, 道,街,知).

This approach had several benefits: firstly, guessing feels simpler. Secondly, there are opportunities for students to get characters correct (green, yellow) without guessing the full word and makes the process more fun. Lastly, this helps kids revise vocabulary through the process of 连词/扩词, and is similar to how we teach vocabulary in the classroom.

Attempt 3 – Refactoring

While the previous attempt was an improvement, there were still several issues. Firstly, what is the best way to select a “seed” character? What if the “seed” character has minimal phrases?

One way we solved the problem was to use a frequency counter to count all lower primary school words (e.g. the word ‘子’ appears in 19 phrases), and only consider characters that met a threshold number of phrases.

The second problem was slightly more tricky: how do you determine if a child’s inputted word is valid? For instance, using the above approach, we started with two “seed” characters (生, 上), and for each character, we generate a list of three valid words (and four characters for the choice pool).

But do you notice the problem?

Six words and eight characters

What if a student forms a valid phrase that does not exist within the MOE syllabus? For instance, 上身 or 晚生 are also valid words. It would be academically misleading to say the phrase is invalid just because it’s not taught in primary schools.

To solve this, we combined the MOE syllabus with CEDICT, an online Chinese dictionary (with > 120k entries!!) to ensure users could enter valid phrases that don’t appear in the MOE syllabus. Problem solved!


If you have read to this point, please take a minute to try out KidStartNow Wordle, and please share if you found it helpful. Practising takes just 1 min, and is completely free with no login. Fast, effortless revision, with the goal of making your child feel good about his or her Chinese.

How to help your child excel at vocab

Your child struggles with Chinese vocab and you don’t know how best to help them.

If this describes you, keep reading to find out why improving vocab is the simplest way to get your child to enjoy and excel at Chinese and the steps you can take to help them today. To help busy parents, we are providing you with free Silver Membership to our AI-learning portal that allows your kids to easily revise and remember vocab.


Weak vocabulary makes reading hard. If your child can’t read, paper 2, especially comprehension (which makes up 21% of total marks), becomes a challenge. Not to mention, a weak vocab foundation makes it hard to score in composition and oral, which many kids also struggle with

The importance of vocab has been proven by many studies, including one by Harvard Professor Dr. Vicki A. Jacobs, who says that, “vocabulary explains 70-80% of reading comprehension, and accounts for a significant amount of verbal ability, a strong predictor of […] academic achievement.”

Naturally, kids with poor vocab tend to dislike learning Chinese – trying to force ourselves to use words we can’t read or recognise is as painful as pulling teeth. Put ourselves in their shoes, when was the last time we, as parents, read a Chinese novel or news article. For the typical young Singaporean parent, it’s probably “so many years ago, I can’t remember anymore”. You probably don’t bother, especially if it’s too hard. 

The paradox of ting xie (spelling)

A common problem parents face is that kids can get full marks for ting xie when we practice with them, but they forget it almost immediately. Why is it that a child can ace spelling, while still having weak vocab. 

The reason is called the Forgetting Curve – that when anyone learns something, he or she forgets half of it within a day, and almost all of it by next week. This was first mooted by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885. 

This is why kids 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 school and enrichment.

Instead, what works best is regular revision over multiple sessions – as you can see from the graph, the more we revise each word, the deeper it is embedded in our memory. 

But we know it can be a tall order. Practically speaking, most parents focus on this week’s ting xie, which is more pressing, and leave past words for the next revision period. 

Lack of organic exposure to Chinese

The struggle with vocab is more obvious now, with more kids speaking English at home. In 2000, 30% of kids spoke mainly English at home; now, 80% of kids do.

To make things worse, most Singaporean children dislike reading Chinese books. Reading is extremely important in language learning, to increase vocab, sentence structure and fluency. But, this is a chicken-and-egg problem: students should read more to improve their vocabulary but reading is hard if their vocabulary isn’t already decent. This is especially true for primary school students, who unlike preschool kids, rarely use animated stories, reader pens or have parents reading to then


So does improving vocabulary help solve most of the common problems our children face with Chinese?

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. 

But we hear you say “I know building vocabulary is important, but I don’t know how to help my child”. Here are some suggestions.

Step 1. Identify the correct areas to revise

First, we should identify the vocab area to focus on depending on your child’s standard. 

If they are quite weak and struggle with language use (语文应用) in Paper 2, this is probably because they have forgotten many of the words taught. We should focus on rebuilding fundamentals by practising the keywords from the textbook and 词语手册 and be sure to revise words from previous levels as well. If your child is going to P6 next year, it’s helpful to revise P3/4 words during the break. 

But if your child is comfortable with language use questions, but loses marks from harder sections like comprehension and cloze passage, focus on the 深广portions of the textbook (optional harder versions of each chapter). Also encourage your child to read material outside the textbook like storybooks to increase vocab organically.

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

If your child is more advanced, then the next step is to accumulate extra-curricular vocabulary. To get the AL1, memorisation is unavoidable. The fastest way to do so is by reading/memorising model compo passages and good phrases (好词佳句, 默写). Your child can also supplement this with a regular diet of Chinese stories, and self prompts on where and when to use these phrases.

But we don’t recommend that students overly focus on memorisation of compo passages until they are comfortable with their textbook material – that would be putting the cart before the horse.

Common ProblemsHas problems understanding some parts of Paper 2, and unable to answer Cloze Passage or Comprehension questions. Able to get most of Paper 2 questions correct, with weaknesses in certain sections like sentence structure (造句)and Cloze Passage.
Loses marks in Comprehension due to not fully understanding the passage or lacking the answering techniques.
Scoring near full marks for Paper 2 excluding Comprehension
Comprehension is usually not too big a problem except for the last question.
Most marks lost in compo.
Vocabulary FocusFocus on rebuilding fundamental vocabulary like high-frequency words, as well as previous and current levels’ textbook wordsFocus on both the core textbook words as well as the extension sections (深广, 扩词). Focus on extra-curricular vocabulary like compo-specific idioms and phrases (好词佳句), and model passages.

Step 2. Engagement is key

The real hard step is how to persuade our kids to revise, especially those who dislike Chinese. Based on the Forgetting Curve, we know that students need regular bite-sized revision sessions in order to firmly remember vocab. 

And while there are some children who are naturally self-motivated to revise Chinese, the vast majority of us parents struggle with trying to convince our children to practise Chinese.

That’s why we started KidStartNow 9 years ago. Our vision is to help our children love and excel at Chinese by combining great teachers with technology, through great classroom lessons and finding ways to encourage students to revise regularly.


Over the years, we noticed two interesting points: firstly, it’s much easier for preschoolers to enjoy learning Chinese, but once they enter primary school, their attitudes to Chinese change dramatically.

Secondly, while many primary school students dislike Math, online portals like Koobits and Prodigy have successfully convinced hundreds of thousands of children to revise Math even though they normally don’t like Math.

That was an aha moment for us: “what if we make revising Chinese as fun as playing a game?

10 minutes of practice a day

Over the last year, we built a Chinese equivalent of Koobits for our students, and we found most students who practised just 10 mins a day saw tremendous improvement in vocab, language skills and language confidence.

And to thank your loyal blog-readers, we want to help your kids also easily revise and remember vocab, and will provide you with a free Silver Membership to our AI-learning portal. Simply fill up the form at the end of the post and we will reply to you in 2 working days.

Portal Introduction

Our portal is divided into two sections: the first is an academic section where your child can do vocabulary daily challenges, read stories and watch short videos on compo and comprehension (P1-P4). This academic portal is more suited for traditional revision like Ezhishi or MC Online, and is geared towards preschoolers or primary school students who are quite willing to revise Chinese already.

Pet Collection Battle

However, as mentioned above, many students do not like revising Chinese and require a more engaging format to entice them to learn. That is why we created a more gamified revision section that can be accessed by clicking the “NEW PET BATTLE” in our portal.

In the Pet Battle, your child takes on the role of  an aspiring pet collector (think Pokémon). The goal is to become the greatest collector by capturing and training pets, and the way to do that is to answer Chinese questions.

How to play?

When your child first logs into Pet Battle, he or she gets to choose between two starter pets – Burnox and Flamebun. Don’t bother, you will soon get a chance to capture many other types of pets.

After you choose your pet, you enter the game and can choose what to do. Currently, the game has three different game modes – Quick Play, Realm Battle and Arena (unlocked after level 10).

Quick Play

The goal of the Quick Play mode is to help students revise vocab from their textbook by answering ten short questions.

Students will be first tested on whether they can recognise the sound of a word (e.g. be able to pronounce 浇 when they see the character). After that, we will test whether they actually know  its meaning (e.g. to water) and then help them expand their vocabulary with 词语搭配 (e.g. 浇花, 浇水). Importantly, each time your child answers a question, our AI algorithm is tracking his or her progress, and will use Machine Learning to personalise a learning journey just for your child.

Realm Battle

In this mode, your child will first select one of his or her pets, and use it to engage in battles with wild pets – the goal is to capture the wild pets by defeating them. Before the start of each round, your child will be given a Chinese question – if your child answers correctly, the pet will attack successfully, while answering wrongly means the pet will miss.

To capture more pets, simply do more Realm battles!

Levelling & Merging

Did you notice that there are different stages in the Realm Battle mode, and some of the wild pets have higher levels? 

Every pet has a level and a star rating, and can grow in strength by eating bamboo that is obtained from winning battles and logging in daily. In addition, you can evolve your pet to the next star rating by merging 3 or 5 copies of a pet (hint: do more realm battles to obtain more copies).

To level or merge a pet, click on the “PETS” tab on the main page.


So how does one become the World’s Strongest Pet Collector? After your child has collected a team of strong pets, it’s time to test themselves against other players in The Arena. 

Gain trophies by winning Arena battles, and they will be given attractive rewards at the end of each season based on trophies. Just like the other modes, the more Chinese questions you answer correctly, the higher the chance of winning.


In a nutshell, the secret to success in Chinese is building a strong vocabulary foundation, and the way to do so is by a) selecting the right material to revise, and b) scheduling regular practice sessions to beat the Forgetting Curve.

It can be a challenge for many parents to get their children to revise Chinese, which is why we built a Chinese equivalent of Koobits to encourage healthy revision habits. Over the last year, we found most students who practised just 10 mins a day saw tremendous improvement in vocab, language skills and language confidence.

To thank your loyal blog-readers, we want to help your kids also easily revise and remember vocab, and will provide you with a free Silver Membership to our AI-learning portal. Simply fill up the form at the end of the post and we will reply to you in 2 working days.

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.


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 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 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
Cinderella NovelPrincessNoYes
Frozen NovelPrincessNoYes

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


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).


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.

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.


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.


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. 


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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)


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.


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.

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.


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.

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