As the year comes to a close, students are rejoicing over finally taking a break after a long academic year. While some students may be done with the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE), Primary 4 and 5 students are the ones who will be embarking on an important learning journey for the next 1-2 years to prepare for the PSLE. Choosing to join educational learning camps may be beneficial, but what are some practices parents and students can employ at home to help students who find the English language challenging? We find out more about tackling comprehension and composition writing from the Head of the British Council’s Primary Courses, Charlie Spiller!
What are some of the common challenges students face in composition writing?
One of the key challenges that our students face is generating a variety of creative ideas for what to write, hence we place a lot of focus on building their pool of general knowledge. With deep and extensive general knowledge, students will be able to write richer compositions. Other common challenges are elaborating on a point, and generating sufficient writing.
In British Council’s new Upper Primary course, we focus a great deal on building up general knowledge for more in-depth compositions, and facilitating discussions on ideas among the students to help them refine their composition plans. This gives them a firm foundation as they progress onto their PSLE year, where our focus shifts to intensive exam preparation. Once a student has begun to build their background knowledge, they can begin to create a bank of techniques which will help refine their writing.
What techniques can be used to help students overcome these hurdles?
“This is a draft.” Always view your written work as a draft, so that you’re ready to make improvements on what you’ve written.
Learn to self-critique. Looking for errors can sometimes be a bit of a waste of time. It’s unlikely you can correct what you don’t know, but you can read your own work and see whether you liked it or not. Did it engage you? Why? What changes can you make to improve it?
Have I chosen the best word? The best writers manage to choose words, especially descriptive ones that continue the imagery. For example: “The old hag bucked and shied and snorted.” Why is this description of the Grandmother from George’s Marvellous Medicine so clever? The clue is not that the verbs are interesting!
What do students have to look out for when tackling comprehension?
- Look out for misreading or misinterpreting the question, because it means that you’ll be looking for the wrong information in the text. All the necessary information is in the question. This includes the verb tense, the number of points, the question word and other clues. Focusing carefully on the question can help students ensure they are addressing every part.
- Beware, especially, questions containing negative forms. This does not always mean the verb but negative prefixes too. For example: “What evidence suggests the author doesn’t believe…?” or: “Why do you think the author is unsure about this?”
- Inference is not a guess! The dictionary definition is about conclusions that come from evidence and reasoning. Consequently, it is important to be able to justify your answer.
What are some common mistakes students should avoid in comprehension?
Avoid grammatical and spelling errors in your written answers. With spelling in particular, if the answer has come from the text, unlike composition, there is no excuse not to check! This careful checking can also lead students to points they might otherwise miss.
Why do students tend to overlook these points in comprehension?
Comprehension in school can feel like a bit of a race. Teachers will tell you that giving a text to a class will result in a few seconds of silence followed by staggered yells of “done” “finished” “I’m DONE”. In many cases, the ‘winners’ have only read the text at a very mechanical and superficial level. The best readers are not the ones who can decode the fastest. They are the ones who ponder the use of a certain image choice, wonder how the tone is related to the audience, who make connections between the text they are reading and others that they also know. Teaching close reading skills in most instances requires students to slow down and learn frameworks for properly analysing texts but the ‘reading race’ attitude can also impact their ability to comprehend questions, spot small details e.g. prefixes; reading superficially means that students have to guess and not infer meaning. There really is something to the hare and tortoise story…
How can parents help their children with English at home?
- Live writing: Sit with your child to write a response to the task. This won’t be easy but the important thing is seeing it as a draft – write quickly together and then revise it together, looking for improvements and so ‘teach’ the notion of reflection, critique and language choice. It doesn’t have to be the whole composition, working together on constructing a good introduction can get your child started well with the confidence to continue.
- Writing prompts: This is a technique that we use a lot at the British Council to improve both complexity and variety of grammar, style and encourage our students to choose their language more carefully. Choose 6 writing prompts (customisable) and give them a number e.g. 1) begin your sentence with ‘despite’; 2) your sentence should include a simile; 3) your sentence should be 7 words; 4) use the rule of three; 5) your sentence should contain onomatopoeia; 6) your sentence should contain direct speech.
- When your child gets their work back from the teachers, or shows you a first draft of their homework, select a sentence they have written and roll a dice. The challenge is to re-write just that sentence, using the prompt but keeping the meaning the same.
- Encourage a personal response about the texts: Finishing comprehension questions can seem like the end of the task. Once scores are given often there is no reason to return to the work, but asking children what they learned, what they liked and what was surprising forces students to re-read, and more deeply. The question should always be “Why? Tell me the evidence for this.”
- Fill in the knowledge gaps: The more your child knows, the more he or she will be able to impress the examiner not just with technically good language, but with in-depth ideas. As adults, we know more than our children about a wider variety of themes so, tell them about them…or at least provide your perspective.
What are some unconventional methods to help students increase their interest in improving their language skills?
We hear a lot of parents bemoaning their children’s reading habits especially those who enjoy graphic novels. Yes, Shakespeare would indeed be more of an enriching choice for everyone but it does need to be read properly, at an appropriate age with support and discussion. Highbrow literature they might not be, but graphic novels do have potential, especially for composition.
Most frames are limited to the dialogue. The setting information, character description, how the dialogue was expressed are made explicit by the imagery. It is absolutely possible to take a frame and construct a short written piece containing all of the above but in narrative form. For example, what reporting verb would best show how the dialogue was said; can the expression of the character be explained; what is happening in the background? The picture offers a good reference point for self-critique.
Advertising is everywhere in Singapore. It represents a goldmine for developing language skills. Adverts on the MRT, specials boards and menus in restaurants, shop signs, fire-safety signs, to name but a few, are everywhere. They are all technically visual texts.
The purpose of the task is for students to construct meaning from a combination of text and graphic features. Next time you are waiting for the waiter to take your order, have another look at the menu and think about which part of the menu your eye was drawn to first, how the various dishes are organized, the names given to meals which can be a stylistic goldmine containing alliteration, puns, etc. The real challenge is to consider how you (and the family) might improve on it. In fact, you might offer your ideas and boost your bank balance in the process!