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Learning and Teaching a World Language: Strengthening English in Singapore Schools

06 Jan 2011

Strengthening English

Good English allows you to connect to the world, says Mdm Low Khah Gek, Director of Curriculum Planning and Development at MOE.

Want to connect with the rest of the world? English is the key. It is everywhere. Road signs, new media platforms, international conferences, scientific and research and development journals - just name it. Today, English is the official language of over 80 countries and the lingua franca for communication between many people of different origins.

It goes without saying that learning to speak and write good English continues to be a prime focus as schools endeavour to prepare students for the demands of a globalised economy. In this two-part interview, Mdm Low Khah Gek, Director of Curriculum Planning and Development at MOE, shares some of the recent steps taken by MOE to boost English teaching and standards in schools.

Why is English vital to students today?

Mdm Low: The ability to use English is very important because it is the language of trade and business and allows us to communicate with the rest of the world. At international conferences, for example, a Singaporean who is fluent in English can immediately connect with a huge audience. English is therefore an asset and we want to ensure that it is taught and learnt well in schools.

Could you explain MOE's approach to teaching English?

Strengthening English

A mastery of English is a lifelong asset.

Mdm Low: We don't want students to look at English as 'just another subject' or 'just another examination.' They must understand that the language is in fact a skill that will be an asset for life and which enables them to be effective and productive in whatever they do. We want our students to view the learning of English as an investment.

Our approach to teaching the language is holistic and encompasses many things including getting students to use the language effectively and with confidence to communicate and express themselves.

How are English standards in Singapore schools today?

Mdm Low: In terms of reading literacy, our students have consistently done well in international benchmarking tests such as the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) for Pri 4 pupils and the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for 15-year olds.

Strengthening English

Singapore children score well in international reading literacy tests.

Considering that English is not our native language, we have made good progress in English proficiency as our students have out-performed those in countries where English is the mother tongue. While PIRLS and PISA focus on reading literacy, there are currently no international benchmark tests for spoken English or presentation skills. Thus, we have to monitor our progress in these areas and decide whether our students are up to par. I think there is room for improvement in delivery skills, namely speaking, presenting and writing.

Could you tell us about recent English Language programmes introduced to schools?

Mdm Low: At the Primary level, we want to ensure that all teachers adopt the same approach in establishing a strong foundation in the language among pupils. As a result, we developed the Strategies for English Language Learning and Reading or STELLAR programme. This is a deliberate effort to teach language skills to younger pupils using enlarged picture books or 'Big Books' that arouse their curiosity about what they are learning. The Big Books also build up the pupils' vocabulary and help to cultivate a love for reading.

We have also introduced 'shared writing' assignments within a class, in which pupils learn how to write effectively by reading through and editing each other's work. Another part of our efforts to put in place strong fundamental skills is to teach grammar explicitly. This equips students with the "language to talk about language."

Strengthening English

'Viewing' and 'representing' are skill sets that help one understand texts and express themselves more effectively.

In addition, we believe learning English cannot stop at the four basic skill sets - listening, speaking, reading and writing - but encompass two other skill sets: 'viewing' and 'representing.' Let me explain why. Our students are becoming exposed to a wide range of print and non-print media, from books and newspapers to websites, blogs and online forums. We want them to be able to not only read and understand, but to discern, infer and critique as well.

In 'viewing' for example, a student should be able to look beyond the text of an article to understand who the author is, whether the author represents a particular interest group, the target audience and the perhaps unstated purpose for the article. Students would thus learn to explore multiple perspectives and form their own independent views. In imparting the 'representing' skill, students learn to express their views and ideas in an effective and objective manner. For example, students will be taught to draw essential information from a variety of sources, select the most appropriate presentation forms, and structure their delivery for impact, whether in an oral presentation or role-play.

We also hope that students will learn the importance of using the appropriate type of language in different social settings and contexts. For instance, the tone and type of language used when writing a report has to be different from writing a blog. Viewing and representing are hence vital skills for our students in the 21st century and are included in the new 2010 English Language syllabus.