By Clarissa Oon
THE AVERAGE JOE
Most Chinese Singaporean students who study the language up to A level fall into this category.
They can speak and understand conversational Mandarin, but stumble when it comes to reading Chinese newspapers and literature or writing business letters.
It is not a surprise as the focus of the current Chinese curriculum is more on helping them attain basic competency in speaking and reading, than on writing.
'If this group, which constitutes roughly 70 per cent of all students, is able to write a clear and coherent personal letter, that is good enough,' says Mr Lim Chin Nam, 57, master teacher of Chinese at Raffles Girls' Secondary School.
How to guide them: Instructional materials provided by the Ministry of Education are adequate, but teachers should also aim to cultivate a reading habit.
The focus should be on imparting basic language skills.
This includes stressing from primary-school level that pupils speak Mandarin in complete sentences and can elaborate on what they mean, says Miss Ho Boon Sim, 40, Chinese head of department in Shuqun Primary School.
THE WEAK AND UNINTERESTED
No exposure to the language at home and the English-speaking culture of some mission schools can produce weak students uninterested in Chinese.
This small but not insignificant minority struggle to pass examinations and may not even understand their exam papers.
'When reading a passage aloud, they often skip words and can read only the characters for 'you', 'me' and other very simple words,' says Mr Lim.
How to guide them: Teachers should give them individual attention, like grouping them into small class sizes, says Dr Chin Chee Kuen, executive director of the new Singapore Centre for Chinese Language.
They should also choose simple passages for these students and slowly build up their language skills.
THE STAR PERFORMERS
Those who take Higher Chinese, which is about one in four students, can express themselves fluently.
They read Chinese newspapers easily and appreciate quality Chinese programmes such as xiangsheng (crosstalk).
'With hard work and coaching, the top 5 per cent of this group may even reach close to mother-tongue fluency in the language,' says Mr Lim.
Higher Chinese is offered to Express-stream students who are good in the language.
It can be taken at more than half of the 160 secondary schools here.
How to guide them: Teachers have more freedom to choose extra materials for this group, says Dr Chin.
These could include more difficult works by renowned Chinese writers, to further improve the students' reading and writing skills.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on September 13, 2008.
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