by Amelia Tan
FOR nine weeks each year, Primary 3 and 4 pupils at North View Primary ditch their English textbooks for novels such as Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and Charlotte's Web.
Using such books, as well as activities such as staging skits and singing songs, the children learn writing techniques, reading skills and how to analyse story-book characters.
The school in Yishun is among many across the island that have begun programmes to raise the standard of spoken English among students, an area of concern within education circles.
Just last month, Education Minister Ng Eng Hen said during his ministry's annual workplan seminar that improving the standard of spoken English among students will be a key goal for schools in the years to come, and that teachers should achieve this by providing more opportunities for students to speak up.
Principals and teachers interviewed agreed that standards have slipped, but added that the new programmes were beginning to bear fruit.
They say that in the past, many of their students spoke ungrammatically, were not confident when expressing their thoughts and peppered their speech with Singlish, even in formal settings.
But moves to stem the decline, such as conducting movie-making programmes, and getting authors, actors and journalists to work with the students on projects, have helped.
The teachers said students who have participated in their programmes speak confidently and coherently now. Some have also seen their English grades improve.
At North View Primary, less-than-stellar Primary School Leaving Examination results provided a wake-up call: The number of pupils in the school who scored A or A* for English was lower than the national average of 44 per cent.
Said the school's head of department for English and literacy, Mrs Lynette Sivakumar: 'Besides grades, we knew from speaking with the children that English standards had to be improved. For example, they made mistakes such as pronouncing 'mother' as 'marder'. We cringed when we heard them speak.'
The school decided last year that it had to use curriculum time to expose the pupils to books, and launched its programme, which is funded by a $15,000 grant from the Ministry of Education (MOE).
Like North View, Canossa Convent Primary in Aljunied has also started a schoolwide programme to raise English standards.
It has enlisted the help of the National Library Board (NLB) and author Suchen Christine Lim.
NLB librarians visit the school every term with books for the girls to borrow, while Ms Lim has met pupils to get their feedback on one of her books - a way of improving their speaking skills.
Over at Yu Neng Primary in Bedok, books are all the rage. The school used a $16,000 grant from the MOE to fund reading programmes to buy more than 1,500 books. Each class is given a set of about 40 books. These are circulated within the class and returned to the school library at the end of the year.
For students at St Anthony's Canossian Secondary in Bedok, movies are a way to raise English standards.
Earlier this year, the school started a three-month movie-making programme for 40 Secondary 3 students.
The girls were asked to make five-minute films on social issues such as anorexia and maid abuse. The films were then showcased at a screening last month.
Ms Melanie Martens, the school's principal, said: 'By making their own movies, the girls learnt that they can have an opinion and develop it into something which others can appreciate. The teachers also raised them up in class as good role models. All of this helps them to believe in themselves, and make them more willing to express themselves.'
Feedback from students involved in the various projects is promising.
Rey Tan, nine, a Primary 3 pupil at North View Primary, said: 'I've learnt that I shouldn't stop reading when there are difficult words. I can guess the meaning of the words by reading the sentences that come after them.
'Now, I read books on my own and I've learnt new words.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.