Mon, Nov 09, 2009
The Straits Times
Have English standards REALLY fallen?

By Rachel Chang

TEN-YEAR-OLD Daniel Lo Tern Xuan is pretending to be a leatherback turtle in an English-language class on a sleepy Friday morning at Princess Elizabeth Primary School in Bukit Batok.

He stands on a raised platform in the library with his classmates seated on the floor in front of him. Hands spring up. His eyes dart around.

'How long can you hold your breath underwater?' 'How much can leatherback turtles eat?' The questions come fast and furious.

Daniel fields them like someone used to being in the spotlight. Some of the information he spouts is from a big book which the class had read together in a previous session. But a lot of his knowledge comes from the reptile books he devours at home. Reptiles are a big passion of his.

In all likelihood, Daniel was specially chosen to be in 'the hot seat' while his classmates put on their most enthusiastic behaviour before the flashing camera.

But there is no denying the exceptional articulateness of Daniel and his interrogators, all of whom speak clearly and in full sentences.

Daniel is in a Primary 4 class that was among the first to pilot the English curriculum known as Stellar - Strategies for English Language and Learning - in 2006, together with Primary 1 classes in 90 other schools.

This year, Stellar was put in place nationwide. It is now the official primary school curriculum for the English language.

Stellar is the first major salvo to be fired in the fight by the Ministry of Education (MOE) against a perceived fall in English standards. Next year, a new English-language curriculum for secondary schools will be implemented.

English language and linguistics is now being taught at A level in six junior colleges. Oral skills are being expanded to account for a larger percentage of the grade. On the cards is an English Language Institute of Singapore to train specialist teachers and house linguistic experts. These far-reaching policy changes are in response to what seems like a collective national angst about falling standards of English - an outcry that is heard once every few years.

As Straits Times Review editor and wordsmith Janadas Devan noted in 2007, the two topics that Singaporeans are most interested in are sex and language.

This weeping and gnashing of teeth seems to rest on the assumption that standards of English have actually plunged.

Based on letters to The Straits Times Forum page alone, the anecdotal evidence appears persuasive. Everyone - from the English-language teacher to the veteran journalist and the public relations practitioner - has jumped on the bandwagon to lament the standard of English. In 1999, even then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong wanted to send popular television character Phua Chu Kang back to school.

But like it or not, the numbers contradict this assumption. In 1990, 92.5 per cent of pupils taking the Primary School Leaving Examination scored grades ranging from A* to C for English as a subject. In 1998, this rose to 98.1 per cent, and it has since hovered at that near-perfect level.

In 1990, the pass rate for O-level English was 65.1 per cent. It jumped to 70.2 per cent in 1998 and 96.1 per cent in 2007.

In the Progress In International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, Singaporean children have been climbing up the ranks.

Pirls tests the literacy of some 215,000 10-year-olds in 45 school systems worldwide. Overall, Singapore jumped from 15th place in 2001 to 4th in 2006.

Among those taking the Pirls test in English, Singapore was placed sixth in a field of seven in 2001. In 2006, it was second in a field of 12, beating countries like the United States and Britain.

So given these findings, why all the agonising?

Grade inflation

OF COURSE, numbers are only one part of the story.

For one thing, Singaporean children are very good at taking exams, and they receive a lot more help than their counterparts in many other English-speaking countries, be it in tuition and enrichment courses, or remedial classes, model-answer sheets and parental support.

Another issue is grade inflation, a phenomenon in which high grades are given to work which may, in the past, have scored lower. That there are too many As is a hot topic in the United States and Britain as well.

Plausible causes of grade inflation include politically correct educators who look for the positive and not the negative in a piece of work. Teachers, too, may push scores up because the grades are one of the benchmarks by which their courses and performance are evaluated.

Another big factor accounting for rising grades is that students know the right way to read and write, and can regurgitate accordingly in exams. But this style of rote-learning actually stops them from engaging the language.

'The way English is 'taught to the exam', you might argue that it's not a living language to students. It's something you do to pass the PSLE,' says Mr Keith Prince, an Englishman who came to Singapore to teach English 28 years ago, and has since stayed through stints at Raffles Junior College, Anglo-Chinese Junior College, and now River Valley High.

This challenge did not go undetected by policymakers at the highest level. From 2001 to 2005, a massive internal study involving 11,000 schoolchildren was carried out by MOE.

As Dr Elizabeth Pang, director of Stellar, relates: 'From the situation on the ground, we knew we wanted to fix this problem. The study gave us the evidence.'

This study, conducted with Britain's National Foundation for Educational Research, looked at language ability in totality. There are four components: reading, listening, speaking and writing.

Listening and reading skills - what educators call 'receptive' skills, as they involve students taking in the language - have improved. Grammatical knowledge has risen in standard as well.

It was the 'productive' skills of speaking and writing, when children need to form and construct language often in real time, that were the problem areas.

These findings are consistent with the 'living language' hypothesis.

Speaking and writing abilities are dynamic, and flourish only in constant and evolving usage.

To the outsider, Stellar looks, well, not like school. There are no textbooks or worksheets. Pupils tell and listen to stories. They wear masks and costumes; nobody is told to be quiet. They often engage in public speaking - in Princess Elizabeth, children produce segments for a radio station and TV channel.

As Mr Prince explains: 'What many Singaporean parents don't realise is that a lot that appears to be 'play, play' is actually serious pedagogy.'

Still, it must be noted that the study did not show that speaking and writing skills have deteriorated, but that they have merely stagnated for some groups, according to Dr Pang.

Put simply, while receptive skills charged ahead, productive ones had lagged behind. And because speaking and writing are the first and most obvious indicators of ability, the belief that the standard of English is falling takes on a sheen of truth.

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