[lg policy] Singapore: Chinese in schools to undergo changes

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Jan 3 14:17:05 UTC 2010

Chinese in schools to undergo changes

By Amelia Tan

CHINESE language teaching and examinations here are about to undergo a
sea change as Singapore educators grapple with the broad band of
Chinese students who speak mainly English at home. Education Minister
Ng Eng Hen did not give a date for when changes will start, but gave
assurances that students will be given time to adapt. He offered a
glimpse yesterday of what is to come: a more systematic look at a
student's language abilities from Primary 1, with teaching modes that
will vary right through secondary school. While students and parents
are no strangers to language curriculum changes in recent years, what
will be novel to them is a change in the way proficiency in the
Chinese language is tested.

The committee to review the language is looking at models from China,
the United States and Switzerland, which have tests and programmes
that are less focused on writing, and more targeted to help students
use the language. 'The review is still in exploratory mode but we are
interested in these other systems as they are more tailored for
students with home language environments that approximate a growing
segment of our students,' said Dr Ng at a ceremony to appoint 68
principals, including 35 first-time principals.
Language policy has been a difficult terrain for the ministry to
navigate given that the English-speaking want its teaching focused on
more workaday use, while the Chinese intelligentsia want students
imbued with more than a foundation in the language.

Baby steps taken since a 2004 review include the use of English to
teach Chinese in selected primary schools and raising the oral
component in examinations. More details on future changes will be
announced during the debate on the ministry's budget in March next
year. Yesterday, Dr Ng re-affirmed Singapore's commitment to the
bilingual policy, which he said needs a decisive response to deal with
the 'new reality': the predominance of the English language in more
Chinese, Indian and Malay homes. 'Teaching a student Chinese language
as a second language is fundamentally different from teaching a
student whose mother tongue is Chinese. Our teaching approaches must
reflect this.'

In essence, the approaches require an acknowledgment that those
starting school have different grasps of the language and more
customised teaching is needed to keep the language alive for them
through their school years. Dr Ng is in favour of letting students
learn the language at their own pace, while pushing the most
proficient ones as far as they can go. He cited China's Hanyu Shuiping
Kaoshi, a language proficiency examination for non-Chinese with
progressively higher levels of achievement, as one testing model the
committee is looking at. 'Students will progress at different speeds
to reach different levels, but all will be encouraged to go as high as
they can or want,' he noted.

Two other models cited: the International Baccalaureate (IB) Language
B programme and Advanced Placement method that is used across the US
and Canada. Senior Minister of State for Education Grace Fu told
reporters in Mandarin after the ceremony that changes in teaching
methods do not mean a drop in language standards. 'We are looking at
ways to allow higher ability students to be stretched to their fullest
potential but we want the average ones to have an acceptable standard
of Chinese too.'  Some semblance of customised teaching is already in
place in schools such as Bendemeer Secondary, where Chinese language
students have been grouped into weak, average and high ability based
on their Secondary One language examinations since 2005.

The stronger classes have about 30 students while the rest have about
20 so teachers can spend more time with them. The school has moved its
average pass rate for O-level Chinese up from 97.7 per cent before
2004 to 99.6 per cent since. Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) uses
the IB Language B programme to teach Chinese. Student Reuben Ong, 17,
who sat for the examinations this year, said: 'We hardly use the
textbook, which is different from O levels. There is less emphasis on
vocabulary learning and more on actually using the language. 'When
writing compositions, there is an additional criterion called cultural
interaction, that measures how much you understand of Chinese

This article was first published in The Straits Times.


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