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Real Life Accounts of Student Learning (PSLE & O Levels) – 8 Learning Points

Time flies and the year 2016 is coming to an end. Before the year comes to a close, I’d like to sum up some of the highs and lows of the year. Yes, results are important. But I think what will be beneficial for everyone is to learn what contributes to the success of the child. On the flip side, if a child fails to improve or perform up to expectations, we shouldn’t take the easy way out and just sweep everything under the rug. For sure, difficult as it may be, there are valuable lessons just round the corner, ready to be devoured if you are hungry enough. Before I continue, let’s just quickly say that from this point on, all names mentioned are fictitious to protect the identities of the students. I have, however, tried my best to make the accounts of my students’ learning as accurate as possible. Everything you read from hereon is based on real life experiences.


Complain Queen

This student started out really well. I thought she was well behaved and rather cooperative. However, as time passed and we got to know each other better, her true colors started to show. Like many playful children, Queen resisted homework. Usually, for most of my students, a little persuasion will do the trick. I discovered that Queen didn’t need a little persuasion – she needed A LOT of persuasion. Every time I start to give her homework, she would complain and kick up a fuss. She would kick up an even bigger fuss if the homework is challenging. It’s her defense mechanism for worming out of having to do homework. I am guessing that whenever she is asked to perform some task that she doesn’t like, she kicks up a big fuss.

If Queen knows her work, I would probably let things slide a little. The problem is, she tends to be careless and forgetful. Therefore, she really needs to keep up her daily practice. Fortunately, her mother is supportive. One day, after the lesson ended, I asked the mum to sit with us for a few moments. I then took the opportunity to highlight the problems that I was facing with the child. I told her, quite plainly, that Queen complained too much and that she was starting to throw tantrums. That was NOT the type of behavior that would help her learning.

With the mother’s full knowledge and support, I continued to dish out daily practice exercises for Queen. Somewhat grudgingly, she conceded and her behavior started to improve after our little chat. When I first started teaching Queen, she was getting borderline passes for her English. After a few months of tuition, she managed to clear her SA1 quite confidently. However, to push her grades up to a high B or even an A requires monumental effort. Two main obstacles stand in the way.

First, Queen was generally quite content with a pass grade. With such unambitious goals, it was becoming harder to motivate her.

Second, even though Queen’s behavior had improved dramatically, she was still rather resistant to challenging exercises. Without the willingness to stretch herself, her progress grinds to a slow crawl.

For Queen’s final year exam, I told her mother that I predicted a score no higher than 65. From the last update, I learned that Queen had scored 59.5. That barely surpassed her SA1 results.

Queen has a lot of potential. She also has many positive personality traits. She is smart, witty and humorous. When she gets serious about her work, she can do really well. Seeing her potential, I cannot help but try to push her to realize her true potential. It remains to be seen if she will achieve distinction in the subject.

Honest Bob

Honest Bob is one of the most down-to-earth students that I have ever met. He is always honest and very obedient. He is hardworking and completes his homework without fail. Bob is the type of student who needs very clear instructions. If you tell him to do ‘one’, he will just do ‘one’. He will never do ‘two’ or even ‘three’. Despite his best efforts, he was failing miserably in the subject. I could see that he was losing hope and starting to give up on himself.

I started by going back to the basics to strengthen his foundation. My primary goal was to help him rebuild his confidence. It worked. By the time he sat for his SA1, he managed to pass his exam. Of course, he was over the moon. Then came the real challenge.

To push him up from a C grade to a B grade, having good grammar wasn’t enough. He needed to acquire the vocabulary and knowledge to improve on his essay writing and comprehension. Here is where his simplicity worked against him. In order to improve his writing, Bob needed to understand different ideas and concepts. For comprehension, he usually failed to detect nuances in the language that would help with his understanding. For the rest of the year, despite our best efforts, Bob continued to struggle in both areas.

In the end, I had to devise a strategy that worked for him. Time was not on our side. We stuck with the topics that he was good at, and continued to build on those areas. We kept polishing his writing until he felt more comfortable handling O levels paper 1. The goal was to get him as prepared as possible in areas that he had the best chance of doing well in.

When the O Levels came, Bob told me students were asked to write a speech for situational writing. At least we had done that before during practice. I remained optimistic about his passing chances. As of writing, the O Level results had not yet been released.

Rebel Yanny

You probably guessed from the name. Teaching teenagers can be difficult at times. Yanny happened to be a somewhat rebellious child. Every time you try to tell her something, she would talk back. Admittedly, Yanny is quite a smart student. She is in the Express stream, but being in a Chinese family puts her in a disadvantageous position. She was failing her exams when she came to me.

Based on her frequent ‘talk-backs’, it was obvious that Yanny is smart. The problem is, she knows that too. This is a trap that many smart students fall into. They tend to think that they already know what is being taught, and hence, they do not need to do homework. Yanny is a classic case. She will come for lessons with a ton of excuses for not completing her homework. In the beginning, knowing that older students do not respond well to the hard approach, I usually just chide her for not doing her work properly, and for not being responsible for her own work. However, things got from bad to worse. It got to the point where I felt that Yanny wasn’t learning anything from me due to her rebellious character. In fact, the situation had gotten so bad that I was forced to issue a stern warning to Yanny. If her attitude didn’t improve, she would be dropped from my class as I felt that I couldn’t help her anymore. As the exams were drawing near, I decided to include her parent in our Whatsapp homework group. We spoke briefly on the phone about the challenges that I was facing. She understood and asked me to continue teaching Yanny.

In the subsequent weeks, I noticed that Yanny had become more receptive to my teaching. She also completed her homework. I had the hardest time trying to get her to write something because she just hated writing. Due to lack of practice, her writing was horrendous. When she did submit an essay, I cut back on my criticism and tried to encourage her by praising her more on the areas that she did well in.

Being naturally smart, Yanny managed to pass both her SA1 and SA2 exams. Her SA2 grades edged up closer to the B grade. For her O Levels, I am concerned that her writing may pull down her overall grade. However, for the first time, I received an optimistic Whatsapp message from Yanny, informing me that she could pass her editing confidently.


Silly Jay Boy

Silly Jay Boy was an extremely sensitive student when I first started to teach him. I was told that he kept failing his English. At first, I thought he just needed to build on his foundation a little. I was dead wrong. Nothing could have prepared me for the challenges that I had to face for the rest of the year.

Sometimes, during lessons, I like to crack some jokes to keep the students engaged. However, being sensitive, Jay didn’t take the jokes too well and he got angry! Due to his moods, lessons progressed slowly. From conversations with his mother, I learned that Jay didn’t do well in a group tuition environment. Teachers complained about him, saying that he disturbed other students. Of course, Jay would deny everything. Behavioral issues were getting into the way of his learning.

On top of his behavioral issues, I soon learned that Jay had poor knowledge retention. At this point, most people would have given up on Jay. Overly-sensitive, slightly aggressive, attitude issue, and poor knowledge retention – all the ingredients of a hard-to-teach student.

Instead of giving up on Jay, I decided to tackle one issue at a time. In order to be able to teach effectively, I needed Jay to be able to focus on his lessons. So I set very clear expectations on how to behave during lessons. I was particularly strict on him because I knew that was what he needed. I made him sit up straight and looked at me when I talked. I chided him whenever he lapsed and placed his chin on the table or tried to bring a toy to the table. At first, he would sulk, but he complied. Over time, he got used to my teaching style and was able to focus a lot better.

Next, there was the homework issue. Jay, like many of my students, would dream up excuses for not doing his homework. This happened repeatedly and I was left with little choice but to rope the parent in. Jay’s mother made sure that Jay knew the consequences for not doing his homework. With parental supervision, the situation improved, and Jay consistently completed his homework these days. I also leave regular feedback in the homework notebook for the parents to read so that they can take appropriate actions.

To help Jay retain my teaching better, I encourage him regularly to put in more effort. I repeat important parts of the lesson more often, and I revisit important topics more frequently. I also gave him more homework so that he gets more practice. Thankfully, the parents understood my well-meaning intentions and they are supportive. Whenever possible, I use mnemonics to help him remember certain steps or grammar rules.

When Jay Boy showed me his report book eagerly at the end of the year, I realized that Jay had not pass a single English exam since Primary 1. I mean, come on! I thought he was just failing his P4 tests and exams. I didn’t know he actually didn’t pass his English every single year! We had a good laugh together. It was obvious that Jay Boy was delighted with his results this year.

He passed his English exam confidently this year and was promoted to P5 with Standard 4 subjects. No foundation subjects.

Nobody believed that Jay could pass his EL exam. But I believed, in some mysterious way, my persistence had rubbed off on him. As Jay wasn’t the smartest guy in class, I knew the only way he could improve would be to work hard consistently. Hard work doesn’t always pay, but in this case, it paid huge rewards.

Curious Gee

Gee is born for Science. He has a natural interest in Science and is always alert, curious and observant. For some reason, the previous EL tutor wasn’t working out. Gee was barely passing his English after several years of tuition with the same tutor. So the parents came to me. Unfortunately, I got to take on Gee as a student only in May 2016. That meant I had about 5 months to teach him. Due to the time constrains, Gee’s learning was highly compressed. I had to go faster than I usually teach. For his prelim and mock exam, Gee managed to raise his scores to above 65%. By then, he was about to sit for his PSLE paper. I knew that his writing was still unstable. But we had run out of time. Right before PSLE, he had one final practice compo in school, which he scored 31/40 – his personal best.

I was expecting a B grade for PSLE, but secretly, I was hoping he would achieve an A. So when I learnt that he had gotten a B for English, I was a little disappointed. But we both knew that we had done our best. I called his mother up but managed to speak to Gee instead. He told me that he was happy with the result. That’s a healthy attitude to have. I do think young students need to learn that learning never ends.

Unpredictable Fern

Fern was getting borderline passing grades for her EL paper 2 when she came to me. At first, her work looked really decent. But as I continued teaching her, I started to notice that her performance was inconsistent. Sometimes, she would do so well that she scored full marks for her practice papers. But other times, she would do very badly. Her parents found it baffling too. Sometimes, teaching her could be frustrating because we knew that Fern could do well. But then, there would be that tiny mistake creeping in and costing her marks every now and then. Very annoying. The fact that she could do all her corrections without any intervention proved that she knew her work well.

Her mock exam results was very close to her prelims. In both instances, just like Gee, she scored very close to 70%. Like Gee, I was hoping that Fern would achieve an A in her PSLE. But once again, I was disappointed. She got a B. I can only hope that she had gotten a high B, and that she had built a foundation that would allow her to do well in her Secondary school.

Learning points

  1. Parental support is essential at times. In all cases, when parents play a more active role, the child made faster progress.
  2. No short cut to success. One gripe that I have for the year – I wish I have more time with some of these students.
  3. Humility and openness are the cornerstones of learning. The more time I have to spend convincing students that what they are learning is important, the less time I have for teaching.
  4. Having a healthy work ethnic helps. Hard work doesn’t always translate to desired results. But life is a long journey. When results are disappointing, all the more we should try to pick ourselves up and continue fighting for another day.
  5. A positive attitude comes first. Don’t complain all the time. Whiners spend less time on practice, and in the long run, that can only lead to less favorable results.
  6. Ask questions! I always encourage my students to ask questions when they have doubts. Highly effective.
  7. Engaged learning is more effective than passive learning. When students say they have no questions, it’s my turn to ask questions 🙂
  8. Use school or mock exams to measure progress. A student’s general improvement should show an upward trend if he or she is learning effectively.

To conclude

Even though the above-mentioned students didn’t score A, A* or A1 for their exams, I would like to conclude by putting things into perspective. First of all, they were all very weak in the subject when I took them in. They were either failing the subject or scoring borderline passes. Once a week, I was given a couple of hours to help them master the subject. Improvements were obvious but I ran out of time.

Looking back, the year was littered with personal bests, and I took those accomplishments as positive results for everyone. They are, by no means, easy feats. I had like to end this post by offering my congrats to every single student mentioned above. You have done your best. Continue to work hard and strive for excellence. One day, distinction will be well within your grasps.

Fun Teaser – Can you match the students in this post with the ones mentioned in the SA1 Report Card?

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