Category Archives for Exam Tips

The Death of Print?

I love my Kindle Fire. Or at least, I used to. I’m not sure anymore.

It’s not that I hate print books. I used to love books so much that any trip that begins in a bookstore must culminate in a purchase, leading to a mini-library of sorts and the eventual realisation that I’m not going to have any more space to accommodate more books. It wasn’t as though I could make space by pulping some of the older books for objectionable content, so I decided, quite reluctantly, to embrace the e-book leap.

Enter the Kindle Fire.

Despite what the detractors say, I found it a cinch to get used to. The benefits were endless:

  • Amazon deliberately prices their books cheaply, and I dedicate a good portion of my money to buying books every month.
  • Lest you think I don’t finish them, I do. The estimated reading speed they give you makes a daunting tome manageable. 12 minutes left in chapter? I could do that.
  • Highlighting the words automatically brings up the dictionary entry for it. This was a life-saver when I ploughed through a collection of pulp fiction from the 1930s recently.
  • Literally hundreds of books that I can carry with me on a vacation!

I thought my Kindle Fire and I would grow old together; I really did… until a trip to Kinokuniya changed it all.

I had been contemplating the purchase of a new release, Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not to be Wrong. It’s a nonfiction book of mathematical thinking in everyday life and I liked what I saw on Amazon’s free preview, but I still wasn’t sure, so I made a trip to Books Kinokuniya over the weekend.

There were two versions of the book when I reached the shelf, both hardcover. One was published by Penguin and the other was by Allen Lane (also part of The Penguin Group). At S$45, it was significantly pricier than the e-book and I thought the case was closed until I picked one of them up – the one by Penguin.

While slimmer than its Allen Lane cousin, it had a certain heft to it. The cover was a beautiful turquoise and I fell in love with the feeling of the book in my hand, imagining how easy it would be to spread the book open and not risk damaging the slim volume. The coated paper sealed it for me – I spent 10 minutes flipping those pages. Not reading it, flipping and turning those pages, again and again. It took everything I had to resist buying the book there and then.

My Kindle lies beside my laptop right now, siphoning precious battery juice. Maybe, just maybe if I rearrange the books on my shelf, I can make space for just one more volume.

Gary Provost on Writing: Vary Sentence Length

Writing is an art, but it does not mean that there aren’t techniques that students (and teachers) can learn to make their writing sing! There are many creative writing workshops today for students and professionals that profess to do just that, but as early as 1985, one pioneer set the standards with his book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.

The title may not sound inspiring, but the methods sure are; here’s one excerpt from the 100 Ways:

VARY SENTENCE LENGTH

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.

Did you read it, either aloud or mentally? Was there a difference between the two paragraphs?

I am always pleasantly surprised to come across gems like these. I seek to impart these nuggets of writing know-how to my students; the challenge, of course, being how to deliver it in a way that they can apply to their writing!

Effective Narrative Writing: A Model Response

A good piece of narrative writing evokes the imagination through characterisation, descriptive details and vivid imagery that transport readers into your world and allows them to immerse themselves in rich details. All too often, students’ writings often lack these key ingredients to make their compositions stand out. Let’s look at a “before” and “after” version of a paragraph describing how the protagonist and his friends were chased by a dog.

Before

Since my home gate was locked, we decided to run towards the nearest alley in hope that we would lose the dog. Suddenly, Sean fell flat onto the ground and started crying. “Oh no! Sean!” I shouted. I immediately spun around so I could protect Sean. I immediately charged towards the dog hoping I could scare it off. I accidentally tripped over a stone and landed on the dog. I immediately stood up thinking it would attack, but instead it ran away!

After

I fumbled with the locks on my gate furiously, hoping to get it open before the rabid dog caught up with us. “Jack, forget the lock! Run!” screamed Sean as the mad dog’s barking grew louder. In a moment of haste, I threw my keys to the ground and took off with Sean, hoping to shake off that bloodthirsty hound in a nearby alley. Suddenly, I heard Sean fell flat on his face with a loud thud. I turned back and, to my horror, saw the dreaded mongrel gaining on us. With a loud cry, I charged towards the dog, hoping that my size would be intimidating enough to scare it off. My heart skipped a beat when I tripped over a stone and fell with my full weight bearing on the dog. Fear pulsed through me as I prepared myself for the worst. I’m going to be torn to shreds by those sharp fangs! I thought.

Lady Luck must have been smiling on me that day, however. I heard faint whimpering and opened my eyes to see that the dog had scampered away instead!

Did you add other details that we might have missed out? Leave your model paragraph in the comments section below and let us know!

Forgotten English Words

All languages evolve and change, and English is no exception. Even today, the language is changing in ways we never thought possible (selfie, anyone?). As such, there is a treasure trove of interesting antiquated words which, for one reason or another, have fallen out of favour with the English-speaking masses. Author Jeffrey Kacirk digs out some of these gems. We like to imagine he dusted some really old and musty tomes to uncover these archaic terms!

1. Eye-Servant

When I was serving my National Service, one of the most common terms we threw about was “eye power” – a sarcastic remark intended for someone who watched idly while his friends toiled and got work done. As it turns out, lackadaisical attitudes transcend cultures and centuries! “Eye Servant” describes a servant who performed his duties perfunctorily except when his master was around. As the colloquial “eye power” is limited to a military context, may we suggest replacing servant and master with employee and manager and bring this handy phrase back?

2. Flitterwochen

English is a West Germanic language that came from the amalgamation of related dialects, now collectively termed Old English. Students of literature, when they encounter a text like Beowulf, often remark upon the text’s uncanny resemblance to German. When I first saw this word, I thought it had to be a German word. Alas, it is an Old English expression which literally means ‘fleeting weeks’. The word was used to describe a honeymoon. Poetic aptness aside, I am of the firm belief that everything sounds better in German or its closely-related cousin.

3. Mumpsimus

According to Kacirk, this Middle English word originally referred to an incorrigible, dogmatic old pedant (how specific!), but evolved to mean an incorrect opinion that someone clung to. My long-cherished belief in the beauty of German might be considered a mumpsimus, but at least I’m not incorrigible, dogmatic or old and pedantic!

4. Piggesnye

Moving on to Chaucer’s time, the author of The Canterbury Tales coined this word to refer to a sweetheart. It is said to come from the phrase, “pig’s eye”, however, and I cannot bear any responsibility for what happens to anyone who tries to use this term of endearment on their significant other. Much better to stick to German alternatives like “Zaubermaus” (Magic Mouse) or “Gummibärchen” (Gummy Bear), don’t you think?

English and the Jobseeking Graduate

Things used to be much simpler – study hard, get good grades, graduate from a “good” university and find a decent job where you’ll start from the bottom and steadily progress. Rinse and repeat with your children once you get married. Times have changed since, and it seems we haven’t quite gotten ourselves out of these mentality. Nationwide, the pressure is on to achieve ‘A’s and distinctions beginning as early as primary school. We have produced scores of straight ‘A’ students from cradle to convocation, but for once, the narrative they’ve been led to believe didn’t hold true; months after graduation, cover letters and CVs are still being sent in the desperate hopes that the hiring manager had a great breakfast that morning and was amenable to giving the application a thorough look. Graduates could look at their impressive stacks of certificates, diplomas and letters of recommendations and wonder, what was the point of it all, this paper chase?

We can blame anything, from lax immigration policies to mandatory national service, but the fact remains that graduates are still looking for jobs. As I mulled over the situation with my job-hunting friends one evening, a thought occurred to me – perhaps, one of the things we’ve missed out is the problem caused by this “good-grades, good-jobs” narrative.

I would not venture to say that this is the sole or even the main factor; like many teenagers’ relationship status on facebook, it is complicated. However, it does make sense when we think about it. If a huge number of students had been brought up on this myth and worked hard for their ‘A’s, then at least on paper, there’s really nothing separating these cookie-cutter candidates. Years of rote learning and memorisation have deprived them of their individuality and capacity to learn for learning’s sake. If I were the hiring manager, I’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference too!

Parents sometimes wonder why our students have to do Media Studies or discuss current affairs and interesting news topics in class when it’s not even an examinable component in English. Our response has always been one of the need to prepare students for the challenges of the modern world, to develop them into much more than a straight-‘A’s student and to nurture within them the ability to articulate their points with confidence. We hadn’t thought about job-seeking then, but if our students do become more expressive and differentiate themselves on paper and in person during the interview in the future, then we would have succeeded admirably in our goal.

The Misuse and Abuse of the English Language

Any serious learner of English is bound to have had some mishaps with mispronouncing or misspelling a word or two. What if there were some words we were also misusing some of those words too? Check out some of the most commonly misused and abused words, and see if you’re guilty of any of them!

1. Anticipate

“Anticipate” has the connotation of expecting and preparing for something. We often use the word when we want to talk about precautionary measures.

For example:

“In anticipation of a heavy downpour in the city center later, Gerald brought an umbrella.”

“Civilians were evacuated to the countryside during World War II as the British government anticipated heavy bombardment in major urban cities by Nazi Germany.”

The word is commonly misused when speakers mean to say “expect” rather than “expect and prepare”.

For example:

“We anticipate prices of the new computer will decrease over time.”

2. Behalf

Should it be “on behalf” or “in behalf”?

Usually, we mean to say “on behalf of (Mr. Kim)” as we wish to highlight the fact that Mr. Kim is being represented by someone else, say Ms. Park. However, if Ms. Park spoke in Mr. Kim’s behalf, the sentence is taken to mean that Ms. Park spoke in Mr. Kim’s defence, which is slightly different from representation. Two concrete examples:

Ms. Park is a lawyer hired by Mr. Kim. She often speaks on his behalf during press conferences. (Ms. Park represents Mr. Kim)

The customer was extremely angry at Mr. Kim’s lack of professionalism, and Ms. Park had to speak in his behalf. (Ms. Park defends Mr. Kim)

3. Irregardless

In many business emails and missives, it is fairly common to see people use the word “irregardless”. The problem? It isn’t an actual word.

The “ir-“ prefix usually means “not”. Logically, when you prepend it to “regardless” the meaning becomes “not without regard to”, which is clunky and strange, to say the least.

More often than not, the word we are looking for is simply, “regardless”. Regardless, let’s erase this non-word from our mental dictionary, and stick to the proper word!

The Age of KidLit

Parents lament that their children don’t read enough, but occasionally, I have parents who tell me that their child reads “too many storybooks”, reading past bedtime and under the blankets with a torchlight, even!

In recent years, we have indeed had an explosion of really exciting stories and it doesn’t hurt that many of them, including The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game and Divergent has been adapted into a movie. Some of these titles have even made it into the official reading list of many schools. However, beyond the story and occasional outbreak of violence, is there any merit to having children read young adult fiction?

The answer, from various sources, myself included, is a resounding yes. Mary Kole, an established literary agent in the United States, writes that children need to have a shared imaginative landscape, reading what their peers read and being able to share in the triumphs and tribulations of the characters within the story and to identify with the characters. If I might add, books such as the Percy Jackson series also serve to introduce young readers to some of the most ancient stories we can find: myths. In a way, these books give a modern reinterpretation of mythology and provides a critical introduction where the original sources have proven too daunting.

John Green, who recently published a gripping story featuring a protagonist diagnosed with cancer (The Fault in Our Stars, 2012), responded to criticisms that he was writing exploitative “Sick Lit”, opined that young children are often much assumed to be “not smart enough” or “not critical enough” of a reader to understand difficult issues of loss, grief or terminal illness and thought these assertions were rather condescending. Kidlit makes these serious issues accessible for young readers and allows them to form their own thoughts and opinions about the issues.

One student recently recommended the Divergent series by Veronica Ruth to me. I am no publishing agent, so I had to take Mary Kole’s word for it and share in the imaginative landscape of my students and I was pleasantly surprised. It proved to be such a gripping read that I finished the first two books in one sitting! It is accessible, features a protagonist that has the same worries about her identity as many young children her age tend to do, and while the book can be violent or sappy at times, I can understand why children would love the series -it speaks to them in a unique manner and entertains them along the way. Given the opportunity, Kidlit could even be a viable teaching tool – I can see it as a way to introduce the idea of complex villains (the antagonists in Divergent aren’t cardboard “I-want-to-dominate-the-universe” baddies), or continually raising the stakes so that we want to know what happens next and so on.

We are in a golden age of excellent fiction for young children, and it would be remiss of us to stop them from accessing these books.

Bring back the Shakespearean insults!

When we think of Shakespeare, we think of a stuffy, English bard toiling away at his plays, writing in meandering sentences such as “conceal me what I am” rather than the modern, straightforward “hide me!” It might surprise you to know that in between the meanders, the rhymes and the puns, there exists a treasure trove of insults, some too racy to be produced here! Perhaps we can look at working some of these into our conversations next time, when the occasion arises:

1. I must tell you friendly in your ear, sell when you can, you are not for all markets.

Where it occurs: As You Like It, Act III, Scene 5

It’s Valentine’s Day today, and if you have the misfortune of checking your Facebook feed, you are bound to come across an acquaintance who’s holding out for just the right partner. Ideally, you’d like to say, “please just settle – you’re turning 30!” but that would be extremely unkind. Perhaps the same words, couched in the bard’s magic, might do the trick?

2. You scullion. You rampallian. You fustilarian. I’ll tickle your catastrophe.

Where it occurs: King Henry IV, Part II, Act II, Scene 1

Maybe it’s the obsolescence, but there is something oddly charming about these insulting terms that make them much more endearing than their modern equivalents. I am reminded of a short story by Mark Twain, wherein the narrator, having botched the job as an editor of an agricultural journal but who fancies himself having done a great favour instead, lashes at his friends in what can only be described as a litany of punny vegetarian insults: “Tell you, you corn-stalk, you cabbage, you son of a cauliflower? It’s the first time I ever heard such an unfeeling remark.” If we try hard enough, rapscallion might find itself back in common usage to describe mischievous boys again!

3. I wonder that you will still be talking. Nobody marks you.

Where it occurs: Much Ado about Nothing, Act I, Scene 1

It’s a very handy way to tell people that they should stop talking, and that whatever they are saying is so worthless that no one is listening.

4. Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit, for I am sick when I do look on thee.

Where it occurs: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene 1

Uttered by Demetrius to Helena, this line essentially mean “don’t push your luck; I feel sick whenever I look at you”. However, if you are looking to comment unfavourably on someone’s looks rather than their very existence, read on.

5. They lie deadly that tell you you have good faces.

Where it occurs: Coriolanus, Act II, Scene 1

I remember how, during our secondary school days, girls would react in mock indignance whenever they were described as “cute”. “It means I’m adorable but ugly, right?” I also remember the days when I was too polite to abandon the connotations of adorable-ness yet in want of a better adjective to describe a girl. Now I wished I had read Coriolanus.

6. More of your conversation would infect my brain.

Where it occurs: Coriolanus, Act II, Scene 1

Also in the same scene (and by the same character, Menenius), this insult can be reserved for vapid rants that quickly degenerate into conspiracy theories about how society and the new bourgeoisie are in cahoots with the government to bring you down.

7. I do desire that we be better strangers.

Where it occurs: As You Like It, Act III, Scene 2

To round up our insults, let’s go back to where we started. I suppose if you actually do have friends who dabble in conspiracy theories and genuinely believes that Bruce Lee faked his own death so that he could retire from showbiz to work as a waiter in a Hong Kong restaurant, this last insult would sound more like a plea.

In all seriousness, The Bard was a great master of storytelling and the written word. That his works have endured is a testament to his genius, even if the works are seemingly unapproachable. I hope these diversions will get people less apprehensive about Shakespeare and realise that he, like so many writers before and after, was simply spinning a tale with great finesse. If this enterprise proves popular, perhaps we could have a post on Chaucerian insults!

A Workable Secret to Success

Through fairly tales, social studies and a lot of conditioning we encounter in life, we have often been taught to be brave, that if we are to succeed in life and love, we ought to face up to our problems and challenges. That is generally logical advice. Most problems don’t go away if you simply ignore them: you’ll remain overweight if you do nothing to change your lifestyle; and as unprepared for an examination if you resolutely not think about it, instead of hunkering down to study.

But “problems and challenges” aren’t the only obstacles in life, neither are they always the most formidable ones. Some of the greatest enemies of success, keeping us from being the best that we can be, can loosely be classified as “temptations and distractions”. If we can be mindful of them, and not respond to them as we would our problems, we can have a much greater chance against sidestepping from our goals at critical turning points, or being mired in addictions with which we are powerless against. The key, instead of resisting temptation, is to recognise our powerlessness in the face of temptation. Then the proper cause of action is not to confront or wrestle with temptation as we would our problems, but to hurriedly turn the other way, and flee!

This is gleaned from This Will Make You Smarter, a collection of essays by scientists and eminent thinkers from various disciplines centred around the theme of thinking. Briefly:

In the late 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel began a simple experiment with four-year-olds. In a tiny room with furnished with just a desk and chair, he asked the children to pick from a tray of treats – marshmallows, cookies, etc. The kids were then told they could either eat one treat immediately; or if they could wait while he stepped out a few minutes, have two when he returned.

At that time, psychologists assumed that the ability to wait out for the second depended on willpower. Some have it more than others. Some people just have more patience, endurance than others, able to resist the temptation for instant gratification, hence sticking with wiser choices in life. Seems a reasonable theory.

However, after watching hundreds of kids go through this experiment, Mischel came to a different conclusion: our willpower is actually very weak! Many of the children who simply tried to wait it out for the second treat, soon lost the battle, often within 30 seconds. Of the tiny fraction that succeeded, all, without exception, relied on the same strategy: they found a way to not think about the treat at all. Some covered their eyes to not look at the treat, others played hide-and-seek, sang songs, some even repeatedly tied their shoelaces: anything to take their focus and attention from the immediate temptation on hand.

Here then is the answer to resisting the many temptations that life throws our way: if we labour over it, wrestle with it, high chances are, we’re going to lose. To win, we have to look away. It’s about picking battles we can win; and our innate desire for immediate gratification is a very hard opponent to face head-on.

Changes to the PSLE Syllabus

As you are aware, the Ministry of Education has announced that certain changes will be made to the English curriculum at the Primary level. In particular, revisions are to be made to the PSLE English syllabus in 2015. The first cohort affected was the Primary 3 students in 2012.

(1) At Creative Campus, we have always emphasised critical, and independent thinking; our verbal communication and creative writing components are already in line with the expected changes. This is being carried out across all levels, including Primary 1 and 2.

With the new syllabus, your child will be expected to think critically and analyse various text types. These are also the areas that we have been reinforcing in our lessons, and we will be paying more attention to them.

  • Current Affairs. On a weekly basis, students are exposed to current affairs and engage in critical analysis of real-world issues.
  • Media Studies. Students are exposed to media studies on a regular basis. This includes answering questions based on video stimuli, as well as offering their opinions on issues that arise. Even our current P1-2 students have a weekly Media Studies component, where they analyse and offer their views on various visual texts.
  • Expository Writing. We regularly inject short writing assignments pertaining to real-world subjects. These include persuasive and argumentative writing components. Past topics include students penning down their views on Corporal Punishment, Animals Rights and more. Such exposure is beneficial for the Continuous Writing component in the 2015 curriculum.
  • Literature. Our curriculum exposes all our students to literary analysis of various poems, prose and plays. They learn to identify and use literary devices such as similes, metaphors and aphorisms.
  • The Gifted Education Programme (GEP). We have been preparing students for the various GEP examination needs as a regular feature of our curriculum. This is key in ensuring that students are adequately prepared for the various pedagogical requirements, such as answering varied question types in the Comprehension Open-Ended component.

(2) Please be assured that the curriculum at Creative Campus will prepare your child for the national examination.

We have been nimble in ensuring that our curriculum is innovative, yet relevant, so as to engage and challenge our students verbally, as well as in their written work. We will constantly update our curriculum not only to meet your child’s examination needs, but also to ensure that there is an adequate stretch to engage and challenge your child with various text types and tasks.

Regards,
The Directors
Creative Campus: Learning with Latitude

1 4 5 6