Our approach to language learning
Unlike STEM subjects, English is an arts subject that allows us to express ourselves creatively. Thus, encountering language in our daily life is analogous to strolling through a fruit garden where oranges, peaches, apples, plums, and fruit of other varieties are plentiful. Yet, each type intrinsically brings to the table a distinctive flavour - which one would then suit your fancy? Apart from the fact that our food palate does not always stay the same, it's usually a case of one man's meat being another man's poison. How then do we negotiate this tricky landscape of language learning when it comes to standardise testing?
The thing about standardised tests is that they are designed to assess specific areas in a way that is consistent and reliable across markers, meaning that if a teacher marks one student's English test script, his or her scores for that student shouldn't vary too much from another teacher's. This also implies that if a student is great at creative writing but not so adept at argumentative pieces, he or she will not do well should the student choose to apply his or her creative writing prowess to an examination piece that's essentially an argumentative essay. This is because the teachers have an examination rubric developed specifically to assess how a piece meets, exceeds or falls short of the key attributes of an argumentative essay.
How is all this relevant to students in Singapore? Well, for one thing, the national examinations in Singapore such as the PSLE and O-level checkpoints comprise multiple tasks assessing various linguistic skills. These include but are not limited to reading comprehension (narratives, recounts, factual texts, etc); oral communication; writing (summaries, compositions, situational pieces, etc); listening (note-taking, comprehension, etc); editing; synthesis, and so forth. To draw a sports analogy, in order for a student to ace the national examinations, he or she should be more of a decathlete - where the athlete participates in ten different sports - rather than a star athlete in only one sporting domain, e.g. sprinting, swimming or marathon.
What does all this mean in terms of preparations? Well, it means that students today should be open to and already involved in linguistic multi-skilling. Of course, this can translate into our students "training" hard for each task in isolation. While this can be done, it's not the most efficient of ways because it's only a matter of time before they burn out. The smarter way would be to choose activities that have economies of scale, with actual transfer of learning across activities. How should you do that? One way is to research success stories and distil their methods. An easier way is to leave this in the hands of the professionals and let them take the burden off you as they systematically work on plugging the gaps in your child's linguistic proficiency.