Help your peewee pass their mother-tongue language exam with flying colours ― by watching out for these possible missteps!


Unless you are an effectively bilingual parent, coaching your young ’un to achieve a high score for their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) mother-tongue papers may be an especially nerve-wracking experience.

Not to worry, we got Hua Language Centre principal Chen Qian Yi, Hayati Abdullah, founder and teacher at Pusat Bahasa NUSA, and A T Pillai, director at TamilCube Learning Centre to share insights on which problem areas junior will need to watch out for!

Paper One — Composition

A flair for writing will help your kid score in this paper. Examiners will especially be on the lookout for rich descriptions of characters, settings or actions. Watch out for grammatical errors, which can cost junior precious marks. Remember to bring your electronic or print dictionaries, too! — see the complete list of approved dictionaries here.

Chinese Language Paper

Pitfall #1: Not understanding the question
Make it a top priority to read the topic carefully to determine what you should write. For topical compositions, Chen advises students to identify the central ideas of the topic, then focus on how to elaborate them in the story. For picture compositions, students should “identify which pictures will contribute significantly to the storyline. Then describe these pictures [in your story] vividly and describe the others briefly”.

Pitfall #2: Going off-topic
When attempting both the picture and topical questions, students tend to be over-imaginative or veer-off topic in their script. To avoid this, your offspring should consider the six aspects of narrative writing: place, time, people, cause, process and conclusion. Chen notes that placing the details in a mind map can help your child piece together a logical and complete story.

Pitfall #3: Not bothering to double-check
Chen urges students to check their completed essays twice. Take this chance to ensure there are no incorrectly written words and that all sentences are grammatically sound. Also, ensure that you reinforce the essay’s themes in the ending.

Click for tips for the Malay and Tamil compositions.


Malay Language Paper

Pitfall: Not having a proper plan for the story
Planning is vital. Hayati stresses that it’s insufficient to just know the flow of your story as it will only make your story seem like you are just reporting a series of events. Demonstrate your writing skills by giving rich details of the characters you are including in the story. Consider these points: What kind of main character do you want to write about? One who is best friends with the bully in the story, or one who is very scared of the bully?

Tamil Language Paper

Pitfall #1: Attempting the situational essay
The student is required to craft a story based on a given situation. Pillai says, “When their imagination is flawless and their vocabulary is equal to what [the] scene requires, everything will work out. If either one goes wrong, it will be a flop.” This is why most students are advised to attempt the picture-based essay instead. He adds, “Prompts are given through pictures and they just have to [string together] a proper story from the pictures and conclude it smoothly.”

Pitfall #2: No proper plot
Pillai points out that without a proper story plot, there will be holes in the storyline or conclusion. Writing out a skeleton to the story will allow your child to spot and plug gaps in the flow.

Pitfall #3: Too long-winded
The use of phrases and words can help breathe life into a story. However, use too many and it can slow down the pace of storytelling. Pillai says, “[With the use of] unnecessary phrases to explain the scene, unpredictable words [and] irrelevant vocabulary usage, the [story] will be in a mess.”

Pitfall #4: Poor time management
When doing practice papers, remind junior to do it under exam conditions, such as by keeping an eye on the clock, to avoid having to rush through the rest of the script. Pillai points out this problem is especially pronounced in students attempting Paper One.

Paper Two — Comprehension and Language Application

The most problematic area across all three mother-tongue subjects for Paper Two is open-ended comprehension. Most students employ the wrong answering techniques and end up losing precious marks.

Chinese Language Paper

Pitfall #1: Lifting directly from the passage
While clues to the answers for the open-ended comprehension lie within the passage, students should avoid copying the content word-for-word. Chen says that in order to attain a better grade in this section, brush up on paraphrasing the sentences. Remember, lifting is NOT ALLOWED!

Pitfall #2: Beware the content and length of your response
For both comprehension sections — the multiple-choice section and the open-ended ones — key words that point to acceptable responses can be found within the passage. Chen stresses that for both sections, your kid must not use his imagination to respond to the questions. Also, Chen stresses that students can gauge the required length of the answer by the marks that are allocated to the question.

Other problem areas in Paper Two to look out for…


Malay Language Paper

Hayati points out that most students find that the most challenging portions of the paper are the Imbuhan (prefixes and suffixes) and Kefahaman Subjektif (open-ended comprehension) sections.

Pitfall #1: Not understanding what the question is about
For the Imbuhan section, Hayati says that the student’s ability to score is affected if they don’t have a good understanding of prefixes and suffixes, and if they cannot catch the gist of the sentences. As each question carries two marks, any error will cost him.

Pitfall #2: Weak analytical skills
As clues to the responses are within the content of the passage, the student must be alert to these. Hayati points out, “Many students still lack the analytical skills of seeking evidence to deduce the lessons from the passage.”

Tamil Language Paper

Pitfall #1: Not double-checking your answers
To detect and correct any errors, read the completed sentences with the answer you have chosen. Pillai explains, “In [the] Vetrumai (grammar) section, read the sentence with your chosen option. If it’s correct, the sentence will make sense. If not, change the answer, then use the same technique to test.” Pillai says the same rule applies to the comprehension cloze passage.

Pitfall #2: Not using the appropriate answering technique
The best ways to approach comprehension questions is to first highlight the answers in the passage before writing them down as your responses. In the open-ended comprehension, Pillai advises students to cut down the unwanted words from the highlighted portions of the story. Never start your sentences with a pronoun and avoid giving a single-word answer, especially when it comes to the inference-based question.

Chen Qian Yi is the principal at Hua Language Centre; Hayati Abdullah is founder and teacher at Pusat Bahasa NUSA, and A T Pillai is director at TamilCube Learning Centre.

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