Chinese tuition helps my son cope better, and so he needs it

Despite a bilingual home environment, the writer finally sends boy for classes


And so, I have succumbed to the tuition pressure.

The thought of getting Chinese-language tuition for my son, now nine, had been lurking at the back of my mind since he entered primary school, but I had held out for the last few years.

When I first wrote about his struggles with the language several years ago, a Chinese-language tutor wrote to me predicting that Jason would need tuition by Primary 3 if I did not take drastic action then.

As it turned out, he was right.

Despite our attempts to provide a bilingual environment at home, with my husband speaking Mandarin and me speaking English, both Jason and his sister, Shannon, six, are more comfortable speaking in English.

They have no problems conversing with their papa in Mandarin but, like their parents, they read English storybooks and I think that explains it all.

I thought we could put tuition off for a while more, especially since his Primary 2 Chinese teacher said last year that she did not think he needed tuition as yet.

His Chinese scores were respectable. He does put in effort for tingxie (Chinese spelling) and can read the words in his textbook.

But the problem is composition. It is the component of the Chinese exam paper that immediately exposes the flaws in one's command of the language.

I cringe whenever I read the few short paragraphs that he writes. They show that he can use only the most basic terms to describe a scene and, at best, stilted grammar written in the way that he would have written an English sentence.

They show his supreme lack of ease with the language.

I tried to help. I shared with him how I improved on my

Chinese essays in school by learning useful phrases associated with specific themes.

On the advice of my friends, I tried to get him to copy model essays. The key word here is "tried".

While this approach might have worked for some kids, Jason remained uninterested and unmotivated in the subject.

I soon realised that I was grasping at straws, while Jason was not grasping at all what it took to do well in composition.

To preserve our relationship, I found an enrichment centre offering help specifically in composition and signed him up a few months ago, ignoring his protests.

As I listened to the rules and regulations set out by the centre, paid the fees and saw the long queue of parents and maids picking up children, I understood then why tuition is a billion-dollar industry in Singapore.

As a parent wanting the best for my child, I'm in danger of heading down the slippery slope of sending him for tuition in all subjects.

Having decided he needed help in the Chinese language, I can see how it would be all too easy to justify why he needs help for other subjects too. His English compositions are far better than his Chinese ones, but they still contain grammar and spelling mistakes.

Oral skill is supposed to become an increasingly important component by which performance in the subject is measured, and he can only benefit from more help to speak better.

Furthermore, his grandmother, a retired English teacher, has offered to give him tuition in the subject.

His scores for mathematics slipped during the mid-year exam because of lack of practice and carelessness. Enough said.

Science is a new subject for him. Some tuition centres say they teach beyond the syllabus, thereby claiming to increase a child's interest in the subject.

I fought these fleeting thoughts and decided that, ultimately, there is no real need to send him for tuition in these other subjects, at least for now.


He is an avid reader and devours English novels and comics. He reads this newspaper's sports section every day. I trust that all this reading will stand him in good stead in the language eventually, as it did for me.

Even if he were to receive free tuition from his grandmother, his time would probably be better spent reading (and telling me excitedly about the latest sports news), or revising other subjects (that's a long shot).

He appears to understand the topics in mathematics so far, but is lazy to put in extra practice. I'm not about to waste money and time on tuition when he can do the same

at home.

Despite science being a new subject for him, he seems to be coping well with it so far, so there doesn't seem to be a strong reason for tuition.

So for now, he has just Chinese tuition.

He has taken to it better than I had expected. Despite the initial resistance, he has been cheerfully going for class, and asking to be there 15 minutes early each time so that his teacher has time to go through the previous week's composition.

It helps that he finds the teacher funny and enjoys the jokes and stickers doled out.

The class size is small and there is a camaraderie among the children whose essays have been scoring between nine and 11 out of 20 marks.

He gets additional homework - learning phrases or words which he is encouraged to use in writing and which will be tested during tingxie - almost every week.

The words are tough even for me, but he takes them in his stride, partly because of a competitive streak that fuels his desire to collect more stickers.

It came to a point when I had to remind him that the aim of learning the words was to use them in compositions, not so that he could collect stickers.

But the big question: Is tuition helping him in Chinese?

Honestly, I'm not sure. Some of the words that he has learnt are very difficult. I don't know how many he will actually remember and put to use.

It is also too soon to see any improvement in essay scores since learning a language is a long-term process.

While it is too early to tell if tuition is helping, at the very least, attending the extra classes is giving Jason additional exposure to the language. An additional two hours a week in a fairly happy environment learning the language is surely a good thing.

So I've decided that if tuition helps him to cope better with Chinese and not dislike it, then he needs it.

•Jane Ng is a former education journalist and now a freelance writer.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2015, with the headline Chinese tuition helps my son cope better, and so he needs it. Subscribe