How Ong Ye Kung learnt to pronounce 'bar-ber' and struggled with English

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung at the World Academic Summit held at the National University of Singapore on Sept 26, 2018. He grew up in a Chinese-speaking family and struggled with English though school. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - To make the point that most students have uneven strengths, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung recounted growing up in a Chinese-speaking family and struggling with English through school.

Speaking during the debate on the education budget, he said that in hindsight, he could have been helped by the Learning Support Programme which is now available to primary school children who are lagging. And in secondary school, he would have been better off taking up English at a lower level, to build his language skills at a slower pace.

He told Parliament that he entered Primary 1 without being able to speak or read much English. It was only in Primary 3 when he figured out phonics and started reading by himself.

"I grew up in a Chinese-speaking family, and read only Chinese comics when I was young," he said. "I entered Primary 1 without being able to speak or read much English. My late mother, a Chinese teacher, tried to coach me, but her English was also limited. Then sometime in Primary 3, I had a eureka moment, when I figured out that if 'b-a-r' reads 'bar', and 'b-e-r' reads 'ber', and if I put the two together it became 'bar-ber'. In other words, I figured out phonics.

"From then on, I started to read some English books. I could read the sentences, but hardly knew what they meant. In secondary school, my English standard was what my classmates would describe as 'cannot swim'. This affected other language-dependent subjects such as history and geography. I passed by memorising large chunks of text, which I could regurgitate during examinations.

"If I were in primary school today, I would probably have been put into a Learning Support Programme, which would have helped me greatly. In secondary school, it would also have been better for me to be placed in a less demanding band for English, which would give me time to pick up the basics, and then upgrade to more demanding band if I could meet the standard. I should have done G2 English."

He said, like him, most students have uneven strengths and specific weaknesses.

"It is just the way humans are. The challenge of our education system is to cater to that, to give us time to blossom at different points in our lives, while anchoring the belief that we can grow and get better," he said, adding that this was the central purpose of the change that the Ministry of Education was making to introduce subject-based banding.

"It is not for academically strong and well-rounded students to take the easy way out and take less demanding subjects, nor is it about over-stretching students to take subjects that are beyond their ability at that point in time.

"This change will help us to customise education for students, while minimising the effect of labelling and stigmatisation. It will encourage a growth mindset among all our students."

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