Applied learning in schools

Internalising language through interaction

Communication now at the heart of language education; Pupils encouraged to role-play, make presentations

A group of Primary 6 pupils sit facing their classmates, waiting for the questions to come.

Acting as characters in a story about a Chinese girl who is adopted by a Malay family, they take questions from the rest of their classmates, who are posing as reporters in a mock press conference.

One pupil probes:"How did you feel when you met your long-lost daughter?" Another asks: "Who did you decide to stay with in the end: your foster or birth parents?"

In another class, Primary 5 pupils take turns to tell their classmates about their experiences talking to the school's unsung heroes, such as cleaners, security guards and librarians.

Teachers now use more interactive methods such as role-playing, show-and-tell and reading aloud, as part of a move to boost students' communication skills by helping them learn languages in context.


Language learning is meant to be engaging. It has to be contextualised, and is not about isolated grammar or comprehension texts.

MS REZIA RAHUMATHULLA, head of English language at Da Qiao Primary School.

To this end, the English language and Mother Tongue curricula across school levels were updated from 2010 to last year.

Increasingly, students are taught using materials such as children's books and newspaper reports, which aim to provide real-life contexts for them to learn the language.

Primary school pupils read and discuss a range of text types, from news articles to information reports and fiction. And in secondary school, the focus is on improving oral communication abilities.

This is done through giving them tasks such as preparing speeches and presentations, which hone their abilities to convey messages confidently and accurately.

Ms Rezia Rahumathulla, head of English language at Da Qiao Primary School, said: "Language learning is meant to be engaging. It has to be contextualised, and is not about isolated grammar or comprehension texts."

She said: "If the story is about bubbles, for example, students get to experience what and how it is like to blow bubbles and they are exposed to language through the experience.

"They also develop social skills in communication and they internalise what they learn better."

For Mother Tongue languages, the primary school syllabus was revised last year, while changes to secondary school and junior college syllabi took place in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

Similarly, a key feature of the changes is the greater emphasis on interactive language skills, and getting pupils to apply their knowledge in a real-life situation.

In Chinese class, for instance, pupils learn the Chinese names of common stationery items by visiting the school bookshop and practising how to ask the bookshop assistant for these items.

Secondary school students may learn to draft e-mail to the town council to suggest ways to improve their neighbourhoods.

Mr Leng Kok Keong, a Chinese teacher at Tanjong Katong Primary School, said there is a lot of emphasis on conversational skills, with pupils given the chance to practise speaking with friends and asking each other questions.

He said: "We want to prepare pupils to use the language in daily life, not just for exams. We hope eventually that they can communicate with others around the world who also speak Chinese in the future."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2016, with the headline 'Internalising language through interaction Applied learning in schools'. Subscribe