Stellar method to develop language use and confidence

National curriculum helps to equip pupils with thinking and communication skills

Fyndy Siom Wen Jing (front) and her friends at a newspaper reading session at Groworld Learning Tuition Centre, where pupils are encouraged to think more in depth before they answer questions.
Fyndy Siom Wen Jing (front) and her friends at a newspaper reading session at Groworld Learning Tuition Centre, where pupils are encouraged to think more in depth before they answer questions. ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

Learning English today is not just filling in blanks in cloze passages, paraphrasing chunks of text and describing pictures.

In a push by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to raise English standards in schools, educators are also teaching pupils how to use the language in real-world scenarios, beyond mastering its intricacies.

Called Stellar, short for Strategies for English Language Learning and Reading, the national curriculum aims to develop pupils' ability to speak clearly and confidently.

Stellar, which does not use textbooks, but incorporates storytelling, role-playing and different texts such as news articles into lessons, was piloted in some schools in 2006, and extended to all primary schools in 2009.

In line with this, assessment has also changed. This year marks the debut of the revised format of the Primary School Leaving Examination English paper.

Some of the changes are meant to encourage pupils to be more creative in their writing and expose them to a variety of texts such as advertisements and posters.

For instance, they now write essays based loosely on a topic and a set of pictures, instead of in a particular style based on a fixed scenario.

In oral tests, pupils are required to give their personal thoughts on a visual image that is linked thematically to a reading passage, rather than simply describing a picture.

Educators say that the changes signal a shift away from the old ways of learning English - drilling exercises and memorising idioms - to equipping pupils with thinking and communication skills.

The new method has worked for most pupils, said teachers and parents who have observed improvements in pupils' ability to analyse and express themselves verbally.

Pupils also ask more questions as they are more exposed to issues in current affairs and a wider range of reading materials, they said.

This year, MOE published a paper on why Stellar was implemented and its efficacy, in Scaling Educational Innovations, a book by the National Institute of Education.

In an MOE study from 2007 to 2012, the yearly results of a language exercise involving 160 pupils from 10 Stellar pilot schools over six years from Primary 1 were compared to those of another 160 pupils from schools that started Stellar later. Those on the programme longer scored significantly higher in areas such as speaking and reading.

Stellar is designed to develop pupils' language skills and love for reading "through the use of rich texts including children's literature", as well as "a range of multi-modal resources", said MOE.

Nearly all English language primary school teachers - about 8,000 of them - have been trained to teach the Stellar way, it said, adding that MOE will continue to conduct research studies and gather feedback from teachers on ways to teach English well.

Teachers said that English lessons in schools are now more interactive, and they have more flexibility to use different resources and teaching methods.

Madam Dalvindar Kaur, head of department for English language at Princess Elizabeth Primary School, said that pupils role-play and get to craft their own stories to act out, from as early as in lower primary.

"It helps to build their confidence in speaking in front of classmates and answering questions," she said.

Madam Azlina Mohd Nor, the English language level head at Teck Ghee Primary School, said: "We want pupils to be able to articulate their ideas in words confidently."

In her school, pupils are encouraged to share their thoughts on books they have read in front of their classmates.

Educators also said that the revised curriculum lays a better foundation for secondary school and junior college, where more critical and analytical skills are tested.

Madam Azlina said: "The class discussions and book talks are small steps to bridge the transition to secondary school and beyond, where a lot more presentations and research are done."

Agreeing, Madam Kaur said that lessons try to weave in real-world content so that children know more than grammar rules and vocabulary and can learn the language in various contexts.

Similarly, tuition centres said they have moved away from rote learning to helping pupils think more creatively and discuss issues using texts such as news articles, brochures and advertisements.

Ms Amy Bellars, founder of Groworld Learning, said: "We get the kids to think more in depth before giving answers. For instance, they put themselves in consumers' shoes when looking at an advertisement for a credit card or a restaurant."

Some pupils may need more guidance and prompting questions, she said, adding that some tend to rely on teachers for ideas.

Ms Adeline Yeo, founder of The Right Word, said that some parents were concerned that there were no past-year papers in the new format for their children to practise.

She noted: "In the past, you can throw in a lot of phrases, write an excellent composition. But that doesn't work now. You need to craft your own content and apply what you've read."

So her centre introduces topics trending in the news to pupils each week, and teaches them how to weave such themes into their writings and conversations.

Parents interviewed by The Straits Times said that the new way of learning English has helped their children to open up and be more confident in writing and speaking.

Madam Jasmine Goh, 44, a secretary, said her children in Primary 4 and 6 prefer the new composition format as it gives them more ideas and choices, rather than having to stick to a fixed set of pictures.

Housewife Julia Wee, 44, said her soft-spoken Primary 6 daughter has learnt to speak up in front of classmates. She said: "It took a while to adjust to the new format as it's not as straightforward. The children know more in terms of content but they still need to master the nitty-gritty, like spelling."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2015, with the headline Stellar method to develop language use and confidence. Subscribe