JUST six years ago, Man Qi Ni, a 12-year-old native of Chongqing in China, spoke hardly a word of English.
But she knew she had to get it under her belt for her secondary school years.
Help came from her mother's friend, an English translator in Beijing, who coached her long-distance by getting her to write e-mail in English and helping her rehearse for an English elocution contest. He continued helping her even after she moved here to study in 2010.
Today, the Meridian Junior College (MJC) student, at 18, feels ready to pay forward all the commitment and help she received, and she will do this by teaching English to children on The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund's STep UP programme.
About 120 students from five schools here - MJC, Victoria JC, Serangoon JC, Jurong JC and Raffles Institution - are in the pioneer cohort of volunteer coaches who will tutor 100 Primary 5 and 6 pupils who are receiving financial help from the fund.
The aim of the free tuition sessions is to help these children do better in school and build brighter futures.
Ms Evelyn Lai from Whispering Hearts Family Service Centre, which handles many such children, said it is 'critical' to help them improve in their studies, which will buoy up their self-confidence before their secondary school years.
'But if they don't do well now, it goes the other way - their self-confidence dwindles and they don't believe in themselves,' she said.
The student coaches are now being trained to use The Straits Times' education-programme resources. The English tuition classes start next week.
Like Qi Ni, Jurong JC student Poh Hui Yi, 17, is also volunteering to 'give back'.
In secondary school, she had benefited from the subsidised tuition classes run by the Chinese Development Assistance Council. The tuition fees were just $8 to $12 a month for each subject, but her tutor went beyond the call of duty and gave her extra classes for free.
'That's my inspiration for doing this,' she said.
Other student coaches said they want to help because they know the frustration of not doing well in school.
MJC student Tan Cui Wen, 16, said she struggled with mathematics in school, but has learnt well her teachers' mantra to never give up.
Her schoolmate Choo Meng Kang, 17, said he sees frustration first-hand in his Primary 4 sister, who throws tantrums when she cannot understand her school work. He now helps her in maths.
Serangoon JC student Hillary Yong, 17, said she intends to encourage her young charges by sharing her own experience: She was in Raffles Girls' Primary School where her peers aced their studies without seeming to have to study much.
'I thought I could also get through without working hard but I was wrong,' said the teenager, who scored 230 points in the Primary School Leaving Exam. It was enough to get her to Beatty Secondary, instead of one of the top-ranking schools.
She said: 'It was a new chapter of my life. It was a wake-up call and I started to study very hard.' She eventually became one of the top students in her class.
Despite their good intentions, the volunteer coaches said they feel slightly nervous about their roles.
Qi Ni, who speaks with an American accent, is worried her charge will not connect with her because she is not locally born and bred.
'And I don't speak Singlish,' she said.
Thasreen Refaya, 17, from Serangoon JC, said: 'That one child will be counting on me to help him or her improve. It's a little stressful, but I'm excited.'