Ms Gladys Ng has been using activities promoting creativity to teach English at River Valley Primary School for 18 years.
Teaching English can be challenging in Singapore's multilingual environment. But don't say that to Ms Gladys Ng or Ms Pamela Kiew. Both teachers, who received the Inspiring English Teacher Award on 11 October 2011, would gladly dispel the notion with a wealth of examples of how they have motivated their pupils to learn and love the language.
From empowering their pupils with using technology to encouraging them to speak in public or even improvise with props in a performing arts studio, the two teachers have hatched a diverse set of strategies to hook their pupils' interest while helping them beef up on their grammar, writing and speaking skills.
Exposing their classes to how English is used in the real world is also a priority. "People need to understand that the usage of English goes beyond the classroom and we use it widely as a means of communication and instruction," said Ms Ng, who has taught at River Valley Primary School for 18 years. Ms Kiew, who is Head of Department for English Language at Bukit View Primary School, stated, "It is important that English is relevant and interesting to the students. I strongly believe in providing my students with authentic learning experiences."
Learning from one another
For Ms Ng, big improvements can be achieved through several small steps. For instance, she gets her pupils to speak before their classmates to help them overcome their fear of public speaking. It doesn't matter if there are slight mistakes; what's more important is that such activities "encourage small successes so that pupils would want to continue to try using the language."
Ms Ng also introduced her pupils to Newsmaker, a software that allows them to make their own news clips. "Pupils do not just want to complete worksheets all the time," she pointed out. "They enjoy lessons where there are opportunities to collaborate and create. With Newsmaker, they get to use the language in an interesting way and present their videos to their classmates."
Working in pairs under Ms Ng's guidance, pupils have oral English practice sessions where they help to point out each other's mistakes.
Another learning tool Ms Ng introduced is 'JEWEL', which uses storybooks instead of textbooks to teach proper grammar. To further liven up her classes, she incorporates interactive games like Taboo which prompt players to actively voice out their guesses.
Believing that learning should be a collaborative experience, Ms Ng would pair up a pupil who is stronger in the language with another who is weaker. "I let my pupils know that we can learn from everyone, even the weaker pupils, as everyone has their strengths," she explained. Working together, the pupils read each other's essays, practise their oral sessions and help to point out each other's mistakes. "Pupils learn from their classmates and do not go away feeling they are not up to mark," Ms Ng emphasised.
This approach certainly works for Luah Wen Yang, a Primary 6 pupil who shared, "Sitting beside a friend who is stronger in English helped me too. Not only was it easy to ask him a question that he might have had difficulties in, he could also explain how he had overcome it."
Expressing it with drama
At Bukit View Primary, Ms Kiew focuses on providing opportunities for pupils to immerse themselves in the language. She is a keen advocate of drama-related programmes such as Readers' Theatre, in which pupils speak at weekly school assemblies, as well as weekly drama and storytelling sessions.
Ms Pamela Kiew (centre, in black hat) initiated the performing arts studio, where pupils use props as improvisational tools for learning English.
Drama is effective, she revealed, as pupils learn "to notice all forms of communication, including non-verbal ones like body language or pictorial signs" when they watch or act in a performance. "They will also be more aware of the value of context," added Ms Kiew. "Learning how to 'read' context is as important as learning how to read words."
Pri 6 pupil Abhimanyu P.S. agrees. "Our weekly drama lessons helped me overcome stage fright and gave me confidence in delivering speeches," he said.
Going further, Ms Kiew turned one schoolroom into a performing arts studio, filling it with masks, headbands, costumes, toys, cartoon characters and pictures. These props, she explained, help to promote conversation, act as visual tools for learning grammar and encourage pupils to express themselves by scripting their own plays and putting up a show.
Posters around the school remind Bukit View Primary pupils of the correct standard English phrases they can use in everyday life.
"The performing arts studio is just like a real theatre!" enthused Cynthia Lee Weng Yan, a Pri 6 pupil. "The space allows us to express ourselves freely and creatively."
Ms Kiew also wants her pupils to be "consistently exposed to good models of English, in and out of the classroom." To drive this whole-school approach to learning English, she and her colleagues have organised workshops on Standard English for the school's administrative staff, canteen vendors, librarian, security guards and members of the Parents Support Group. These sessions highlight common errors in spoken English such as mispronouncing "problem" as "plor-blem" and saying "Is because" instead of "It is because". As a result, school staff and parents "have become more conscious about the way they speak and are more aware about the importance of being good models for our students," stated Ms Kiew.
What parents can do
On that note, Ms Kiew encourages parents to read with their children. "Reading is the easiest and most enjoyable way for a child to learn the language and develop a lifelong passion for it," she remarked. "The benefits that accompany reading are priceless!"
Like Ms Kiew, Ms Ng sees the family as having a major role in developing children's interest in English. "Learning English is not just for passing the examination," she stressed, adding that parents might inadvertently cause their children to lose interest by overdoing tuition sessions or drilling them through past examination papers. Instead, what Ms Ng suggests is that parents learn alongside their children. "To inspire someone, you must show enthusiasm," she said. "If not, the child will not buy the idea that English can be fun and mastered."
Look out for Schoolbag's next interview with other Inspiring English Teacher Award recipients next month!