This is the time of the year when parents receive next school year’s booklist and head off to Popular or the school’s bookshops to purchase their children’s school books for the following year. Every year, after examining the booklists, I will either order the books online (if the vendor is Pacific Bookstore because their service is great and the cost is not too high – free advertisement for them) or I will find a day to make my way to Popular to get the books. At the same time, like most Singaporean parents, I will also be getting new assessment books.
Just in case you are not a Singaporean and have no idea what assessment books are, they are basically workbooks over and above the school books*. Most textbooks come with their own workbooks, which the schools will use. Due to the famous kiasuism** of Singaporean parents, those workbooks are not enough and we have to buy extra workbooks so that our kids will have more practice. These extras are not vetted by the Ministry of Education and the variety and differences in standards can be quite mind boggling.
Over the years, after wasting a lot of time and money, not to mention frustrations, I have learned to be smarter in buying these assessment books. Here are my guiding principles :
1. Less is More
It is so easy to fall into the trap of over-buying because we tend to think that our kids need every kind of assessment books. In the end, we end up with a shelf full of these books but no time to complete them. In order not to waste all that money, we then force our kids to try to complete the books by hook or by crook. In the end, doing all these practices become meaningless. We waste a lot of time on meaningless practices. 80% effort that probably only produce 20% of the result in the best case scenario. So these days, I try to resist the temptation to get too many.
2. Get only what the child needs
This means I have to be very aware of the weaknesses of my children, and buy only those assessment books that will help them in their weak areas. E.g. in terms of languages, it may be comprehension or Cloze passage. Publishers publish all kinds of books because there are different needs, or they try to convince you that you need everything. There is no point getting all kinds of books for every possible topic. I know I will not have the time to do them all. So it is better to focus on the weak areas. E.g if my kid is generally ok with maths, then there is no point getting the regular assessment books that focus on drilling. It will be better to just get one book on more challenging questions.
3. Look through the books before buying
This is because there are too many out there of questionable quality. Don’t go solely by popularity or what your friends recommend. They may not know better. Examine the content yourself. I once bought one written by an author who was rather famous, only to be disappointed by the kind of questions I found in the book. They were not very clearly set and not of good quality. I have seen many English Language ones written in bad English that made even me cringe (and I actually do not think I have very good language skill, so they were really that bad).
After a while, I kind of have a few publishers and authors in mind that I know their products are of reasonably good quality. However, every year, I will still check out new products and re-look at the old ones. Sometimes, the same publisher may produce a set of assessment books for, say, Primary 4, that are pretty decent, but the ones for the next level may not be of the same quality and standard.
4. Know why you are buying a particular book
This kind of ties in with No. 2, but in a reverse way. Instead of thinking : “I think he needs this, I think he needs that”, ask “what is the purpose of buying this one? What will this one achieve?” Every book has to work for its price’s worth. For example, my child may be weak in maths. First of all, I need to know in which area is he weak in (which is point number 2). Suppose I know he is weak in simple maths skills. I pick up two books, one looks very mundane, filled with run-of-the-mill questions; whereas the other one contains more challenging questions that are not as straightforward. Even though I would think that the latter is better written by probably a more qualified author, I would get the former because what my child needs is more practice with basic maths skills to work on his maths facts and foundation. Although it seems like he needs the second one more because they are filled with challenging questions and will help him tackle those tricky questions in the exam, I will pick the first one because I know why I am buying it – to give my child more practice with basic skills. He needs that more than learning to work on tricky questions.
5. If you ended up buying a bad one, don’t waste time on it
I have made many mistakes in buying assessment books. Most of the time, I just put them aside instead of waste time trying to still complete them. Wasting the book and the money spent on it is better than wasting the time doing it.
6. Imagine using the books
I have bought books that seem great but turned out to be hard to use. So far, they tend to be the language/writing skill ones. There may not be anything wrong with the books. It is just that I find it difficult for me to use them with my child, probably due to my style of teaching, or my child’s style of learning. So these days, I will think through and imagine how I would use the books in teaching and guiding my kid. If something does not flow with me, then I would not buy it.
7. Be open to changes
Sometimes, after I buy a book, I end up not using it not because it is not good but because somewhere along the way,things change and I decided to make changes, and use a different book. Hopefully, this does not happen too often. But when it does happen, be open to changes. You may need to stop using a certain book, or change a book, or even pick up one that you have put away earlier to use again.
8. Get Feedback from Your Kids
Since they are the ones using the books, it is good to get their feedback on the books. For instance, if they have used a certain book, ask them how they feel about the book, whether they feel the questions are too easy/too hard, they find the book useful, etc.
9. The bookshop is always there
So why the hurry to buy so many? If, eventually, I find that we need something else or something more, the bookshop is always there. There is no hurry to get all that I see right here, right now.
A note about Grammar Assessments
I had the greatest frustration with getting grammar assessment so I have stopped getting them. Even though the books are divided into different grade levels (Primary 1 to 6), what the schools cover may not be in the same sequence as the books. This is because of the Stellar Curriculum used by the primary schools. You end up either having to buy all six books at one go because the topics covered in the schools are all over the place or you don’t buy any at all. So if you are planning to get grammar assessment, be aware that what you get may not cover what is taught in school.
* Those overseas homeschoolers sometimes wonder why they don’t seem to get the results from Singapore Maths books. The answer is here : Singaporean kids are good in maths not just because of the curriculum – which I do think is great. Our kids spend a huge amount of time working with these assessment books for loads of practice that are way over and above what the standard textbook-workbook provide.
** Kiasuism basically means the fear of losing out, not doing or having enough.