To recap, my #3 was the one I homeschooled for his preschool years and I personally taught him Chinese using the Siwukuaidu 四五快读 curriculum, made sure he was able to read Chinese and speak Chinese, and by the time he entered Primary 1, he was able to read at roughly Primary 3 Level.
He going to be doing his PSLE next year and I think now is a good time to give an update on how he is doing for Chinese in school and whether all the work done during the preschool level made any difference in the long run ( at least ‘long run’ until now).
When he first entered Primary 1, his Chinese teachers loved him, of course. For he was easy to teach and was certainly head and shoulder above his peers in his Chinese competency. Gradually, I stopped getting very involved in his studies, letting him take care of things himself. I also stopped reading to him completely. By my estimation, I think he was very comfortable up until Primary 3. I could see that from Primary 4 onwards, he was beginning to draw down on his reserves. In Chinese, we call it 吃老本. In other words, he could not breeze through anymore and needed to put in more effort into his studies to keep up.
He is now Primary 5 and I would say that he is now roughly as competent as a child who has had consistent Chinese tuition since preschool. This is just based on how well he is doing in school exams. A lot of children in Singapore start having Chinese tuition from preschool onwards because most Singaporean parents cannot handle the subject themselves and choose to farm out to tutors. Almost all of #3’s classmates belong to this group.
If I compare him with my other boys, #1 was positively struggling with Normal Chinese from Primary 5 onwards. Thankfully, his school teachers were very committed and because of their efforts, he need not have Chinese tuition to do reasonably well for PSLE. #2, in my opinion, naturally has a good aptitude for languages but he will disagree with me on that! Even though he was on a much worse footing than #1 when he started Primary school, he was able to pick up the language very quickly in school. He was even given a chance to take Higher Chinese in Primary 5 even though he had no tuition at all. However, he dropped Higher Chinese in Primary 6 so that he could focus on getting his Normal Chinese up to speed. PSLE T-score is after all based only on Normal Chinese and it made no sense to sacrifice it just to do Higher Chinese. It was a strategic move for exam’s sake. When he went to Secondary School, he chose to take up Higher Chinese again. He struggled with it, of course. And it did not help that he was not putting enough effort in it on his own. So we started him on tuition to help him and so far we have seen improvement and we are hopeful that he could continue with it. Secondary School Normal Chinese is already quite a jump in standard from Primary School Chinese. So for #3 to take on Higher Chinese is a very bold and ambitious move. It was all out of his own initiative.
#3, compared to his brothers, is not struggling with his Normal Chinese like his eldest brother did. He is also not exactly doing as badly in Higher Chinese as his second brother was. However, he has reached a point where if he does not work harder, he is not going to do well for Higher Chinese.
Does this mean that all the effort during the preschool years is “wasted” and the end result is no different from sending a child to tuition from preschool years?
Well, in general, I would say that no, the effort is not all wasted. And no I do not think years of tuition can be compared with it. However, the language aptitude of the child also plays a part so I cannot say that this applies to every child.
First of all, if I had consistently kept up with his Chinese learning at home, continued to read to him extensively, I think it would have made a huge difference. He would still be way ahead of his peers. The fact that I did not do so, and that I left him to the school and unfortunately, he was also influenced by the Chinese environment in school, picking up broken Chinese and all that, caused him to do worse for Chinese in some ways. So the lesson learned is this : if you are doing all the ‘right thing’ with your preschoolers now, please do not stop when they go to primary school. Continue your effort and I am sure you will reap the fruits of your labour.
Secondly, I think tuition is a different ballgame altogether. If your aim is simply to do well for exam, be exam smart, then yes, tuition will suffice. For the moment. Tuition is very much about being exam smart. I know there are such a lot of children out there who did ‘well’ in exams but are totally not proficient in the language in real life.
What, then, is the key? How do we make sense of all these?
In my opinion, language learning involves the ‘wiring’ of a person’s mind. To use a computer analogy, you have to somewhat format the brain of a person to a new operating system in order for the person to be able to think and speak in the language; in other words, be proficient in the language. If the operating system is there but not used, I believe when it is used again, it can help tremendously to push the progress faster and better.
What I mean to say is that all the work done at the preschool level, specifically, all the reading, is laying the foundation and wiring the brain of the child to be able to work on the language. This is why, I believe, the years of tuition focusing on exam skills do not necessarily lead to language proficiency most of the time.
As the child progresses to the higher levels in school, especially when they enter Secondary School, what is really needed for doing well is a very large vocabulary and the ability to infer. If you are only depending on the vocabulary taught in the textbooks, it is grossly insufficient. If you cannot understand the nuance of the words used in the comprehension passages, you cannot make the correct inference. Chinese is a very nuanced language. In English, we have look, see, stare, gaze and not much more. In Chinese, we have so many other words to describe different kinds of looking and seeing. You need to understand the subtle differences in order to understand what the author is trying to express.
So my point is that all that daily reading and early word recognition during the preschool years is very important for laying the foundation. But do not stop there. In order to continue to thrive in school, reading has to go on from there and not stopped. It is the only way to accumulate a large vocabulary and learn to read between the lines. Unfortunately, I did stop so I guess I would have to pick it up again somehow.