5 Strategies to Improve English Language Skills for Secondary School Students
Updated: Dec 17, 2019
Parents ask me every year during Parent-Teacher Meetings (PTMs) about what they can do to help their children improve their skills in English. I’m always heartened by such questions because they show that parents are interested in building their children’s language skills. A strong foundation built early on will go a long way towards improving your child’s performance in the GCE ‘O’-Level English Language Examination. Here are five easy things you can do at home to help improve your child’s English Language (EL) skills.
1. Watch or listen to quality English programmes on TV / radio / online together
Television programmes and videos aren’t just for entertainment; they can also be thoroughly educational. The quality of the programmes is what counts. In particular, students who watch news programmes and documentaries tend to acquire a deeper understanding of complex issues and a broader awareness of current affairs. (Such an understanding will be critical for expository essay-writing [Paper 1] and also oral examinations [Paper 4].) It’s especially helpful if the programmes offer subtitles, so that students can pay closer attention to any difficult vocabulary employed.
Quality TV programmes and videos that are available online can be found on platforms such as:
• Channel NewsAsia [Insider] (https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/cnainsider) • BBC (https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/categories/documentaries/featured) • CNN (https://edition.cnn.com/shows/cnn-films) • TestTube News (https://www.youtube.com/user/TestTubeNetwork/videos)
Just a caveat about the programmes above (especially those available on YouTube): students need to beware of being distracted by advertising links, or content that is irrelevant or non-educational. One way to reduce the risk of distractions is to watch programmes together as a family. In this way, you can ensure that your child will not access any extraneous links or inappropriate material.
Radio programmes and podcasts can also be particularly helpful for listening comprehension [Paper 3]. Just tune in to the following platforms:
• 938 Live (https://radiosingapore.org/938live) • BBC World Service (http://www.radio-singapore.com/bbc-world-service) • BBC The English We Speak (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02pc9zn/episodes/downloads)
2. Read quality English newspapers, magazines, and books together
There is simply no substitute for reading—it promotes vocabulary expansion, knowledge building, and communication skills in a way that no other activity can. The choice of reading materials, however, is vital.
Reading high-quality newspaper articles and editorials will allow students to keep abreast of current affairs. If you don’t subscribe to the Straits Times, you can purchase a copy of the Sunday Times every weekend and cut out articles to introduce to your child based on his/her interests. If you know that your child is interested in clothes, offer him or her an article about fashion; conversely if he or she has a taste for sports, point out articles about the English Premier League instead. Articles with images and charts, which tend to be more visually appealing, will also sustain their interest more effectively. Moreover, such articles will also be helpful for the visual text section [Paper 2]. If you prefer accessing online platforms rather than physical hard copies of newspapers, you can share links of articles in your family chat group. Some recommended platforms are as follows:
Recommended Singapore News Platforms / Editorials:
Recommended International News Platforms / Editorials:
• BBC (https://www.bbc.com) • CNN (https://edition.cnn.com) • The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/international) • The Economist (https://www.economist.com) • The New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com) • The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/world)
Articles of course are necessary but not sufficient. Reading a variety of fiction and non-fiction books is also a crucial habit that students need to develop. Students have been advised to read widely so as not to be confined to a narrow range of genres. At the beginning of each academic year, lists of book recommendations would have been offered by the school. Such lists are not exhaustive; more titles can always be found at the school library, as well as your local public library (e.g. the Bukit Batok Public Library at Westmall). Our National Library Board offers an impressive array of titles that cater to every possible taste. Recommended book lists suitable for each level can be found at the following links:
• https://www.nlb.gov.sg/Browse/ForTeens.aspx [a general overview] • https://www.nlb.gov.sg/Browse/ForTeens/Secondary1.aspx • https://www.nlb.gov.sg/Browse/ForTeens/Secondary2.aspx • https://www.nlb.gov.sg/Browse/ForTeens/Secondary3.aspx • https://www.nlb.gov.sg/Browse/ForTeens/Secondary4.aspx
As Charles William Eliot once said, “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.” If students develop the habit of reading, they will build a strong language foundation that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.
3. Encourage your child to read and annotate sample essays and comprehension passages
Reading for leisure is vital for language learning. But if your child is going to write good essays [for Paper 1], he/she must read good essays. Often, such essays would already have been provided by the school. These include sample essays written by fellow students who have demonstrated effective writing skills and a strong command of the language. In class, students have been guided to read and annotate these essays actively (by underlining ideas, highlighting key words, noting points at the side of the text etc.).
If you wish for your child to be exposed to even more good writing samples, you can consider additional publications. Bookstores like Popular offer many English assessment books about the art of essay-writing. However, not all are of consistently high quality. The problem with many of these titles is that not all have been edited thoroughly for errors in spelling, grammar and expression. If exposed to essays or passages which are not of the standards demanded by the school, he/she risks committing the very same errors that he/she is supposed to avoid. (The same logic applies to English comprehension assessment books; sometimes there are severe problems with the answer scheme, to the extent that your child risks learning the wrong answering techniques.)
From my experience perusing various English assessment books, I would recommend the English resources that can be found here:
• For Paper 1 (Composition): Secondary Model Essays (for Secondary 1 & 2) and Cambridge O-Level Model Essays (http://preston.com.sg/writing1.html) • For Paper 2 (Comprehension): Comprehension Illuminated: Volumes I & II and Vocabulary Illuminated (https://real-bookstore.com)
[Disclaimer: I do not have any links to the producers of these titles, nor do I stand to profit from any of the above recommendations. I am simply highlighting useful resources based on my own personal experience and professional judgment.]
4. Guide your child in using dictionaries
A note about dictionaries: it is advisable to have a copy of a good dictionary at home. Nowadays, however, most families use online dictionaries and apps instead. Yet there is a wide range of dictionaries online. The problem with just googling for words is that some of the ‘dictionary entries’ that appear may not always be reliable. In particular, certain slang terms that students often assume to be suitable for formal contexts are in fact strongly discouraged in their writing and oral examinations. For instance, consider the use of the word ‘cool’ in the sense of ‘fashionably attractive or impressive’. If your child just googles the word ‘cool’ and the entry from the Urban Dictionary appears; he/she may be misled into thinking that the word is suitable for all contexts when it is actually only apt for informal situations. However, established dictionaries (like Oxford) will clearly indicate the various meanings of a word, and how it is to be used in different contexts.
Dictionaries to be Avoided:
• The Urban Dictionary (which features ‘definitions’ that can be written by any user and are thus unreliable) • The Free Dictionary (which claims itself to be the most comprehensive, but that is because they accept entries before they have been cleared by most formal linguistic authorities)
Recommended Dictionaries and Thesauruses:
• Oxford: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com and https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/english-thesaurus • Cambridge: https://dictionary.cambridge.org • Macmillan: https://www.macmillandictionary.com and https://www.macmillandictionary.com/about_thesaurus.html
Recommended Dictionary Apps:
• Oxford: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/oxford-dictionary-of-english/id978674211?mt=8 [for iPhone users] or https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.mobisystems.msdict.embedded.wireless.oxford.dictionaryofenglish&hl=en [for Android users]
Your child is advised to search the dictionary every time that he/she encounters unfamiliar words. He/she can keep a record of new words learnt every day. In class, students have been instructed to maintain an EL Journal—whenever they come across difficult words, they can search the dictionary and write it down (with its accompanying definition) in a vocabulary list in their journal. In fact they can make a record of any elegant and useful words and phrases that they’ve chanced upon. Such a habit will foster a deeper appreciation for words and how they can be used in various contexts. (Some students even create their own commonplace books, i.e. repositories of intellectual references; I myself have maintained such a book and I strongly encourage it.)
5. Discuss the news or share stories over dinner
During dinner time or at the end of the day, you can share stories or ask your child about his/her opinions of the day’s news. Such a practice will allow your child to enhance his/her skills in speaking, which would be beneficial for oral examinations (Paper 4). The point is to cultivate a rich discourse environment for English language learning. (If you and your family don’t usually speak English at home, you can invite a relative or family friend who speaks fluent Standard English to converse more regularly with your child, especially during mealtimes.) Research has also shown that dinnertime conversations foster vocabulary-building even more significantly than being read aloud to, besides offering a whole host of other benefits like closer family ties, lowered incidence of high-risk teenage behaviours, as well as improving positive moods in adolescents. [https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/01/12/the-most-important-thing-you-can-do-with-your-kids-eat-dinner-with-them]
I hope that the five strategies above serve as useful reference material for your child to strengthen his/her foundation in English. With sustained effort and persistence, your child can hone his/her skills in the language, while enjoying every step of the process.