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Pupils need skills in grammar

Hoping for good grades: UPSR candidates recite prayers before entering the examination hall at Sekolah Kebangsaan Dato’ Hashim, Pengkalan Chepa, Kelantan. The pupils need to be taught grammar to do well in their English paper.

Hoping for good grades: UPSR candidates recite prayers before entering the examination hall at Sekolah Kebangsaan Dato’ Hashim, Pengkalan Chepa, Kelantan. The pupils need to be taught grammar to do well in their English paper.

I REFER to the letter “Sad and mad with the results of UPSR 2016” (The Star, Nov 19, 2016) now that the UPSR is on again.

My 12-year-old nephew who goes to a national type school in Damansara is nervous about sitting for the examination, particularly the English subject because he cannot write sentences in the way required by the test.

In 2016, the Education Ministry through the Examination Syndicate introduced a new format for the UPSR English language subject. As a result, the number of students scoring A in English was just 4,896 whereas in 2015, it was 38,344. The difference was a staggering 33,448.

The director-general of Education, Tan Sri Dr Khair Mohamad Yusof, explained that the huge drop in the English score was due to the change in the examination format.

My question is why did students score less in the new format when the latest format is usually expected to lead to better results?

The new format has two separate papers – comprehension (an objective test) and writing (a subjective test) whereas the previous one was only one test which combined both comprehension and writing.

The second paper in the new format tests the pupils’ writing skills. In it, students have to do three tasks in three sections:

1. Fill in five blanks with a stimulus;

2. Transfer information by completing a table and write a 50- to 80-word explanation for their choice; and

3. Write an 80- to 100-word composition with a stimulus given. The stimuli are in the form of pictures and words.

For example, in Section 2, pictures of three types of food are given: nasi lemak, burger and laksa. The words to describe the food are provided, such as “hot and spicy”, “tasty”, and etc. The pupils are required to select one type of food and describe why they did so in 50 to 80 words.

In this case, a pupil may write: “I like nasi lemak because it is tasty.” We can see here that in order to write a good sentence, the pupil needs to make a choice between using singular or plural verbs such as “like” or “likes”. He also needs to know “is” or “are”. But “like” or “likes” and “is” or “are” are not provided. The point is he must know grammar in order to link the words provided into good sentences to score an A. Are the pupils specifically taught grammar so that they can link and fit the provided words into good sentences?

Another aspect in this case is that the pupil must know how to use the “linking words” to link the elements he wants to explain. Are the pupils taught how to use the linking words correctly? Using the linking words to make a good sentence requires another skill.

Hence, I think majority of the UPSR sitters in 2016 could not score A in the English writing paper because they did not know basic grammar and were not able to link the words provided with the linking words in an accepted structure.

Providing pictures and words for a 12-year-old second language learner (for some, English has become a third language) to write a quality essay is not enough if he or she does not know basic grammar. Only those who have the privilege of speaking English at home would know their grammar and score well.

In short, grammar and structure, for example subject-verb agreement, tenses and linkers, and ways to use the linking words must be specifically taught to the pupils if they are to score an A.

Grammar cannot be taught via discussion. It must be done in drills, by doing exercises and practice. After doing enough exercises, learners can begin to recognise grammar in their reading.

How does a pupil know when to use “has eaten” or “had eaten” if they are not taught? So for a pupil to describe nasi lemak well enough to score an A, he needs to be given more that just pictures and words. He needs to have skills in English grammar to do it well.

If lessons on grammar and structure are taught sweepingly in class, for example via discussions or reading only, pupils will not have drill and practice.

My nephew said (if he is telling me the truth) that his teachers asked him and his classmates to memorise sample answers from exercises, exam sample books and workbooks. In his case, there seems to be a mismatch. Grammar and structure are not emphasised in his English class whereas the UPSR writing examination requires a strong grasp of grammar and structure.

Teachers must not ask pupils to just memorise the linking words. They must teach the pupils how to use them.

Furthermore, the slot for pupils to learn writing is just once in two weeks. The teaching of grammar should be done more often by English teachers who are specifically trained in the subject.

The syllabus should fully cover the elements required for a 12-year-old child to be able to write.


Academy of Language Studies

UiTM, Shah Alam

Letters , exam , UPSR