Are English Assessment Books Really Necessary?

Do you buy English assessment books for your primary schoolers, or do you feel that English is one subject where children can do without assessment books?

Try conducting an informal survey among your friends — you might be surprised to find that some families with children already in secondary school have gotten by without a single English assessment book. Or perhaps they’ve purchased a handful of English assessment books that were sorely underutilised. After all, schools do provide worksheets and sample papers for revision.

But first, let’s look at what children will face for their English papers during the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).

What’s Tested For PSLE English?

Below is the current format of the PSLE English paper, where the marks total up to 200. You can download the official exam format (including assessment objectives) here:

Paper 1 (Writing, 27.5% Weightage)

    • Situational Writing (15 marks): Students are tasked to write a short functional piece (e.g. letter, email, report) to suit the purpose, audience, and context of a given situation.
    • Continuous Writing (40 marks): Students are required to write a composition of at least 150 words in continuous prose on a given topic. Three pictures will be provided on the topic offering different angles of interpretation.

Paper 2 (Language Use & Comprehension, 47.5% Weightage)

    • Grammar MCQ (10 marks)
    • Vocabulary MCQ (5 marks)
    • Vocabulary Cloze MCQ (5 marks): A cloze test features a passage or sentence where words have been removed, and the student is asked to supply the missing words.
    • Visual Text Comprehension MCQ (8 marks): Examples of visual texts include advertisements and event posters. Students will be asked questions to see if they have understood the messages conveyed by the visual texts. 
    • Grammar Cloze (Open-Ended, 10 marks)
    • Editing for Spelling and Grammar (Open-Ended, 12 marks) 
    • Comprehension Cloze (Open-Ended, 15 marks): This section tests a student’s ability to use contextual clues.
    • Synthesis/Transformation (Open-Ended, 10 marks): This section tests a student’s sentence construction abilities. 
    • Comprehension (Open-Ended, 20 marks)

Paper 3 (Listening Comprehension, 10% Weightage)

    • Listening Comprehension MCQ (20 marks)

Paper 4 (Oral Communication, 15% Weightage)

    • Reading Aloud (10 marks): students are assessed on their ability to pronounce and articulate words clearly, as well as read fluently with appropriate expression and rhythm. 
    • Stimulus-based Conversation (20 marks): students are assessed on their ability to give a personal response to a visual stimulus, and engage in a conversation on a relevant topic.

Source: Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (2021)

While it’s good to know what the exam requirements are, one shouldn’t be a slave to them. Instead of buying an assessment book to cover each section of the PSLE English paper, ask yourself: what are the important skills for life?

With the awareness that this is a 200-mark exam, you could zero in on a specific skill such as vocabulary, and realise that the two components specifically testing for vocabulary only account for 10 marks out of 200. Yet, if you believe that having a good vocabulary is crucial for language learning and future communication, you would still want to invest time and effort to help your child learn and retain new words. Conversely, you might feel that spelling — as well as the distinction between US and UK spelling — has become less important in this age of spell-check and auto-correct. In which case, you wouldn’t be too fussed over your child’s spelling errors, unless there are signs that your child may have special learning needs.

10 Alternatives To English Assessment Books

If English is your primary language at home, you can certainly consider other ways to boost your child’s language development, which may not only be more enticing than assessment books, but also more effective in the long run.

Below are some parent-tested suggestions that might work for your children:

  1. Model language use in speech: If your child makes a mistake in speech, you can ask your child to have another go at it. If you’re afraid it will be discouraging, simply rephrase the sentence in its correct form, for your child’s benefit. If it’s vocabulary development you’re concerned with, make it a point to introduce new words during mealtime conversations, and encourage the family to do the same. In time, the dinner-table will become a safe space for everyone to try out newly acquired words.
  2. Compile a list of challenging questions for testing and retesting: Questions involving contractions (e.g. it’s vs its) tend to be tricky for kids — and adults too. Kids may also be confused by the past-perfect tense (had used, had eaten). You can refer to sites like Grammarly and Grammar Girl for reader-friendly and clear explanations on grammar rules.
  3. Play collaborative games that require listening, reading, and comprehension skills: Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is one such game, where players need to pore over written materials to solve a series of crimes. (Note: This game contains some sexual references, e.g. mentions of affairs and prostitution. If this is a concern, search online for similar games that are more kid-friendly.) A KSP member has played this game with her kids aged nine and 14 — it was challenging for her nine year old, but the family made efforts to recap information for him, and he picked up vocabulary words from the game.
  4. Listen to audiobooks and podcasts: You can borrow audiobooks from the library, or purchase them from a service such as Audible. The commute to and back from school is a great time for listening, as is bedtime. (For reluctant readers, listening to an audiobook while reading the printed text can be a treat.) If you are a Spotify subscriber, there are many kid-appropriate podcasts that your child might like, such as the Curious Kid Podcast
  5. Use interactive learning websites and apps: There are countless websites and apps for helping students to improve their vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and more. Take the time to test as many as you can, and see what works best for your child.
  6. Watch and discuss movies and TV shows: Many families have regular viewing nights — what one of our KSP members does is to pause a video every time there is a confusing scene, or if a scene features a moral dilemma or learning point. They discuss it as a family, before resuming the viewing. Apart from capitalising on teachable moments, this is a way to sharpen comprehension and conversation skills!
  7. Elevate your meal-time discussions: Instead of limiting conversations to what happened at work or school, make the effort to discuss the news of the day. Read our guide on talking to kids about current affairs
  8. Practise speaking with Siri or Alexa: If your child struggles with pronunciation, speaking with a digital voice assistant might be a neutral way to help him or her improve. When you activate these voice assistants, they can transcribe your speech and respond to you — but only if you speak clearly. Kids can also use voice assistants to check how words are spelled, or what they mean.
  9. Have fun with words: Rather than trying to teach your kids to write “good compositions,” encourage them to be playful with words in real life. Find creative ways of describing commonplace situations, get silly with puns and jokes, and save human-interest stories to share with the family — one place to look is on the Humans of New York Facebook page. 
  10. Try learning aids for adults: The Verbal Advantage vocabulary programme was published over two decades ago, but adults and students are still picking it up and giving it the thumbs-up. It’s suitable for advanced learners, and it’s available in print, but the audiobook might work better for some.

Prefer to stick with assessment books? Read our guide to choosing assessment books, or get English assessment book recommendations from the KSP community!