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PSLE Chinese in Compressed Time

The post on the motivational techniques I used to pull this off is here… Please don’t try and do what Little Boy and I did, without first reading that? Otherwise, it can be very traumatic for the child.

Little Boy memorized his very first Chinese composition last year in Nov-Dec 2010. We are now September 2011. It has been 10 months. The start was most onerous indeed. To describe the first 25 compo memorizations as long and hard toil, is perhaps an understatement. He could not recognize more than half the words in each compo. The compos were taken from a compendium of 1000 Best Compositions from the equivalent of China’s PSLE. They were at least 3 to 4 years above his reading level then. Grandma read them into a digital audio file and Little Boy plugged in the speakers and listened and followed and memorized and recited to me.

The very first week, he spent 7 hours a day reciting these compos. I sat near him. I worked near him. It was, for me, like nursing a querulous sick child back to health. You stay there by his side so that he has the strength to carry on, and to not give up on a task that looked impossible to him. There was nothing I could do for him because I am illiterate in Chinese. It was a bit like watching your child battle critical illness and not be able to do anything but hold his hand and stay nearby.

From reciting others’ works, he moved on to writing his own. We were thrilled that he could score 34/40 for a piece of compo homework. But those 3 pages meant 6 hours of sustained effort. Under the timed conditions of 50 minutes in the exam, he failed his compo at the mid-year exams. However, he did very well for his Comprehension because all the reading and recitation had improved his word recognition immensely. Thanks to the recitation, he scored wonderfully for Oral reading because he was expressive and he could recognise all the words in the text. Overall, he managed to do well enough to avoid being asked to attend supplementary classes. Even though he had failed his compo, I convinced him that it was still a triumph to be celebrated.

“It isn’t where you start. It’s where you end up” I said. And if he continued to work at that pace, I swore by Mommy’s Honour that he would end up somewhere nice in December of 2012, after the PSLE.

During the June hols 2011 of this year, he wrote one composition everyday for 3 weeks. At the same time, he read 2 model compositions each day. I had hired a tutor round about then who was a rich source of EXCELLENT model compositions written by students from a certain Top School. He learnt to highlight “yummy expressions” and use them. In the first 2 weeks, I allowed him to refer to any material he wanted. In the 3rd week, he did timed trials of 50 minutes. Again, it was a frustrating effort because it seemed that he could never complete within the time. Meanwhile, his poor tuition teacher marked his compos ad nauseum.

As CA2 (the tests in 3rd quarter of the year) neared, he got closer and closer to the 50 mins time target… until 1 week before the test, he barely managed to write 2 pages in 50 minutes, replete with “yummy expressions”. He scored 28/40 in his Chinese compo test. One strategy we used was to choose chunks that could be generally used in almost any compo, and to memorize them for regurgitation. This saved time and helped him to make it to 2 pages in 50 mins.

He devoured his tutor’s Chinese model compositions with an appetite so voracious that he quickly exhausted the stack of model compositions provided by his tuition teacher (because his school teacher provided none at all). There were 54 in all. By now, the file is all tatty and worn from having been well-thumbed through and referred to every time he wrote a compo. In general, he did 2 kinds of compo practices. In the first, he focused on learning and using new expressions. He did these compos in about 2 to 3 hours… checking and copying. In the second kind of compo practice, he focused on speed.

We gave up on reading for pleasure. It was too slow. Not intense enough, and couldn’t give us the quick wins we were starving for. Strangely too, Little Boy was frustrated with reading for pleasure. Learning Chinese was such a painful process that I absolutely had to help him to mastery quickly so that he could at least feel a sense of achievement (and I suppose he was impatient for the same reason?). Hungry for more model compositions but pressed for time on all sides (because we still had to find time for Math, English and Science, which thankfully, Little Boy seems to grasp quickly and requires perhaps only 1 or 2 exam practices before exams). 

Pressed for time, we turned to the less challenging compositions published in Singapore and sold at Popular bookstore. Grandma recorded 49 of these and Little Boy read them all, and knew them well enough to add these to his store of reference materials to use for compo practices.

That makes 25 + 54 + 49 model compositions that Little Boy had come to know like the back of his hand. He had to read, re-read, write and re-write again and again and again. That was the only way to commit the Chinese characters to long term memory. What’s this about making learning Chinese fun? It ain’t fun. It’s plain hard work like practising scales on the piano.

We had again run out of model compos to read. I was searching about for compos and had settled for one printed in Singapore for secondary school students. Little Boy complained that it was boring. He went to dig out the Compendium of 1000 compos that we had worked on in Nov-Dec last year, and said “Mom, I like these. They’re easier and more interesting to read.” 

It was only then that it dawned on me how much he had learnt.

What had seemed to him impossibly difficult last year, to read and understand, had now become interesting and easy. Wow! He had actually gotten good enough to have fun with the language. I sat back… pensive and wistful and quietly jubilant. And then Little Boy decided that he didn’t need a tutor anymore either. He said that he could pass stuff to Grandma to mark, and the rest would be his own hard work.

And then my heart swelled with pride. My boy seemed like a man already.

According to Amy Chua, the Tiger Mother, you only begin to enjoy something when you get good at it. To get good at something, you need to put in the grunt work. I dunno if that is true of everything, ‘cos Petunia enjoys many things that she’s no good at, but it is certainly true of learning the Chinese language. I wonder if it is a uniquely Chinese philosophy towards learning in general… and that this philosophy is so fully integrated in the codification of the Chinese language that you just gotta grunt through the pain before you get to the joy. But you know, the joy is sweet… oh-so-sweet because Little Boy feels so much more at ease in the language now. Little Boy does not dislike Chinese anymore because he has actually become rather good at it. He enjoys creative writing in Chinese, though not as much as English.

So what’s this about learning Chinese the fun way? There isn’t one. It’s plain hard work. You memorize. You recite. You regurgitate. You do that again and again until you get good enough to do your own thing. That was the way Grandma was taught (says she) and I will tell ya… she’s really good at Chinese.

This process is not for the faint-hearted. You need the heart of a lion cub and the love of a lioness. It is really not easy to stay focused on memorizing essays for 7 hours at a stretch. The child cannot do it alone. More often than not, I had to stay near just to provide the moral support that kept him from teetering over the precipice of Giving Up.

Not only that I used EVERYTHING I knew about the science of Human Motivation and made up some stuff along the way. This was despite that fact that I research and read deeply into research on human motivation. I even teach a course on Motivation at the undergraduate level… Even I was challenged in how I went about motivating Little Boy.

Not a process for the faint-hearted and the unskilled and quickly frustrated parent and child. When I find time next week or the week after, I will do up a blogpost on the specific motivation strategies I used to keep this endeavour on track.

P.S.: He didn’t actually memorize and recite all 25 + 49 + 54. He recited only 25. After that, we switched to reading 2 compos a day and highlighting yummy phrases. He then gave himself ting xie just on those alone. This is how we managed to go through 128 compositions in 10 months.

P.P.S: At this point, you might wanna read this…


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Chinese tutor

Read yr story and found it very inspiring!  
Shows a lot of determination on both you and little boy’s part. Going to show my dd the story.  Btw can u pl email me the Chinese tutor contact.? My dd is going to p6 next year and I need to prepare her too…my email is Thanks!

Chinese tutor

Read yr story and found it very inspiring!  
Shows a lot of determination on both you and little boy’s part. Going to show my dd the story.  Btw can u pl email me the Chinese tutor contact.? My dd is going to p6 next year and I need to prepare her too…my email is Thanks!

 i enjoyed reading your blog

 i enjoyed reading your blog too.

 Nope. I think the books are

 Nope. I think the books are overpriced. I bought the minimum. Onsponge explains UTM quite well I think. Anyway, between Onsponge and Model math, my son was able to do every question in the exam.

math heuristic

i have browsed thru the website. There is another book call Unit transfer Method. Any advice to share on this? do u use it for your boy?

 Thanks kiddo!!

 Thanks kiddo!!

math heuristic

i am using onsponge with my boy now. can u let me know which math heuristic u r refering to in efficiency mechanism (2). Thanks.

 Nothing beat the hard

 Nothing beat the hard grinding HARD work…..

really not for the faint hearted …….

but I like process of learning ….sure win both ways ….. 

 Hi JRLam, as I muddled

Hi JRLam, as I muddled through this… I ended up not requiring any writing. It was just too daunting to have to recite and write. We recited 25 and when his reading comprehension and word memory picked up, he felt encouraged to try harder. The thing that kept him going was the sense of making fast progress, and I did not wanna spoil it by slowing him down with writing. I needed him to feel the win really quickly and adding in writing would have postponed the feeling of having reached a milestone (i.e., completed a compo).

Writing started later when we moved into reading 2 compos a day and highlighting yummy phrases from those (these were Singaporean model compos). At that point, he would ting xie 8 yummy phrases a week everyday. He got to know some phrases very well through that. He picked up about 100 phrases that way, and he knew how to use them because he had seen them in context before a few times during the recitations.

The recitations gave him some sense of how the language is put together and the targetted ting xie taught him how to write.

Only after that did he begin to write his compos with some ease.

And no… we did not recite the WHOLE compo ever. The deliverable is FLUENT READING of the whole compo. However, you need to consider that I was exposing him to material 3 to 4 years above his grade level, and thus I had to bring down expectations in other ways. If you intend to work with material that is very manageable or easy, then you can try to insist on WHOLE essay recitation.

I don’t suppose there is only one way to do it. The general principle is to evaluate how much your child can take without feeling stressed, and to pitch your requirements just SLIGHTLY ABOVE that level for that bit of stretch… and don’t be afraid to modulate downwards if you had misread, and the activity is too stressful. 

Hi Chenonceau, May I know,

Hi Chenonceau,

May I know, after your son recited each chunk of compo, was he supposed to write them down?

You mentioned it is ok to forget the previous chunk when he is learning the next one. So it is not important for them to recite the entire essay in 1-go at all? It is always done at a chunk-by-chunk way?

I am very tempted to start with my kids after SA2 (it is definitely a ‘need’ for the P5 but more of a ‘companionship-act’ for the P2 who is doing quite well in CL but starts to struggle in CL essay), but knowing they don’t have the tenacity to do this, and mummy is also a short-fuse one, I want to make sure the goal per day or per week is definitely an achieveable one, and when I break down the deliverables, I don’t lose the essence and the purpose of going through this. That’s why the above specific questions.


 Hey... Daisyflower, thank

 Hey… Daisyflower, thank you. We’re not quite there yet though.

My major concern is actually

the lack of desire/determination to learn and improve.   Motivation & ‘hunger’ is very important for one to progress & move on…..and I see that in your boy *envy*

Having it easy have it’s cons… kids are currently coping comfortably and hence have a false sense of ‘achievement’. That’s why must really learn from you on how to motivate them.    But I know, it’ll be a big toll (on the mommy) cos’ I’m simply too impatient & short-tempered .    


Thank you for sharing this. I’m very inspired and motivated by what you had written. I just wish I have as much resolve as yourself and your son 🙂


cwc... I dun think your kids

cwc… I dun think your kids need it lah…

Amazing stamina

Wow…..7 hours in day is really NOT for the faint hearted.   Sitting through a 2 full hours session with my kids is already a big struggle….so I’m really really impressed with the determination shown by both of you.    Guess there is really some truth in having to get through the pain before the joy comes.    

Thanks for sharing all these good tips and strategies, will try to learn from them 🙂


what do u do when DS resists?

I hav read the tiger mum and esp like the  "….nothing is fun until u r good at it" . What can i do if he resists?

 Oh dear! May I permit myself

 Oh dear! May I permit myself to give you my 2 cents? If your son is in P1… maybe it’s ok to allow him to fail. Look past the marks and focus on learning. As long as he is making constant progress in your opinion, then let the marks go.

In P1, my son also did badly. Math, Science and English. I ignored the report card and focused on doing fun things with him in all 3 subjects. I only started paying attention to marks in P4. But because we were having so much fun in all the other subjects and he grew to love learning for the sake of learning, his 3 other subjects are well grounded and he scores in P5 without trying.

However, he used to score well in Chinese in P1-P3 but he was taught in such a way that he hated the language. I am sure that if I had had fun with him in P1, his Chinese would be great today too. Unfortunately, his Grandama was in charge of his Chinese and she was always stressing marks, marks, marks. Frankly, if not for the PSLE, I wouldn’t really care about his marks.

P1 marks are not important. Go back to first principles. Let him feel that learning is fun and easy and not marks-based.

My 2 cents. All the best to you. Brave Mommy. And dun feel too bad. We all try our best within the constraints we have and we all make mistakes. Nobody is perfect.

thanks you so much for this

thanks you so much for this post! as it pushed me to go on!

your article especially touch my heart now cause I have been neglecting DS’s Chinese and he had failed his test badly & I think he was the only one that failed in his class.  I cannot blame or scold DS cause it was my fault, my fault that I did not guide him & thinking naively to myself that he can absorb it in school. Have engaged a tutor for him recently but on my part, as much as I do not enjoy it, I need to guide him everyday now cause tuition once a week is definitely not enough! I don’t hate Chinese but I just dunno how and what I should teach DS for Chinese. 

Right now, I force myself to spend 2 hrs with him on his Chinese every night.  It is torturous for DS & he will always says to me "华文很难" and I have to tell him "华文不难". If you have the heart to learn, you will be able to master it!

thanks for your article, I will persevere and hope I will be able to see the light soon!  All I need is DS to pass his school exam in end Oct now! He is in P1 and I believe it is still not too late to "cure"



Hey... thank you for your

Hey… thank you for your edifying words! I’m not sure about me being a Super Mom though. I think every Mommy is a Super Mommy because we all give of ourselves for our children. And you ain’t too bad yourself! Kekekeke! I learnt a lot from many Moms’ sharings too.

Thank you for being so selfless in your sharing

Thanks for sharing, Chen. You are another supermom in this forum and there is much that each one of us could learn from you. I pray that I don’t have to resort to doing what you did together with your boy during the past 10 months with any of my kids in future… it is no easy feat and not every child’s temperament or ability would be similar to those of your boy’s. Kudos to you and your boy.

Look forward to your part 2 on the motivational strategies. Hope to learn them and groom my kids to be as motivated as yours… kekeke.

DS has no time for English or

DS has no time for English or Science practices. Fortunately for us, we unwittingly gave him a good grounding for the current PSLE Science syllabus by indulging his love for conducting experiments since age 2. For us, it was just play… we did not expect that it would prepare him so well for PSLE Science. He hardly has to work at Science but still can top the class as long as he does 1 or 2 Science papers a week or 2 before exams.

Similarly for English, he requires very little practice to perform. I teach him compo but he can learn and quickly do as we discussed… and then still top the class in compo. And he loves to write. He will always choose to do his English compo last because he wants the day to end sweetly. He doesn’t even need to practise the MCQs for English and he will still top the class.

This means we have only the following problems to juggle…

(1) Science answering technique

(2) English compre

(3) Math

Because the syllabus is so heavy, I found 3 efficiency mechanisms and 3 coping mechanisms

(1) Efficiency mechanism 1: Skip school when teacher is not teaching or is teaching too easy things that won’t be tested.The PSLE syllabus is skills heavy. For skills, practice makes perfect. With such big classes, teachers have no time to give enough practice… and skills feedback. School teaching is ineffective so you don’t miss much when you don’t go. At least, in my son’s class, you don’t miss much.

(2) Efficiency mechanism 2: Do a single subject for the whole week. We focus on ONE thing at a time. Sometime in March, we did ONLY English compre for 1 week after school, to master inference and answering strategies. We did about 5 or 6 PSLE prelim compres and when he mastered it, we stopped. Once he got it, he got it. We do probably 1 compre practice 1 or 2 weeks before exams and he still can do well.

For math, we spent 3 weeks in June on Math. In Week 1, he skimmed the Onsponge 5 (did 2 questions per unit) and in Week 2, he skimmed Math Heuristics (2 questions per unit). In Week 3, he completed 1 Math Paper 2 everyday. Over all 3 weeks, he wrote 1 Chinese compo under timed conditions. Sometime in May, we spent 1 week after class doing Science exams to master answering technique from Science Heuristics’ LiSC book. Once he got that, he doesn’t need further practice to do well because he already has a good foundation in Science.

(3) Efficiency mechanism 3: We consider time more important than the money paid for assessment book. Once my son decides that he has understood the method/concept/strategy, I throw the book away even if he has not completed the larger majority of the questions in it. I go and buy a new and more challenging book. Don’t waste time with easy stuff.

(4) Coping mechanism 1: The child must play. I prioritise PLAY at the top. Sundays are play. The 2 days before any exam is PLAY. He is forbidden from working. If he cannot master a concept or reach a level of competence before he begins to play, then it’s too bad for the work. Play comes first. This means my son is 100% confident that he will get to play. This helps him stay focused on work during work time. Focus is important. Without focus, time is wasted and our children have no time to waste in lack of focus.

(5) Coping mechanism 2: We study during the big holidays (leaving 1 week only for play). When he goes to school, he is told to focus on play (and staying out of trouble). 2 weeks before exams, we do easy stuff like Science and English… 1 week before we up the play time component of his day. 2 days before any exam, he is not allowed to study at all.

(6) Coping mechanism 3: Physical exercise. He needs to either jog or swim before he starts work. Exercise sharpens the mind and makes time use more effective because he can focus better.

Over all, this year, we spent 80% of our time on Chinese… sometimes in stretches of 7 hours. But that is because he has had a very strong grounding in the other 3 subjects which lets him pick up skills very quickly.

I think it is important to observe the child’s strengths and weaknesses and devise a schedule accordingly. Whilst I have set an impossible superordinate goal, our daily focus is on the small little interim goals like … write 3 pages of Chinese… or recite half this compo. Once that is done, we CELEBRATE and CONGRATULATE ourselves. In this way, the child moves from one positive milestone to another positive milestone.

In this way too, the child looks forward to achieving the next milestone in order to feel that rush of success again. To get people to stay with an impossible goal, one of the key strategies is to engineer a string of successes that all lead towards a superordinate goal.


Tangshi doesn't help exams

Tangshi doesn’t help exams leh… dun waste time… start by memorizing and writing out 2 sentences (15 words) a day everyday? It’s a cumulative effect and less painful than 800 words a day. Give lots of hugs and kisses once written out. They’ll look forward to the hugs and kisses…

If we were in P1, I would do only that – 2 sentences a day.

Think you are right...I am

Think you are right…I am only starting with the 四五块读 now but thta is painful anough for me since I am chinese illiterate…I only studied up to Pri 2 Chinese…struggled for a few hours trying to grasp the 30 pages of instructions…phew.

I am only doing that now and not much because dont know what to do. I tried making them memorise and recite tang shi but its too much even for me…not to mention my children…how?


Hi Chenonceau,

Congratulations to both of you!  It is indeed an uphill task!

Just to share, I sent my DS to a class whereby memorising model compo and reciting it back to the teacher is required.  I could really see improvement after 3 months.  His compo writing is much better and he’s able to use some of the catchy phrases.

However, we didn’t persist.  He requested to stop the tuition from the first month and we finally relented on the 3rd month.  We relented because he was feeling very depressed and it seems like an uphill battle asking him to memorise each day.  Weekend were spent going to the tuition, where he has to stayback (most of the time) as not being able to recite well and asked to return again the following day. 

Being FTWM, we didn’t have much time left to talk and ended up neglecting the other subjects.  May I know how your Little Boy manage to juggle his work?  Now, I’m back to square one …. looking for someone to help him out with his chinese. 🙁




 Yes... I agree. If I had

 Yes… I agree. If I had started in P1, I would never have done it this way.

Luv it!

Hi Chenonceau,

I’ve always enjoyed your blogs about your journeys with Little Boy to scale the mountain of Chinese proficiency. Thanks for this entry and please write more! The part on ‘Meanwhile, his poor tuition teacher marked his compos ad nauseum’  brings a chuckle ‘cos that’s exactly how I feel whenever I have to mark my kids’ compos, which is the exam preparation periods.  I’ve learnt to celebrate every little success since I first started doing so.  Encourage their efforts to write by heaping lots of praises is the way to go.

Gentle reminder to other parents:  C’s method is for ‘terminal illness’ if you know what I mean.  It’s for the potatoe kids and those who have difficulty in learning Chinese.  Still, if you do have kids in this category, learn the motivational strategies behind the actions and modify accordingly to your own and your kid’s temperaments.  As a parent, you also need to employ the best strategies for your child that allow him to taste success before he runs out of stamina.  There’s no one size fits all.  

Kudos to Chenonceau & Little Boy! Little Boy is in a very enviable position!




 Thank you 3Boys!!

 Thank you 3Boys!!

Great job!

 Immersion is certainly the way to go! Once you get past the pain and foundation building, then you can do the fun things. But you are right, its not for the faint hearted.

 dingdongrc... I think that

 dingdongrc… I think that the approach was painful because it was compressed. If you start at P1, I highly recommend the methods shared by a fellow forummer called Tamarind. Don’t wait till P5.

For other parents whose kids are still potatoes in P5, I will be writing a 2nd blogpost as a sequel to this one describing in detail the motivational techniques I used.


Congratulations to Little Boy and you because you ahve conquered another mountain together!

I now dread the time I heve to do this with my three children when their time comes. From what I gathered you started this hard work since your Little Boy was in P4. I am amazed at teh tenancity of your Boy! 7 hours a day memorising and reciting 25 essays! And he never gave up! That is truly impressive.

Please coach me how to start like you did. I am so keen to learn.

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