PSLE Oral: “What if I don’t know the answer?” and other FAQs

Last week, we posted enrichment centre LiteracyPlus’s 15-minute strategy for PSLE oral success. This week, the LiteracyPlus team answers some questions that students may have.

“I need more time to think of an answer! What should I do?”

PSLE Oral thinking

To buy time, you can formulate your response around an opinion (e.g. “I think that littering is extremely irresponsible”), then lengthen and spice up the conversation by giving a personal account or an example to support your opinion (e.g. “I’ve witnessed so many people throwing their cigarette butts on the ground while rushing to board a bus”).

You can also anticipate the examiner’s questions and prepare answers to these questions before being prompted—try guessing at the topic of the Stimulus-based Conversation after going through the Reading Aloud section as the two will share a common theme. By doing so, you can control where the conversation is going, and are less likely to be blindsided by a prompt that could take the conversation in a direction you are less prepared for. That said, it is important that points brought up are still relevant to the conversation topic. Students tend to get carried away with their personal accounts and end up going on about irrelevant points.

Using fillers is another common way to stall for time, though these should be used in moderation. One way to do this is to repeat the question stem at the start of the answer. For example, if the question was “Why do you think a healthy diet is important?”, you can begin your answer with “I think a healthy diet is important because…” Don’t overuse fillers as they can distract, make the conversation more tedious than it should be, or make you come across as hesitant or unsure.

“What if I don’t have an answer?”

Here are three ways that you can respond to topics that you don’t know about:

When in doubt, seek clarification. Many students are afraid of doing so because they worry they will be penalised if the examiner realises that they are unsure about the exam topic, but this is not true. If there are any words or terms in the question that you do not understand, these should be clarified so that you will be able to give a valid and relevant response. For example, if the examiner asks what the benefits of team sports are, and you are not sure of the term, you should ask politely, “Would you please explain what a team sport is?” It’s better to seek clarification than to make incorrect assumptions about the question and go off on a tangent.

Make connections between the question and a topic that you are familiar with. If you understand the question, e.g. What do you do during the weekend? (Topic: hobbies), but don’t have much to say because you don’t have any specific hobbies, you should try to link it to a related and more familiar topic, such as entertainment. Example: “Although I don’t have a hobby, there are a number of activities that I enjoy doing to pass time. During the weekend, I usually spend two to three hours watching videos on YouTube. My family and I also love to play video games on Xbox, and we can easily spend the whole day gaming at home.” You could also elaborate by describing the video genres that you enjoy, sharing a specific YouTube channel that you subscribe to, and explaining why you derive enjoyment from these activities.

Offer an insightful response using second-hand experience. Never answer questions flatly with a “No.” For example, when asked about the importance of playing sports and keeping fit, an asthmatic student who doesn’t play any sports may offer a response such as: “Unfortunately, I am unable to participate in most sports because I suffer from asthma. My brother, however, is a soccer enthusiast and I have observed how playing soccer has improved his overall fitness.” Or “Although I don’t play sports, I participate in low-impact activities such as brisk walking, cycling, and yoga to keep myself fit and healthy.

“What topics should I familiarise myself with in these final weeks?”

You should acquaint yourself with a broad spectrum of current events and hot-button issues. For example, on the subject of transportation, you should be prepared to converse on topics such as road safety, responsible use of personal mobility devices (hoverboards, e-scooters) on public roads, reliability of Singapore’s public transportation system (MRT disruptions), vandalism of shared bikes, and commuter etiquette.

Some topics for practice discussions include:

Culture: Appreciating local traditions and festivals

Health & Disease: Eating healthy meals, fighting childhood obesity, maintaining good personal hygiene, dealing with dengue and the Zika virus

Social Issues: Curbs on public smoking, ways to manage stress, preventing cruelty to animals

Environmental Issues: Importance of the 3 Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), stopping climate change, conserving green spaces in Singapore, importance of water conservation

Community: Ways to build a gracious and inclusive society, encouraging volunteerism

Technology: How robots improve our quality of life, impact of technology, responsible use of social media, dealing with cyberbullying

Education: Use of technology to improve classroom learning (E-learning), importance of co-curricular activities

“How can I calm my nerves just before the exam?”

Avoid last-minute cramming of information and new vocabulary while you wait in the examination hall, and try these relaxation techniques:

Breathing slowly and deeply reduces stress-producing hormones. Sit up straight, focus on your lower abdomen, and imagine a small balloon in that space. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nostrils, imagining the balloon inflating slowly, and hold for a few seconds. Then slowly exhale through the mouth, imagining the balloon gently deflating; blow out of the mouth as if blowing out a candle. (Tip: Place a hand over the lower abdomen to feel it go up and down, and make sure you’re not breathing with the chest.) Repeat at least 10 times.

Visual imagery is another technique to help you calm down. Picture yourself speaking to the examiners in a positive and confident manner. Visualise the examiners listening attentively to you and nodding in approval, clearly impressed by your ideas. You sail through the examination and thank the examiners as you leave. It wasn’t that difficult after all!

“Is there something that I’m doing (or not doing) that’s costing me marks?”

Some students may treat the conversation component too informally and interact with the examiner using broken English or slang. While the exam simulates a conversation, it is still an exam, so avoid overly casual language and use coherent and well-structured replies.

Another thing to watch out for is clear and proper pronunciation.  Avoid speaking too quickly, mumbling, or trailing off at the end of your sentences.

You should also pay attention to how you pronounce word endings. Leaving out end sounds, e.g. the ‘s’ in ‘students’; ‘t’ in ‘paint,’ and ‘ed’ in ‘cooked’, is a common mistake.

You should also be conscious of how you pronounce the ‘th’ sound in words (e.g. ‘three’ not ‘tree’; ‘other’ not ‘udder’).

It is important to remember the different ways of saying ‘the’ too. When ‘the’ comes before words beginning with a vowel sound, it should be read as /thee/ and not /thuh/.

Examples of when we pronounce ‘the’ like /thee/:

  • ‘the ant’ = /thee ant/
  • ‘the egg’ = /thee egg/
  • ‘the HDB flat’ = /thee aich-de-bee flat/ (silent h; ‘H’ sounds like it begins with the long vowel ‘a’)

Examples when we pronounce ‘the’ like /thuh/:

  • ‘the boy’ = /thuh boy/
  • ‘the car’ = /thuh car/

You should also be aware of commonly mispronounced words. Some of these include:

  • children (chil-dren, not chew-ren or cho-dren)
  • women (wim-in, not woo-men)
  • calendar (kal-en-der, not ka-lan-der)
  • photography (fuh-taw-gruh-fee, not foh-toh-grah-fee)
  • film (fil-m not flim)
  • sword (sord, not sword)

Body language is just as important. You should not slouch in your seat or look down the entire time. Eye contact is a good way to show confidence and engagement in the conversation, and this will earn you marks with the examiner.

“If I need to remember just one thing prior to the exam, what should it be?”

Imagine this is your five minutes of fame and own that five minutes! Relax. Your life doesn’t depend on this. The more relaxed you are, the better you can perform. Smile. Smiling exudes confidence and it gives you confidence too.