Success In The PSLE: Helping Weak Students To Improve


Are you feeling overwhelmed by the demands of helping your child to prepare for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE)? Is your child dealing with poor grades in one or more subjects? 

If you wish to help your child, you will have to do some research, or spend time talking to experts, to understand how academically weak students learn best. You will also have to accept that what qualifies as “good” for a struggling student could be a B or a C grade, rather than an A. 

Yet, when carried out in the right spirit, helping your child at this critical stage can be extremely rewarding — read on to find out how to work together with your child for effective change.

Set Realistic Goals

For students with focus and motivation issues, they may have no desire to score As at all, or they may feel that an A is simply out of reach. 

Indeed, it is unrealistic to expect your child to be able to jump from, say, a B grade to an A*. If you are not sure about how to set exam goals for your child, you could consult your child’s teachers to find out what they feel your child is capable of, and set the goals accordingly.

Some educators recommend assessing where your child currently stands — or you can use the year’s tests and exams as a guide — and aiming for a 10% increase in any skill that you’re working on. Of course, what constitutes “10%” will have to be defined by you. A good way to assess your child’s progress is through topical worksheets: if he is currently scoring 5 out of 10, you can set a goal for him to improve the score to 6 in his next try. 

It’s also important that your child understands what the success criteria is for every task that she takes on. Telling a child, “You need to improve your composition score by five marks” is meaningless to the child. Instead, your child needs to be clear on what she needs to do, for instance, she can aim to use five new vocabulary words — or five phrases that she has memorised — in her next composition. (Read about realistic goal setting, and helping reluctant learners to get started.)

Draw Up A Reasonable Study Plan

Your child’s study plan should take into consideration work that has already been done in school, as well as time spent on enrichment classes after school. If your child has already completed an exam paper in school, does she really need to work on another paper once she returns home? If your child is having maths tuition for the day, is there a need to practise maths again at home? If your child is physically tired and mentally exhausted, what she needs most is rest. 

What can be useful for you and your child is a weekly planner, where you can indicate after-school commitments, as well as create a to-do list of revision tasks for each day. Ensure that your child understands exactly what needs to be done for revision. An example of a vague task would be, “revise for second language.” Instead, indicate exactly what needs to be done, such as “practise writing the new words for chapter 1 (five times each), and testing myself until I get all the words correct.”

When planning study sessions, here are some helpful things to know: students are thought to learn best during the first 10 minutes of a study session when they are still fresh, and in the final 10 minutes, where a surge of adrenaline propels them to the finish line. 


The middle stretch of a study session can almost be regarded as wasted time, which is why it is commonly recommended that study or reading sessions should not stretch beyond 30 minutes. If students have plenty of material to cover, they can get back to work again after a five-minute break. 

To maximise learning and retention, sessions can be further broken down this way:

  • 20 to 25 minutes: reading or working on an exercise
  • 5 minutes: review
  • 5 minutes: break

For more tips, see a KSP member’s PSLE study plan, or refer to this article, where KSP members share their children’s study routines. 

Don’t Let Mistakes Pile Up

Check the work that your child is bringing home daily, or take note of any homework that has been returned, to see what mistakes have been made. Have your child try those questions again to see if he or she is able to answer them satisfactorily. If not, see if you are able to help your child to tackle the problem, or alert the teacher that your child may require more instruction and practice on this particular type of problem. (Read about the 15 mistakes to avoid during the PSLE.)

Many teachers, especially Primary 6 teachers, would have given their contact details to parents and encouraged parents to get in touch as often as needed. If your child’s teachers have given you the go ahead, don’t hesitate to seek their help. If they have not, now’s the time to make contact, to ask if you can check in with them more frequently leading up to the PSLE. 


Correct Poor Work Habits

With reluctant learners, you may notice the following habits whenever they sit down to work:

  • Poor posture (head on arm, head on table, or slouching), which creates sluggishness and a sense of inertia
  • A fixation on how much work remains, instead of focusing one’s attention on answering the question at hand
  • Wanting to get work over and done with quickly, rather than properly, which leads to careless and sloppy work
  • A general aversion towards seatwork

These habits have likely not been formed overnight, and as such, it is unrealistic to expect your child to change overnight as well, just because the PSLE is looming. 

Instead, gauge where your child stands in this area — is he able to devote his full concentration to a task for 15 minutes? If so, that should be your starting point for setting work for your child. For instance, you can have him work on a set of questions for 15 minutes, take a five minute break, and resume working on another set of questions for the next 15 minutes, until the day’s work is complete. You may also need to adjust your expectations about the amount of work that your child should complete — if this is work assigned by the school or a tutor, do have a discussion about how the workload can be adjusted to suit your child.

Once your child is able to maintain good work habits for the full 15 minutes, you can stretch each work session to 20 minutes, and so on. Be sure to use a timer to help your child (as well as yourself) to keep track of work sessions and breaks. For some children, a jarring alarm can trigger stress, so choose a gentle tone to signal that time is up. When the work for the day is complete, let your child have something to look forward to, be it family bonding time, or an activity that he can indulge in for rest and relaxation.

Reinforce The School’s Teaching Methods

Many local parents have access to a wealth of resources on the best ways to tackle the PSLE papers, but with time running short, less is certainly more. 

It only serves to confuse your child if he or she has to contend with different exam strategies and materials introduced by a school teacher, a tutor, as well as you, the parent. Ideally, you should follow the lead set by your child’s teachers in school, and check in with them regularly (daily even) if your child is unable to grasp what they are teaching, so that they can give your child extra guidance in school or suggest an alternative. Give clear instructions to your child’s tutors as well, so that everyone is on the same page.

If you feel that there are troubling issues with the teachers’ PSLE preparation efforts that need to be addressed, find out if others in your child’s class feel the same way. With strength in numbers, there is still time to approach a higher authority in the school, such as the subject head, to seek a better solution for the weaker pupils. 

Weave Practice Into The Family’s Daily Routine

Is there a way for your child to practise a PSLE skill in a daily life setting? 

For instance, you could discuss the news over the dinner table, and encourage your child to share her opinions using phrases such as “I feel” or “I disagree with this because…” During conversation, you can use words that your child may not be familiar with, to expose her to more advanced words and how they can be used in daily life. Encourage her to use any new vocabulary words that she has picked up as well, or find opportunities to show her how they can be used in conversation. This will be far more effective than any vocabulary book that you can buy. (Read our article on how to practise for the PSLE oral exam in just 15 minutes a day.)

You can also examine your own speaking habits at home, to see if they may be contributing to any of the language errors that your child is making. If so, try to avoid making these errors in casual speech — in the long run, it can only benefit the entire family to work on their language skills together.  

Master Exam Checking Techniques

If you notice that many of your child’s marks are lost to carelessness, you can work out some strategies together for checking test and exam papers. 

For maths, your child can circle or “star” challenging questions, and prioritise checking these questions once she has completed the paper. Another strategy involves “working backwards” to see if she can obtain the original values provided by the question.

For science, students need to check that they have used the appropriate terms to answer questions — for instance, “simpler substances” does not mean the same thing as “smaller parts.” They should also check if they have provided the information required by the question.

For English, teach children to pause at tricky choices, especially if they involve contractions such as “it’s/its,” and “they’re/their.” It helps to write out or read aloud the contraction in full (e.g. “they are”) before deciding if it can fit well into a sentence. Getting children to read out their written answers (albeit softly) can help them spot some simple errors or omissions that could cost them points. 

Need more advice on helping struggling students? Bookmark these last-minute PSLE tips by a neighbourhood school teacher.