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Educator Leroy Lam: How I Teach Kids To Love Writing

Can students develop their composition writing skills without relying on model essays and lists of recommended phrases? Writing school Monsters Under The Bed (MUTB) believes so, and they’re in their 10th year of helping local schoolchildren to fall in love with the written word.

We spoke to one of their trainers, Leroy Lam, for his take on raising readers and writers in Singapore. Leroy has over 15 years of teaching experience, and apart from running MUTB classes, he has taught mainstream and Gifted Education Programme students, as well as students from polytechnics. Read on for his frank comments and advice.

Trainers at a MUTB workshop. Photo credit: MUTB

On the writing difficulties that local students face: 
“Different students—from different backgrounds and levels of expertise—struggle with different aspects of writing. Those who do not read enough struggle with having the language to express their ideas, as they lack the vocabulary and structure to craft their story. Those who read may struggle with creating original ideas and solving story problems, as they have become too used to being spoon-fed in school-based composition writing. It is uncommon to find kids today with that spark, that passion to write, which makes them excel at writing.”

On the ability to write:
“Anyone can write. Everyone has the ability to write if they know how to spell, know basic grammar, and so on. But some kids, when told to free-write, will freeze. They need a topic, a theme to direct them, as they are too used to being told what to write in school. Some are unable to write because of their lack of personal experience with the topic posed to them. This is why reading is extremely important. A child at this stage could never write about climbing Mount Everest or solving a crime, but reading widely will give them this ‘experience.’”

On vocabulary:
“Local students tend to have limited vocabulary, especially if they aren’t avid readers. Those with good reading habits generally have a greater store of vocabulary. I have two Primary 2 girls with the vocabulary of students at a Primary 6 level, because they are voracious readers. I encourage my students to use words they are familiar with, and if they don’t have big, bombastic words, it is totally OK. Instead, I teach them to use literary devices and figurative language, like similes and metaphors, imagery and hyperbole, personification and so on to turn their mundane, everyday language into much more beautiful prose. This is where they get playful with words and have fun with writing.”

On the importance of composition scores:
“I do believe that parents need to place less emphasis on composition scores, because they are not a good gauge of a student writer’s capabilities. The value in school compositions is that they are a tried-and-tested way of establishing literacy skills, nothing more. In fact, compositions are often restrictive in scope, and being creative in composition writing can sometimes lead you into trouble.”

Star Wars role playing. Photo credit: MUTB

On motivating students to write:
“I personally love to incorporate games into my teaching, being a gamer myself. I came up with a Dungeons & Dragons-style board game that teaches kids to use ‘Show’ instead of ‘Tell’ sentences, and it can be modified to teach them to use literary devices instead of clichés. I also devised a game that lets kids practise writing action scenes in a zombie apocalypse setting, and we use old-school ideas like ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books to get kids to make their own adventure stories—there are online programs that can help plot it out.”

On improving one’s writing:
“The only way to improve is to practise and read! And an appreciative audience always helps.

I tell my kids that when they read, or watch TV or movies, they should always take note of the obstacles or problems that protagonists face, and how they solve these problems in interesting or exciting ways. Then, when they write their compositions in school, they have alternative ways of resolving their stories, instead of the usual boring ways such as telling an adult, calling the police, and so on.

The other thing I would advise is to make sure protagonists are protagonists, and not bystanders. Let the protagonist solve problems in the story, and make it funny, dramatic, and memorable. For example, a character is in a situation where he spots a pickpocket. Most students would write about calling for the security or the police. Yes, that would be the right thing to do, but the climax would effectively be cut, leaving one with a generic story. Instead, students can get their heroes to stop the thief, while being as inventive—but realistic—as possible. Trip the thief or throw a water bottle in his path! 

The keywords in the marking rubrics for the top band of composition scores are ‘highly interesting and thoroughly developed composition’ and ‘fully relevant ideas.’ Though what someone finds ‘highly interesting’ is subjective, the important thing is still that the story needs to be fully developed. And that is where our kids fall short.”

On reading well:
“You can churn out pages of phrases for kids to memorise, but without context and usage, they’ll be forgotten eventually. If kids can be taught to appreciate the beauty of words, and how we can paint pictures with them, or lift spirits with them, or make people laugh out loud, then you’ll see them start to use their own versions of these phrases.

The way to start is to read tons of books. Find genres that engage your children, and don’t force them to read books that YOU think are good. Take an interest in what they find amusing or entertaining, when they surf the net or watch YouTube videos. Check out what movies or TV shows they love watching. Odds are they will enjoy a certain genre or two, be it mystery, adventure, horror, sci-fi, or fantasy. Comics are a great starter to get kids hooked on stories. Also, show you’re interested in what they read by discussing characters and plots with them. Don’t forget to grab yourself a book to read, especially around them, to show that you love reading too. Modelling this is very important.”

On model essays and recommended phrases:
“Model compositions and phrases are good for students who can barely write, and are extremely weak in the language. They provide for these students a structure to imitate. But for the good writers, I would say YES, they do more harm than good. I have marked PSLE compositions for almost a dozen years, and I can tell when students use model phrases or essays. Their stories usually lack development while containing phrases thrown in to impress—which fail, more often than not.

The alternative is to tell a good story and use the most effective and appropriate vocabulary for each occasion. Also, as mentioned earlier, I teach my kids to use figurative language, which is difficult, but with practice, they provide a much richer and more creative descriptive prose than memorised stock phrases.”

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