Weighting the second language in the Primary School Leaving Examination

Education Minister Ng Eng Hen mooted the idea a few days ago of reviewing the weighting given to the second language in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). This is a national set of tests given to 12 – 13 year olds on completion of their first six years of schooling. The PSLE currently tests children on four subjects: English, Mathematics, Science and a second language, which the ministry calls “mother tongue”.

This subject has been dogged by controversy for years, the result of politics trumping pedagogy. Stemming from the  Singapore government’s tendency to see every citizen through the prism of race, it has in most cases assigned a second language to the child based on the colour of his skin. No consideration was given to the linguistic and cultural environment of each child’s home. Then it was compounded by a one-size-fits-all curriculum that simply assumes people as homogenously “mother-tongue”-speaking at home, when the facts scream otherwise. This went on for years with dissent dismissed by “we know best” bureaucrats and ministers.

In the last 5 – 8 years, baby steps have been taken to modify the curriculum, taking into account the fact that increasing numbers (a majority, I believe) of children now come from either English- or Singlish-speaking homes. the way one teaches a language depends hugely on the environment the learner lives in.

Yet, at primary school level, the PSLE still sets a uniform bar for all pupils; whatever the curriculum, whatever one’s starting home environment, all are expected to reach the same proficiency. Is that realistic?

The PSLE exam is critical to determining the next schooling path for the child, so enormous pressure is piled onto the child to do well. Not only is the test uniform, the weightage for the four subjects is the same: 25 percent each.

Minister Ng has now recognised that no two children are the same. They come from different environments and they have different gifts. How do tests respond to that?

The answer does not lie in tweaking the weighting of the subjects. Whether one proposes that the second language be 10, 20 or 30 percent, there is still the one-size-fits-all problem.

A more flexible system is needed. For example, of the four subjects, the three in which a child does best can be given 30 percent weight each. His weakest subject gets 10 percent. Such a method will not condemn a child just because his talents are not in one area.

Yes, it will mean that a child who is weak in, say, English, will end up relying on Mathematics, Science and his second language to get a similar score as another child who, weak in his second language, relies on English, Mathematics and Science to compute his score, but what’s wrong with that? It does reflect our commonsense view that these two children probably have similar abilities, albeit reflected in different languages.

But it will beg another question: How do we follow on with these two children in secondary school? It seems to me then that a more wholistic approach would require secondary schools to customise subjects and curricula to children based on their differing abilities in various subjects.

In other words, we need to move to a mixed menu secondary school system, rather than stick to the hierarchical system of “gifted stream”, “normal stream” etc that we currently have.

22 Responses to “Weighting the second language in the Primary School Leaving Examination”

  1. 1 Jackson Tan 22 April 2010 at 19:17

    Perhaps one problem with your idea of a higher weight for the better performing subject is that it then puts into disadvantage those who are more well-rounded.

    That is, if student A scores {90, 80, 80, 50} and student B scores {80, 80, 80, 80}, then they still have the same score according to the weights you assigned even though student B is more consistent in his subjects throughout.

    Is it fair, then, to the well-rounded student? Or more specifically, would the weighted system discourage the student to be well-rounded?

    I’m not shooting down your idea; I just think there’s the other side of the coin to consider.

  2. 2 Helix 26 April 2010 at 15:32

    Actually, according to the chinese teaching community, the status of chinese language has always been low. They have been lamenting that as China rises as a major economic power, the chinese language policy has in fact reversed. (read zaobao)

    I think the key point should be whether learning chinese should be considered an essential just like English and Maths. If it is not, then it should be left out as an elective subjects. However, if it is essentials, there should be no compromise in the standard just like Maths or English. Do we ever hear that if a student is weaker in say English or Maths, then English or maths should carries a lower weightage?

  3. 3 yawningbread 27 April 2010 at 01:08

    Helix – It struck me that you have very quickly equated Second Language with Chinese, and the rest of our argument is based on that assumption. Your argument goes like this:
    1. If Second Language = Chinese,
    2. If Chinese is considered essential,
    3. Therefore no compromise on standards/weightage should be allowed.

    What if one or both of your if’s does not apply? If a child’s Second Language is, say, Telugu, how does your argument work then?

  4. 4 Helix 28 April 2010 at 16:31

    Hi- It is mostly the chinese language that people have problem coping with. Even though, in the English media, the word used is “second language”, the word “hua wen” is being reported in the chinese media. It is almost quite certain that MOE is addressing the probelm more of the chinese angle.

  5. 5 Helix 28 April 2010 at 17:06

    I have a hybrid idea that will combine the advantages of all suggestions.

    Higher weightage can be chosen from the best three subjects with lower weigtage given to the weakest subject which can be any subject.

    In this way, even the all-rounder will not be totally marginalised and it will be fair to most students.

  6. 6 Fox 1 May 2010 at 20:31


    It is not true that it is Chinese that most school children have problems with. If you do some googling, you’ll find that Indian and Malay Singaporean school children are also increasingly struggling with Tamil and Malay CL2. In fact, a larger percentage of Indian Singaporeans come from English-speaking households than do Chinese Singaporeans.

    That is simply an outcome of the trend of linguistic shift from Asian vernacular languages (Chinese, Tamil, Malay, etc) to English in Singapore. This is not a trend confined only to Chinese Singaporeans as many would believe. More and more Singaporeans are acquiring English or Singlish as their first language as a result of the functional advantage of English in Singapore.

  7. 7 Helix 3 May 2010 at 00:31

    I think the government should not be so short-sighted. I just feel that it is a result of a strong lobby from the English speaking families.

    USA is still strong today as even after the financial crisis it contitutes 24% of the world economy. China and India afterall only constitutes 7 and 2% of the world economy. However, this will definitely change in the future. US$ may soon lost its reserve currency status and UK may defaulted. The world may be totally different after 2 decades.

  8. 8 xinyuan 6 May 2010 at 23:13

    Why should children weaker in one particular subject get a leg up by tweaking the weightage of that one subject in the PSLE? Would you excuse the child of an illiterate family if he/she couldn’t do math, and give him/her just 10% weightage for math, for example?

    Kids gotta live with it. Strip mother tongue of its moral underpinnings and treat it like a language the way MOE hasn’t been doing so.

    If after six years a kid cannot manage to scramble up a decent standard in said mother tongue, then either the kid has an attitude problem, or them mother tongue teachers can’t teach. Yes?

  9. 9 non-kiasu parent 11 May 2010 at 15:51

    The real problem lies in parents’ insisting that their children get into top schools. It is this group that’s making the most noise over the weightage of Chinese. They put pressure on their kids, insist that they do well in Chinese (and the other 3 subjects too) and in the process the kids become really miserable. Then these same parents complain that their kids have to spend so much time on Chinese at the expense of other subjects and they threaten to migrate because their kids can’t get into a top school. The weightage for Chinese doesn’t need to be lowered; it is these parents’ expectations of their kids that need to be lowered! It is these parents’ (and schools are at fault too) study-for-the-sake-of-getting-into-top-school-so-your-mummy-and-daddy-got-face attitude that kills the joy of learning in their kids.

    • 10 Ponder Stibbons 2 August 2010 at 23:32

      This is too simplistic. It’s not just a matter of face. Given the rigidity of Singapore’s tiered education system, getting into a top school has important consequences for their children’s career.

      It is true that many parents are too kiasu, but the current tiered, rigid system exacerbates the problem because it makes future educational opportunities extremely dependent on earlier exam results.

      If the system is changed so as to make failure in one PSLE subject less consequential for the child’s future, then there will be less pressure on children to do well in every single subject at the PSLE.

      • 11 Ex-PSLE candidate 6 September 2010 at 22:25

        Even though I’m against the lowering of mother tongue weightage, I think what you’ve pointed out is rather unfair. It isn’t so much of studying so that parents get face, but more of a child being less gifted in a particular subject. We can’t expect all students to be so talented in all subjects, can we? You can’t blame a parent for wanting the best for their child either, can we? No matter how kiasu or non-kiasu you are, you would naturally want what is good for your child. But the main point of what I’m talking about here is that, a student studying so that their parents get face, is a rather shallow thinking.

        As a student who does not excel in mother tongue, it must appear weird that I’m against the lowering of the weightage of this subject. But no matter how much I dislike the subject, and how bad I am at it, (I have failed many times.) I accept that this language is part of who I am known to be, is a part of what I was before me, and what will continue to be. I am a Chinese, and my mother tongue will naturally be Chinese/Mandarin. In my passport, is not my race recorded as Chinese? My mother tongue has the ability to prove my roots, and it is important to me, no matter how much I may dislike the subject at times. I do not study hard to get into a top school (if you count NYGH as a top school) so that my parents get face. I study because I know that it is a basic responsibility on my part, as a Chinses. I would be really losing face if I said I was a Chinese and didn’t know how to converse, write or interact in Chinese fluidly! Besides, I also know that my parents appreciate it that I study hard even though i dislike the subject, so in that sense they don’t really lose face even if I had not gotten into a top school, because I have tried my best.

      • 12 Fox 6 September 2010 at 23:39

        @Ex-PSLE candidate:

        “I study because I know that it is a basic responsibility on my part, as a Chinses.”

        Why is studying Chinese a basic responsibility on your part? What is the moral impetus behind it? Will you be a bad person if you don’t study Chinese? Would you have been less honest, less charitable, less friendly, less sociable, less generous, etc if you hadn’t studied Chinese?

        Who put this idea in your head?

        ” I would be really losing face if I said I was a Chinese and didn’t know how to converse, write or interact in Chinese fluidly!”

        What is a losing face situation? Millions of people descended from Chinese emigrants live in America, Canada, Australia, Europe, etc. Many of them cannot speak or write Chinese. Most Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, German-Americans, French-Americans, etc cannot speak Polish, Italian, German, French, etc. Many Mongolian-Chinese, Manchurian-Chinese and Korean-Chinese in China cannot speak Mongolian, Manchu or Korean. Ask your parents or your Chinese teacher if Polish-Americans who don’t speak Polish or Mongolian-Chinese who don’t speak Mongolian are losing face.

  10. 13 student 2 August 2010 at 21:31

    hi there. i am a student, and i feel that all these talk about lowering the weightage of mother tongue whatsoever just does not make sense. i think that parents of kids nowadays spoil them too much, in a sense that everything has to be perfect for them and that things that their own kids do not excel in have to be programmed in a way that benefits their kids the best. all i have to say is, if the previous generations of all psle students are able to do their psle without so much hooha of what, lowering the weightage and choosing the best subject to be counted? there is no such things. did you know that before 1985, languages in psle are all double weighted? in fact we should be thankful that the government has already lessened the weightage of the languages, and that parents should not suggest such unreasonable requests such as lowering standards. this is a national exam, and it should be deicded by the government, not us. every parent only thinks about their own child. what about others? no matter what decision is made, the government can’t please everyone. those kids that have a problem coping should just work harder and put in more effort. learning not only depends on the teacher but also the students attitude. i just hope that everyone would just accept the education system the way it is and not make unnecessary changes that causes the whole country to be in ‘chaos’. thanks

    • 14 Ponder Stibbons 2 August 2010 at 23:41

      Funny, I thought that in a democracy, national issues should be decided with partial consideration of what the people want. Seems that in Unique Singapore national issues are too important to be left to the hoi polloi and should be left to the machinations of a small group of elites.

      I would also be interested to learn how changing the weightage of mother tongue would cause the “whole country to be in ‘chaos'”.

      Just because a system was in place in the past, doesn’t mean that it should be continued. In fact I know extremely talented people whose education was negatively affected because of the double weighting. They excelled in other subjects, but were condemned to a lower stream just because of languages, which meant that they were also forced to learn the subjects they were good at at a much slower pace than they were capable of. You are assuming that the previous system worked well, but as far as I know there has been no comprehensive study of the opportunities lost because of ‘condemning’ students to lower streams on the basis of one or two subjects alone.

      Finally, your claim that previous generations put up with the situation without much ‘hooha’ is without basis. It was noted as early as the 80s that families were emigrating so as to save their children from the stress of having to excel in ‘mother tongue’.

      • 15 student 5 September 2010 at 20:40

        so what’s your point?

      • 16 Ex-PSLE candidate 6 September 2010 at 21:57

        Technically, if a student is so great in their other studies, it should not be a problem for them to get into a good school, or a school of their choice. Also, appeals usually look into a student’s academic achievements with greater detail, and if a student is so talented, the school won’t reject them!

        Hmm, don’t you think emigration is just a form of escapism? Personally I think it is their loss if they want to avoid having to face mother tongue, or to excel in it, whichever they have in mind when they even thought of emigrating. With such a diverse society we live in, mother tongue is not just a language for people from around the world to interact with each other, but a symbol of where your roots came from. It is a reminder of how we would not be here if not for our ancestors, who spoke their mother tongue language.

      • 17 Ponder Stibbons 7 September 2010 at 05:18

        ex-PSLE candidate,

        If you don’t care about the fact that Singapore is losing many talented immigrants because of the MT policy, then we can agree to disagree. I do not think it is worthwhile to persist with the policy at such a huge cost. Many of these people do very well in their careers in other countries, and all we do is replace them with foreigners of questionable abilities.

        The “mother tongue” of most ethnic Chinese in Singapore was not Mandarin but Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, and various other Chinese languages that are distinct from Mandarin and not mutually intelligible with Mandarin. If your real concern is with “roots” then you should be asking for the introduction of exams in these languages, not in Mandarin.

        As for your claim that if the student is really talented, then she won’t be rejected, I know of actual counter-examples. One has a PhD in physics from a top American university. S/he was streamed into normal stream because of the MT policy, even though in terms of math/science ability s/he would have easily surpassed most people in the “gifted” stream. Many of the children of emigrants who escaped Singapore because of the MT policy also do extremely well in their adopted country.

    • 18 beast686 5 September 2010 at 21:11

      Judging by your standard of English, I can guarantee you that there is indeed a problem with our education system. :O

  11. 19 Ex-PSLE candidate 2 August 2010 at 21:57

    Since PSLE is a national examination for the students to determine their standards, lowering the weightage would be defeating the purpose of the examination right? Everyone takes the same paper no matter how difficult or how easy it is, and based on their results, they will get into different schools. So if a bunch of selfish people decide to make it such that the weightage of a certain subject is lowered for their own benefits, wouldn’t the whole purpose of a national examination be lost?
    Which brings me to the topic of secondary school choices. Well, obviously everyone wants to get into a school of their choice, and most parents would wish for their children to enter an elite school, or top school, as non-kiasu parent refers it as. Hey people, a top school is defined as a top school, because only the best get in! If we are going to lower the weightage of subjects so that some children will be able to get into the elite schools, soon everyone will be able to enter the elite schools based on results! And then, all these elite schools, won’t be so elite by then!

    • 20 Ponder Stibbons 2 August 2010 at 23:46

      Everyone will still take the same paper if the weightage is lowered. The weightage will only matter for comparisons between different school years, but since you only compete with people in your year for admissions, this is irrelevant to admissions.

      Finally, every school has limits on the number of students they take in, so obviously not ‘everyone’ will be able to get into the elite schools.

      • 21 Ex-PSLE candidate 6 September 2010 at 21:39

        If we’re going to lower the weightage for mother tongues this year because a percentage of parents have raised concerns about their intelligent students being hindered in their other studies due to the mother tongue weightage (what you pointed out in your response to student’s comment), then are we going to lower the weightage of another subject next year? For example math? Because some other parent could say that math has hindered their child in their other studies!

        And I apologise for my mistake in the previous post where I said that ‘everyone will be able to enter the elite schools based on results’. I meant that most people would be eligible to enter elite schools, in which they will only be rejected because the acceptance limit had already been met. At that point in time, would parents then ask the government to raise the weightage of the subject again, to separate and differentiate the best from just the mere average?

      • 22 Ponder Stibbons 7 September 2010 at 05:20

        I don’t have a problem with reducing the weightage of math, or any other subject, if there are good reasons for it.

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