Mastery of English, especially English academic language, is a necessity for continued advancement in the Singapore education system. English is a compulsory component for all levels, and thus, students need to do well to move on to the next stage.
Unfortunately, English is not a simple language to master. Grammar seems arbitrary and words used in different contexts and different subjects have different meanings. I will highlight just two primary school subjects below though this idea permutes through all subjects taught in English.
Mathematics: Academic Language
One subject where English has some influence is Mathematics. I am sure most parents are already aware of this. However, this is an important point, and I would like to emphasise it. For problem sums, it is not only important to know the models or methods for solving it, but also equally important for the student to understand the English language behind it so that he can understand what the sum is asking for. Needless to say, being weak in English can stop a student with superior mathematical ability from scoring distinctions.
Science: Academic Language
Similarly, English and Science are inseparable. There has been a huge debate about the role of English in Primary school Science. There seems to be a gap between the use of scientific words and the actual meaning of the English word. However, I believe that this is not the case. For example, in explaining how a balloon fills up with air, a student might choose the word ‘expanded’ instead of ‘inflated’. The correct word required might seem a distinction made only for scientific reasons. However, if you check the dictionary, to inflate means “fill (something) with air or gas, so it becomes distended”, while to expand means “become larger or more extensive”. Therefore, inflate is a better choice than expand. Hence the word ‘expand’ is not accepted. This shows that a grasp of excellent English increases the chance of excellence in one’s Science grades.
Certainly teachers do give definitions for these words when they teach these topics. However, we must agree that it is not as simple as just giving the definition. Moreover, in trying to get the students to relate to the subject matter, the teacher might use plain everyday English to get the point across. This might be the reason some students end up answering questions in a very general way rather than in a way that demonstrates their mastery of the content.
How can parents help?
One key concept that we need to learn is to help our children master and use academic language. What is academic language? Academic language is the language used in textbooks and on tests. It is different in structure and vocabulary from the everyday spoken English. Just because a student speaks English well does not mean it will be easy for them to pick up academic language. Academic language becomes harder as the student moves up the levels. Some examples of academic language include alliteration in language arts, ratios in mathematics and atoms in science. If we can help our children to learn academic language, they will benefit in English and other subjects.
Some tips for improving academic language
1. Reading about the same topic in different genres is a great way of learning academic language. There are many story books on Math and getting children to read them before reading the related textbooks or notes would not only interest the children but help them learn.
2. Drill children into the habit of underlining key instructional words, as these are also part of academic language. Ask children to underline the keywords of a textbook or a complex question. Get them to think about exactly what that word is asking them to do.
3. Get children to translate the textbook or academic subject into plain English or get them to explain a concept or topic in academic language. This strategy works extremely well for Science, as the students have to be careful of the words they choose.
English is certainly one of the keys to academic success, not only in terms of its importance as a subject but also its significance to other subjects. Therefore, it is important to find English teachers who are aware of this aspect. It is also equally important to find Mathematics and Science teachers who are committed to explaining the terms of the language of their respective disciplines.