Aligning the English Syllabus

In 2013, there was a English syllabus change for the GCE ‘O’ level examinations. There was much discussion in the educational sector about this and many people, including us, have written about the changes. During that time, there was limited information on the syllabus and teachers in national schools were still attending courses to learn about it.

It has been two years, and two papers are now available for reference. I shall analyse both papers so that parents are better informed on the differences between the new and old English syllabuses. After all, it was previously just theory, and now we can see how it is applied in the actual examinations.

For this discussion, you may like to acquire a copy of the 2013 and 2014 ‘O’ Level English Language paper (1128), which is available in POPULAR bookstores.

Application of syllabus change in the 2013 and 2014 ‘O’ Level English Paper

One of the main changes has been the inclusion of visual stimuli in the papers. In Paper One, Section B, the traditional text-heavy question has been replaced by real-life visual stimulus. In both years, the examiners chose web pages to help inspire students in their writing. In Paper Two, the examiners have included web pages from and the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore) to test students’ understanding. In Paper Four, the visual stimulus is used as a way to start the conversation, instead of the usual “infer the photos” approach. It is a recognition that media-rich materials dominate our world, and students need to master visual literacy to be successful.

The Paper Two comprehension also requires much more critical thinking and knowledge of literary devices and figurative language than previous years. For example, the 2014 papers required the student to explain the contrast between the following two sentences: “In the morning, the sun rose on the face of the cliff; jungle rock glowed in pastel pinks and rose-petal reds. The drop was almost fifty metres.” In the same paper, the student needed to identify the tone the author was trying to create in the paragraph. Without critical thinking and knowledge of literary language, students will not do well in the English paper. It is of no surprise that critical thinking is included as it is considered by MOE to be an important skill for future success.
Finally, there is also an obvious change in Paper One. While the syllabus still includes narratives, it is clear that students should no longer hope that a narrative writing question will come out again. In both the 2013 and 2014 papers, the four essay questions that came out were descriptive, personal reflective, argumentative and discursive. It is a clear sign of MOE preparing our ‘O’ level students for tertiary education and beyond where all writing is of an expository nature.

There are some other changes, but this is not in the scope of this article. Now that we can see some of the ‘O’ level changes in action, let me turn my attention to the PSLE English Language paper.

Aligning the PSLE English syllabus with the ‘O’ Level syllabus

The PSLE English Language paper is going to change in 2015. According to MOE, this is an extension of STELLAR (which has been rolled out to all schools). At the same time, MOE has also stated that the entire change is to help students develop 21st Century Competencies – which is exactly what the ‘O’ level paper is trying to achieve. You can see this in Paper One of the new English syllabus. For the first time, students can be more creative in their writing. They can even write expositions – exactly what the ‘O’ level paper seems to be moving towards. In addition, there is a heavier emphasis on visual elements in Paper Two (comprehension graphic stimulus), Paper Three (questions with pictures) and Paper Four (stimulus based conversation). To me, this is a sign that MOE is aligning the Primary and Secondary syllabuses. To be frank, this is not surprising – the Primary and Secondary syllabuses are already being presented together in one document.

Based on this information, MOE wants to achieve 21st Century Competencies, or future skills, through its English syllabus. It is reflected in the way English is assessed. We welcome this change and hope it will help our children to excel and be more successful in the future.

A version of this article appeared in the May/June issue of POPCLUB.