#5 started failing Chinese in Primary 4 and he had absolutely no interest in the subject.
On hindsight, his weak foundation started in preschool. I had placed him in a Montessori in our neighbourhood. It was run by an Indian national and as most of his classmates were expat children the Chinese teachers spoke English to them. We did not suspect that he was not picking up much Chinese as he was able to read the readers he took home. They had complex words like “mangosteen”, “durian”, “grapes”, “monkey”, “elephant” etc and we were impressed! I have since realised that it was because he saw those complicated words with many strokes as a picture and memorised them as an image.
When #5 entered P1, his classmates were rattling off Mandarin verses while everything seemed new to him. His Chinese started off in the 80-90 range but as his foundation was not strong his grades begun to slide year after year as the syllabus became tougher.
I tried hiring a private tutor but none worked out. He has a short attention span and is difficult to teach. Moreover, the native Chinese teachers were strict and did not spend time building rapport with him.
I did not panic yet as my older girls managed to score As despite not having much external tuition and assumed that he would eventually buck up. What I did was to hire a tutor to read to them stories in Mandarin for an hour a week since their grandparents did not speak the language.
After his P4 year-end exams, I had a talk with him and asked him what should we do about it. I was intending to work out a study schedule with him and was taken aback by his response. “Mum, just apply to let me drop Chinese.”
I pretended not to know what he was referring to, and he elaborated. “Some of my friends are exempted yet their Chinese is even better than mine! I’m sure I can get exempted too.” I was shocked that he had this mentality as we have never spoken about the topic of exemption before.
I explained that his classmates must have some sort of learning disability, hence the exemption.
“No, they are normal. Why don’t you ask their mums how they did it?”
When I checked with friends and kids from various different schools, it surprised me how an elite school like theirs seem to have a disproportionately high percentage of exemptions. Many parents knew about this “loophole” and had lots of advice for me. No certainty of getting an A/A* for Chinese? Better to drop one laggard and protect their overall aggregate, which also leaves more time to concentrate on the other 3 subjects. If you can afford it, why not give it a try? Brilliant strategy, until it seemed like MOE started moderating the number of exemptions they granted.
It was a tempting backdoor, but I didn’t want to send the wrong message to my kids. If you are not good at something, instead of pressing on and trying your best, let’s find a way to wriggle out of it. And I was afraid that after going through all those sessions of testing, what might he think? Maybe there really is something wrong with me.
I have to admit that I did consider that option for #5. I spoke to the hubs and in his characteristic straight way told me, “What are you thinking? He is a bright boy and there is nothing wrong with him. Are you letting him take the easy way out? Find him a good tutor. All he needs is to put in much more effort. I’ll give him a good pep talk.”
I’m glad he had swiftly put a stop to it, and ended my dilemma of taking the big step to get him tested.
That was in P4 and I did not think about it again until now.
Looking at his devastating P5 results, the reality sunk in, and my fears were heightened. What if there really is cause for concern and my child had a genuine difficulty in picking up Chinese? It would be unfair to him to let this slide.
I finally made the decision to send him for an assessment.
On the way there, it suddenly occurred to me that this cheeky boy might intentionally get it wrong because he badly wanted to be exempted from Chinese.
I told him, “Make sure you do your best. Don’t think that by getting it all wrong will you get an exemption.”
He thought for awhile then said, “How will she know?”
I told him that it is not easy to get an exemption and it has to be shown that he is capable of learning the other subjects but not Chinese.”
Sometime after that session, I went for the consultation and the psychologist told me that there might be grounds for exemption and a few more rounds of testing were needed to further assess and substantiate his learning disabilities. He would also need to be referred to a practitioner in another field for further assessment.
However, what was puzzling was that his results had a great disparity in a few components which tested the same aspects.
Strange as it sounded, I was glad to know that he may have some issues and could be exempted!
When I told him that the results were out, he beamed, “So how? I got exempted right? I purposely did one whole page of questions wrongly! And when she was testing the numbers, I jumbled them up.” He was jumping around excitedly.
I stared at him. Goodness. That explained the huge variances in his scores!
He had figured out which bits to do right and which bits to do wrong in relation to learning Chinese.
I was mad.
Then I calmed down and thought about it. In his juvenile mind, that was his goal.
For a few moments, I was conflicted. Should I let him go ahead with the next rounds of testing, knowing that he would likely foul it up, and perhaps have a chance at exemption? I can’t believe how desperate I was to “help” him.
But I would be reinforcing that he can try to think up ways to outsmart the system instead of putting in effort to work on his challenges.
The answer was clear.
I told him: You know what? The results show that there is absolutely nothing wrong with your brain nor your learning ability. In fact, you are a bright boy and you will have no problems learning Chinese if you put your mind to it. I will take you to your Aunt every weekend for tuition and she will help you improve.
Strangely, he accepted the conclusion, as though he had given it his best shot but now that avenue was shut.
I explained to the psychologist what #5 had admitted, and we decided it was best to end the testing there.
Even though he is starting from ground zero at P6, this will be a hard lesson he will have to learn.
He will have to find it in him to fight this battle, tough as it may be. And I will not succumb to letting him take the easy way out, but to stick with it.
The good news is that his Chinese teacher has given me feedback that his attitude has improved tremendously this year and he is putting in a lot of effort.
She sent me a message on Class Dojo:
“He has put in a lot of effort this week and was able to pronounce the words when I went through revision. Everyone was truly happy for him and I took the opportunity to praise him. He is starting to show interest and I think that is a very important step. As long as he continues this good attitude towards learning, I believe he will improve.”
I am so thankful for his teacher and her willingness to walk the extra mile with him to encourage him. It feels like we’re all in this together!
We have set a realistic goal of achieving a Pass for his PSLE.
I know I made the right decision.
No more T-score. Now what?
PSLE results: Good or Bad, what do you say?
My 5th PSLE child – My son