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You can be too rich for the PSLE English Language Paper

Why you should take your child to the hawker centre.

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The chauffeured student often attracts envy, from other parents and students alike, yet every time I see a student step out of a limousine, the thought will cross my mind,”Will he be ready for the PSLE?”

Why is that, you ask might ask? What’s the connection? Surely he is in a more advantageous situation than most other students? He gets ferried everywhere, he never had to waste time waiting for a late bus, or experience the discomfort after a long day at school, squeezing with other commuters in a train. He’s got a great life! No disputing that, however, from the point of view of the PSLE EL exam setter, this privileged lifestyle is not what he/she can refer to when he/she sets the essay question.

When the setter has to come up with the "place" picture for the essay question, he/she will have to choose a place that is unashamedly plebeian and common, and it won’t be the first-class cabin on a plane. Instead, it will be a place like a hawker centre, a neighbourhood shopping mall, or the HDB estate's mini-mart.

The parent who has drawn up a tight schedule of activities for the P5 or P6 child, zipping from school to tuition centre and then back home to a ready bowl of ramen should ask, “Is my child ready to spin a story set in say, a hawker centre?”

For the busy parent, don’t make a virtue only of buying another set of test of papers that may end up untouched. Invest in time spent with your child observing and experiencing what is around us.

Here are some tips on what your child can look out for in the hawker centre.

When you take your child there, you should think like Anthony Bourdain and marvel at the way the food is served (so many condiments for a plate of chicken rice!), how the place is ventilated (stuffy and smoky, or with high ceiling fans), how the wheelchair-bound claim their access to seats (considerately set aside, or selfishly taken up), how cleaners, stallholders, and customers interact, and how conflicts can arise.

These are some of the insights I like to share with my students. I love seeing the expressions on my students' faces when I bring up the topic of their cushy lives. I always note how the more hardy ones - for whom public transport’s a daily grind - smile when I indicate the “superior knowledge” they have.

There are many other such places that could turn up in an essay question. The concerned parent can start with diverting the family to the hawker centre for the next meal or looking at the next hawker centre trip as an excursion of sorts. If it is the hawker centre of your childhood, better still. Engage your child with stories about the hawkers in the past, even a tale about how your mother had fallen out with a laksa stallholder.

A story can only come from a seed of an idea, not cold, uninvolved memorising of word lists.

On 27 September in that exam hall, your child might have to recall that plate of roti prata or that glass of soya bean milk. Go “chope” a seat!

For more information on my ongoing programmes, click here.

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