Exam Orientation

on Monday, 22 March 2010
Today, I took over a form 3 class during extra classes. Importantly, these extra classes are more than necessary for kids in my school because not only are they lagging behind in the syllabus (of course, the only real syllabus we have is the literature component) but they need the extra hour and a half to practice using the language.

Practice the language. Hmph... practice the language.

The focus of my English extra classes is not to practice the language and do like what I do in my usual classes. I feel that these classes are done to familiarise students with the format and the examination questions that will be their penultimate quest this year. Trust me, no matter how fun and exciting my games can be, in the end, kids will be wondering about their exam papers.

Whatever fun and games I could bring in my typical English class still does not supersede the importance of being able to answer PMR and SPM questions. For a student struggling 11 years in school, being able to get an 'A' in their subject is paramount above anything else.

Let us get real - exams are important. Not only are they important, they have been a very solid and empirical way to calculate a student's performance and ability. In fact, I would further iterate that exams have evolved on its own to cater to modern criterion of competency and capability. So, exams you see and experience today might not be even faintly close to that 50 years ago. Nevertheless, exams they still remain and will always remain in my opinion for another century to come.

As a teacher, I must never overlook this importance. Students might be getting their share of fun and practice of English in their classes which is jolly good for acquiring the language. In fact, many have argued (are still arguing and will continue to argue) that this is already quite enough because when one successfully acquires the language, answering our typical SPM exam paper should be a breeze.

In fact, if one is very already competent in the language, any question or text that our PMR exams could have really shouldn't impose difficulty to one's mental prowess. The focus of these exams is not to dig out content knowledge like how Physics or Kemahiran Hidup is designed for. Those exams require you to understand processes, read facts, and sometimes memorise formulas to be able to answer questions.

Our English paper is not tailored for that purpose... or at least not entirely so (dang the literature component). Besides novels and things that you might have to read and remember certain details, the English exams are all about the application of your current competency in the language. You can't read or memorise an English book. There is no point doing repetitive English Reading Comprehension texts to ensure that you've read each and every topic that could possibly appear in the exam. You could read a wide range of topics from The History of France all the way to Molecular Genetics and Gene Enhancement Therapy and yet the topic that appears is Gandhi.

This shows that you can't expect to score in the English paper just by going through all the topics and expect one of the topics to appear. Of course, if you go through a thousand topics, 1 topic is damned sure to appear but I'm pretty sure that by the time you've reached the 999th topic, you have already mastered the English language enough to not need read your thousandth topic.

In the extra classes, I emphasise a lot about being ready for the exam. I told the kids that its not so much about practicing questions like how we would practice Mathematics or memorise facts for History. We're practicing PMR exam questions so that you are familiar with the format of it. You will be familiar with the type of questions that will be asked. It's nice to know what are the type of questions that would be asked. Incidentally, they are:



It is important to pen out these sections and let students get a bird's eye view of the exam. It's like looking at the battle map before going for war. It's like looking at your blueprint before going to the construction site. It doesn't help in terms of practice or competency in the language. It's all about building confidence in approaching the exam. It's about ensuring that you are prepared and remove the element of surprise when you take the exam. This is absolutely important for all students of all competencies. I do not take for granted that even my competent students don't need to know. I assume they are all unaware of this top-down view of the exam and must allocate time to explain to them about it.

Before I throw them into the ring, I have to strap on their gloves, douse them with cold water, and let them bite their mouth-piece.

We can't drill kids who are weak with repetitive English PMR Exam Predictions till kingdom come. It is not about spotting the topic or questions. It's about what you have practiced all this while in your life when you use English. It's all about you practicing all the four prongs of language learning (listening, speaking, reading, writing) and throughout this process, hopefully you'd have used a lot of the language enough to be competent enough to answer the questions.

To take a different twist in explaining it, if you've never seen, read, heard, glanced, or even dreamed of the word antiestablishmentarianism (thanks to Will Smith in In the Actors Studio) and/or didaskaleinophobia (thanks to Shaz), you just don't know shmuck about it. 

Wow... it's been some time since I typed out the word shmuck. 

Somehow... there's just this thing about saying shmuck that I like...

Shmuck, Shmuck, Shmuck, Shmuck, Shmuck, Shmuck, Shmuck...

*snaps out of it.


This goes the same for syntactical forms.

For example, the sentence that you might have used is:

I love to play tennis.

A sentence simple enough to construct; and you probably know one or two situations where this sentence is applicable. However, there are so many possible variations to this sentence; some you probably haven't heard before and have no idea when or where to use. Here are the possibilities:

I loved playing tennis.
I really love to play tennis.
I really love playing tennis.
I have loved playing tennis.
I had to love playing tennis.
I am loving playing tennis.
I love playing tennis.
I love having played tennis.
I would love to play tennis.
I would have loved to play tennis.
I would have really loved to play tennis.
I might love to play tennis.
I might have loved to play tennis.
I might have loved playing tennis.
I might have really loved to play tennis.
I probably love playing tennis.
I probably love to play tennis.
I might have probably loved to play tennis.
I need to love to play tennis.
I need to love playing tennis.
I desperately need to completely love playing very serious tennis.

The list can go on and on... with the idea of loving to play tennis being the main idea of all these sentences. For a person who uses English all the time, I'm pretty sure that each sentence is not something strange and I'm also quite sure you know at least when to use each sentence even though you might lack the intrinsic knowledge of explaining why it is so linguistically. Our exams have a lot of these sentences and requires students to be familiar with almost all of the aforementioned sentences. They wouldn't ask you about the sentences, it would just appear in the exam assuming that you should be familiar with these sentences. You will have to choose to use these sentences appropriately when answering questions of various topics. You choose which is right.

Each sentence has its own special context and probably is required for one specific context in a conversation or in writing. If one has not used them or is not familiar with one of the structures because of lack of practice, then it is impossible to find out if that particular sentence is valid or not. It is also impossible to use it when needed especially if you do not know of the existence of such sentences. In other words, with the knowledge of the various sentences, you can explain things in different ways and using the different expressions more effectively and accurately. This definitely affects comprehensible exchanges especially in writing where the only input of the reader is your ink.

One thing is certain though, as a person's competency develops, the list above can almost certainly grow longer and become more complex in nature.

So the question here would be...

How long is your list?


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