By Marcus Goh and Adrian Kuek
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In less than two weeks’ time, the PSLE will begin with the English oral examinations on 17 and 18 August. The Oral Communication exam, also known as Paper 4, usually doesn’t get as much attention as Paper 1 and Paper 2, but it accounts for 15 per cent of the total grade. Paper 1 and Paper 2 together account for 75 per cent of the PSLE English score.
However, students only get 10 minutes for the oral exam – five minutes for preparation and five minutes for the actual testing. Compare this with the three hours allocated for Paper 1 and Paper 2. Roughly speaking, that means each minute of the oral examination is worth 1.5 per cent of the total grade, whereas each minute of Paper 1 and Paper 2 is worth 0.2 per cent of the total grade.
So here’s how to make the most of those 10 minutes in the oral examination and secure that 15 per cent.
1. Greet the examiner and smile
This may sound like common sense, but being pleasant goes a long way towards establishing some sort of rapport right from the start. Examiners are only human, and smiling is the best way to break the ice. Students will likely be rewarded with a smile in return, which will work wonders for their confidence.
After all, all things being equal, who is most likely to be awarded the higher grade, the amicable student or the grumpy one?
2. Body language
Just like in real life, we tend to trust those who make eye contact in conversations. So it follows that students should try to maintain eye contact with their examiners during the conversation. This doesn’t mean giving a hard stare for the duration of the conversation, of course. Communication encompasses projecting the right non-verbal signals as well, so establishing eye contact with the examiner, no matter how intimidating he or she might be, is the most natural way to do that.
Tone and volume of voice matter, too. Speak in an energetic and enthusiastic manner. The examiners would have been listening to scores of students droning on before you, so the last thing you’d want is for them to fall asleep when it’s your turn!
Next is posture. This means sitting up straight and not slouching. Skilful students could try supplementing their verbal responses with appropriate hand gestures. That said, thumb-twiddling, hair-twirling, rapping of fingers on the desk, shaking of legs like a towkay or folding arms across the chest should be avoided as they convey boredom, nervousness or worse, arrogance!
3. Read calmly and carefully
Students should aim to score full marks in the Reading Aloud component. This is possible as long as students read the text calmly and carefully. For many students, that means reading at a steady pace so that every word is carefully enunciated, paying particular attention to word beginnings such as the tricky ‘th’ and word endings such as the ‘t’, ‘s’ and ‘ed’.
It’s not all about pronouncing words properly, though. Reading with emotion is just as important. You don’t see newscasters smiling when they’re reporting a tragedy or frowning when they’re reporting a happy event, so likewise, students should inject context-appropriate emotions into their reading.
Students could also try recording themselves reading and then playing it back to listen. They should ask for feedback from parents, elder siblings or their teachers. Identify those less-than-perfect aspects and work on them. Remember, practice makes perfect!
4. Think before you speak
During Stimulus-Based Conversation, students may be caught off-guard by challenging questions. This could arise because although examiners are given a standard set of question prompts, a conversion could take off on any tangent depending on a student’s response. Panic is a student’s worst enemy in this case, as it tends to lead to an incoherent response.
It’s alright to take a few seconds to gather one’s thoughts before answering. Remember, this is not a test on domain knowledge, so there is no right or wrong answer. What examiners are looking out for is a student’s ability to express his or her thoughts and opinions in an articulate manner. Most students do not have problems doing this when among their peers or when they are in an informal setting, so the hurdle to overcome is really examination stress and anxiety.
5. Elaborate on opinions
When it comes to Stimulus-Based Conversation, students should elaborate upon their responses as much as possible. They should explain why they have a particular opinion, and provide examples to substantiate their views where possible. This will prevent the conversation from becoming a unidirectional Q&A session where a student provides monosyllabic ‘yes-no’ answers.
The examiners will prompt a student should they feel that a response is inadequate or if they wish for a particular point to be explained in greater detail, but it’s advisable that the student elaborates enough in the initial response so that this is not necessary. Don’t worry about talking too much, the examiners will stop a student if they think they’ve heard enough!
6. Thank the examiners
When it’s all over, end with a simple “thank you”. How you finish is just as important as how you start. This will be the last point of contact the examiners will have with you before they pen in that grade, so make sure it ends on happy note!
Student should have a good rest the night before so that they don’t show up with eye bags. They should hydrate themselves well so they sound like canaries instead of crows. The last thing they should do before stepping into the examination room? Take deep breaths to calm themselves down!
Marcus Goh runs Write-Handed, a creative writing studio. At the same time, he teaches Secondary English at The Write Connection. He has been a specialist tutor for English and Literature (Secondary) since 2005.
Adrian Kuek runs Joyous Learning, an enrichment centre that specialises in English, Mathematics, Science and Creative Writing for Primary. He previously served as the academic director of one of Singapore’s largest enrichment centre chains for over seven years.