THEY have a few weeks to go before starting Primary 1, but about 80 children are already attending classes at Nan Chiau Primary this month to get a headstart in learning Chinese.
They are enrolled in a two-week programme which teaches them how to pronounce Chinese characters using hanyu pinyin or the romanised system of the Chinese language.
The children sing songs and watch educational cartoons during the 1-1/2 hour long sessions. Teachers make it a point to ask them questions throughout the lessons to get them to speak up.
These lessons, said the school's principal Tan Chun Ming, are meant to give pupils a headstart in the main method of instruction for the Chinese language at the lower primary levels.
The school in Sengkang is one of many which have stepped up efforts to raise the standard of Chinese among students, an area of concern within education circles.
Last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the teaching of Chinese must be adapted to better fit the changing times, with more children coming from English-speaking homes and technology influencing the way they learn.
His comments came after Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said at the opening of the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language (SCCL) last month that the teaching of Chinese should be made more 'fun' and move away from a one-size- fits-all approach.
Schools have done just this by grouping students according to their language proficiency so that they get the right amount of coaching.
They have also encouraged the use of Chinese through innovative methods such as drama, card games and lessons on traditional Chinese medicine. Online teaching methods are also used.
Principals interviewed say that most of these ideas are the result of projects worked on together with the National Institute of Education (NIE) and the SCCL. They looked at what worked in schools here and overseas.
For example, Nan Chiau Primary's teachers worked with researchers from NIE to develop an iPod touch application that allows pupils to listen to and watch short animated clips, and have their voices recorded when they read the text from the clips.
These podcasts can then be critiqued by their peers and teachers.
For Bendemeer Secondary in Boon Keng, the inspiration for using newspapers to teach Chinese came from Taiwan.
Taiwanese schools have in recent years turned to newspapers instead of textbooks to keep content learnt in Chinese lessons up to date.
'Some words in textbooks may be old-fashioned and are hardly used. We want students to understand they are learning words which can be used every day. Only then will they be convinced that the language is useful, said Bendemeer's head of mother tongue Angela Chan.
Getting students to learn because they love the language is a focus for principals such as Madam Choy Wai Yin of Outram Secondary School and Mr Adrian Lim of Ngee Ann Secondary School.
Said Mr Lim: 'The profile of our students is changing rapidly and rote learning is no longer effective.
'It has to be interest-driven so that they pick up the language because they want to learn more about the culture.'
Teachers such as Madam Chen Ping Xin from Outram Secondary say that the classroom environment and dynamics are important to Chinese language learning.
'I would praise students who show improvement. Interactive activities are good because weaker ones don't feel so threatened while higher-ability ones can act as peer tutors or be challenged in other ways such as being the presenter or organiser of a game.'
But the schools cannot do it on their own. Parents have to help chip away at the resistance to use the language at home too, without turning their children off it.
Commodities manager Kendra Lim, 42, makes it a point to speak to her daughter Ilena, a pupil in Nan Chiau Primary, only in Mandarin. Ilena will be pursuing Higher Chinese when she enters Primary 5 next year.
Madam Lim said: 'It does not take a lot of effort from me to speak to her in (Mandarin) because I am bilingual. I want to provide her with more opportunities to practise the language because only by using the language can you get better at it.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.