SINGAPORE - Four pupils sit facing their classmates, their lips tightly pursed, looking ready and certain of what is to come.
"How did you feel when you met your long-lost daughter?" "Who did you decide to stay with in the end: your foster or birth parents?" Questions poured forth.
The Primary 6 pupils from Punggol Primary were having a mock press conference, with some posing as reporters and others as characters in a story about Sallamah, a Chinese girl adopted by a Malay family.
"Sometimes I got stuck but I used my imagination to answer questions, based on how I thought the character would feel," said Nivrithi Ganesh, 12, who played Sallamah.
Such role-playing exercises are commonly used by primary schools today to help children speak better, as part of an English language syllabus that has paid rich dividends since its pilot in 2006.
Called Stellar, short for Strategies for English Language Learning and Reading, the method aims to develop pupils' ability to speak clearly and confidently.
Extended to all primary schools in 2009, Stellar uses ideas such as storytelling and role-playing and exposes pupils to texts from news articles to fiction.
It is part of a push by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to raise English standards, after a study it did from 2001 to 2005 identified speaking and writing as weak areas among pupils here.
Helping children communicate effectively is one of Stellar's goals, said Dr Elizabeth Pang, the ministry's programme director for literacy development.
"We're looking at a new economy in Singapore, where communication skills - the ability to express what you know - are really important."
The programme has had results, with 160 pupils who took part in it for a longer time scoring better for reading and speaking compared to those who joined later.
Educators say they have seen improvements in pupils who are given more opportunities to think and express themselves, thanks to more interactive English lessons.
At Punggol Primary, another class of Primary 5 pupils is asked to interview the school's "unsung heroes", such as cleaners and security guards. The pupils later share what they learnt in class.
Lim Jin Kai, 11, who interviewed a librarian, said: "I used to be very shy in lower primary, especially during show-and-tell when everyone was looking at me.
"But presenting in front of my class helps me to be brave. I can now talk to people I'm not familiar with like some relatives."
At Da Qiao Primary, upper primary pupils build confidence by speaking on topics given by teachers, sometimes impromptu and before the whole school.
Madam Shakila Jamal Mohamed, 45, an English teacher at Da Qiao, said: "We're testing pupils on their ability to speak off the cuff and think on their feet, which are critical life skills.
"In class, asking questions has become part and parcel of lessons."
Primary schools are also cultivating a love for reading by setting aside time for reading materials such as news articles.
Da Qiao Primary pupil Celyna Teo, 11, said she has learnt to read the news through a weekly 30-minute segment where everyone presents newspaper articles.
"I pick up interesting phrases as I read and use them in my compositions." she said.
Accountant Mazlita Abdul Jabbar, 38, said her Primary 2 daughter looks for books written by authors of the stories used in school. Stellar has helped her develop the habit of reading, she added.
Mrs Valerie Low, an English teacher at Punggol Primary, said: "The children have more purposeful sharing and opinions. It's also no longer a paper chase and about completing worksheets in class."
Said Punggol Primary principal Hanafi Asmore: "At the end of the day, the one who gets the job is the one who can speak confidently, who is able to articulate his ideas.
"We don't want our students to lose out not because they lack the head knowledge but because they lack the ability to articulate."
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