Reading may be awesome, but not all books are good for you

Being pulled into the world of a gripping novel can trigger actual, measurable changes in the brain that linger for at least five days after reading, scientists have said.

The new research, carried out at Emory University in the US, found that reading a good book may cause heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that persist in a similar way to muscle memory.

The changes were registered in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, as well as the the primary sensory motor region of the brain.

From “Brain function ‘boosted for days after reading a novel’

 

The study quoted above confirms what bookworms have known for generations: reading is good for you. But I’d like to clarify something. When we bookworms say that reading is good for you, we don’t mean that all books are good for you. If I could boil it down, I’d modify my reading creed to this. Read what you find fascinating, for your mind will be invigorated. (invigorated = energised)

I hope we’ve all had that feeling of in-the-zone learning. That feeling where you encounter something that “blows your mind”, that gives you an entirely different perspective on how you can exist in this world. For many people (of my generation), that happened when we watched The Matrix for the first time. When we were confronted with the idea that reality could be questioned, many of us were absolutely gobsmacked (utterly astounded, shocked beyond words, etc). That’s what learning feels like, to me.

Of course, we can’t always be having daily OMG moments. When I learn something new that’s not completely astonishing, I still feel a small sense of “wow!” or “aha!” that accompanies that learning process. For example, I recently read a book that challenged my own attitude about my relationship to entertainment. I was forced to consider that spending an hour on YouTube or Buzzfeed isn’t entirely innocuous (innocuous = harmless), and that it might have political, psychological, and moral implications. I was forced to consider that when taken to excess — as I frequently do — I might be falling victim to a process that would make me less thoughtful and intelligent (or more stupid, considering your current opinion of Mr Seah).

What does this have to do with reading?

Well, to go back to the study’s claims that reading boosts your brain function, it probably is true if you read things that fascinate you, that help you to learn. When we read a good novel, we frequently come away with a new way of thinking about the world. For example, if you read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, you might come away questioning the very basis of how we organise society.* If you read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, you might come away questioning the basis of Christianity (though you could always read another book to strengthen your faith, if you are a Christian). If you read any of Philip K Dick’s brilliant novels (A Maze of Death is a really fun place to start), you might come away questioning your own reality. Those are definitely new ways of looking at the world!

However, if you read something that’s not suited to your intellectual or reading level, your brain might suffer for it. It happens to many of my fellow literature graduate friends, for example, when we read something absolutely daft (daft = silly/foolish). Many of my friends who have slogged their way through the Twilight series have reported that they have lost a few IQ points. I don’t think they are exaggerating. I think that being lulled into an intellectual slumber really does make people stupid.

So get off the internet, go find a cozy corner, and go curl up with a good book. It strengthens your brain!

 

*You probably will end up asking a whole lot of other questions about the world. Soma, feelies….. yikes. We’re there, people.

 

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

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Tip #8: Nothing worth doing in life is easy

It is far too easy to be distracted from the important things in life, in the age of the internet. Feeling bad about not having done your holiday homework? Ah, perhaps you’ll do it after a few clickety trips to YouTube or Buzzfeed. Three hours later, you’re suitably entertained (because it’s that easy to be entertained), and your homework still isn’t done. Is entertaining yourself too easy, with the internet? Definitely. So, don’t entertain yourself to death.

If you’re feeling unhappy about something school related, do something about it. It’ll probably be difficult, but nothing worth doing in life is easy. This one’s for the adults too — it’s too easy for adults to (metaphorically and literally) sit down and grow fat, instead of getting up and getting stronger or fitter.

I like to use my music to illustrate the value of hard work to my students. I can play the guitar fairly well (a student once said that my playing was “perfectly calibrated” :D), but that my singing needed work. Well, of course. I’ve spent a decade and a half playing the guitar, but I only started to take my singing more seriously a few years ago. To be honest, I probably need to take it more seriously if I want to get better. And it’s the same for studies, or work, or life. Nothing worth doing in life is easy.

It may sometimes be tiring if we keep on pushing ourselves, but it eventually will be rewarding. I remember trying to read John Milton’s Paradise Lost when I was an undergraduate, and feeling absolutely lost. Here’s a taste (you can skip it if you want to):

OF MAN’S first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly Thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples the upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That, to the highth of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

If you understand that, congratulations. You’re coping better than I did when I was just in university. But since I had to understand this book-length epic poem, I slogged my way through it. I checked the brilliant Oxford English Dictionary for any word that I didn’t understand. I read and re-read passages to make sure I understood them. When the semester was done, Paradise Lost became one of my favourite texts of all time. I still read it now and then.

Nothing worth doing is easy. I spent months trying to understand one of the most brilliant epic poems in the world, and when I started to understand what was going on, it felt like my brain was exploding with fireworks and radiant light. Yeah, Paradise Lost is very, very awesome.

If you’re a student, something like Paradise Lost would be a little bit irrelevant (unless you’re, say, consistently getting A’s for your English, and feeling bored with modern prose). You might want to set a goal worth achieving, like cycling 100km in a day, or finishing your homework on time for an entire year (whoa), or cooking a meal for your entire family, or studying early for all your exams in the coming year (whoa).

Remember, don’t entertain yourself to death. It’s too easy.

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

Why I don’t teach “to the test” (especially at the O-Level)

“Teaching to the test” is the practice of teaching for the sole purpose of getting students to do well in standardised tests. For an English teacher, this would mean breaking down the O-level English paper into its parts, and drilling students like crazy in those component parts. For example, one could break down the questions in the comprehension paper into factual questions, inferential questions, vocabulary questions, and so on. I think doing this can prove to be counter-productive, in the sense that I would actually be harming my students instead of helping them.

When I was a younger teacher (OK, still young, but no so young anymore la :/) I heard a fellow teacher talking about how strange it was that students who had scored A1 for their O-level English would go on to JC and fail their General Paper. Yep, that really happens. That got me to thinking about the way secondary school teachers taught English, and I decided that I would drill less, and do more awesome/interesting things that would swindle (teehee) my students into using/writing/reading proper English.

The problem with the “drill until siao” approach is that it kills the appreciation for the finer points of the English language, and gives them only the skills required to survive the test in question. Once students move on to another level of testing, they can find themselves lost at sea, unable to perform at a high level. I explain it to my new students this way. When I first started teaching, I had to come up with an answer scheme for a comprehension paper. I hadn’t done a single comprehension paper for about ten years, but I could still think of the correct answers for every single question. I wasn’t thinking “hmm, is this a factual question or inferential question?” I was just able to comprehend everything in the paper, and thus was able to demonstrate my comprehension of the paper. I was able to understand everything because I had spent years studying the language. My job, as a teacher, is to show you exactly how you can get so comfortable with the English language that any standardised test becomes a breeze — and not just the one they use at the O-level.

In practice, this means thinking about individual words, and how we use them. It still boggles my mind that so few students have a good understanding of these words: bias, racism, sexism. These are actual questions I have been asked, when I conduct a class on the definition of those words: “Mr Seah, is calling someone an Indian racism? Is Christian/Buddhist a race? Is it sexist if a Chinese and Indian get married to each other?” Seriously ah, wah lau eh. What have teachers been doing in school that students ask me these kinds of questions?

I don’t think we should find fault with students who ask these questions. I feel a sense of pride that my students dare to ask me these questions. They dare to ask, which is more than I can say for many other local students. But the problem is that (some) teachers in (some) schools are teaching to the test so often that they are missing out on simple, basic, easy-to-teach things about the language. Moreover, teaching to the test does not prepare students for anything that requires a good understanding of the language (General Paper, university essays, even office emails).

So, if you walk in on my class and see a bunch of us arguing about the difference between wisdom and intelligence, or the place of video games in a student’s life, don’t be fooled into thinking that I’m just wasting time with my students. I’m teaching.

 

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

The Little India riots in Singapore reminded me of a good man

I was 14 years of age at the time, a sheltered, sweaty little boy who was just beginning to push the boundaries of exploring the little island of Singapore. I would take random buses with my friends, ending up in deserted-looking bus interchanges and having cokes in unfamiliar neighbourhoods.

One of those sweaty days, I found myself stranded at a bus stop in the Potong Pasir area. My TransitLink card (the predecessor of today’s EZ-link card) was down to zero, and I had no coins for the 45-cent bus fare.  I had a two dollar note, however, and I was prepared to sink that into my bus fare (no change, argh!) when an Indian (or South Asian) foreign worker walked to the bus stop. He obviously came from a construction site nearby, and was still carrying his yellow hardhat.

Without thinking, I approached him to see if he had change for my two dollar note.

He didn’t speak much English, but I managed to convey the sense that I needed coins for my bus fare. Once he understood what I needed,  he put a 50-cent coin into my outstretched hand. My hand remained open, with his coin in my hand — I fully expected him to hand over more coins, so that we could make the coins-for-note exchange. So there I was, standing like an idiot with my hand open. The Indian man with the hardhat pushed my hand closed, and in return I pushed the two dollar note towards him. He refused the note, and I started to feel really, really guilty.

In my head, I was thinking: no way in hell am I gonna let a construction worker give me money for my bus fare! My father has a nice job, he gives me money, while this Indian fella has to work under the sun for his money! No no no no.*

(*The assumption that he was a manual labourer was a racist assumption. He could have been a visiting businessman from India who wanted to get his hands dirty with one of his investments. I’ll never know what he actually was doing there!)

The pair of us continued our awkward tango, with the foreigner getting more and more amused. His bus came after a minute or so, leaving me 50 cents richer. Hardhat in hand, he gave me a cheerful little wave as the bus pulled away.

That gentleman was the beginning of my journey away from racism. (Confession: I used to believe that all Malays were lazy, all Indians were smelly/dirty, and that all Chinese were superior. Don’t blame my parents or teachers, they didn’t consciously teach me those things.) If he was really a manual labourer, 50 cents — from a salary of S$500 or so a month — was not an insignificant amount.

 

As the fallout from the Little India riot continues, let’s bear this in mind — that racism is never acceptable, and that there are thoroughly good people in the army of foreign workers who are trying to make a living in Singapore. They face difficulties that most of us will never be able to handle. Let’s spare a thought for our foreign workers, yeah?

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Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

If I were more spiritually generous, I’d fix the education system here. But right now, all I’m doing is exploiting the flaws in it to make money.

If I were more spiritually generous, I’d fix the education system here. But right now, all I’m doing is exploiting the flaws in it to make money. It is because parents have such intense fears of their children getting low grades that the tuition industry is so massive now.

The problem starts with the fact that social and income inequality is bad in Singapore. No parent wants their child to be so low on the income ladder that they become one of the beachfront homeless here, or to have to be overworked at a dead-end job just to make ends meet. This problem is compounded by the fact that the education system here tends to favour those who are able to spend more money on their children.

I need to think long and hard about setting my soul right by doing something more than what I already am (<singlish> but eh, free essays and tips for everyone already la, rich or poor also can get </singlish>).

 

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

You’ve wasted your time in school, and now a major exam is coming. (Tip #7: English exam preparation, panic edition)

You’ve wasted your time in school, and now a major exam is coming. What to do for the dreaded English/GP papers?

A little preamble

One of my earliest tutoring ‘jobs’ (I wasn’t paid) came around when I was in the army. An acquaintance called me, out of the blue, clearly panicking about her upcoming General Paper examination. She was getting F9s and D7s consistently, and if this continued, she wouldn’t have been able to enter a local university. She had no money to pay for a tutor and was getting desperate. She heard that I had topped my school in GP, could I help?

I met her ONCE to see what I could do, and took a look at the essays she had done to date (it was about 2 to 3 months to the A-levels, then). Her language was horrendous — it was so difficult to understand what she was trying to say, amid all the language and expression problems. She did, at least, have mature ideas back then, but they were all obscured by the terrible language.

Kevin (Mr Seah): Are you able to understand the articles in your Newsweek magazines?
Acquaintance: Yep!
Kevin: Do you read them?
Acquaintance: Uh…. no.
Kevin: Read them.
Acquaintance: Well, sometimes I don’t really understand everything, and they’re really boring! I try to read them, but I fall asleep.
Kevin: Ah, that’s fine. Then read your Reader’s Digest magazines. Do you find those interesting?
Acquaintance: Yes, but… aren’t those more for the O-levels?
Kevin: Well, your problem isn’t that you don’t know what to say. Your ideas are fine, but you just can’t express them in ways that humans understand (heh). What you need is the ability to bring across your ideas, ideas that aren’t bad in the first place. Read your Reader’s Digest magazines, and perhaps when you’re bored of that, go on to your Newsweek magazines. In your essays, stop trying to use big words and long sentences. Stick with simple language and sentences that convey your ideas accurately. You’re trying to pass now, not trying to get that A.
Acquaintance: Should I practice writing essays, then?
Kevin: Not for awhile. You need to break your bad habits of using these long, complicated sentences. Saturate your brain with good English first, then think about practicing later.

So, she went on to do that. A few months later, I got a call from her, all happy with the fact that she passed, not just with a C6, but a B3 for her GP. She had taken all my advice, and started devouring her Reader’s Digest magazines. She got bored with them after awhile, as I predicted, and found that she could now appreciate the depth that the Newsweek articles had (back then). She stuck with the simple language that I had advised her to use, and pulled off what seemed like a miracle in the examination.

So, let’s mine this story for all it’s worth.

Tip #7: English exam preparation, panic edition

1.Immerse, immerse, immerse! Surround yourself in every way with good examples of the English language. Read at your level (this is essentially what I was telling my acquaintance to do, when I directed her to the Reader’s Digest magazines rather than Newsweek). Read the opinion pages of all the major news outlets. If that’s too difficult, find something easier. If you have to stop by the children’s section in the library, by all means, do it. If you read at your level, you should be able to spend 4, 5 hours a day reading without getting terribly bored or tired. (Be nice to your eyes, though!)

2. Break bad habits. If you’re already failing your English examinations, you’re doing something wrong. Stop with the assessment books, stop with the essay writing. If you’re producing F9 essays one after another, all you’re doing is reinforcing bad habits. Break those bad habits by jumping into a large pool of good English. When you return to your old essays, you should be able to see how flawed your writing used to be.

3. Spend as much time as you can on your English preparation. People sometimes think that they can get away with spending less time on language subjects because they don’t need to memorise content from textbooks (as they do for, say, History). Please, don’t fall into this trap. Can you imagine how many hours my acquaintance put into reading her Reader’s Digest magazines, to the point that she got sick of them, and could make the jump in reading level to the more complex writing in Newsweek?

4. Consult your teacher or tutor. Your teacher or tutor should be able to guide you to reading material perfectly suited to your level, especially if they are familiar with your work. S/he should be able to pinpoint your bad habits. If your present teacher or tutor can’t do those things, you need to seek another opinion.

5. Get a hold of yourself. My acquaintance didn’t fall into a blind panic and run around like a headless chicken till she dropped of exhaustion. She managed to do exactly what I advised her to, even though she was anxious about her A-levels. If you have a problem with anxiety, you might want to read self-help books about anxiety (just enter a search for “anxiety” into a library database). Plus point: reading about anxiety should help you with your anxiety AND your English!

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I never heard from my acquaintance again. After all these years, I can’t even remember her name! So, tip 7a: keep in touch with your teachers! XD