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.


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