I’m sick and tired (and why I write more effectively than you)

I mean it literally: I’m sick, I’m tired. As I sit typing this, I feel like I’m coughing my throat to shreds, and the lethargy has left my eyes half closed. I just turned my head to look to the right for awhile, and I was surprised by a sharp throb in my head. Ugh. I’m sick.

And for the two days I’ll probably take to recover, I’ll treat myself.

Today I’m treating myself to a book that has been on my list for awhile, Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Night, an account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps. It’s heartbreaking, it’s heart-wrenching, even though I know from reading other books how horrific those camps were. Reading this has been an exquisite experience of the bittersweet kind, particularly as a reminder of what can happen when decent people close their eyes just enough to the realities of politics.

I don’t mean to give a review of the book, though. What I want to say to all the students who flock daily to my website to read my essays (hi!) is this: I read for fun, and that’s why I write more effectively than most of you. (I also read to improve myself, but I think that’s a topic for another day.)

I appreciate the fact that so many of you are coming here to read my writing, but please register the fact that you need to head out to your libraries and bookshops to get reading material for yourself.

Read for fun. It’ll help.

For the adults/parents who don’t understand why I’m advocating reading for fun, see this research overview of what happens when we read for pleasure (spoiler alert: good things happen).

One way Singapore’s schools make you stupid: the fixed mindset

Which do you believe to be more true? Consider the two statements while you read the post below.

Statement 1: Intelligence is set in stone at birth. (If a person is really stupid, he can work hard to learn new things, but he will never be very good at anything.)

Statement 2: Intelligence is dynamic, changeable, and is able to be improved. (If a person puts in the proper effort, he can learn anything he wants to, within reason.)

I remember wanting to do well for some kind of IQ test when I was in Primary 3, so that I could get into the Gifted Education Programme (GEP). My parents were obviously and understandably proud of me for passing the first round of testing, which was given to all the students in my school, but they told me that passing the test was unimportant — all that mattered was that I tried my best. The second round of testing was held on a Saturday, and was purely voluntary.

The school corridors were comfortingly quiet when I took the test. I was used to the corridors being a deafening maelstrom of prepubescent boys (ACJS, noisy kids in the 90s), and the silence only helped me to focus more on the questions in front of me. There were several questions I had trouble with, but I wasn’t worried about them. I figured that the other boys would be having problems as well. My confidence came from the happy fact of a machine telling me that I was a genius — the machine being one of those fortune telling machines that doubled as a weighing machine, at 20 cents a go. After being told by that machine that I was a genius, I spent way too much time dancing around my sister singing I’m a genius, I’m a genius! And if memory serves me well, I truly believed it — my parents’ friends calling me “The Little Professor” (I wore really thick spectacles) probably didn’t help my sister’s case that I was being an obnoxious brat.

It was thus an earth-shattering blow to my views of myself and the world when the test results came back. Something like: Sorry, Kevin has not been accepted into the Gifted Education Programme. Still, he is a very bright boy. Keep up the good work!

I had to relinquish my former status as a genius. As the months and years rolled forward, I would watch the GEP boys as they paraded around the school like the precocious geniuses everyone thought they were (and some of them did strut) with a mixture of envy and something close to disgust. It was a disgust at how proud they were of themselves, and a disgust with myself that I couldn’t be one of them. Mine was an injured pride.

It was in Primary 3 that I stopped consistently getting 99s and 100s for almost all of my tests — I started getting 95s and 96s, and in the case of Chinese, 85s (all over 100). My parents kept on reinforcing this message: just try your best, that will be enough. A 100/100 test score would have been meaningless to them if I didn’t put in my full effort, but a 60/100 score would have been wonderful if I had struggled with all my might to get there.

I persuaded myself that I was still trying my best, even though my scores were dropping. I comforted myself with the fact that, besides Chinese and Art, I was still close to the top of the class almost all the time.

These days I wonder: how much damage did that test do to me?

It gave me the unconscious belief that there were people who were simply more intelligent than me, that they had something special in their skulls that allowed them to solve more difficult problems. Then there were those GEP students who were school athletes — those superboys gave me the unconscious belief that there were people who were just downright better than me.

I was developing what is now called a fixed mindset of intelligence. I believed that people were inherently and naturally clever or stupid. I still believed in hard work, of course, but I came to view it as a half-and-half combination — hard work could only get you half the way, and you would need innate intelligence to go the rest of the way.

Psychologists now know that the fixed mindset causes drops in levels of motivation, confidence, and performance. I developed the fear of doing badly in tests, because that would only confirm that I wasn’t a genius. I was focused on scoring well, because that would help to strengthen the belief that I was still more intelligent than average, even if I wasn’t a genius.

On hindsight, the test probably had these effects on me:
– I probably gave up faster upon encountering hardship (like a difficult math problem)
– I probably was focused more on test results than on learning from corrections
– I probably felt less motivated to do well in school

What I needed was a growth mindset. I needed these beliefs: that intelligence is something that can be changed, and that performance is inextricably linked to effort. People with growth mindsets are focused on learning goals, even if they also care about their performance. Given a test result with feedback on potential areas for learning, for example, they focus on how they can improve, rather than looking only at the test score.Curiously, by trying to teach me the value of hard work (100/100 would have been meaningless if I didn’t put in

Curiously, by trying to teach me the value of hard work (100/100 would have been meaningless if I didn’t put in much effort), my parents were unconsciously working to promote a growth mindset.

The science is very clear on this: people with growth mindsets consistently outperform people with fixed mindsets. When it comes to academic skills, it is likewise clear that beliefs (fixed vs growth mindsets) can affect performance (via things like motivation, confidence, and eagerness to learn).

Which do you believe to be more true now?

Statement 1: Intelligence is set in stone at birth. (If a person is really stupid, he can work hard to learn new things, but he will never be very good at anything.)

Statement 2: Intelligence is dynamic, changeable, and is able to be improved. (If a person puts in the proper effort, he can learn anything he wants to, within reason.)

The second statement describes the growth mindset, which will see you expect more out of your students, children, co-workers, and every human being that crosses your path. We can only push the limits of our achievement if we put in the effort.

And if we’re going to stream students by their test scores, let’s be aware of streaming’s negative effects. It certainly made me stupid, at least for awhile.

As for the child who failed the GEP test? I rebelled* by pushing my curfew later and later, spending my time at a second-hand bookstore near my school. I ended up reading Frankenstein (by Mary Shelley, a book firmly in the English literary canon) when I was Primary 6, sowing the seeds for my future.

* 6pm curfew? I would arrive home at 6.10pm. What a rebel.

Further reading:
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck (2007)
Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman (2013)
Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives, BrainPickings.org (2014)

General Paper tips for private candidates without GP teachers or tutors

So you’re staring at your A-level certificate, wondering how on earth two years of JC grinding got you such shitty grades. Then you realize: oh, it was all that playing around with so-and-so and such-and-such. You decide to retake the A-levels, with all the enthusiasm and determination that you can muster (THIS TIME I WILL STUDY HARD), and then it occurs to you: oh crap, I have no teachers!!

Don’t worry, Mr Seah is here to save the day (he’s gonna try anyway). Here’s what you can do for GP if you’re retaking the A-levels, and if you don’t have a tutor.

1. Gather all your old work (and comfort yourself for awhile)

You have gone through at least two years of classes, and you know something about GP. No need to panic, ya? Look through your marked essays in particular, and carefully review your teachers’ comments. These comments should show you some of your weaknesses, especially if you had committed teachers who wrote detailed comments on how to improve.

2. Read “difficult” material

While you were in school, you had excuses (bad ones, really) for not reading: busy la, CCA la, H2 subjects so heavy la.. But you don’t have a school to go to now, and you have to be your own teacher. Pick up books on logic, argumentation, philosophy, political philosophy, moral philosophy, sociology, psychology — whatever you can get your hands on. Get on Coursera and take courses that get you engaged with the world around you.

You already know what kinds of questions to expect, so review the essay questions from the past years to get a sense of what you should be reading. I’ve personally found introductory textbooks in the fields of sociology and politics to be particularly interesting and useful for thinking (in a “GP way”*) about the world around me.

*Thinking about the world in chunks of 800 words at a time (i.e. the GP essay format) forces your brain into a particular kind of atrophy, so be careful with that.

You no longer have a teacher to mark your essays, so you will have to be your own editor and teacher. How to decide if an essay you’ve done is good? Compare your writing to the writing you find in books.

3. Analyze comprehension answer schemes

You no longer can spend only an hour and a half on a comprehension paper — there are no more teachers to spill red ink over your labour. Once you’re done attempting a comprehension paper, compare your answers to the answer scheme not to determine whether or not your answers are correct, but whether the answer scheme itself makes sense. Check the dictionary as much as you can, even for words you think you understand. You will find flaws in answer schemes, particularly those from assessment book companies.

4. Write “perfect” essays

Do your question analysis, research the issues to death, craft your outline, and create the most amazing slab of 800 words that you can manage. You need to prove to yourself that you can get that A. Give yourself around two to three weeks for a single essay, which should be filled with gathering research and data. Find out what other writers and thinkers have said about the issue at hand, and consider if you agree with them.

5. Accidentally change your life

Reading and thinking about the world to the level that I advise should change your life. If you read enough about environmental issues, you’re going to hesitate over buying a new phone/tablet/computer when your old one still works. If you read enough about education, you’re going to look back on your school life and be so frustrated with how imperfect adults can be, and how flawed our education system is. If you read enough about politics, you’re going to read the Straits Times and come close to apoplexy.

If you find yourself caught in old thinking patterns, you might not be activating your mind enough.

6. Don’t miss the SEAB registration deadline

Right? Because you can only facepalm so many times….

What should I read to prepare for argumentative essays?

On 29 January 2016 at 17:04, XXXX wrote:

SUBJECT: Greetings from Vietnam!

Hi Kevin,

I have recently discovered your blogs and I’m truly grateful for all of your advice and tips on English essay writing. My 13 years old younger brother is revising for a scholarships offered by the Singaporean government at the moment and your blogs improved his writing tremendously. The format for this examination is quite similar to an O level english test where test takers are required to complete an essay in one hour using the topics listed. They can either be argumentative or narrative. He is doing ok with argumentative topics but I think it’s not quite enough to get him this scholarship. Having another four months until the actual examination, do you recommend reading model essays bought in Singapore? If you do, which publisher or writer should we look for?
I’m sorry for the lengthy email. I just really want my brother to get this scholarship. It would alleviate a huge financial burden on my family. I was lucky enough to succeed when I had the same opportunity many years ago but I chose to adopt trickery and work around for my O level examination. You see the one word essay question can leave room for so much pre-planned stories with multiple endings even if your English is sub par. You can guess that such tactic wouldn’t work for the A level. I flunked terribly and remained devoid of any useful advice for my bro . From my judgement, my little brother is capable of excelling and it would just take him abit more exposure to good English writing.
Yours sincerely,



Your email is quite heartwarming, you obviously care about your brother a lot!
As for reading material for a 13-year-old, it can be a bit tricky for me to recommend stuff without me knowing more about him, but here are the general principles.
  1. We need to read material that is difficult to understand, but not so difficult that we cannot understand it.
  2. We shouldn’t read only for the sake of doing well for an examination — we should care innately about what we’re reading about.
  3. Books tend to be better than shorter articles, but news articles can keep us updated on the latest going-ons.
  4. The reader needs to stay engaged, and his brain needs to stay activated.
  5. If there are other issues stopping the person from reading, these need to be dealt with. Issues I have encountered include:
    — not having a conducive environment to read
    — eyesight issues (e.g. headache when reading in excessively bright conditions)
    — addiction, particularly to video games and mobile phones

With those principles in mind, I would recommend the following

  • Adult novels from various genres
  • Opinion articles, like those from…
  • Books that support and challenge our worldview
    • If you guys are Buddhist, you might want to read a few of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books in English first. (I also enjoy the Dalai Lama’s writing.)
    • Following that, read anti-Buddhist material, like Chapter 14 (There is no ‘Eastern’ solution) in Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great.
    • The idea behind this is that we are able to see the reason behind why we have to learn how to write argumentative essays. The need for proper paragraphing and clear claims becomes clearer when the matter at hand is our religion.

Hope this helps!

Creepy lullabies and close reading

Last night, I tried to illustrate what close reading should feel like to my student, and I used the example of our childhood lullabies. Do you remember the lullabies from your childhood? I give you my personal favourite:

Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop,

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,

When the bough breaks, the cradle will drop,

And down will come baby, cradle and all.

I vividly remember my mum carrying me as a young (and light!) child, singing this lullaby, rocking me gently with an almost-manic grin, and suddenly dipping her body and arms on the “cradle will drop” line. Giggles all round, good times for all. Thinking back now, my dad certainly enjoyed doing that too, but he also enjoyed throwing my sister and I up into the air, probably more than the “cradle will drop” thing. (Evidence currently shows that we weren’t dropped too many times on our heads.)

What does any of this have to do with close reading? This is just an innocent lullaby we sing to children to get them to sleep, right?….. riiiiight…?

Well, maybe not.

Some of us may have problems with the word “bough”, since we no longer use the word very often these days. It means “the main branch of a tree”. So far, so good. The bough breaks, the baby falls, ha ha ha. But where does the baby fall from? The treetop. The top of the tree. Look at any tree around you! That’s a fall too far for any baby to survive!

Grim, isn’t it?

And it doesn’t stop there. If we look at itsy-bitsy spider (another one of my favourites), we see arachnophobia (meaning: the fear of spiders) in grand action:

Itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the water spout.

Down came the rain and washed the spider out.

Out came the sun and dried up all the rain.

And the itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.

What’s a spout? Think of the little teapot, short and stout. Ah, that’s its spout (through which the tea is poured). Careful, there’s a spider there! Though, in this case it’s probably a spout exposed to the rain, which may mean that the spout is that of a water pump. Careful, there’s a spider in your water!!!!

I have to admit that this isn’t close reading, an activity that is much more involved than just thinking about what a spout or treetop is. But if you registered the shock of realising that some of our most treasured lullabies are actually quite grim and scary, that’s the kind of emotion you want to register when you read something closely. Some of the most powerful poems have that same power to shock and move us, and if you get a poem for the unseen poetry section of your exam, you can be sure that there is some kind of power hidden there. You just have to find it.

For more on close reading, I highly recommend Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem (And Fall in Love with Poetry). If you don’t have time for a book (time management!!), you may find the University of Victoria’s guide useful.

Life is tough. So learn how to play the guitar, you’ll be better for it!

(Watch the video first, it’s relevant to my post)

Reading all the articles about the tuition industry in the past few days, it has become ever clearer to me that Singaporean parents view life here as an intensely competitive thing (“$1 billion spent on tuition in one year”; “Tuition no enough”). The strange thing is, I have never had any tuition in my life as a student. Yet, I did well enough to top my school in GP for the A-levels in 2001. I won that competition without any tuition, ey? What gives? Here’s my (open) secret. Being a musician has helped me develop discipline, creativity, and the ability to connect to my emotions — skills that all contribute to being an effective writer.

The musician in me was dead chuffed (very pleased) when I first came across the video above. TED-Ed confirms what I’ve known all along! My brain is stronger because I’m a musician. (That just means that I’m less stupid than before, but let’s not nitpick.)

Being a musician has helped me develop discipline, creativity, and the ability to connect to my emotions — skills that all contribute to being an effective writer.

People often act surprised when they first hear of my musical life, as if I am particularly “talented”. Here’s the thing, though — I don’t think I’m especially talented. All my abilities are the result of hard work, persistence, and perhaps a touch of good fortune. I count myself lucky that I have received excellent guidance from the people around me, from my father’s insistence on discipline (oh, how we hated that word as children), to a Physics teacher’s silent nod of approval when he saw that I had a B.B. King CD in my bag. The whole discipline thing? It’s the reason for my current musical ability.

So, if you’re finished with your exams and find yourself looking for something to do, pick up the guitar. It’s pretty easy, especially if you have the right guitar. (Ask me about it in the comments.) It’s a workout for your brain!

PS. I know a good guitar teacher who’s not me. Here’s a taste of his music!

Doing away with a Singaporean accent (Improving your pronunciation and enunciation for oral examinations)

Short answer:
Use the Oxford Dictionaries‘ pronunciation guide. Select “English (UK)” if you want to sound more British, and “English (US)” for the American version. Keep your Singaporean accent, but develop a new one if you need to.

Long answer:
I’m an English Literature graduate, and I entered NUS with a very, very heavy Singaporean accent. I can speak Singlish like any other normal Singaporean, but after some years of suffering and recording my own voice, my students are surprised when I make the switch from my teaching voice to my “for taxi driver uncle” (Singaporean/Singlish) voice.

<If you wanna hear what I sound like these days, check out my music, but just read on if you wanna, no loss — Take Your Time (Bedroom Demo). Warning: no autotune.>

I still remember the day I decided I really had to work on my pronunciation. I was making some clever-clever point about something or other being an anachronism, clever-clever except for the fact that I was saying “AN-na-KRO-niz-m” instead of “a-NAK-ruh-niz-m”.

My hitherto strait-laced lecturer almost giggled as he corrected me.

So began the painful process to correct my pronunciation, bit by bit. I still have some Singaporean-isms in my speech — some of my “L’s” and vowels aren’t properly enunciated, for example. But by and large, most of the problems are gone.

The quickest way I’ve found that works is to record yourself speaking — or in my case, singing. My 2011 recordings really exposed how much work I had left to do, and how difficult that work is. Singaporeans/Asians, try saying the word “golden” now. Do you notice how much it sounds like “gowden”? Or this fantastic one — “children”. (Chewren, hee hee..) Try your best to properly pronounce the “L” sound. It’s not easy, I know.

To this day, I use online dictionary apps to make sure that I’m pronouncing my words properly. It’s an ongoing process.

It’s also important to pay attention to word stress, which is the emphasis that we place on certain syllables within a word. The dictionary.com pronunciation guide is a good way to understand this in a visual manner. The entry for the word “decide” shows us this guide: [dih-sahyd]. If you stretch the second syllable [dih-saaaaahyd], notice that it doesn’t sound as awkward as stretching the first syllable [diiiiih-sahyd]. 

One benefit I’ve found is that no English-speaking foreigner has ever found it hard to understand what I say, no matter how quickly I’m speaking. And it’s true — when you switch to Singlish, the ang mohs really tiah boh (the foreigners really don’t understand), especially if they haven’t spent any time in Singapore/Asia before.

There’s also the matter of sentence stress, which essentially is the choice of what words we choose to emphasize in a sentence. This has some impact on how our listeners perceive our meaning and intention when we say something.

For example:
Put your phone away. (Instead of putting it on the table, in your pocket, etc)
Put your phone away. (Instead of your pen, or toothbrush, etc)
Put your phone away. (Instead of my phone, or his phone, etc.)


Combining proper word stress, pronunciation, and sentence stress will help the average Singaporean become more intelligible to an English speaker who has no knowledge of Singlish or the Singaporean accent.

Funny story:
I actually tested my different accents in Copenhagen. When a friend and I conversed in our Singaporean accent, our Danish friend assumed that we were speaking in a foreign language that was only slightly related to the English language. And when we switched to Singlish (“Eh, you eat oredi anot?”), she thought it was Chinese.

I’m still terribly proud of my Singaporean accent, and of Singlish in general. If you live in Singapore, you NEED it. If you’re a Singaporean overseas, it will be THE thing that unites you with other Singaporeans living overseas. That and char kway teow.