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Get Exam Smart: Primary English Exams


Today, we’ll start looking at how to prepare your child to sit for the English exams.

You’ll find useful information and practical test-taking tips for the following English exam components:

  1. Listening Comprehension
  2. Oral English
  3. Composition Writing
  4. Written English Paper 2

With all these components to cover, I’m going to break this down into a few different posts, possibly 3 (or more).

In today’s post, we’ll focus on Composition Writing or what is commonly referred to as Paper 1. By PSLE, students will be tested on two types of writing tasks: Situational and Continuous Writing.

Composition Help For Primary School Pupils

Help for the Composition-Challenged Child source: office online

I will look specifically at the Continuous Writing or Narrative Writing section in this post as this poses a greater challenge to most pupils.

As there is a lot I can keep writing about, I’m going to limit myself to the top 3 common problems among students, and ideas on we can help our children improve in these areas.

3 Common Weaknesses:

1. Ideas not fully developed:

  • Contrary to popular belief, pupils, especially the weak ones, do not perish in composition for the lack of ideas. Pupils do not seem to lack ideas for writing; they do, however, lack the ability to edit their ideas.

2. Poor narrative structure

  • By this, I refer to the gaps in the story. If we have the privilege of reading several primary composition pieces, we would notice how easily ,and frequently, the young writer is easily distracted and forgets to provide follow-through on introduced ideas e.g. Alvin was walking home after school when he witnessed a snatch-theifthief. In the excitement of describing his own act of heroism of chasing and capturing the theif thief, the writer then ends the composition by saying, “I arrived at school two hours late for my examinations. “
  • A solid composition structure has to have the basic Beginning-Middle-End (for the younger primary pupil, the Head-Body-Feet). Older pupils can, and should, be taught about the all-important Plot (series of problems and resolutions). More on this later.

3. Spelling, punctuation and grammar

  • This component often causes the pupil to bleed marks, and often, a unnecessary loss of points.
  • High frequency words are often spelled wrongly.
  • Careless punctuation. Common ones include: Lack of proper capitalisation, missing full stops, improper punctuation used for direct speech (the ending quotation mark is the most often forgotten).
  • Grammar mishaps occur most often in the form of inconsistent tenses e.g. tense switching that affects narrative structure, singular-plural, gender pronoun mix-ups.

“Sure-Score” Ideas to Improve Composition

A Disclaimer: Obviously, the following ideas are not going to make our children brilliant writers – the next Newberry Award or Booker Prize author. The discussion can get very intense if we really want to discuss whether compositions that are awared high marks in PSLE exams can even be considered good writing.Yes, I’m talking about those ‘lily white clouds floating across the azure sky’ types.

To be honest, after marking several hundred national exam scripts in my years, I have seen less than a handful of really impressive writing. Pieces that score top PSLE grades actually aren’t fantastic writing at all. But like I’ve said at the very start of this Get Exam Smart series, this is all about exam-taking strategies, and this also applies to composition writing.

3 Composition Exam Strategies to Help Your Child Improve Grades

Here are three effective writing strategies that can help every student avoid the common errors and weaknesses I mentioned above.

1. Story planning

  • The very basic of this is the Beginning-Middle-End plan. But in my experience, even the Primary 2s can manage a more complex plan.
  • Using the 5 W1H of Who-What-When-Where-Why-How, pupils can plan a decent story map to help them keep focused on the basic story elements. They should keep referring back to the map as they write to ensure their stories are headed towards the right destination. This also serves as a good ideas editing guide.
  • The older, and more fluent, writer can use a story plot. You can download one here for free from Scholastics. I prefer this as it gives the writer a visual of the progression in which he should introduce the events and ideas. The WH questions can still be used to help the writer map out his ideas on the organizer. One extra I would recommend is that your child jots down the character names in one corner.

Exam Smart Tip: Set aside no more than 5 minutes to do a story plan. There is no need to go through fancy details. The idea is to get a game plan on how you’ll like to write your story.

2. Develop ideas

There is a wealth of great suggestions on writing techniques to be found out there. But I’m going to only focus on a very manageable three which I believe will help boost your child’s performance significantly.

  • Show, not tell, your reader what is happening.
    Pupils often state what is obvious. That becomes boring for the reader because his imagination is not being engaged. Example: Instead of just writing ‘Tim was tired’, describe his tired appearance – ‘Tim could barely keep his eyes open. He tried to stop his yawn from escaping, but failed. Mrs Neo glared at him for the third time.’
  • Use strong and specific verbs.
    For starters, don’t just use ‘said’. Choose a specific verb to show how something is said. ‘Shouted’ and ‘whispered’ carry different emotive qualities that help lend colour to the narrative. Here’s a handy synonym chart for all the words you can use instead of simple ‘said’.
  • Use dialogue effectively.
    Some pupils love to write their compositions almost like a tv drama script. Such excessive use is to be discouraged. However, dialogue that is used suitably lends believability and interest to the written piece.Even in dialogue, the rule of ‘Show not tell’ still applies.
    Dialogue is great for developing the personality of your story characters, fleshing out events and building the plot. I found a great sample piece for how to write great dialogue (again from Scholastic, one of my favourite educational publishers). It is from Anton Chekhov, a little sophisticated and mature for our primary pupils, but I thought it would give us parents a very good insight to learn from a master writer how effective dialogue looks.

Exam Smart Tip: Set aside at least 5 minutes to read through the piece, and for corrections.

3. Teach self-editing skills

Every good writer also needs editing skills especially in the areas of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Common errors to be alert to:

  • Spelling:
    Get high frequency words spelled right e.g. because, tomorrow. The prevalent use of mobile devices amongst pupils now have lead to ‘SMS-language’ appearing in compos too e.g. bcos, ltr. Be aware of your own spelling weaknesses like those words that often trip you up, and be extra careful when using them. My problems often are with words that have repeated letters in them such as accomodation, occasion.
  • Punctuation:
    Especially common errors include missing full stops, names not being properly capitalised, wrong punctuation for dialogue. Working on these can help greatly reduce the number of errors and loss of points. (Most of these ‘errors’ seem to be due more to careless and messy handwriting than a poor grasp of the language).
  • Grammar:
    Check for common errors like using the wrong spelling for the plural form, wrong pronouns and switching between present and past tense.
    A note about tenses: Compositions are often written in the past tense. However, when pupils use the flashback technique, there is the potential that they forget that they have stepped back in time to narrate the story and still use the present tense.

Exam Smart Tip: Set aside at least 5 minutes to read through the piece, and for corrections. At the first check, check for SPG (spelling, punctuation,grammar) mistakes. In the second check, read and edit for idea coherence. Refer to story guide to ensure that the plot (conflicts and suitable resolutions) is addressed.


Like every good story, this post has to come to an end.

I hope that you have found this article helpful for you as you coach your child in composition writing.


Send me a scanned copy of your child’s compo, and share with me what your concerns are.
I will look at it, and give you some tips on what you can do to help him/her. All I ask is for you could subscribe to my blog( it’s free! and easy!). And if you can, please do leave a comment here on my blog . (You can comment on any of the ideas I’ve shared or share your own experiences with exams or struggles you encounter as you coach your kids. I also appreciate any feedback that will help me write better articles that will benefit you!)

Please email the samples to me by Thursday, 12 April, so that I can take the weekend to look at it.

Coming up…

I will be covering exam strategies for tackling English oral and the remaining components.

As promised, I will also be posting handy tips on how to be smart at managing time during exams, how to get your child to check his papers and avoid careless mistakes.

To save yourself the time and trouble of having to find these helpful ideas, you can get these tips once I post them if you subscribe to my blog. Do feel free to share this post to anyone you feel will benefit from it too. Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll ‘see’ you again real soon!




  1. Sarah,

    Thanks for creating this blog. I struggled with helping my child in her studies. This definately will help me now n future. Appreciate your efforts.


    • Hey Ruth, thanks for stopping by. Feel free to drop me a note here or via email whenever you need some help. You’re not alone! We have many mommy friends who are more than happy to share resources, ideas with you. More importantly, to encourage you and support you in your motherhood journey!

  2. Hi there, just wanted to say that even though my kids are not of school-going age yet, I think these are really useful tips! Thanks for writing this.

    • Thanks for your encouragement! As this blog is still a baby, I’m slowly building up content, and I hope to share more ideas on creative parenting and artistic play ideas soon! I look forward to having you play along with us here!

  3. Thanks so much for these tips though I only received and read this like 6 months after your posts. Will certainly forward you my child’s compo and have your expertise advice.

    Once again, appreciate your effort and advice.

    • Hello! Glad to know you found this helpful. Do send me your child’s compo and I will see how I can help.

  4. Great website but erm you guys misspelt “thief”.

    • Haha. Thanks Jamilah! I’ve made the correction. Unbelievable, but it has taken almost half a year for the simple typo to get spotted! ;D

  5. Thanks for the tips i really appreciate it :)

  6. Thank you for your tips. It was really helpful. My son is in primary 5 and although he reads story books, he is unable to write well and do not score well in his English Paper. I loved your synonyms for “said” and I hope to have printed copies of synonyms for all the common words that we use. It would really be helpful for my son. Thanks again.

  7. Thanks for the tips. Can I know where to get a good composition book for primary 2 children.My child is weak in compositionas she dislikes reading. Pls advise. Worry for her.

  8. Hi, found the blog really useful. could you let me know how to subscribe. i can send you my child’s writing as well for feedback and suggestions for improvement.

  9. Great tips. thank you much for taking out time to help out on ways to make essay writing easier.

  10. Hi, just discoverd your very useful website. My girl is in p3, speaks very good English, but her compo writing skills are bad. Have been pushing her to read story books & she still cannot write well. Your adv pls.

    • Hello! I believe that learning to write is all about the very important exposure to good writing through reading. Even though she speaks well, that does not mean it translates well into composition writing. In the Singapore context, the composition writing for exam purposes has certain requirements which she also needs to learn to understand. My feel is that perhaps she needs to still have a lot more reading support in terms of being read to, as well as having someone to read along with her. As you read, discuss what you both enjoy about the story. Talk about how the author uses phrases and techniques to create dramatic effect or hooks you, as the reader, in.

      I hope this helps! Do email me if you have further questions!

  11. Hi…found your website like 1.45am whilst cracking my head on how to go about teaching my son on composition writing. I shall be going through your tips with him tomorrow. Thank you…:)

  12. Hi just now saw ur blog.very helpful. Don’t know how to subscribe. Thanks for inf and will send my sons compo to know ur valuable feedback.

  13. Hello Sarah, my sister in Singapore sent me this link for reference and I find it helpful. Just wonder how to subscribe your blog. Tried to like the facebook page, which just not shown up. By all means, I will browse your website from time to time. FYI, I’m in Sydney :-)

  14. Hi, Thanks much for the information, very helpful.

  15. Thank you for sharing the tips! Just what I needed to prepare my DD for her next coming assessment.

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