The Power of Language Learning | Interview with Carean L Oh

To teach is to embark on a lifelong journey to learn, unlearn and relearn. Educators are, in essence, preparing their students for a future that does not yet exist as well as foreseeable and unforeseeable challenges that students will one day face outside of the classroom.

Teaching is a noble profession that requires the heart and the mind to work in cohesion to inculcate a love of knowledge in the learner. In addition to preparing their students for the demands of international and local examinations, excellent educators inspire in their students’ hearts a love for the subject which they teach.

In an era where many students have become desensitized about what it means to grow holistically as a person, Carean L Oh believes that it is important that educators empower and position themselves as stakeholders in a child’s education. At Singapore’s Writers Studio School of English, Carean and her team advocate the belief that language acquisition is the culmination of the student’s desire to learn, an astute mentor’s guidance and close parental supervision. In developing humans as assets, the team at Writers Studio believe in educating the child from within. Gratitude, respect, honour and humility are all fundamental attributes a child should one day have. All else is secondary.

Welcome to another Fireside Chat at The Sanatan Chronicle. I have the pleasure to have Carean L Oh with me today. We have a delightful conversation on the power of language learning.

Dipa: As an educator myself, I understand how challenging it can be for teachers to balance the joy of learning with the need for tangible results. Could you tell us how you balance this at the Writers Studio?

Carean: Some of them might be from a very affluent family, some of them might have tuition—I always tell myself, if I were to rely on that, then I will take shortcuts. So I asked myself how they will feel if I were to be the only teacher. “How do I scale down to their level and find out what would entice them to learn more?”

We have oral classes where we teach the students how to present their views about a topic. We teach them how to formulate the presentation in front of an oral examiner. For instance, I want to talk about a topic on health. Instead of just saying, “I like music, because it has an input on my mental health,” we teach the student to explore the topic more deeply. How would music improve you in terms of your mind, body and soul?

In our oral classes, we teach students to speak with a purpose in mind. What’s the message you want to send to the person whom you want to present to? In every lesson, the child has to think more deeply. The child has to display all the elements of writing in their work.

By the time they progress to a more intermediate phase, they have to ask themselves – How do I express this in my intro and conclusion? You know, send forth this message to the reader. Knowing that it’s a creative piece, how can I capture that attention?

I always get into drawing diagrams. We teach them how to mind map. If they were to make a cookie, with the cookie dough being a base, how do they pepper it with interesting things for their readers?

Dipa: You believe that every child has the potential to master the English language when placed under the care of good teachers. What are the traits of a good language teacher and how do you embody this in the teaching style at your studio?

Carean: A good English teacher has to know the fundamentals. The teacher has to have a very strong command of how each word is to be used in which context. Even if the teacher has got an issue with that, he or she has to look up, check and see what’s the best use of it.

On top of that, a good language teacher must also be practitioner of English and has to be writing actively and speaking, using the four aspects of English: like speaking, reading, listening, writing. This basically evolves with the language as well—because English is something that is growing; something that is termed a neologism. The teacher also has to move with the times. There are some words that are too archaic and their meaning has moved on.

If the teacher has a very strong interest in the language, he or she can inspire the children. Many kids tell me, “I don’t really have to do very well in English. I can communicate already. In fact, I’m just going to be a doctor. I’m just going to be an engineer. I don’t need all this.  I’m not going to be a language teacher. Why must I be so accurate in the way I use it?”

We have to believe in it – as well as tell and show the child. If we know the technicalities of language, we can actually find ways to explain to the child why proper and precise communication is important. Having a deeper understanding allows a child to feel inspired that he is following a teacher who is careful with the language.

I teach my younger students how to plan a story carefully.

When most kids plan, they might not stick to it. We ask them to pen everything down. And it only took us about five minutes pen it down. In one of our flagship courses, which is a more expanded version of our creative writing course, I don’t make them record too many notes or give a lot of worksheets.

The essence is to remember the key points of how to write well and meaningfully.

Dipa: English became a national language of Singapore relatively recently. How would you describe the standard of English in Singapore?

Carean: In England, where I pursued a masters in creative writing, I observed that writing is a native skill and a very important tool for the expression of thoughts and ideas. English is a medium, just like a tool to express our feelings, our thoughts, and you don’t really have to throw in bombastic words into what you write; but the person has to understand the place that you’re describing, and the emotions you are portraying, in a very subtle way.

Slowly, Singapore students are moving towards more originality in their language expressions and more can be done in schools to encourage this trend.

Dipa: Tell us about a book that you’re studying with your students at the moment. How did the book change you or your perspective on life? How have you imparted this message to your students?

Carean: The book, I am David by Anne Holm, is a story about a boy who felt lost after the war. He was alone and trying to survive in the world. This boy is on his journey to discover more rejections from the time he had left the concentration camp. In a particular scene where he was mistaken for a thief, he was not desperate to beg for money or cheat. He still went ahead and helped fellow travellers, despite the fact that he was poor and alone.

How do you use your experience to enrich yourself, make wiser decisions and deal with more disappointments in your life? I think this story shows that David has a lot of resilience, which can be very inspiring for students as they create their own plots.

As a teacher, I would prefer to steer children to discover what they learn. We asked a lot of whys. Why do you think he did that? What can you learn from this episode as you go on? Do you think that life is constantly going to be smooth sailing the moment a problem is solved? We prefer to teach values because all these small values and episodes can be extracted to form an inspiration for future stories.

Parents read with children as a form of encouragement. It not only serves to motivate them and inculcate a great habit, but also bonds the parent and child as they explore new meanings and lessons from a book together.

Teachers are involved in identifying the learning points pertaining to opening the eye of the reader in identifying the tools that the writer used to enhance the story and to create an effective delivery. They do what a parent cannot. This includes: identifying language devices, teaching students to read between the lines, connecting to global issues, teaching children to analyse a character more deeply as well as developing heuristics by encouraging students to compare and contrast events, settings and characters.

Literary arts is a form of art where we use words, like painters. Right before the Impressionism Movement, people are just sketching and drawing what they see. It was very static. Claude Monet actually drew impressionistic pieces – you can see that the strokes are very different; plenty of feeling is infused into it. Then came the late 18th century where romanticism was introduced, an artistic movement where contemporary art styles originated.

We can compare art to the types of books that we are reading now. In the past, books used to record stories and tell fables and legends. Stories emphasize inspiration and focuses on the subjective viewpoints of the individual. Modern writing and reading are always changing and evolving.


By Dipa Sanatani

CEO at Sanatanco | The Leading Global Publication and Communications Consultancy for Writers, Readers and Thinkers

3 comments

  1. I remember when I was young, I used to read with my parents. It’s why I love reading today. My teachers inspired my love for the subject. I remember I had some teachers who told great jokes. It helped me to remember the content better.

  2. I never used to read when I was young. One of my kids went on and became an avid reader because of her teacher and then I started to read as well. Recently, I started writing to bond with her. Our slow and quiet quality time is something I will always cherish.

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