Writing and Communications

English has become the lingua franca of academia, commerce and even diplomacy. Proficiency in the English Language – reading, writing and communications are now critical skills required in all vocations. This is also an area that employers have singled out as a weakness of NUS graduates.

I have been deliberating on whether it is necessary to introduce compulsory language and communications modules in the undergraduate curriculum. We do not want our graduates to be unnecessarily hampered or disadvantaged in the global talent marketplace, because of sub-par reading, writing or speaking skills. Language proficiency will give our graduates an edge in productivity and effectiveness at the workplace.

The undergraduate cohort is a diverse one. To cater to the varying levels of language competence, the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC) is looking into how students can be matched to programs of an appropriate level according to their language ability. Some pilots are already in place.

Our challenge is that students are not keen! Our pilot Writing modules are not attracting much interest from Science, Engineering and Computing students. And students from the Science and Technology disciplines are precisely the ones who are most in need of these courses, as they have far less opportunities to develop language and communications skills through their disciplinary modules.

I sincerely hope students are convinced of the importance of English proficiency. Prof Brent Strong, the Lorin Farr Professor of Entrepreneurial Technology at the Brigham Young University, has written a persuasive piece on ‘Why Engineers Should Read Shakespeare’. He argues the importance for scientists to develop the ability to express themselves articulately in terms that all can understand and to discuss scientific and other issues from a broad and comprehensive viewpoint.  He encourages engineers to read Shakespeare, and explains how Shakespeare will help us think, because we think in words.

Of course, we recognize that a single module, or a set of modules, does not suffice to produce sustained results; we must in parallel encourage faculty members to integrate writing and communications components into existing course modules (and for each major). Supporting infrastructure must also be put in place to encourage and assist with writing and communications; these may include seminars, workshops, and writing and communications stations and resource centres amongst others.

I had to realise the importance of, and then learn English the hard way. English did not come naturally to me. I was raised in a dialect-speaking environment. Father had secondary education but in a Chinese-medium school; Mother did not have the opportunity to receive any education. And so, my siblings and I picked up English in school. I managed alright, until secondary school, during which English and Literature became my weakest subjects.

When in Pre-U, I harboured hopes of going abroad for university. I excelled in Math and the Sciences. But alas, it wasn’t good enough. During a PSC (Public Service Commission) scholarship interview conducted in the middle part of Pre-U 2, a panel member remarked that he didn’t think I would be able to pass my GP (General Paper). There went my overseas scholarship.

I felt hurt and indignant. And I was determined to prove to them that I could do well in GP. I was from a poor family and my parents could not afford tuition. So I decided to self-teach. I bought a few assessment books and First Aid in English became my ‘bible’. I read voraciously and disciplined myself to write a GP essay every day. Eventually, I was happy to have managed a P3 at the ‘A’ levels – though not stellar, it was a decent grade.

I still have this in my Math office.
I still have this in my Math office.

Language can be likened to music. Music is a medium of expression; one can depict merry and melancholy through music. We have heard and can feel how tenderly an instrument like the violin can render ‘Air on a G String’. But we cannot execute the same, unless we have acquired technical mastery of the instrument. Language is our primary mode of expression and communication. Likewise, without the requisite grounding in grammar, vocabulary, semantics et al, we are not able to express ourselves as richly and fully.

Language acquisition is a lifelong endeavour; I am still at it. Never cease to learn, and never ever give up.


  1. Yes. Communication skills both verbal and non-verbal are very important. Verbal skills can be picked up over time if lacking. The non-verbal ques are those that will form impressions. Just like puctuations, when placed at different parts of the sentences, it is possible to portray different meanings!

      1. Perhaps there may not be sufficient direct feedback to the students on their weaknesses. For example, we are having huge enrolment in many graduate level modules, after 70 – 100 students make presentations over 4 – 5 weeks of 2 – 4 hours sessions per week, will there be any fatigue in giving feedback to each individual student ?

        Maybe, lecturers can open a feedback loop in the IVLE such that fellow students who are present have the opportunity to provide constructive comments privately to the student? Not sure if this would encourage any participation but at least it is an avenue for typically shy students to give and receive feedback.

        If a student constantly receive feedback that he needs to improve his grammer or pronunciation or poise from his peers and lecturers, I believe some actions will be taken?

  2. I think that one of the main problems with English is that we speak it and use it every day. That gives us the possibly false impressions that we have mastered it. It is not unreasonable to think so since everyone seems to understand what we say, it must be the case that we know English well enough to communicate. But mastering the language is much more than that. Being able to write concisely and present clearly is a craft that everybody should learn.

    Besides, I think that communicating well is not just a matter of expression. It also reflects your thinking. If your expression is not clear, perhaps your thinking is also muddy. Learning to express well is also training your thinking.

    Besides your “bible”, may I also humbly suggest another book, “On writing well” by Zinsser? It’s a rather entertaining book but it really shows the essence of writing (which I presume is transferable to speaking). After reading the book, I wished I had knew it earlier.

    1. I guess you might be a Vietnamese student? You write well – where did you learn your English? Indeed, thinking, writing and communications are all closely linked. I will look up this book by Zinsser.

  3. Dear Sir, thanks for sharing your personal experience with learning english so candidly with us. I agree with the first comment; when I read it I felt quite touched. It also reminded me of my parents who were also Chinese-educated and are still to this day struggling with the English language. They would not have been able to write this blog piece that you have just did. Anyway I am from Arts so I guess this does not really apply to us. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for your comments. Are you aware of the USP Writing or UTown Ideas and Exposition programs? They will be useful even to students who are competent in the English language.

  4. A dismay indeed!

    I’m a final year engineering student, born and bred locally in an education system which seems poorly equipped to deal with this situation. In my personal opinion, languages cannot be taught within a few months or even a few semesters. Vocabulary, grammar and the basic foundations of all languages can be easily drilled into the student. Yet, what we face is a plethora of students in engineering who come in with ONLY these foundations and in most cases, only the basics of it. Personally, i find myself wanting in this aspect (ass you will see)) and perhaps thats why i might be an ideal candidate to offer my views.

    What do students have and what have been done so far?
    – Students have almost nothing. In my personal opinion, the primary and secondary education have done much to try to encourage students to learn english. Yet somehow, students still graduate with abysmal standards. Thats because the very basic of the english language is only taught in primary school. Beyond which, teachers expect and ASSUME students to be independent learners. Ironically, we are! We learn singlish and we use it vivaciously. Phrases and words like “yesterday night” and “irregardless” are commonplace, but never corrected! And because english is an essential component to passing through to the next educational level, it is seldom failed. So truth be told, students are coming into university without much of a base and it is even worse for our foreign students.

    Why do engineers choose not take up these course?
    – Before diving into the reasons, allow me to lay some foundations. Firstly from personal observation, I make a conservative estimate that foreigners constituting 30% of students in engineering. That is no small percentage. Secondly, I note that many students local and foreigner alike, come from a typical asian country where grades (CAP) is of paramount importance. Thirdly, I also note that engineering is a very quantitative course with many lecturers who themselves, are not necessarily as competent in english as would be ideal. Finally, I note that many local students deem their english to be of average standard, but we are certainly not confident in it.

    – So what does this tell us? Foremost, voluntary signing up of these courses is unlikely to be successful, because signing up for these courses will cause a strain on our CAP. As a student, if i sign up and do badly, my CAP drops and thats a no-no. I’m not going to think about doing well because i’m not completely confident of it, especially since language is not something I can study really hard and do well in, within a short period of time.

    – Secondly, as an engineering student, most of my professors are not particularly articulate. And it sends out a clear message that as an engineer, I dont have to be. Professors are at the cutting edge and pinnacle of their field. (note: I hope I am not insulting. Just a point of view. I’m really trying to be as diplomatic here)

    – Thirdly, my course is quantitative. My answers are all written in the form of equations and the only words I write in my examination script are “Please don’t fail me”. Basically, there is little need for english from our academic point of view.

    – Finally, may I go as far as to say that, even though our english is bad, no one tells us that. No one corrects us. So we never really learn.

    What can be done?
    – I propose a few hard measures. Measures that are unpopular, but i feel might be worth while.

    1. Make these courses mandatory and have them across the first two years.
    – In economic terms, we are trying to run a laissez-faire education system where even our grading system is determined by the market. Yet, obviously certain public goods are missing. The government must step forward to provide these goods.
    – Also, it needs to be over a few years to instill into them the language, especially since admittedly, we do not use it consistently. In our latter years, we send a lot more time typing our reports and thesis and the learning will come into place then.

    2. Focus on what is lacking first: the basics
    – The basics are very lacking. “The new first aid of english” teaches syntax, vocabulary, grammar. Reteach these to the students first before attempting a higher order level like critical thinking and writing.

    3. Set high standards and remove the CAP for these modules.
    – English already has a standard. Just because I can speak or write better than another person, does not means that I speak or write well. It doesnt mean I deserve an A. I might only deserve a B+ in international standards.

    4. Encourage professors to lead by example
    – Professors are educational leaders. Some of us love them, some fear them and some hate them, but all respect them. They set an example to us all.

    To conclude, we face a generation who fail to see the importance of english standards and our lack of it. Yet, as an engineering student in university, we see neither the need for it, nor any active drive to change that. Our CAP is academically paramount to us and voluntary courses are unlikely to be popular with students fighting for a good CAP or with students who lack the confidence in their standard of english. To change this, we need to institute new reforms: Train students over the first two years because we need the practice, teach the basics first before diving into the critical thinking and writing, set good high standards that are based on fixed standards and not based on a local average. Finally, encourage professors to improve their own english, to write and teach in better english and to show students that english and engineering don’t share their first three letters for nothing. If we can do this, I think we can look forward to a generation of articulate engineers.

    1. Firstly, off topic: Did the interface of the blog change? I had the distinct impression it looked different yesterday.


      To u0804026:

      Your argument is well articulated, and you brought up an example of a mistake which I personally make as well (the yesterday night thing). Your proposals, honestly, are quite workable, though as you anticipated they may not be popular.

      I will briefly add a few comments on what you’ve already written:

      Suggestions 1&2: Compulsory English modules to be taught in the first 2 years. Actually, I think this is quite a good idea, but the structure of certain courses may make it difficult to structure all the English modules at the first two years. I propose a similar system to yours, but with semielective components as opposed to fully compulsory ones, with the exception of the Foundation module.

      Compulsory contrasting GE – 1 module
      Compulsory GE of any type – 1 module
      Compulsory Singapore Studies – 1 module
      Compulsory non-Faculty – 2 modules
      Unrestricted elective – 3 modules
      NEW *Compulsory English communication – 5 modules*

      The English communication modules can span everything from face-to-face communication that includes tone, register, effective use of language, effective use of body language and the like, to written communication that deals with literary structures commonplace in academic writing and such.

      A single module compulsory to all students can be introduced called “EN1001 – Basics of the English Language” which can cover material similar to that of the First Aid mentioned by the Provost and yourself, on which foundations we can base the rest of the 4 semi-elective modules on. This can be a prerequisite for all other EN-type modules; consequently, the majority of students will read it in their first semester as far as possible, which ensures its benefits apply as early as possible.

      Perhaps this module will also serve to alert students to the specific area in which they need more work.

      Students can then elect to take the modules that will best serve to enhance their current level of abilities for the remaining 4, as opposed to a broad system of say, exactly 5 modules that everyone must take, which will be useful to some people some of the time and useless to the same people the other some of the time. I feel the learning objectives can be better met through a semi-elective system.

      Of course, if we’re ADDING modules to the syllabus at present, it will necessarily be the case that for some majors at least, the minimum graduation time will increase over what is the case at present. That in itself is a problem that will have to be dealt with sooner or later.

      Suggestion 3: Assessment mode. Your proposal was to mark the candidates on a high objective standard and remove the CAP effect on students by default. This will certainly act to increase the receptiveness of students towards such a change, but the role of CAP in the first place is, in a way, a relative indicator of the relative capabilities of a student in his/her cohort. And if the other posts we can see in this thread are any indicator, we can tell that the ability of professors to teach their subjects is also dependent on language ability to quite some extent, similar to the how the ability of graduating students to perform may be dependent on the same. CAP might have a role to play in this yet.

      However, the current methods of determining CAP will not suffice. If CAP for the compulsory english requirements is determined by students’ scores in the modules, then the purpose of semi-elective modules will be completely defeated as grade-farming students will naturally pick the modules which they are already best at, and their weaknesses will never actually be addressed. A mode of assessment may be an English Communication exam spanning all types of communication from face-to-face (oral exam), to online communication (IVLE Assessment), to academic writing (written assessment), to spoken communication (telephone assessment…?), that will only be conducted after all 20 MCs’ worth of English modules have already been covered. Students will be able to elect to take the exam at any time they wish, but only after the 20 MCs have been exhausted. Weaker students may wish to use their Unrestricted Electives and Breadth on further Communication courses. Students who feel one run of the module may not be sufficient may elect to repeat a module to improve their capabilities to a level of which they are satisfied.

      The assessment will then be a high-weightage exam, which has a CAP weightage proportional to the sum of the student’s MCs expended on all English Communication modules taken until that point. The weaker students who took more Communication modules up to that point will face a CAP load of 24,28… maybe even up to 40 MCs’ worth in that single exam. This makes it fair to the students who took less modules, as they will be penalised less if they do not do well for this examination, while allowing students who put in that much more effort to have their efforts pay off in a truly grand way if their capabilities have truly improved.

      If this type of assessment mode is used, grade farmers will have a natural incentive to now take the modules in which they are weakest, so as to score the highest possible for the English assessment – this is exactly in line with what we will want the students to do, as they are not graded for their performance in learning during the modules themselves, but are graded for their final ability after the modules.

      Due to the unprecedented CAP influence of this examination, the examination should be optionally repeatable, but only exactly once to prevent students from abusing the system. The best score of the two attempts will then be used for CAP determination – indeed, this will encourage the students to review their abilities after the first assessment, further strengthening their English capabilities, regardless of how they actually perform in the second examination. Too many repeats will lead to unjustifiable strain on the system as well as a reduced meaning of the results, however.

      What about your point on our A maybe being worth only a B+ internationally, and the concept that our grades may not be reflective of our actual capabilities relative to others? Well, the bell curve of NUS applies only to NUS, along with all its grade levels. But if the English capabilities of NUS graduates were to be known as the best in the world, even a B- by an NUS graduate may be valued more highly than a B by say, Oxford, in an equivalent module in time to come, by employers all over the world. At the start, we can expect that our grades may be reflective of a lower standard than the same by some other top-class universities in the world, but given enough work by the University and all the students, that is not a situation we have to accept fatalistically; who we can become is significantly better than who we are today.

      Suggestion 4: Most students will agree with you on this, especially those who have had trouble understanding their lecturers in the past.

      Perhaps there can be a similar system worked out through which NUS professors from other faculties may be able to learn from CELC as well? There is no reason why an academic expert in, say, microbiology is unable to learn from an expert in English communication – enhanced capabilities will not only improve the professors’ review by students, but their potential to publish research with higher impact and communicate more effectively with their peers, which is beneficial enough to justify effort on their part.


      A lot of this hinges on the capabilities of the lecturers of CELC to pass down high level English capabilities to their students. From the CELC tutor who is currently instructing, I can honestly say that while that particular module I took has multiple areas in which it can be greatly improved (SP1203), the tutor’s personal and instructional capabilities are more than sufficient to facilitate the proposed changes.

      To deal with the enhanced workload, the University may have to hire more communication lecturers as well if the system is to be implemented.

      To end off, I would like to say that inadequate articulacy is not the domain of engineering alone. I believe all faculties have this issue to differing extents (except the language modules, naturally), and improvement in this can lead to a more articulate generation university graduates as a whole.

      1. Hi Jack,

        You’re observant 🙂 We changed the blog’s template this morning. When we first embarked on the blog, it was an experiment really, and we didn’t know how students would take to this. We are pleasantly surprised and heartened to see how students are contributing thoughtful comments; some (like you) have discussed their views at length too. We’ve thus switched to a different template that hopefully accords better readability of longer threaded comments.

        Mod, Rachel

        1. Dear rachel,

          I am really appreciative of the efforts made by you and prof tan for setting up this blog. I think it has been a great platform our us students to discuss issues that prof tan may have and also a chance for us students to give some reflection on what’s on the ground. from this it’s heartening to know that the senior leadership does care and want to hear from the students on the ground, not just those from NUSSU or other student bodies.

          Btw, how can i contact Prof Tan personally? as i do have an email for prof tan in some things from my heart=) by his email?

          Once again, kudos and really appreciative of your efforts.


          1. Hi Nicholas,

            Drop me an email (there’s a Contact Us button on the right panel of the blog page); I’ll direct from there. Cheers.

            Mod, Rachel

    2. Thanks for sharing your ideas – we are thinking alike. The Chinese have a phrase – 苦口良藥, and I think this may be the best way forward.

  5. Hi Prof Tan,

    Thank you for being candid! It has been a pleasure reading through the various blog posts and I’m definitely staying tuned for more! =)

    My perspective as an engineering student is similar to that of u0804026’s.

    I still remember the first day I was in NUS back in Year 1, sitting in my first ever lecture and feeling excited about the journey I am embarking on. All these were thrown out of the LT immediately the moment the lecturer started speaking, I couldn’t understand a single word of what he was saying! I have heard stories how bad some lecturers could be in engineering but still I didn’t expect him to be that incomprehensible! If I could not decipher the words that he is speaking, how am I suppose to even begin to understand the concepts that he is trying to explain? By the time I walked out of that LT, I had become disillusioned about the quality of the teaching staff in NUS. And that was the last time I attended his lectures for the entire semester.

    I do know and respect that these professors usually have a great passion about their field of study, however it is like what you have said, they are being let down by their command of the English language and are unable to explain concepts to students in a understandable manner.

    Fortunately, I am glad to have come across lecturers and tutors who can speak properly in engineering. (In my experience, the ratio of teaching staff who can use proper English to explain concepts outnumbers those that can’t)

    In addition, all engineering students have to taken a compulsory module – Critical Thinking and Writing (EG1413). The module did help me improve a certain set of skills that may eventually aid me in writing papers in the future. However, I feel that this is insufficient in promoting the use of good English amongst engineering students.

    In fact, I agree with what u0804026 brought up, which is language is something that takes time to improve and thus if NUS really wants to train engineers/science students who are capable of communicating and writing well in the future, then students definitely need to be taking more modules that will first train us on our basics in English and subsequently allow us to write and talk better. (I am not saying this because my English is good; I scored a C+ in Making Sense of Society (SC1101E) back in Year 1, perhaps it’s due to my inability to write well)

    In conclusion, there is still a great room for improvement in the way the lecturers and tutors in engineering educate us. Also, more needs to be done to emphasize the importance of the command of our languages especially amongst engineering students.

    Please pardon me if I’ve used any broken English in my comments. =)

    1. Thanks, I am glad you like what I have written. Students have different competency levels in English. Our intention is to tailor writing and communications programmes according to the competency levels. So, some students may need to do a remedial-type programme, then do a basic writing and communications module before proceeding to do an Ideas-and-Exposition-type module (refer to UTown programmes). Of course, the scaling of such programmes to all NUS students will be a challenge.

      1. According to my Engineering friend, EG1413 is rather general and is not directly useful to his course since it does not deal with the writing of say, scientific papers. Maybe the syllabus can be revamped to ensure greater relevance.

        On a sidenote, may I know if the Ideas and exposition type modules are open to non-USP students?

  6. I think being a good speaker and the ability to communicate well is paramount for engineers and scientists. I recently had to attend a session where I was wondering if what I was hearing was English at all it sadden a lot of us because the ideas were superb but none of us in the audience understood anything.
    Also i quite agree with u0804026 it is important for any speaker to hold the attension of any audience and it can only be done if you can communicate your ideas well.

    1. I agree that some of our professors are lacking in this aspect. In recent years, we have paid more attention to this. For example, as part of the recruitment evaluation process, we now require each shortlisted candidate to give a lecture (meant for undergraduate students). We have even subjected some of our colleagues to one-on-one programmes in English.

  7. Language and communications is like a muscle. Use it often and it will be stronger. I got a friend who spent 4 years to learn Jap during secondary school. After that, she didn’t practice it and is now a litigator and after that, she only remembered the basics…….. Now in the working world, I realised many people still wrote their meeting minutes in the present tense when in actual fact, minutes writing should be in past tense/ reported speech. Reported speech was taught in Primary School but it seems that people forget about it when they are not reminded …….. Last year, I had a huge depression after I got sacked by a Govt body. I had post-traumatic stress disorder and got abused by a female boss every day. I lost interest in my hobbies – writing, reading, jogging etc. I mopped around and couldn’t even pick up any reading materials as I was in a state of depression. I realised my competency in language and communications really declined as I even forgot how to spell some words. Therefore, it is a true story of how one can take for granted when one thinks he/she is an effective communicator. You can get an A1 in English but after that, things may go awry.

  8. I too, was given the First Aid in English. This happened in Primary School when they were afraid I would not get an A* for my English PSLE though.

    How times have changed.

    The level of English is certainly a course of concern. Frankly the problem penetrates every level, across faculties as well. I know Literature students who study the greats and spout cringeworthy grammar in their essays (and daily speech); I know of engineers who write flawlessly, with no errors, yet produce paragraphs so dense and complex they cannot be comprehended anyway.

    Adding another compulsory module is not the solution; but then again, I am given to understand there is a compulsory module for Engineers. Perhaps what is needed are stricter standards exacted upon assignments. I know that students in the business school take especial care to speak well.

    If I may be allowed to apply a spark to the touchpaper – how about leading by examples?

    The, frankly, deplorable standards of English of some Professors and Lecturers does not inspire confidence. No, I don’t just mean the Chinese – I have a German Professor whose sentences are so fragmented I’m sure he’s using Google Translate to learn English. This has become a topic of contention, so much so that apathetic university students have written about I (I direct you to the Kent Ridge Common).

    It’s often said that the best way to teach is by example; I’m sometimes afraid to write in complete sentences in case my professor does not understand me. A case of do as I say, not as I do?

    There is one solution I can foresee and recommend – make people realise the importance of communication. I understand the business school career office is extremely efficient and highly utilised – and their recommendations are often taken to heart, seriously. I understand they also offer consultations and career help. Perhaps if the career offices of the other faculties are half as effective, or efficient, or respectable, they may be the channel to offer feedback to students and make them realise their communication skills are inadequate. I know of people who only took an interest when their CV was thrown back to them with vicious comments about language.

    I leave you with irony: that you should describe English as a Lingua Franca.

    1. One of the greatest strengths of the English language is its ability to steal terms entirely from other languages for use. Lingua franca is about as English as rendezvous or gestalt, regardless of its origins.

      If English were to keep to itself it will die like Latin is dying today.

    2. “Make people realise the importance of communications” – this is easier said than done. There are structural issues, like those which you have pointed out. We can improve the situation; do refer to my comments in #18. I am glad you mentioned the career office, and how it can influence students in this direction. This will be a topic for one of my future blog posts.

      1. Your opinion, sir, of the examples professors set?

        I only realised how dire the situation is when a transfer student from England started complaining about how she couldn’t understand anything said in class at all.

  9. So true. I feel extremely disturbed when other classmates ask me if I am local because my command in English may be seemingly better than theirs.

    It is also extremely embarrassing to know someone with a Ph.D in Science who gives lectures, cannot even phrase a single sentence properly.

    What is all the knowledge in the world without the ability of expression? ):

    Never is it about excelling in a language that gives you the edge. Rather, simply being able to say what you mean and impact others with the fullness of the words you use.

    If only everyone shared our sentiments~

  10. Prof Tan,

    Are you admitting that the minimum English entry requirements for this University aren’t high enough? As a native speaker and a former English language teacher, I have experienced the various levels of English proficiency in this university and would say that alot of students are not properly prepared. Perhaps its time for the university to increase the entry requirements in terms of English language qualifications.

    1. If raising the bar for English on prospective students were to be justified, two things need to be addressed.

      1. The current assessment system. Many of the students whose capabilities you say are not adequate (and I would agree with you on that, actually), already scored A1s in their A’ Level examinations for General Paper. If you were to raise the bar so only A1 scorers can get into NUS, it will not remove them from the university.

      What you propose requires an entirely separate form of English assessment from the formalised assessments we currently have.

      2. More problematically, do we even have enough students in the country with the English level proficiency required? If raising the bar means that the majority of local students are disqualified as their capabilities are too low, then NUS will become populated with even more non-citizens, though of a different international composition at present. And at present, there is already dissatisfaction with the foreign student population among some sectors of Singapore; social instability may result from further increases.

      There are two options available to produce graduates with high English capabilities. The first is to only allow those who already have them to enter, which is what you are proposing. The second is to allow people who have less than what is required to enter, then train them within the university system so that they can achieve the required capabilities. Given that the purpose of education is to increase the capabilities of its students, I would argue that the second method is more appropriate.

      1. Dear Jack,

        I do agree with you too. It’s simply not an option to just raise the bar for english and just harshly penalise someone who is of a talent but lose out due to his/her language capabilities is suicidal. Especially that language and communication capabilities can be trained up. It’s not that the students do not have english basics, it’s a matter of refreshing the basics, re-use and polish their communication capabilities.

        Of course, as you mentioned, should have some programme in place that will facilitate such work to enhance communication, both spoken and written. As for suggestions, i will think of it sometime soon, but so far what i am reading looks good, though i have some concerns on the module workload, given the heavy workload in our own majors..
        On a side note, should there be a programme in place
        1) ALL foreign students(especially the PhD candidates) should also have a few bridging english modules that they need to clear before they can start their PhD studies. I have experienced PhD candidates(they happen to be TA for my chemistry labs) who just unable to communicate instructions properly and end up we have to use chinese or take a long time to get the message across..
        2) it should NOT take the onus away from the students to improve our language ability on our own by reading and expanding our vocabulary.

      2. I agree with Jack. This is a systemic problem cutting across the entire educational system. MOE is aware and has already taken steps to address this problem. But it will take time.

    2. Dear Jon,

      If we set the English entry requirement too high, we may end up denying many students from being admitted. The situation is not so bad. It is still manageable, and we will take steps to resolve this.

  11. Sir,

    I will just be forthcoming about it.

    The entry requirement is supposed draw a certain baseline on the level of English but the fact that we experience a diversity even below the baseline means the policy may not be all-encompassing enough.

    For local students, this is a national problem. Perhaps it can only with solved in conjunction with MOE because the problem starts with Singlish speaking parents hardcoding the poor 5 year old child with Singlish. To code switch, it has to be done at the Primary school level where they can start to undo what their parents did to them. In my case, I only managed to code switch when I reached 21 years old.

    Many faculty members seem to be hired based on their publication track and research results, so that probably why there are numerous cases of lectures which are a pain to attend. Encouraging faculty members to be role models should be a case by case implementation.

    2-3 compulsory related modules will help only if it is included in the CAP and it must not a lecture style because people are not interested. Make everyone speak in front of the class every lesson say for 10 mins with themes. The “face and pride scare” tactic should work and make them prepare for the lesson. Writing short essays for homework and for the final paper should be enough. It will be about communicating 1 idea in 1 short essay.

    To give an example with regards to this problem, I point to a conference organised locally. When I read the programme book, certain abstracts are written in such a weird manner that you will burst out laughing. The advantage is that, you know you need not attend the respective talks.


    1. Well said. Our English langauge instructors are already using tactics which you have suggested. Class size is crucial here – it has to be small.

  12. Dear Jack,
    I’m referring to spoken English of foreign students. Personally I think Local students have good command of English and I don’t think there are any problems with their written and spoken English. Looking at the General paper, it seems that it focuses on written English. There is no spoken English.
    Now I’ve taught IELTS before and the test focuses on all four parts written, Reading, listening and speaking.

    For graduates you have the GRE which seems to focus on how many words or how much grammar you know. any generally includes language that a native speaker wouldn’t even know.
    The point I’m trying to make is that I don’t think I want the University dictating what I should already be proficient in. Plus as westerner it gives me an advantage and makes up for how badly I do in my exams.

  13. I apologise for being such a cynic, but I rather doubt that it’s possible to make compulsory a meaningful English language education program without extending the current length of study in NUS.

    I reckon my own proficiency in English to be above par, and thought it might be interesting to share how it came to be that way. Apart from coming from a family that spoke (and speaks) English decently well, it’s perhaps also significant that my secondary school allocated students to classes according to their proficiency in English from their first day in school. At the end of our first two years in school we were streamed and separated into different classes, but the effect seems to have been permanent. It’s curious how me and my peers seem to have turned out unusually articulate and very much comfortable with writing in English. Being in an environment that reinforced my own ability in the language seems to have made the biggest difference, and probably had a greater effect than any English lesson I took. A caveat is necessary here: Many of my peers have also turned out to be as bad at their mother tongues as they are good in English – myself included.

    1. hi issac,

      perhaps i could offer a different point of view.

      I do believe that university is not entirely a place to gather knowledge, but also a place to develop a mindset. I think most of what i learn in university isn’t very practical. e.g I learnt how electrons moved around in transistors, but if i’m not a researcher, I probably wont need to know it as an engineer. Yet, learning that spurs you on to see things from a different perspective. Now, I dont see a transistor as purely an electronic device. I see it as a stroke of genius and I wonder how its principles can be applied on different applications. Likewise for teaching english in University.

      What you say is true and indeed, those coming from an english speaking family tend to be more proficient in the language.

      Yet, I do believe what is lacking around is the awareness that good english is important and the need for improvement. Our generation has a mindset that our english is ok lah. So there is no active need to change it.

      Instead, if society does not perform the necessary check on this mentality, I reckon that the schools should. It should be of paramount importance to change first and foremost, the mindset that our english is sufficiently good enough and then put us in a mindset to improve it. I think most people do agree that their english is sub-par, but not many find themselves in the latter “zone”.

      Will the first two years change the way we speak, write and read? Perhaps only minimally. However, if they can impress upon us the consequences of our poor english like how PSC impressed it upon Prof Tan, then maybe more of us will pick up “The New First Aid In English” on our own and work on it.

    2. We can certainly do more if we have more time. However, it will be unattractive to our students if we are to lengthen their period of study in order to enhance their writing and communications skills. That said, I believe that efforts even in one or a sequence of modules will make a difference.

  14. I believe everyone want to have a chance, a class, a place and an environment to improve English. No one ingores the importance of English. The problems with the English module is: As Science\Engineering students, most of us do not excel in English. It will be a big sacrifice for CAP if we take more English even literature courses. People may ask:’ isn’t there S/U option?’ ‘Yes, that’s true, but people are still want to reserve S\U modules for their other ‘compulsory’ non-faculty modules.’

    Maybe you can create a special programme ( USP people indeed do a lot of writing modules!) where we can have a special extra allownance for S\U option for that sets of modules (2 maybe?) I believe this will encourage many students like me to take more English modules.

    1. Well, we are indeed thinking along the lines you have suggested – that is. to throw in compulsory writing and comms modules under the S/U option, over and above the 3 modules which students are given. This will also provide the incentive to do well.

  15. “…He argues the importance for scientists to develop the ability to express themselves articulately in terms that all can understand and to discuss scientific and other issues from a broad and comprehensive viewpoint.”

    I couldn’t agree more and nowhere is this more stark than at seminars. Speakers with mastery skill of the language can grab my attention and make me feel I’ve understood the talk. In contrast, bad speakers can put many to sleep no matter how good the content.

    As an engineer alumni, I found passion in perfecting my english skills through my need to impress at project presentations. I’ve also found reading books a fun way to pass time but the former would seem a more appropriate way to administer the english language i.e. why not give a high weightage to the assessment of project presentations and provide avenues for students to watch wonderful presentations by renowned speakers on youtube e.g. steve jobs and obama

    the common excuse my friends used to give for scoring poorly at english modules is that they’re engineers, why bother with english. Well, if the score of engineering modules with projects is pegged to english proficiency at presentations, then that attitude might change.
    afterall, in a CAP driven system, there’s no better way to motivate than scores.

    1. During my MBA studies in the USA, we had a retired CEO of an American MNC come talk to the class. This MNC was in the aerospace business and the CEO had a strong engineering background, understandably so. However, he was a great speaker, very engaging and humble.

      One classmate asked him how he managed to rise up the corporate ladder and make it to become CEO.

      His response was quite astounding.

      He said that where engineering talent was concerned, he was nowhere near the best. In fact, many of his peers were far superior engineers in terms of technical ability. But where he shone was his ability to pull their ideas together and to present them in a cogent and coherent fashion. He was able to write the proposals and convince his superiors to implement his projects. And, it was very interesting to note that he was almost apologetic about it!!

      Anyway, the moral of the story is that if you can’t write well, if you can’t present yourself well, if you can’t tell a good story, you’ll never make it up the corporate ladder.

    2. Emphasizing the importance of writing and comms in each module will be important. We have already piloted a few modules in Engineering, in which our writing instructors worked closely with professors in designing and teaching their modules. While this is more sustainable, it will take time for this aspect to infuse significantly into our curriculum.

  16. Legendary speakers like Steve Jobs and Barack Obama have made a very strong impression upon us and the world. Undoubtedly, many would start learning from them and in the process raise the bar in presentation style and ‘enjoyability’. It is pretty true that in Engineering & Science, ideas and technical expertise propel individuals forward in their careers. But the effective communication and charisma that one has, can possibly give them an edge in life.

    Just an afterthought after attending countless hard-to-follow-and-stay-awake research seminars.

    And by the way… Dear Rachel, a random request here. What do you think about having a “like” button for comments here that resonate well with students? 🙂

    1. Dear K,

      Thanks for the suggestion! I’m looking into it now. We’re on some WordPress Edublog system; keeping fingers crossed that there’ll be some way to install a ‘like’ button program. Keep the discussions and suggestions flowing!

      mod, Rachel

    2. I had my fair share of the “hard-to-follow-and-stay-awake” seminars. Here is my suggestion – always ask for an idea to take away for every hour of seminar you attend. 🙂

  17. Dear Professor,

    English is really important, I find myself learning and re-learning it, so that the software user interface, the accompanying manuals that I write, and the presentations that I give, would convey a certain sense of quality. I once had a resume with improper tenses, a seemingly fine point, but the impression I gave was I did not know English. This might not seem a big deal until you are applying for some job in some English speaking countries. So English is certainly relevant to Computing, Science and Engineering students. I am a Computing alumni, the motivations for these might have been not so obvious when I was an undergraduate. I agree with the above that maybe there could be a small English quality marks in project presentations.

    However, I think that this is a general problem, not only NUS’. The thing about English is, we also need to learn by listening to how it is spoken. There are certain rhythms, and intonations that we cannot imagine by just reading texts alone. We do hear Singlish a lot, and it is harder for a person who does not come from a native English speaking environment. So what I would like to suggest for any plans is to include the pre-Universities, and maybe the NUS High School for a start.

    1. I am glad that you have shared your experience. It is not just a problem for NUS. However, if we can change this for the better, our NUS graduates will be a cut above all other graduates!

      MOE is also conscious of this problem and they have already taken steps to address this problem.

      1. I think that one of the biggest iessus for English language learners is trying to accurately communicate with those who do not speak their native language. I have never been to another country, so I do not know what it would be like to be surrounded by people who did not speak the same language that I did, but I imagine that it would be really frustrating. Sometimes it is frustrating on my end of the conversation, trying to understand exactly what a foreign person is asking when a question arises, so I can only imagine how they feel. Another issue for them may be trying to figure out how to hold onto their native culture and still adopt some of the ways of the English culture so that they can better adapt to their surroundings. This can be a very confusing and frustrating experience, especially when they are constantly surrounded by the second culture on a day to day basis. It could also be that the English language learners are forced to forget their native culture altogether. Some schools may not be open to other cultures and may try to force students to forget about their native culture and adopt the mainstream culture’s views. This can be very hard for children and can also impede their ability to learn English.There are many ways that one can address these iessus. It is important to be understanding of other cultures and not become frustrated as they try to communicate with you. It is probably a lot harder for them to try to come up with the words to say than it is for you to try and comprehend what they are saying. It is also important to be open to other cultures and want to learn about them. We cannot just force the English language on them. If we allow them to retain some of their native culture, then they will be able to adopt the English language more quickly. It is easy to look down on others when we are not the ones struggling to learn something new, but what everyone needs to remember is that if the situation were reversed, you could be in the same situation as the English language learners, just in another country learning a different language.

  18. Not just engineering students, but maybe architecture students too? I wonder if you are following the architecture debate- http://kentridgecommon.com/?p=13899 the former president of the architecture society wrote a response to a previous anonymous critique but his response is neither here nor there…

    I agree that writing skills are very important, it’s not just about language but about logical organization and the structuring of one’s arguments

  19. I’m not a full time NUS student, but a non-graduating exchange student from Canada, and I’d like to share a bit of what our system at home is like.

    Even though Canada is an English (and French) speaking country, all university students are required to take two modules of first year English. Domestic students who didn’t perform well in high school English standardized tests also have to take a third, remedial writing module in some universities. The only way to get around this requirement is to achieve a high grade on the AP College Board English Language and Composition or English Literature and Composition exams.

    This requirement is built into what is usually labelled the “distribution requirement” for electives in many Bachelor programmes. For example, I’m a BA candidate, but in order to graduate I need to have at least two modules of Math or Lab Sciences. This takes a bit of the sting off for those students not in an Arts programme who might see it as unfair that they are forced to take certain Arts electives.

    Also, some of the larger programmes have English classes tailored specifically for the students, such as Scientific Report Writing or Business Communications.

    So, that’s my input on the situation. Hope it makes sense and proves somewhat helpful!

    1. Thanks for your suggestion, Jordan. We are aware of the distributional requirements, or sometimes core requirements, for North American universities. We are possibly thinking of the S/U option for such core requirements, and this will be unique to NUS.

  20. Dear Prof Tan,

    Thank you for sharing your candid thoughts – they are a joy to read.

    I am somewhat taken aback that your students do not appreciate the importance of having a decent command of the English language.

    Good writing and presentation skills are very necessary for survival in the corporate world.

    As part of the screening process, my company puts candidates through a 30 minute writing session, where candidates just have to respond to two or three very generic questions. The whole idea is just to test whether the candidate can write.

    Unfortunately, many of the NUS/NTU students that I have interviewed in recent years have a less-than-desired command of the language. I am just looking for graduate officers who can express themselves clearly and succinctly.

    Worse, language skills are very difficult to train and teach in a corporate setting.

    So, yes, you have definitely identified a very important area of weakness in the current crop of students.

  21. I totally agree with the need to never stop improving our language, even if we might think we are already good at it. As a student reading English, I myself am astonished still at how much more improvement there is left to be done after being marked by my Prof.

    There are actually books in the library I would like to check out about improving my writing but I have no time to attend to this during semester. Therefore, I would really love courses by CELC that are held in the evenings with focus on different parts of grammar, paying attention to its relevance in academic writing (writing with active voice instead of passive, how to effectively use punctuation, etc…) with a certificate to encourage attendance. Much like the career guidance centre has different workshops ranging from dressing to e-mail communications that if attended, allows one to get a certificate. Speaking and pronunciation courses would be welcome too!

    Oh and just to add, what you mentioned in your last paragraph can be summed up in Wittgenstein’s “Words are deeds”. That is, words affect the world and without knowing the right word, one cannot have the right effect.

  22. I think two points made in entry #39, contributed by “recent grad” are important and merit reinforcement — the importance of reading and the usefulness of learning from watching good public speakers. I think too many of us do not devote enough time to reading good books. As an avid reader myself, I can attest to the value of reading — not only does reading good literature broaden one’s horizon and understanding about people and issues, our vocabulary and grammar are enriched when we read the works of excellent writers. Watching good speakers and consciously paying attention to how they make arguments, the words and phrases they employ, the body language that accompanies their speech, and the way they field questions from their audience/the press, we can also learn a great deal. While acquiring these skills cannot be achieved overnight (as many of you have acknowledged), constant exposure to good writing and good speech are central to equipping ourselves well on the language front, and much of it can be done informally, outside the classroom, though admittedly formal instructions provide structure and guidance for those of us who don’t know where to begin.

  23. Prof,

    Actually besides writing and communications, I strongly feel that body language and unspoken language will play an important part. I usually have no problems doing the written essay questions in an interview but I always fail job interviews because of body language.

    A good writing essay will be of no use if we fail to communicate it properly through body language.
    This is what S** excelled in because S** is very big on style over substance.

    In Nature 1 Sept 2011. Brain Imaging – Makes a Mockery of Fairness and Objectivity

    In 2007, John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, put people into a brain scanner in which a display screen flashed a succession of random letters.

    He told them to press a button with either their right or left index fingers whenever they felt the urge, and to remember the letter that was showing on the screen when they made the decision. The experiment used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to reveal brain activity in real time as the volunteers chose to use their right or left hands.

    The conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds.

    Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided.

    As humans, we like to think that our decisions are under our conscious control — that we have free will.

    Haynes and other experimental neuroscientists are raising a new challenge. They argue that consciousness of a decision may be a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on a person’s actions. Free will is an illusion. People may feel they chose, but they don’t. Therefore, it makes a mockery of fairness and objectiveness.

    And if unconscious brain activity could be found to predict decisions perfectly, the work really could rattle the notion of free will.

  24. Dear Provost,

    here I raise an issue not on the importance of English but rather about the UEM requirements.

    Firstly, is EG1413 not recognised as a compulsory writing module already? Or has it been all futile. I am a final year engineering student.

    If it is not regarded as so, then that means that one more UEM would have to be sacrificed for this module, which would be a pity. This was the reason I chose to come to NUS instead of NTU – for a chance to learn things outside my major at my own wish, in the other faculties (indeed I have visited Arts many times and been to Science and Architecture as well). NTU has only 3 UEMs for an engineering student’s entire length of study, so now NUS would not be as “liberal” as it seems to be now, only slightly better because it has SS and GEMs.

  25. Hi Sir,

    You, along with others in this thread, have mentioned the USP writing modules as an example of a language/communications module worth emulating. As no response from a USP student seems to have been undertaken so far, I would like to air my thoughts on this.

    As a 3rd year USP student, it fills me with pride that the USP Writing and Critical Thinking (WCT) module has been raised for mention. Although in all honesty, my entire experience at usp has been somewhat mixed, I sincerely feel the need to say this: In all my 5 semesters here, the WCT module I took in my very first semester is still by far the best.

    I am an Arts student. Specifically I major in Political Science. While I have certainly had the privilege of taking a few excellent modules taught by highly competent professors at the PS department, nothing beats my WCT experience. Seriously. I still rank it as the best module I ever took because its layout, direction and purpose was so amazing. Most importantly, the pedagogy was incredible. I cannot begin to tell you how much I was in awe of the way Dr. Lo Mun Hou, who happens to be the Writing Centre’s director, taught the module. He was so organised and masterful in his teaching that I came out of it feeling like I had truly received education in one of the top-top universities in the world (since afterall the writing programme is modelled after that in Harvard). It was of such a high standard that I felt the module should be patented or something, and I’m sure it would beat those patented enrichment classes (Adam Khoo and whatnot) hands down.

    Hyperboles aside, I thoroughly appreciated how the module is not just a mere WRITING module. My purpose in emphasising the word ‘writing’ is because I believe most classes that purport to impart the skill of good writing only focus on just that: writing. There is often an overt emphasis on the linguistic aspect, on how to write stylishly and beautifully etc. Yes, we all love beautiful writing full of imagery, metaphors and whatnot, but what defines truly good writing at the end of the day is the clarity of thought. People often fail to recognise that the authors we love to read, the authors whose writing we are so impressed by, have plots/arguments that are well thought through. Incoherent writing, no matter how well-ornamented with superlatives and great language, are never the ones we remember.

    In this regard, the usp WCT module is remarkable in recognising this element and weaving critical thinking into writing (I guess that’s why it’s called writing and critical thinking, not just writing). In fact, the module seemed more to me like a regular class I was taking anywhere else in my faculty precisely due to the focus on CONTENT. I had an overwhelming amount of readings to do each week because the module was taught in such a manner that it revolved around an issue – the environment, ethics, gender, clothing etc. – but I absolutely loved this feature of it. For me, mine was about tourism; we studied things like the authenticity of the touristic experience, how we as contemporary superficial tourists defer from ‘travellers’ of the past who supposedly ‘travelled’ and got the real deal, whether there is really something called the ‘authentic’ travel experience or everything is essentially staged etc. Prior to this module, I never thought about tourism in this manner. I never knew there existed such rigorous academic debates surrounding the issue of tourism. It was an extremely refreshing philosophical inquest for me.

    If that was not enough, I learnt even more about writing (of course, that’s where the technical aspect comes in) – how to craft and present arguments, how to attract the reader’s attention, how to ARGUE coherently and convincingly (Dr. Lo was indeed very particular and nit-picky about the strength and flow of the arguments), and finally, how to CITE (VERY important for most FASS students). The best part about it was that I learnt all these not through mere drilling or direct lecturing, but through the framework of a content-based syllabus. In that way, writing class was never boring, because we never learnt about writing per se. Instead, we honed our writing skills through an exploration into a surprisingly interesting philosophical issue.

    In all, it was definitely the most complete and satisfying educational experience in my entire academic journey, and it still is. My little post here cannot do justice to the overwhelming feelings I have towards this module. Yet, if there is one point I want to make, it is that I really hope many more peers and future generations of students can get to receive the same amazing experience as I did. For me, that was, and remains, the hallmark of what university education should be like. Of course, I know I cannot expect the same kind of standard for every module, but insofar as I was blessed to have it, I sincerely wish the university can look at ways to replicate such a module so that more students can benefit.

    Nevertheless, I do understand the constraints. For one, it was highly effective because of the small class size and seminar style, and of course, the lecturer. Undoubtedly, it’s going to be difficult to find more Dr. Lo-s who can deliver such fine quality of teaching. Still, I just wish to express my gratitude to usp for gifting me this marvelous experience that has served me well in my subsequent essay-writing stints at Political Science. It can only be a pity that each year, just 100 students get the privilege of such a form of true education.

  26. Some are not interested as they do not see e immediate need. They may even be complacent that they do not need these skills. I personally have attended only one of celc lessons, however, I find that the lessons often clashes with my timeslots, maybe that could be a detering factor in students not attending them

  27. Hi EC, this was great and heartfelt and was circulated to students in my 1st, 2nd and 3rd year modules in the midst of the hustle and bustle of last semester.

    After marking honours years essays for an exam several years ago, I wondered what we could do to help improve writing. So I introduced “writing workshops” within the 1st (two essays) and 2nd year (project report with corrections) modules and my co-lecturer has a writing component in the third year module (essay).

    Classes are large (100-250) but students are divided into groups of 12 and dedicated TAs motivated by the objectives of the exercise (many former undergrads themselves) provide detailed feedback after a general discussion of issues. So each student has the possibility of direct feedback.

    Students are generally very good during oral presentations and this is definitely due to their training in schools. They are prepared, speak well and concise enough to keep to their time (10 mins group presentations, facing a countdown clock!) – we run this symposia style.

    Writing requires more training and I am still tweaking our methods. Second years do the writing as a group but are required to make corrects after their feedback as it makes the lessons sink in, like research students who have to correct drafts after meeting with their supervisors.

    The TAs are thus an integral part of this mission, we may not always have enough. Honours students were roped in last semester and are a great addition. They recognise the value of the session, are in the midst of crafting proposals and so are great mentors.

    I lose time for academic investigation but it is hoped by third and fourth year that abilities are enhanced.
    Homing students’ investigative skills through the scientific method is at the core of this all anyway and this skill is something they use with anything they set their minds on after graduation.

    The first years have a third and final essay which the lecturer marks across the board and this provides us with a barometer of writing standard. Last month when marking, I compared notes with the previous year, saw a significant improvement and elatedly sent an email to the module’s TAs. Some of that effort was paying off.

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