Echoing a COVID-19 World in Malay: Learning Proverbs Through Skits

SEW Jyh Wee
Centre for Language Studies, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences (FASS)

In his blog post, Jyh Wee describes how he captures a learning moment—relating proverbs to the current climate and getting students to interpret them through skits.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

At the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Language Studies (CLS), group-based oral evaluation is a regular component in continuing assessments for the module LAM2201 “Malay 2”. Many learners previously exposed to the school-based Cambridge examination model preferred a one-on-one oral assessment format. Learners accustomed to the interrogative style of oral assessment may see group-based assessments as a rather different experience.

For the group-based oral assessment in LAM2201, three to five Malay language learners team up to present a skit based on a Malay proverb (Figure 1). For example, a proverb highlighting a symbiotic relationship such as “bagai aur dengan tebing” [like the bamboo and the riverbank], may spur language learners to align good neighbourly behaviour with the meaning of the idiom for their skit.

Figure 1. Group-based oral team at work.
Photo courtesy of Sew Jyh Wee

Relating Malay Proverbs to COVID-19

Learners preparing for such an assessment are usually spoilt for choice, with 15 available proverbs to choose from. Some may even find the slate of idiomatic content overwhelming. However, all students, even the reticent ones, can usually find inspiration from their environment and their own life experiences. The current COVID-19 situation offers much food for thought when it comes to generating ideas suitable for group-based oral assessments. Students have the opportunity to address issues which emerge from the news daily; they could include grocery hoarding, the rush to purchase toilet paper, structural contamination, dirty hands, and aerosol scares.

Face-to-Face (F2F) and Pre-recorded Skits

In Semester 2 of AY2019/20, the 50 Malay language learners of LAM2201 had a disruptive semester that ended in May 2020. Comprising 49 undergraduates from the Kent Ridge and Bukit Timah campuses, and one exchange student from the University of Kyoto, these students had to deal with pandemic-related constraints of social distancing and temperature monitoring which became their new learning parameters. At the same time, rules pertaining to face-to-face (F2F) interaction became more stringent. Learners with flu-like symptoms could not be admitted into the classroom.

In April 2020, as a precautionary measure, these students were given the option to pre-record their group-based oral assessment activities. Seven teams opted for a pre-recorded video presentation while another two teams presented their skit “live” in an auditorium booked specifically for this purpose. As an additional precautionary measure, an interval of 20 minutes was included as a transition period separating the two “live” presentations (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Teams that chose to do their skit “live” wait their turn in the auditorium.
Photo courtesy of Sew Jyh Wee

Four teams wittily used a Malay proverb they learned to relate their frantic grocery-buying exploits (Figures 3 and 4). These teams clarified their characters’ rushing to purchase food items with “sediakan payung sebelum hujan” [prepare the umbrella before it rains].

Figure 3. Team members perform a skit “live” as characters at a grocery store.
Photo courtesy of Sew Jyh Wee
Figure 4. Team members perform the “goods buying” sequence of the skit in a pre-recorded presentation.
Photo courtesy of Sew Jyh Wee

Despite the preparations and precautions taken, the sudden announcement of the circuit breaker during the first week of April 2020 nonetheless caught one of the teams by surprise. This group had to quickly pivot to performing their skit asynchronously as a pre-recorded presentation in place of a synchronous face-to-face performance.


Notably, group-based oral assessment has an advantage which is relevant to language evaluation in a COVID-19 world. Despite the stressful global situation brought on by COVID-19, students taking LAM2201 were energetic and had a fruitful time working together to produce these skits.

Regardless of the current challenges, group-based oral assessment remains a valuable channel for evaluating the proficiency of Malay language learners. In particular, the teamwork component of this assessment activity affords them a creative problem-solving schema in foreign language education. We anticipate that the future landscape confronting NUS graduates will be challenging, and such collaboration among creative thinkers, which is what a group-based oral assessment model offers, will be useful for breaking down communication barriers.


SEW Jyh Wee teaches Malay at various levels of proficiency, and supervises two “Design Your Own Modules” (DYOM) on two local dialects at the Centre for Language Studies (CLS), Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Jyh Wee can be reached at


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