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Managing School Life

Children attending Hong Kong primary schools, which follow the local curriculum have a very different educational experience to students attending international schools. And school life may be quite unlike your own memories of primary school. Some advance warning of what to expect can help you make the most of the opportunities offered by local schools, whilst mitigating against any difficulties you may encounter.

School work, Dictation and Tests

Primary school often feels a lot different to Kindergarten. Of course there is a huge range of primary schools, each with a different atmosphere. But generally the pink fluffy teachers at kindergarten are replaced by more serious teaching staff, children are required to sit still and focus during class and homework plays a huge part in family life. 



Many schools follow a fairly rigorous structure of daily homework, dictations, small tests and end of term exams. 

Details of what homework needs to be done is usually written in a 手冊 sau2 caak3 – a notebook that is kept in the school bag. Homework is usually given on one day for completion the same night – it must be handed in the next morning, unless specified. 

Homework is not optional!

In most schools, it is expected that homework will be 100% completed and ready to hand in the next day. For many young children this level of organisation is beyond their capabilities. They may need help doing the homework, and making sure it is all packed away neatly for their teacher to access the following day.

It is worth overseeing your child's homework and proof reading it before it gets sent back to school. Unfortunately any mistakes, even fairly minor ones, will probably be marked 'wrong' and sent back as homework the following day.  If you are not careful, the daily homework can swell up unpleasantly with the inclusion of all these extra corrections. 

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In fact, answers can be marked 'wrong', even when they are 'correct'. For example if the child made a spelling mistake in the answer... or numbered the questions incorrectly, these can all result in a big 'X' and require the whole exercise to be redone the next evening.  As one parent we talked to said:  "you have to take a deep breath and let it go". 

How about fostering independence?

In western culture there is a strong emphasis on ‘independence’; children are expected to manage themselves and their school work on their own from an early age. But assumptions about what is age appropriate are very different in Hong Kong.

It's OK to help your child organise themselves. In fact it’s arguably much better that the parent (or tutor/caregiver) takes over some of the management of the homework and gets everything done quickly and packed away so that everyone can enjoy the rest of the evening. 

Don’t feel that you are a bad parent for helping your child out in this way - they have many years ahead to become independent, it doesn’t all have to happen in the busy hours after school and before bed.

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Dictation is a regular part of school life. Many teachers do dictations on a weekly basis.


Dictation is like a Chinese spelling test and is usually based on the new words in the Chinese class textbook. Often the textbook will list ‘target’ vocabulary at the end of a piece of text, or running across the bottom of the page.  

The teacher should tell your child exactly which words will be in a dictation.  But just be aware that the highlighted vocabulary in a textbook is likely to be on the hit list.


Depending which book your school uses, a similar method of dictation style testing may also apply to General Studies. 


​背默 Dictations From Memory

Sometimes teachers like to do 背默 bui3 mak6.


In this case, instead of the teacher reading out a list of words for the child to write down, the child has to memorize the poem/ piece of text and then write it down themselves.


This involves a whole new level of memorization. If your child struggles with this additional challenge and is failing miserably, you could try explaining to the teacher that at this stage your family’s focus is on learning the characters and ask that your child be allowed to do the dictation as a normal dictation. Whether or not the teacher agrees depends very much on the teacher’s personality and the vibe of the school.

 “We don’t mind what s/he gets in dictation”. 

It’s quite common to hear parents of children from non-Chinese families make this type of comment and to even communicate this to the child’s class teacher. 

The problem is that if your child is not doing well in dictation it probably means they are not learning the foundational characters properly. So,as the child goes further up the school, they won’t have the knowledge of Chinese characters required by the curriculum. Simply put, they won’t be able to cope. 

Also, if you communicate a laissez faire approach to the teachers, it's possible they won't take your child's Chinese study seriously. So it might be best to keep these thoughts to yourselves! 

Secondly, while you may be relaxed about dictation scores, your child may not be. Children pick up on the nuances of classroom hierarchies. They will know if they are ‘bottom of the class’ – and it won’t feel good. 

And yet, you are probably not the kind of parent who wants to pile the pressure on and make primary school a misery. 


It's also true that some of the students and families who've stuck with the local system and been most successful, have actually had a relaxed approach to dictation scores, (although these students have generally gone onto EMI Secondary schools). 

Finding a balance between keeping on top of school work, whilst enjoying a happy childhood is a tightrope that we all must walk.


Each child, each parent/child relationship is different and the individual teacher’s teaching style will also be a factor. Talking to other families in the same boat will certainly help.


Parents choose to place their child in a local primary school for a variety of reasons – usually a combination of linguistic, financial and cultural concerns. Some parents intend their children to complete their entire education in the local system, some plan to do local Primary School and then transfer to the EMI school system.  Some parents pragmatically say ‘we will see how far we can get’. 

In choosing to go the local route  therefore, parents can often feel quite conflicted about their desire to keep their child in a Chinese learning environment whilst also giving them a stress-free childhood.   

It's not easy.  But being part of a community of like-minded families will help. Reach out to other parents at your school and look out for CALHK meet-ups where you can discuss these issues with other families who are taking a similar journey. 


Check out the CALHK Learning Journeys to see how some non-Chinese speaking families have navigated this path.  

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