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Reading Strategies Program in Rural Malaysia

FULL TITLE: Impact of a Program to Teach Reading Strategies to Primary Children in Rural Malaysia

By Alison Lyall

Abstract

In rural Malaysia, both the absence of a reading culture and teachers' lack of knowledge about approaches to teaching reading have resulted in high levels of illiteracy. This study describes the impact of a reading program implemented in four primary schools in terms of student increase in motivation and confidence. The key role of school principals and local English teachers in implementing long-term change is emphasized.

Introduction

As a teacher trainer in a rural district in Malaysia, I have a responsibility to provide in-service training and ongoing support to Malaysian teachers of English in forty-five schools. The district has a population of around 70,000, most of whom are employed as fishermen, plantation workers and small business owners. Parents are inactive in schools, probably because schools traditionally see education as their prerogative and do little to encourage parental participation.

On school visits, it has become apparent that many students complete primary school without having acquired more than rudimentary reading skills in English. This paper will investigate the causes of students' literacy problems and evaluate the results of a ten hour reading program developed and taught in four primary schools in the district.

Reasons for Poor Reading Skills

Absence of a Culture of Reading

A Malaysian National Library report (2003) entitled 'Experience and Efforts in Literacy Programmes' stated that Malaysians only read two books a year on average. It can be surmised that rural Malaysians read even fewer books than this. For children to pick up reading skills easily, one of the core pre-requisites is that they understand the pleasure of reading through having books read to them and seeing adults around them derive pleasure and meaning from print. In rural Malaysia, most children come to school without having had this experience.

As a result of the absence of books and reading in the home environment, schools become the sole provider of a print and language rich environment. Unfortunately, most of the schools visited do not provide such an environment. Student work (hence student writing) is seldom on display and both English and Malay print tends to be in the form of either labels (e.g. Computer Room) or in the form of disembodied proverbs or similes (e.g. as good as gold).The libraries are poorly or inappropriately stocked and books are seldom borrowed by students.

Lack of Familiarity with Approaches to Teaching Reading

The teachers I have observed generally approach the teaching of reading through choral repetition of reading texts and choral spelling aloud of words. Phonics are not taught and teachers do not seem to be aware of the fact that the name of a letter and its sound are not the same and indeed that the difference is confusing to young learners. Teachers seldom ask students questions about the meaning of a text or encourage prediction, self-correction or word attack skills. When students read aloud individually, they are given no pause time to use reading strategies and are over-corrected for small and often insignificant pronunciation errors.

Aims and Objectives of Implementing a Reading Program

Since my primary role is that of teacher trainer, I implemented the program with two main aims:

  • To evaluate the impact of such a program on student motivation and confidence
  • To demonstrate to school principals and local teachers how to teach children to use reading strategies when faced with an unknown text. This was a follow-up to a well-attended three day workshop entitled 'Achieving Literacy'(Lyall 2005)

The Reading Program

Selection of Students

Teachers in each of the four schools were asked to select fifteen students from year three or four who were experiencing reading difficulties. The ten hour program took place in October, 2005, after the school exams, in a period when little formal teaching was taking place. Teachers and school principals were asked to attend when possible and discuss what they observed.

Selection of Reading Texts

Ten elementary stories were selected, printed and laminated as two-sided separate pages. Having the texts in this form allowed me to give students separate pages to work with. The readers were selected on the basis of their simplicity (high frequency vocabulary and repetition), their clear illustrations and their relevance to the children's life experience. Typical titles were 'My daddy is fun', My cat Cuddles' or 'The Iguana' (Elementary Readers, Cfbt CD Rom for Trainers, 2005).

Rationale for the Teaching Approach

The reading approach selected was a blend of the whole word approach and the phonics approach as most literature on the subject suggests that children who are primarily auditory can benefit from phonics while those who are primarily visual can benefit from the whole word approach. Within the meaningful context of a story, the focus was on helping children develop three main reading strategies, which are prediction, self-correction and word attack skills.

Prediction

Students were invited to guess and predict the printed text using their own prior knowledge and the illustrations given in the text.

Self-correction

When students made errors, they were shown how to use meaning (context and semantics), sentence structure (syntax) and graphophonic cues (such as punctuation) to self-correct. Pause time was allowed and these strategies were modeled.

Word Attack Skills

Around five minutes out of every reading hour focused on word attack skills. Students were asked to find words in the text which featured certain consonant clusters, to find rhyming words, to find little words in big words and to break words into syllables. The role of punctuation was also discussed and highlighted.

Teaching Procedure

Each lesson followed a predictable sequence as this was felt to be helpful in building up student confidence.

Lesson one:
  • Children were seated on a mat, and then the story for that hour was presented with a focus on prediction and meaning.
  • Students and teacher read the text together several times.
  • Students and teacher sat in a circle on the mat. In pairs, students were randomly given pages of the reader and they sequenced themselves then took turns to read out the re-ordered story.
  • Each student was given an A4 page with the complete story on it. They took turns reading it, pointing at the words as they read and shouting 'Pass' when they no longer wanted to continue. The next student then took over. Allowing each child to read as much or as little as they wanted kept all students focused but also made reading aloud alone unthreatening and fun. It was noticeable that over ten sessions, students elected to read longer and longer segments.
  • Focus on word attack skills (as described above).
  • Each student was given a blank four page 'little book'. The pages were half A4 size made with colored paper. Students wrote and illustrated their own little book using selected sentences from the reading text.
  • A prize was awarded for the best two books. Every new lesson began with two additional steps.
  • Students swapped their little books from the previous day and read them silently.
  • A student volunteered to be 'teacher' and review the book from the previous day.

Results and Discussion

In carrying out this program, I had two aims: firstly to see whether it would lead to gains in student confidence and motivation, and secondly, to encourage local teachers, with headmaster support, to adopt a reading strategy teaching approach.

The program resulted in a marked increase in student motivation and confidence. After the first few sessions, students would run to my car to help me unpack as soon as I drove into their school. I had to constantly turn away other students who wished to join (class size limit was fifteen), and students requested additional classes on the weekends. Many developed pride in their little books and carried them around the school to show other teachers. Particularly in subsequent sessions, students clamored to play the teacher role in the review segment of the lesson.

In terms of confidence, the segments read in the 'Pass' game got longer and longer and students picked up the previously studied texts and asked if they could read them to me. However, a key reason for their increased confidence was my correction style, which was encouraging and very understated. When they read to my Malaysian teacher counterparts, I noticed how quickly they froze up under hyper-intensive correction. This highlighted the need for teacher training in correction and questioning techniques, perhaps involving the filming of teachers, to better allow them to observe and modify their teaching style.

My second aim was to have teachers observe and implement this teaching approach and I believe I achieved minimal success in this area. Only two English teachers and one headmaster attended sessions more than once or showed much interest in the program. The program was conducted at the end of the school year because students had few other formal classes at this time but this meant both headmasters and teachers were busy with paperwork.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Student gains from such a program cannot be sustained without headmaster and teacher involvement in an ongoing program. Prior to such a program being carried out in future, I would recommend that:

  • A meeting be held with headmasters to explain and demonstrate the program.
  • That headmasters interested in implementing such a program be asked to arrange the teaching timetable to incorporate it.
  • That participating teachers observe the program, then use it themselves with guidance and observation undertaken by both the teacher trainer and the headmaster.
  • That interested parents be trained to provide additional support both in the classroom and at home.

Helping students achieve functional literacy is one of the core tasks of primary schools and should be given the highest priority, particularly in rural schools where resources may be limited in the home.

References

Cfbt CD Rom for Trainers (2005). Elementary Readers.

Lyall, A. (September, 2005). Achieving Literacy. Workshop presented to primary school teachers, Mersing district, Malaysia.

National Library of Malaysia (2003). Experience and Efforts in Literacy Programmes: Brief Country Report, Malaysian Government Publication.




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