A literacy test on our National Service trainees revealed that some of our children have survived' school without knowing how to read and write. How is this possible?
HOMEMAKER Norma Abdullah worries about her 19-year-old son's future. “He cannot read well. Although he is trained to do some menial work and I have saved him some money, I worry about how he will look after himself. Even to use the bank ATM, you need to be able to read the instructions. And it will be so easy to cheat him people can sweet talk him into signing his money away if he cannot read the documents,” she says.
Her son has a learning disability and did not get help early enough, for which Norma blames herself.
“I did not understand his condition, so although I got him special help to learn how to read, he is still too slow.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 3% of students worldwide have some form of intellectual disability.
Hence, many found the Defence Ministry's revelation recently about a high number of National Service trainees who cannot read and write 8% of 6,667 trainees from 30 camps alarming, but not surprising.
Says National Autism Society of Malaysia chairman Teh Beng Choon, “Special Education in Malaysia has improved a lot in recent years and the Education Ministry has been working hard to address shortcomings. But it has failed to identify many students with special needs.”
One “problem”, he explains, is that many forms of disabilities such as autism, dyslexia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders ADD and ADHD, are not apparent and have no physical attributes.
“Many of these children simply “disappear” in the overcrowded classrooms in our schools (especially the milder cases). Unfortunately, many teachers are not taught to spot these children while those with years of teaching experience will know instinctively that “something is not right” but may not know how to broach the subject with parents or simply do not know what to do.”
The profiles of the illiterate NS trainees have yet to be ascertained, but learning disability is believed to be one factor. However, not all of the “disabled” trainees can be neatly filed under that category and the authorities are trying to identify which school they are from urban, rural, national or vernacular.
But how did so many illiterate students go through our national school system for some 11 years without being detected?
When asked, many teachers point the finger at the automatic promotion in the school system.
Says Norhayati A. who used to teach in the Klang Valley, “Once, I was given a problem' Form Two class at a school near Bangi where they lumped students with disciplinary problems with those with special needs. Many of them could not read but they still went up a Form every year. Those who did not drop out graduated' after SPM.”
She tried to help them but the school's main focus was the national examinations, she says. “I was told to prepare them for PMR as best as I could so that our overall exam percentage would not be too dented.”
Over-emphasis on exams
Educationist and former Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) commissioner Datuk N. Siva Subramaniam believes that the over-emphasis on examinations is partly to blame.
“In the past, the basic emphasis in school was the 3Rs, now it is on exam results. Anyone can shade the answers in the exam (objective papers where you choose options A, B, C, or D); you don't need to read or write to pass.”
But Siva Subramaniam does not think the automatic promotion is the issue as there was a high dropout rate in the past as well.
“If we have a well-founded education system for all, with a good allocation, we can help them and they can come out into society with adequate ability to survive.”
His point highlights the fact that not all national service trainees are school leavers. There may be many who do not go to school at all.
“So we need to look at bringing them to school. During the six years in primary school, there is ample time to address their literacy,” he says.
For Sarawak Teachers Union (STU) president William Ghani Bina, a flexible system is the answer.
While automatic promotion and free education for all is good, its implementation may be problematic, he says.
“In the past, if a Standard Three student does not do well, he or she will stay in that level until they pass and qualify for Standard Four. The student will not be promoted based on age but on ability and proficiency.”
He proposes that the Government revert to the old system. “It should be a modular system, which will depend on the child. Once the students finish all the modules, they can go on to the next level. This is good for those with high IQ too. They can move up at their own speed and not be bored in school.”
Refuting the notion that this will cause wastage of resources and shortage of classrooms (if too many students are held back for too long in school), he explains: “Of course, there should be a limit to how many times they can repeat. But education is important, so the Government needs to prioritise the funding. If there are mega projects that can be postponed, then the money can be allocated to education.”
The government recently set up an independent, multi-disciplinary panel to review the whole education system. Consequently, a school-based assessment system is being introduced this year to gradually replace the national examination system.
But even this may not fully solve the problem, according to former principal Dr Chia Keng Boon.
Importance of pre-schools
One area that needs to be emphasised is pre-schooling, he says. “One problem is that some children go to kindergarten while others don't, so there is disparity in the foundation of their basic knowledge. Those from families that are too poor to send them to kindergarten do not have any preparation before they enter Year One. They will not have basic literacy and if the teachers are not alert, they will remain illiterate.”
The Government's pre-school programmes need to be consolidated and strengthened further, he stresses, to ensure that all children can go to pre-school and start on an equal footing.
Dr Chia highlights another resource issue. “There are many students from small vernacular schools who have problems reading and writing in Bahasa Malaysia and English. They usually don't have problems with Chinese, though.”
These schools usually do not have adequate facilities, resources or teachers, particularly for the two languages, and many are also ill managed. Crucially, the problem is not restricted to those in rural schools.
Retired teacher MK who once taught in a national secondary school in Ampang Baru, Kuala Lumpur, agrees. “We used to get students from the neighbouring Chinese primary school who could not understand Bahasa Malaysia and English even after Remove Class. When they could not follow their classes, they became very disruptive. When the school introduced remedial classes, it really helped.”
This is also a problem in Sarawak, says William.
“Many rely on teachers and textbooks. There are no libraries or bookshops. They also rarely get the chance to use Bahasa Malaysia and English outside class, so many are not fluent in writing and reading and fall back on their mother tongues to communicate.”
Fortunately, the ministry has launched mobile libraries for the children in rural areas, he adds, and this has been beneficial for adults too.
Siva Subramaniam urges for serious measures to address this “critical issue”.
“Even if it is 2% or 3% who are illiterate or even if it is only two or three people, we need to be concerned as it will cause problems,” he stresses, noting the high rate Malaysia always achieves in the global literacy studies conducted by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which has ranged from 90% to 98% in the last decade.
“Knowing how to read and write is important for gaining knowledge. Knowledge is important in other parts of life too. For one, you need to fill up forms and sign papers for various transactions,” he adds.
Many have lauded the Government's quick response to the problem, with the Education Ministry collaborating with the Defence Ministry (which runs the National Service) to address it.
However, there are many who say that the crux of the problem lies in school. Most secondary schools would run a literacy test of some sort for students when they enter Form One, so they would know if a student has reading and writing problems, says Dr Chia.
In his former school, it was normal to get 10 to 15 illiterate students out of 250, he says.
“We would have special remedial classes to teach them to read and write. But we wonder why this was not done in primary school,” he says, commending the government's Literacy and Numeracy Screening (Linus) programme for Year One pupils introduced in 2010. (See sidebar)
While there are parents who blame teachers' attitude, Dr Chia says this is nominal. There are some who are “just not doing their jobs,” he admits, but most are well trained and dedicated.
William agrees that our teachers are generally well trained and dedicated. They are also taught psychology and pedagogical skills so they should be able to handle everything that comes up, like students who have problems in learning how to read and write, he says.
However, he believes that the selection of candidates (teachers) can be stricter.
“We should not hire those who take up teaching as a last resort. At the very least they should like children.”
Parents have to be responsible too, says William, pointing out that there are those who genuinely do not know how to deal with their children's learning and leave everything to the teachers.
“Many do not care about their children's education. Some even scold us when we ask them to come to the school to discuss their children's report book, saying You think I have nothing better to do? I am very busy!'
“If they cannot even make it to school once a year, you can imagine how much time they make for their children's learning.”
Related Stories: On track for 100% literacy target next yearSource: The STAR Home News Nation Sunday January 15, 2012