Books on wheels

  • Education
  • Sunday, 29 Jul 2012

From rural Malaysia to villages in Cambodia and West Kalimantan, the Reading Bus is leaving no page unturned in its quest to help underprivileged children learn English.


WE ALL know what a bus is, but have you heard of a Reading Bus?

It is a four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicle loaded with books that makes its way to rural communities in Malaysia.

Children from these communities are coached on reading and pronunciation skills, thus giving them a chance to improve their English.

The academic outreach programme was started by Cheli Tamilselvam, 52, and his wife Kong Lai Mei, 51, in April 2009.

The idea came about when the Teaching and Learning of Science and Mathematics in English was introduced some years ago.

Cheli, who was then the senior assistant (Student Affairs) of SMK Bandar Kuching No 1 in Sarawak, felt that these subjects were “killer subjects” for children in rural communities.

He devised a way to help these children by conducting simple English language reading lessons through a mobile library.

Books ranging from fiction and science to education and reference are loaded onto the “bus” and taken to selected communities where Cheli and his team of volunteers unload them for free reading sessions.

“Every child is given the liberty to choose the book of his choice. They can sit down and read, or simply browse through the pages,” said Cheli, currently a senior assistant at SMK Sinar Bintang in Kuala Lumpur.

Giving English a boost

Three years down the road, Cheli’s brainchild has expanded from rural communities in Sarawak to Sabah, Peninsular Malaysia and even Cambodia!

Last year, the programme was given a kickstart in Peninsular Malaysia and was carried out amongst the orang asli communities in Tras, Pahang; Kampung Pertak and Kerling in Kuala Kubu Baru, Selangor; and Kampung Chinggung in Tanjung Malim, Perak.

The response, according to Cheli, has been overwhelming with local leaders becoming involved to ensure the continuity of the programme after the team had moved on to other villages.

“In most of the villages, it is the older students who are actively helping us to gather and help the younger children,” said Cheli, whose team will be visiting Kampung Pain and Asan in Temerloh, Pahang, in August.

Future plans include getting colleges and schools to adopt each village (that runs the programme) and provide long-term support and continuity.

Cheli is especially concerned for the rural and marginalised communities as he feels that children in villages do not have access to books and that this is what is causing the wide disparity between urban and rural folks.

“We are also concerned about those who are marginalised in the city for various reasons, including the lack of resources,” said Cheli, whose role is to introduce the programme in the selected villages.

His wife, an English teacher, follows up with her team of volunteers on the third and fourth visits.

After six visits, the books are left with the village coordinators who take charge of the library and continue to run the programme. The team also trains the older students in the village to help carry out the activities.

Every month, the Reading Bus rolls its books into a new village.

Having a hectic schedule, Cheli and his wife are assisted by a wide range of volunteers, including working professionals, students and retirees.

Cheli said many of their volunteers are from private universities, with a majority coming from Sunway University in Bandar Sunway, Selangor.

He also has friends who help out by driving their own 4WDs and vans to ferry the volunteers.

Spreading their wings

The Cambodian Reading Bus programme started off with nothing less than a tuk-tuk filled with books, but now there are seven tuk-tuks catering to the cause with another two more to be added at the end of the year.

“We’ll also be getting a land cruiser for the Phnom Penh region in December,” said Cheli, who recently interviewed a candidate for the position of programme coordinator in Cambodia.

With the Khmer programme consolidated, he hopes to further strengthen the base by training and launching more Reading Tuk-tuks. Certainly a wise decision, especially when as many as 200 excited children turn up for each session, all eager to be given an opportunity to learn elementary English.

Besides Cambodia, Cheli has set his sights on West Kalimantan where they have introduced the project in Serukam and are currently following-up to see if the programme can be launched in 2013.

They have also been approached to set up the programme in about 30 orphanages in Myanmar, said Cheli.

No small feat

Ever since the first Reading Bus cruised its way to Kampung Pasir Ulu, Lundu, Sarawak, three years ago, a total of 20,000 books have been given out in Sabah and Sarawak, 10,000 books in Cambodia, 5,000 in Peninsular Malaysia and 1,000 in West Kalimantan.

Certainly not a small feat but Cheli and his team have accomplished what they have set out to do: getting more villages and communities to be positive about the English language and to be able to read better.

“When I began the programme, we just wanted to help the children start a simple reading habit that can enable them to do better in life,” he said, adding that he has seen parents cry tears of joy when their child is finally able to read and remain in school.

Bringing hope and dignity to those in need is what Cheli finds most rewarding. He hopes that one day every village in Malaysia will have a Reading Bus programme of its own.

“I have always wanted to help children enjoy school and I still maintain the same approach after nearly 30 years in teaching,” said Cheli.

> English is more than just the universal language of diplomacy, business, science and technology. It opens the door to more job opportunities, good universities, career advancements and increased earning power.

At The Star, we have always championed the English language in schools with special pullouts like Star-NiE (Newspaper-in-Education) and stuff@school, Step-Up for vernacular schools, and for our general readers, the “Mind Our English” column.

English for More Opportunities is part of The Star’s on-going efforts to highlight the importance of the language in helping people get ahead in life.

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