Nothing could be more rewarding to a group of student volunteers from Britain than to read and help local primary school pupils hone their English language skills.
THE children eagerly raised their hands hoping to catch the attention of their ‘teacher’ during a language activity. Some even tried to imitate their teachers’ British accent, just to impress them.
In another classroom, pupils hold placards with the articles “a”, “an” and “the” that have to be correctly used to fill in the blanks of sentences that are on display on the manila card. This was the scenario in many of the classrooms at SJK (C) Ijok, Bestari Jaya in Selangor.
The seemingly simple exercises were still a challenge for pupils. But their “teachers”, student volunteers from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, were patient and encouraging. They were all part of the Sunway Cultural Exchange 2015 programme.
The 37 volunteers were involved in a day-long English language camp with the Reading Bus Club at the school.
The undergraduates with the help of Sunway University staff, divided themselves into groups and were in the classes to teach, read and carry out grammar games and vocabulary activities.
The storytelling sessions proved to be the biggest “hit” with the pupils.
The camp organised by the Reading Bus Club, started in Kampung Ijok in late 2013 with about 70 children. It has since grown. The charity has not been short of support with offers coming in from community leaders, school heads and private organisations.
Cheli Nadarajah who initiated the Reading Bus Club in Sarawak, says that they had partnered with Sunway University for the annual camp two years ago .
Last year Lancaster University had joined the camp making the collaboration with Sunway University even more meaningful. “The children get to learn English from native speakers,” he adds, while the student volunteers gain the experience of working with children so culturally different from them.
Natsai Madzingira, a student from Lancaster University says “it took a few minutes to get the pupils to break out of their shells at the camp”.
“But once they did, they were so excited and enthusiastic to play the parts,” she says, adding that they were “performing” Rapunzel. the classic fairy tale and an all-time favourite
The 24-year-old explains that the Lancaster University students played the part of the characters in the fairytale first before asking the pupils to do the same.
A short and fun quiz was then held to see who understood the story best.
Daniel Pegden, 20, joined the camp last year where he helped out with the storytelling station.
He says it was an “eye-opening experience” telling the tale of Pinocchio to the pupils.
Some of them had never heard the story before, he said.
He came back from the UK to help out his fellow varsity mates in this year’s camp. He was also keen to be at the camp and be engaged in activities with the pupils, he adds.
“If you speak to the people who came here last year, they would always talk about their Reading Bus Club experience with the children because this is the kind of opportunity that you cannot get elsewhere,” he says.
“It’s really interesting to see similarities and differences between England and Malaysia,” he says, referring to the way pupils learn languages.
In fact, Daniel adds, the previous batch of Lancaster University students were so taken up with the Reading Bus Club that they went home to England and started a club of their own there to collect donations.
Daniel is a co-founder of the Reading Bus Society in Lancaster University.
“We don’t have a reading bus or any other vehicle in England. What we do is support the Malaysian charity (the local Reading Bus Club),” he shares.
He adds that some fund-raising events such as bake sales were held. We then bought books using the money we raised.”
He says that he supports the Reading Bus Club because of the commitment of its founders.
The start of the journey
Nadarajah, 55, started the Reading Bus Club in Sarawak together with his wife Kong Lai Mei, 54 in 2009.
He explains that the name “Reading Bus” came about because in Sarawak, the children would call anything that was larger than a car, a “bus”.
So the name”stuck” he quips.
Their first excursion was by invitation to the small village of Kampung Pasir Ulu, Sarawak. It is almost three hours away from Kuching by road.
For the reading programmes, two volunteers would read and manage the “mobile library” at each village.
“After the sixth (and final) session, the children were reading by themselves.”
Nadarajah says they would also be speaking English in their schools, leaving teachers and parents rather surprised.
The folks at Kampung Pasir Ulu had asked the charity to come back and after the 12th session, they even opened their own kindergarten – a sign that the Reading Bus Club’s efforts to encourage learning was bearing fruit.
Word spread and, soon, the charity was receiving requests from other village heads to come to their communities and read to their children.
There are now seven Land Cruisers in Sarawak that ply routes going to the tiny villages there every fortnight.
Volunteers would bring English storybooks into the depths of rural Sarawak and read to the village children there.
“Every fortnight, the volunteers would go to the villages and just read to the children,” he says, adding that the children are not allowed to “borrow”the books. There are instances when someone reads aloud to them – this is to instil an interest in them to read.
“After six sessions, we hand the books over to the villagers,” Nadarajah adds.
He shares that all the books are new and that the charity does not accept secondhand books.
“We don’t want to shortchange the marginalised kids by giving them secondhand stuff.”
The public, book publishers and private companies have been willingly donating new books to The Reading Bus Club.
Publishers, like Sasbadi Holdings Bhd, would also provide school reference books.
All of which are handed over to the communities and schools, free of charge.
When it proved to be a success in Sabah and Sarawak, Nadarajah and Kong brought the Reading Bus Club to Peninsular Malaysia.
On this side of the South China Sea, the volunteers were still bringing books in their Land Cruisers to the rural children.
Nadarajah also admits to being a bookworm and wanting to instil the same passion for reading in the children.
Coming from a poor family, he shares that he would wait for the books given out on prize-giving day during his schooling years just to satiate his hunger to read.
He also believes that reading builds character and confidence.
The Reading Bus Club not only carries out English Camps for pupils, they also organised an English Language Programme for English Language teachers in Tamil schools.
“The Pahang State Education Department sent every English Language teacher in its Tamil schools for our programme,” he says, adding that they were overwhelmed when 76 teachers showed up.
These are just efforts at the local level, he said .
The Reading Bus Club has also expanded overseas, and we’re not just talking about their supporters in the UK.
“We have also started a project in Cambodia but we call it Reading Tuk-tuks there,” says Nadarajah.
He adds that they have a fleet of 10 tuk-tuks there and are based in Phnom Penh.
Nadarajah says that the charity meets with about 100 aspiring English teachers in Cambodia.
All of whom want to improve their language skills.
“I spend a lot of time training them and make at least one trip a year to Cambodia. Sometimes two,” he shares.
“Our strength lies in making English fun. That’s all,” says the unassuming Nadarajah.
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