With the many textbook errors, there is a serious need to push for better standards in the content, editing and publication of books used in the nation’s primary and secondary schools.
SUFFOCATE a kitten to death. This was exactly what an environmental science textbook in India asked schoolchildren to do in one of its experiments. The purpose? To help them learn that all living beings need air.
Luckily for many a kitten, the textbook was recalled following public outcry, both in India and abroad, when reports on that particular chapter made the news in February.
Thankfully, we have yet to come across a similar situation in Malaysia.
However, local publishers of school books have faced their fair share of complaints.
In 2015, the Education Ministry recalled a history textbook that placed Malacca up north in a map of the country.
Last year, a Form Six textbook was recalled by its publisher for claiming that the Tamil language is borrowed from languages such as English, Greek and Portuguese.
Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) deputy director general Datuk Abang Sallehuddin Abg Shokeran stressed that all publishers strive to produce quality books.
Mistakes are frowned upon in the industry as they undermine a publisher’s credibility, image and name.
DBP is responsible for publishing textbooks for primary and secondary schools in the country.
“Dewan Bahasa is very careful when it comes to producing textbooks. We always try to ensure that there are no mistakes in our books, especially those for children,” Abang Sallehuddin shared.
But this is no easy task. To ensure its books have zero error, DBP has panels comprising writers, proofreaders, editors and subject experts who vet the different stages of book production, from its content and facts to design and layout.
Once a book’s contents and illustrations are ready, a dummy is printed for another round of checks.
Abang Sallehuddin pointed out that DBP does not just examine content; it also looks at the quality of the book and its pages. For example, the pages should still be connected to the spine of the book for the whole school year, at least.
A final round of vetting is conducted by the editor before the book goes to print, to make sure that everything is in order.
“We make sure editors are at the printing plant before a book is printed to examine it one last time. The editor is also responsible for signing off each page,” he shared.
Ministry approved titles – compulsory textbooks sanctioned for use in the classroom – go through even more intensive screening by experts from the Education Ministry. But even with all these systems in place, mistakes still crop up.
Fixing the problem
The publication line is one that is sensitive to errors, said Abang Sallehuddin. Sometimes, after a book comes out, DBP finds typos or technical errors – such as colours and formats coming out differently from what was planned because of the different design and publishing programmes used. But should a factual error surface, DBP will take the necessary steps to rectify it.
“If an error is found, we will fix it because we do not want our students to get the wrong information,” he said.
Errors are corrected using stickers that are pasted over them, or with inserts. As a last resort, the book will be reprinted.
The cost involved in recalling and reprinting a book is borne by the publisher, so that would mean a loss in profits, said Abang Sallehuddin.
But cost is secondary here because it is a publisher’s responsibility to ensure that all information in a school text is correct, he assured.
The remedial action does not stop there. DBP will also conduct an internal investigation to find out how and why the error occurred, and at which stage of publication. Once that is complete, appropriate action will be taken, on a case-by-case basis.
Deputy Education Minister Datuk P Kamalanathan said if there’s a complaint about an error in a textbook, it would be sent to the ministry’s textbook division for analysis.
“If there’s a basis or foundation for the complaint, then the textbook division will take the appropriate action based on the error identified,” he told StarEducate.
A writer who used to work at a private publishing house that prints educational materials shared that the company employs many fresh graduates who have no teaching experience as content writers.
This may pose a problem as they do not know the syllabus well and are not in touch with what and how children need to learn, she said.
Writers are usually the gatekeepers of the book, and are responsible for its content, with proofreaders and editors merely checking space and layout, she added.
Providing an overview of the situation was Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim.
“The Education Ministry is often blamed whenever an error is found (in school books). But most of the time, errors occur in (non ministry-approved) workbooks that are printed by privately-owned publishers, which means they are out of the ministry’s hands,” she said.
Compromising on quality
On why errors occur, Noor Azimah believes it is all about making profits.
“Publishers strive to be the first with titles on the shelves and in their haste, may compromise on quality. “But there has to be some sort of quality control.”
Malaysian English Language Teaching Association president Prof Dr S. Ganakumaran agrees with her.
“There is tremendous competition among publishers to rush products to buyers. Being the first or early means capturing the major share of the market.
“In such situations, some take shortcuts and commission poorly qualified writers and editors to contribute to or produce books,” he said.
Noor Azimah pointed out that Malaysia has good writers and translators, but publishers must be prepared to pay for their services, adding that the publishing of education materials is a lucrative business.
“Publishers should get their act together. If they want to be in the education business, they have to have moral responsibility and be accountable,” she said.
She also advised parents to be more diligent when looking for books for their children and for them to boycott irresponsible publishers until they improve.
National Union of the Teaching Profession secretary-general Harry Tan Huat Hock said parents need to be vigilant and buy educational materials only from credible publishers.
And if they should find mistakes in books, they should complain to the ministry, so that the publishers can be held accountable, he added.
Stressing the need for accountability, Tan shared that school panels normally vet supplementary books and materials before recommending them for their students.
He added that when a mistake is found in a book, teachers often have to bear the brunt of parents’ anger because they are the ones who work closest to them and their children.
Tan believes errors in books are a big issue as they are uncalled for, unprofessional, and affect students’ learning.
Noor Azimah said: “Errors can be damaging to students in the long run because children do not know any better.”
Citing an example, she said: “If you teach students bad English, they will regurgitate bad English. We have to teach them good English from the beginning and I believe we are capable of that.”
Prof Ganakumaran also believes that errors, if not corrected, will create a vicious cycle: When teachers who are weak in the language use poorly produced publications, it will affect the competence of their students.
Eventually, these students may become writers, editors and teachers themselves, who perpetuate bad English.
“The circle must be broken and to do that, we need commitment and resolve,” he said.
Prof Ganakumaran suggests the setting up of an independent professional institution or body to vet educational works in English before they are published. This is to “arrest the downward spiral in the quality of English in Malaysia”.
“Having an independent or statutory body to oversee education publications in English will have a significant impact on the quality of the material that finally reaches the market.
“We already have an excellent example of how this can work in Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, which monitors and moderates publications in Malay,” he said.
Mother of two, Emmeline Tan, has been unhappy about the textbooks used for the Dual-Language Programme (DLP) for science and mathematics, which were handed out to students at the beginning of the year.
The 36-year-old has found numerous mistakes in the English translations in both the subject textbooks of her Year One child.
This, she believes, will affect a child’s language proficiency as “children will pick up these wrong terms, phrases and grammar and use them thinking they are correct”.
“The effects won’t be felt immediately, but it definitely will in a few years, and that is what I am concerned about,” she stressed. This is particularly so for children who do not come from English-speaking households.
“Under this programme, science and maths teachers who previously taught in Malay, have to teach in English,” said Tan, who was quick to point out that the teachers are not at fault as what they need is more training.
She suggested sending teachers to training facilities, like what they used to do in the 1950s and 60s, when English language teachers were sent to the Kirkby Teachers Training College in England.
“Our children must be taught by people who speak English and use it correctly.
“I had the privilege of learning proper English from my mother, who was an ‘old school’ English teacher.
“But even I feel that my English has been polluted because, sometimes, I cannot immediately grasp what the problem with a sentence is ... I just know that it sounds wrong,” she shared.
Tan said that the government should also have a long-term plan on what it wants to achieve, study the pros and cons on what happens to students who opt for the DLP, and a projection of what will happen in the future.
Amy* a seven-year-old pupil has already spotted a number of mistakes in her school textbooks since school reopened in January.
She knew sentence structure and phrases were wrongly used as the sentences she read were different from the way her parents speak at home. She related these instances to her mother, who confirmed that they were grammatical errors.
However, her classmates “do not see anything wrong in the books,” she said.
Now, Amy consults her mother each time she sees words that she is unsure of in her textbooks.
Raj*, 15, has never encountered a mistake in any of his school textbooks throughout his nine years of schooling.
“I use my textbook to study and follow what is inside,” he said.
He added that his teachers rely solely on textbooks and workbooks to teach.
Since textbooks, workbooks and reference materials are tools for educating children, they must be error-free.
The concern now is for the relevant authorities to look at the matter seriously and take measures against the repetition of such blunders.
* Names have been changed