What started as a simple programme to teach rural children English is now an annual affair that brings the community and university student volunteers together for fun-filled language activities
NO child should be left behind in education, especially when it comes to learning English.
Even if they come from rural areas and do not have access to fancy tuition centres or top notch English teachers in schools, these children deserve to have the same opportunities as their peers in urban areas of Malaysia.
Based on this philosophy, Reading Bus Club founder Cheli Nadarajah, 58, started providing English language lessons to children from rural areas throughout Malaysia.
For the past five years, Nadarajah together with his Reading Bus Club team, Sunway University and the people of Ijok have been organising the Reading Bus English Camp for primary school pupils of Ijok.
“We just want to encourage them to use English,” he says.
This year, the camp was divided into four sections – grammar, vocabulary, storytelling and reading – for Years Four and Five pupils.
Student volunteers from Sunway University and cultural exchange students from Lancaster University, England, became the facilitators and “teachers” for the pupils in each classroom.
The short, 30-minute lessons were kept informal so that it did not feel like ordinary, boring school English language classes.
At the storytelling station, the adult students captivated their young audience with the tale of the Princess and The Pea, complete with costumes and sound effects.
The pupils were not allowed to remain passive and watch the show though.
They were asked to read along from a booklet and even take on some roles in the play.
All of this was to encourage the children to speak in English and have fun with it.
The grammar lessons involved throwing a paper ball and the pupil that catches it would be asked to name their favourite food, colour or animal.
Those who shared the same favourites would then group together to learn about verbs.
In 2014, Lancaster University students joined the camp making the collaboration with Sunway University even more meaningful.
This year, 14 cultural exchange students got the opportunity to interact with the children.
Among them was Samia Durrani, 21, who felt even more inspired to help the children after a talk with Nadarajah.
“We were really excited to come here and teach the children, just to give something back to the community,” she says, adding that she was in the grammar classroom.
Also from Lancaster University was Masters student Hayley Keohane, 22.
For her, the best part of helping out was watching the children’s faces light up with smiles as they read the books provided by the Reading Bus Club.
“We only spent 30 minutes with each group which doesn’t seem like a lot of time but it has such a positive impact.”
Former Sunway University degree in psychology student Ng Jia Yi, 22, was one of the key figures in organising the materials for this edition of the English Language Camp.
Now an intern at Sunway University, she says this year, the camp was held for Years Four and Five pupils who came from all over Ijok.
For 22-year-old Wong Shang Cheong, he says it was important for them as volunteers to instil in the pupils the importance and relevance of the English language.
He says that for some of the children, English is just another language subject taught in schools and there were some pupils in his grammar group that were completely uninterested in what was going on.
The Sunway University student does not blame the children though. Instead, he took it as a challenge to try and engage them in their grammar activity which had the children filling in sentences with the correct verbs.
“For me, I picked up English quite easily (in school) but for them, we could see the (confidence) barrier there and we have to be really patient with them,” he adds.
Sunway University Financial Analysis student Jason Wee Khui Yi, 22, said teaching the Year Four pupils grammar, even if it was just for half an hour, was “a meaningful and memorable event”.
He even bonded with some of them and was surprised at how receptive they were to a lesson on verbs.
Sunway University psychology student Sandra Khoo Huiyong, 21, says she was lucky to have grown up in an environment that let her immerse in the English language.
An opportunity, she adds, that these rural children do not have.
“If not for the Reading Bus Club, they (the pupils) would not get the chance to read English books.
Seeing these children enjoy and learn through what we have done today was the best part.”
There were three Reading Bus Club volunteers also present at this edition of the camp.
Angela Beh Chun Mei, 18, says she found it interesting that the children in these rural areas have a different understanding and knowledge of things.
“To share with them our knowledge and to interact with them has been a special experience,” she adds.
Although Beh and another volunteer Shasa Tan Tsuen Yi, 17, are busy with school, they try to volunteer with the team every few months.
Tan says they sometimes help conduct the ice-breaking sessions and activities like reading and grammar lessons.
Both volunteers even managed to squeeze in some studying in between helping out at the camp.
For Kelly Yee Min Li, 22, her favourite part about volunteering with the Reading Bus Club are the answers she sometimes get from the pupils.
“Kids say the cutest things,” she adds with a laugh.
Nadarajah started the Reading Bus Club in Sarawak together with his wife Kong Lai Mei, 57, in 2009.
Contrary to what people might think, the Reading Bus is not an actual bus.
In fact, it is just a name that “stuck”, says Nadarajah.
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”.
Response has been good with the number of pupils at the half-day camp increasing every year.
Although their command of the language is very weak, Nadarajah says: “We find that most of the children are interested and know English but they find it difficult to respond back.”
“We have most of the children replying to us in their native language but our volunteers will respond in English.
“Language acquisition happens this way, the more you hear, the more you will be able to speak it.”
For Ijok assemblyman Dr Idris Ahmad, the camp has been a blessing for the “underprivileged children” of Ijok.
“When I first came here, I found that the level of education and the education facilities were very much lacking compared to the towns,” he says.
Hi wife Mariah Abdul Karim says the local children could barely count to 20 in English.
Dr Idris adds that there has been a marked improvement in the language proficiency of the pupils but it isn’t only due to the camp.
The Reading Bus Club also conducts fortnightly English lessons for the children and have stocked books for loan at the ADUN office.
Even the parents, who are not fluent in the language, attend the fortnightly classes.
Then they’ll go home and practise with their children, he explains.
“My aim is to make our children knowledgeable in English,” adds Dr Idris.
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