Coaching via voice calls

Guiding voice: (Top) Hema says Phase II of the Project BacaBaca is already in the works.

THE School of Education at Taylor’s University recently began a reading project meant to help children from disadvantaged homes catch up after their learning was interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dubbed Projek BacaBaca, it focuses on improving the children’s Bahasa Malaysia and English reading skills with the help of dedicated “reading coaches” guiding them over the course of six months.

The project uses an evidence-based approach to improve learning outcomes and is designed to assist parents and communities to better support the literacy development of their children.

The coaches – who are Taylor’s University and Taylor’s College students – provide individual, tailor-made reading sessions to the children and track their progress using diagnostic mid-term and end-term tests.

Muhammad Raiqal Faiz, nine, (left) being guided by his reading coach on the telephone.Muhammad Raiqal Faiz, nine, (left) being guided by his reading coach on the telephone.“Our goal for this project is to enable the reading coaches to monitor the children’s progress and eventually help children read at grade level and close the learning gap that resulted from the pandemic,” said Taylor’s University School of Education senior lecturer Hema Letchamanan.

The project is designed for students who do not have Internet access. All they need is a telephone connection as sessions are done through voice calls.

This ensures that the learning process is uninterrupted with each session lasting only 30 minutes to keep the students focused.

“We call it short and sharp sessions. Not only that, the reading materials used in this project are carefully selected to ensure engagement and active participation during the session,” Hema said, adding that it also builds the participants’ communication skills.

The community initiative aims to improve the reading proficiency of students experiencing poverty to ensure that they do not fall behind in their studies and to inculcate the love and joy of reading among the children.

From one-to-one reading lessons twice a week with reading coaches, to mentorship sessions, community initiatives like this also encourage more young people to volunteer and participate in social causes.

Phase I, which ended last month, saw 30 children from PPR Seri Alam, Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, show an 86% improvement in their reading performance in English and 64% in Bahasa Melayu after just six months of being in the programme.

Projek BacaBaca is now preparing for Phase II, which will involve 100 children nationwide.

Efforts like Projek BacaBaca, said Hema, are a step forward in eliminating learning poverty in Malaysia.

“Reading is a gateway for learning as the child progresses through school.

“The inability to read slams the learning gate shut for the students as they will face hardship in learning other areas such as mathematics, science and humanities,” she said, adding that the pandemic has forced the most vulnerable students into the least desirable learning situations as they face various challenges to receive the quality education they deserve.

The pandemic, Hema noted, has magnified many inequities within society, including in education.

In 2017, the data from Unesco Institute for Statistics reported that 617 million children and adolescents worldwide are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics, she said, adding that in 2019, the World Bank estimated that about half of the children in low and lower-middle income countries cannot read a simple paragraph at age 10.

“Learning poverty is based on the notion that every child should be in school and be able to read an age-appropriate text by age 10.

“Proficiency in reading is especially important as it contributes to the overall performance and achievement in school,” she said, adding that past studies have also shown that children who are not reading at grade level are more likely to drop out of school, and this is even more so for children experiencing poverty as low proficiency in reading means children are unable to use their reading skills to excel in other subjects.

A 2018 Unicef study on urban child poverty in Kuala Lumpur found that 51% of children who are five and six years old are not attending preschool and 13% of children who are at the end of their lower secondary school age are not proficient in reading, she said.

Due to Covid-19, Unicef predicts that an additional 10 per cent of children globally will fall into learning poverty, she added.

With the worldwide education system being disrupted, it reinforces the societal divide among students, especially those who are from vulnerable communities as they face two main issues – lack of digital infrastructure, and home environments that are not conducive to learning, she pointed out.

“Understandably, the shift from offline to online learning has overwhelmed the school system but these issues, especially the issue of literacy among students, have always been there and the pandemic has further exacerbated these issues.

“But it doesn’t have to be that way. Educators, schools, and the civil society can join hands to lend a more empathetic approach to education, one where the student remains the focal point.

“We as a community can work together to bridge the learning gap.

We need to address these challenges today to build a better future for the youth of tomorrow.”

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