Sunday, May 28, 2006

162,000 Illiterate Students

I haven't blogged for a couple of days as I've decided to attend some spelling and grammar classes to improve my mastery of the language and literacy levels, having been embarrassingly exposed as not being able to spell properly more than once. :)

But jokes aside, lest some of the authorities remain in a state of denial, there are sufficient illiterate students in the country to populate more than 200 primary schools in the country. The humongous number of illiterate students have been admitted by the Deputy Minister of Education, Datuk Noh Omar, and reported by the New Straits Times last Thursday.

As a result, from this year, the ministry had introduced the "early intervention classes for reading and writing (KIA 2M) to provide basic skills for Standard One pupils in national and vernacular schools.”

I believe that the intervention classes are critical. These classes are most important to identify those students who are actually handicapped in reading and writing, a disability better known as dyslexia and ensure that they are sent to special schools to deal with such disability.

However, it is in my guess that dyslexia probably accounts for less than 10% of the illiterates in the country. What then is wrong with our education system such that the remainder of some 150,000 students are unable to read and write, some even after they are preparing to sit for the Form 3 examinations, Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR)? Given that our primary and lower secondary school enrollment accounted for only 4.4 million students, that's a very significant 3.6% illiteracy level.

I remember some 20 years back, the Government (if I don't recall wrongly) with Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as the Minister of Education, seeked to improve basic literacy levels with the 3M (Membaca, Menulis & Mengira) programmes. The syllabus for primary and lower secondary school students were revised significantly to focus on promoting 3R. Essentially, what I thought the government did, even as a secondary school student then in Singapore, was to dilute the difficulty level of the relevant subjects and reduce the number of subjects which students have to take.

Older gents like me will remember the primary school syllabus with subjects such as Sejarah (History) and Geografi (Geography) being taught from Standard 4 to 6. I thought that was fun. But everything was revamped when the “new” Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) came into the picture later.

While I do not have the necessary comparative data to compare between then and now, it does indicate that the Government's programme to improve basic literacy levels have not been particularly successful.

It is hence extremely important for the Ministry of Education to figure out the reason for the dramatic failure of our education system in ensuring basic literacy levels. My biggest fear, based on the Government's action of the past, is to continue to pretend that its the issue of the nature of the syllabus or the examination-based system. Hence, all we'll get is really another revamped syllabus supposedly better to improve literacy levels or a diluted examination system which supposedly produces less stress (and hence better performance).

While I do not like the fact that there's no longer history and geography at primary school levels, it is not the syllabus which determines literacy levels. In Singapore, there's only 4 examinable subjects at Primary School levels – English and a 2nd Language, Mathematics and Science. Yet, there are no issues of literacy in the country.

The key difference lies in our delivery system. And key to our education delivery system are our teachers and the framework and environment in which they operate. This is a subject which will probably require a thesis in itself to study, hence I won't dwell with them in detail on this post. However, the 2 key questions to ask will be:
  1. Are the teachers selected to teach our young ones of the right quality and in possession of the necessary attributes? And if they are, have they been given the proper and necessary training to carry out their all-important duties?

  2. Is the environment in which they operate conducive and incentivised for them to carry out their duties diligently and conscientiously? The environment will include the benefits structure, the ministry of education officials, promotion prospects and supporting educational facilities.
When our country fails to deliver an education system which will allow the weakest students to achieve at least basic literacy, the Government has failed in its basic duty to the Rakyat.


Anonymous said...

Education is a basic human right but with the privatisation and reduction in financial support of schools irrespective of culture and ethnicity, has meant the drop in standards of education. Secondly, this has happened since 1979 and if you would recollect find out who was education minister in that year where the conversion from English to Bahasa took place. 25 years later the same person changed the emphasis back to English and said that he was a hero. Hypocracy at its best.

Anonymous said...

Big joke...

I go to a school but I am still illiterate.......................

Anonymous said...

Not at all surprising - I had a few stints teaching in secondary schools, and in that short period of time encountered at least one illiterate student (and this was at Form 3 level!).

Part of the problem lies with the UPSR and PMR exams themselves, in that no one actually fails these when it comes to progression, as automatic promotion is now the order of the day. So, these poor folks will go on to do SPM while still being unable to read and write. I wonder how they even managed to fill in their personal particulars on their exam answer sheets when they did the UPSR and PMR.

Secondly, I doubt the efficacy of the remedial classes (Pemulihan). While a good measure, from what I have seen the student to teacher ratio is rather too high for the students to be given the personalised attention they deserve. They do try and catch underperforming students at an early age though, so I guess we are (hopefully) saving a few. Schools should also liaise regularly with parents of these children, almost all of them poor, so that something can be done at home too. We also need to get rid of the stigma attached to those students who, for reasons like dyslexia, are not able to achieve as high marks as their friends. Sadly, in a society so obsessed with marks as ours, this may be a bit slow in coming.

By the way, here's a little bit of grammar for you: the past tense of 'seek' is 'sought' and not 'seeked' :)
Also, history and geography are now covered in Local Studies (Kajian Tempatan) in primary schools.

Anonymous said...

the gov's insistence on quantity and not quality is the failure of pretty much everything here.

clk said...

KM/ TP, you may wish to highlight Oprah's recent episode (in M'sia I saw one on Sun-28May-2000hrs) on the state of US general education system from the state of its facility, dropout rates, syllabus from 1956 etc. There was also some comments from BillGates regarding the state of US education as well. Not much different from comments here except that segregation and apartheid is apparently well alive in US!

Anonymous said...

..its every nation's biggest problem although may not be their highest ranked priority..At least they have the Bill Gates Foundation ..what about the locals?

Anonymous said...

This problem is not exclusive to government schools but SRJK's too. A few days ago, a niece from my hometown come to stay with us for a while during the holidays. She brought her Std 5 English books for my daughter, a Sec 2 student, to tutor her. My daughter commented in exasperation, that the books were badly written, had confusing examples and worst had wrong answers in the answer sheet! I examined the books and to my digust, it was true.

The teacher who marked the work done didn't seem qualified as we discovered that she had marked some correct answers as wrong and vice versa.

My immediate questions were:

1. Are the teachers qualified?
2. How were the text and workbooks vouched?
3. Is there a requirement for schools to use materials from established publishers?
4. Is this another case for the ACA?

Anonymous said...

In the old days where quality is merit, I rember using:
CV Durell mathematic books
Monkhouse Geography
Potters Mathematics
Grove and Newell Biolgy
Toppingtons' mechanics
Nelkon Physics
Holderness Chemistry
Those books were good and solid gold in tems of contents..
Now I see ..a phenomenon...any secondary school teacher can write and publish books
This is BolihLand!

Anonymous said...

I definitely agree with you on the point that teachers are the key to solving our illiteracy issues. While that is certainly not the only factor contributing to this issue, having the right teachers would go a long way in improving it. The problem is,many new teachers nowadays do not have sufficient skills or knowledge in their respective subjects to teach them effectively to their students. I remember many cases where we students have to correct our teachers mistakes every lesson. While we certainly do not expect our teachers to be perfect, it would be nice to see some degree of competence, or at the very least, an effort to improve themselves. Unfortunately, this problem is further compounded by many teachers' unwillingness to admit their mistakes, and instead, insisting what they taught was right. I also remember having an English teacher in standard 6 who told me that while my command of vocabulary was excellent and perfectly acceptable in her class, could I please tone it down in the real UPSR exams, as some examiners skills were so poor that they may not understand some of the words I use, and instead of consulting a dictionary, may choose instead to penalise me for it. It is a sorry state indeed when the examiners supposedly qualified to mark state exams have a poorer vocabulary than a mere 12 year old.
Then again, there is also the case of some taechers who know their stuff well, but find it too difficult a task to help their illiterate students, especially if the students do not show any interest in learning in the first place. They would much rather prefer to concentrate on the good students who are eager to learn, rather than spend precious time struggling with students that can't or just won't study. Again, this is not absolutely their fault, as other factors such as huge class sizes and a system that promotes teachers based mainly on how many A's their students get comes into play.
Everytime our students do poorly in exams, the government tends to blame the syllabus and our obsession with the number of A's we get.As a result, our syllabus has changed again and again and again and again...... which causes undue stress for both teachers ( think of all those kursus-es they have to go to to be "retrained") and students alike. What I'd like to see is a greater continuity of the syllabus all the way from standard one to Form 5. It's perfectly ridiculous learning one thing one year and having it changed the next year. For example, we were taught in primary school how to write basic science reports, and when we entered form 1, we never use those skills again.... until form 4, of course, when we had to be re-taught report writing. Then there's History, which is really a nice thing, unless u have to learn the same thing for UPSR, for PMR and again for SPM ( think Parameswara and history of Melaka) and Moral where we had to memorise the same 80+ moral values for 5 years in a row.
So really, what we need is:
1. Better qualified teachers
2. More continuity in our education system
3. Higher standards in national exams so that being a straight A student is more a rarity rather than the norm.( No more nonsense where a 9 marks in Additional Mathematics is considered a pass)
4. More quality control in published workbooks.There should be an accreditation board that determines which books are good enough for use in schools ( though in a country where money can get you anything, it is doubtful that this would work)


Anonymous said...

Trouble is nowadays, the exam systems in placed are designed to PASS you and not to FAIL. So if we wait long enough even the dumbest nincompoops in class will pass with distinctions. So how are we to grade the good students from the mediocre students.

Evolution is about selection. Those that fail or are weak have to be eliminated..

( Now my English is as poor as Kian Ming....)

Anonymous said...

nice entry to be discussed on...well, apart from blaming the teacher and also the education system, why don't we ask the parents..where most of the students time is at home..those brilliant students, usually have parents who are very concerned about their children's education...parents should expose their child to read,write and count before they go to school. and teacher, with all of the workloads, just have to polish students' literacy skills. we can't just put the burden on teacher. but undeniably that there are teachers who are not qualified enough to teach. apart from that, i really agree where the number of students in one class in too big..normal classroom will have 40-45 can we imagine how a teacher can cater to all 45 students in just 60 minutes period??maybe we can change that.apart from that, i think our syllabus is great, im having my 2nd year of bachelor in education in Australia.(a twinning programme under the ministry of education).so i'm exposed to the Australian syllabuses.their syllabuses are hire-wyre...and from my own opinion, our syllabus manage to produce more qualified students.(well just my personal opinion)...most of Malaysian students here, are very good in terms of their results compared to the is just our students still shy-shy cat but have the brain..their students are very straight forward and have the courage to try things out...maybe we can change our people's mind set first..then we can proceed to the nest level..( my grammar and sentences are bear with it..i'm still learning and improving my standard of english)