WHILE urban children rock joysticks or twiddle gamepads with “angry birds” in virtual world, the Ubian children of Pulau Mantanani are happily swimming in the seas and rowing boats in real life.
Although taking to the ways of the seas like ducks to water, the young islanders have much ground to cover in education, especially fluency in languages other than their own tongue.
Pulau Mantanani is a group of three isolated islands northwest of Kota Belud, 80km north of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
It is, in fact, so isolated that until recently, only few locals knew the existence of the islands.
With a small population of about 1,000 people, Pulau Mantanani is challenged not only by the physical environment and limited exposure to various media and books but also very limited resources for the teachers there.
Hence, it is hardly surprising the UPSR English passing rate of Sekolah Pulau Mantanani on one of the islands is almost zero.
That’s not the only concern — the Ubian children are also struggling with the Malay language.
Even though the lower primary curriculum focuses on literacy, this does not seem to help them.
But there should be a way out – a sincere effort to bring education to the Ubians as well as the many other rural communities in Sabah and Sarawak.
Undaunted by the huge responsibility involved, the School of Education and Social Development, University Malaysia Sabah (UMS), embarked on a project aimed at improving the English literacy level of the illiterates in Sabah.
This came in the form of corporate sponsorship from CIMB Foundation under the supervision of Awang Mohamad of CIMB Bank 1Borneo.
“We felt impelled to improve the quality of education in the remote and isolated areas in Sabah by reaching out to them,” Dr Lee Kean Wah of School of Education and Social Development UMS told thesundaypost.
The research team settled for an alternative approach to help the Ubians develop basic literacy skills, using a programme called Jolly Phonics, developed to consolidate the new KSSR (Kurikulim Standard Sekolah Rendah) curriculum.
KSSR will be implemented in all primary schools nationwide this year.
The programme also received the support of the Unit of Rural Education Research and District Education Office, Kota Belud and SK Pulau Mantanani.
It is called Jolly Phonics because the aim is to provide “joyful learning” through a smart selection of phonic cards, songs, readers and CD-ROMs.
The process is activity-paced with board games to consolidate the language focus on listening, speaking, reading and writing, as well as vocabulary and grammar.
Its creativity is further enhanced with language arts of readers, big books, music, poetry and drama.
There were altogether 94 students in the project carried out from March 20 to 27, 2011, making up the entire kindergarten, Year 1, 2 and 3 population of Sk Pulau Mantanani.
Teachers Shelly and Garry in charge of the kindergarten, used magic fingers, flash cards, puppets and songs to teach students letter sounds.
“We used the station-method technique for variety. Students in the first station were required to do colouring work. Those in the second station did some outdoor activities while those in third station played with salt dough.”
They observed that the students showed great interest and motivation in the songs used to reinforce their letter-sound understanding.
The five days of teaching achieved the objectives set.
For teachers Norafzan and Sitti Rahmah in charge the Year 1 group, it was a journey back to their “kids days”.
“We acted like them so that they could get close and personal with us.”
They also dealt with individual students because they found some of the kids writing “backwards” — so they had to use a different starting point.
“For example, when writing “g”, instead of starting from the head of the letter, they tended to write from the tail up.
“There was a kid in my class named Norasmizah, who wrote her name backwards — Hazimsaron instead of Norasmizah,” Norafzan said.
However, their hard work paid off when only two out of the 31 students they taught did not show improvement.
“What’s more — Norasmizah was able to enunciate the letter sounds of her name and write it the right way,” Norafzan added.
Teachers Fiona Mo and Julie Ong who took charge of the Year 2, had this to say: “As teachers, we are challenged to teach with love, patience and creativity. It’s very rewarding to see the progress of the students — how they started from zero to acquire something new and were thus able to perform through their responses in activities on the last day.”
Both teachers shared they were able to hold the students’ attention by using puppets to teach new letter sounds, especially in the later part of the lesson when the students began to feel a bit tried and restless.
Year 3 teachers Agnes and Annie were deeply impressed by how well the Jolly Phonics approach had worked on their students, and they could not wait to try the same in another school.
“The students really liked the singing and dancing. Even though they did not know how to sing the songs, they still tried their utmost to hum along.”
For Dr Lee, the project has achieved its goal as the targeted communities of Sk Pulau Manatanani have learnt to recognise the letter sounds of English as well as read and write in the language.
As head of TESL (teaching English second language) programme, he said the teachers who did so well in helping the students attain literacy, had also gained valuable experience to become confident and competent teachers.
“I consider it my responsibility to include my colleagues and students in research and development projects such as this in order to raise their awareness and sensitise them to the rigours of the real world and decision-making in planning, implementing and evaluating educational projects.”
He hoped more corporate leaders like CIMB Foundation, government agencies, NGOs or any interested parties would work closely with UMS, particularly the School of Education and Social Development, to help develop the intellect of the poor and under privileged.
The sheltered bays around the Mantanani Islands provide ideal habitats for dugongs (sea cows).
You can hop onto a boat to get to the islands, catching glimpses of these marine mammals (mistaken by ancient seafarers for mermaids) and enjoying the beautiful scenery and the blue seas en route.
But on arrival, don’t be surprised when the Ubian children greet you with a warm “welcome” in their jolly phonetic way!