KUALA LUMPUR: Do you remember how old you were when you first started reading? Being a basic skill that an individual needs in order to pursue an education, gain employment and enjoy a rewarding life, the importance of knowing how to read can never be overstated.
To this end, Unesco declared International Literacy Day on Sept 8, 1966 to emphasise the role literacy plays in the lives of individuals, communities and society at large.
In line with this year’s theme of “Promoting literacy for a world in transition: Building the foundation for sustainable and peaceful societies”, FMT Lifestyle spoke with Rachael Francis, 34, the chief executive officer of MYReaders, an NGO that aims to empower children through communities, by providing structured and sustainable reading programmes.
Francis said their work started in 2014 when four teachers began to teach English Language in High Need secondary schools under the Teach for Malaysia Fellowship, an initiative to combat educational inequity in the country.
“Our founders discovered there were students who were still struggling with reading at secondary school level, so they were determined to find a solution for that,” Rachael said, referring to Charis Ding, Alex Lim, Rachel Lim and Tay Sue Yen.
So, the four got down to work, and produced a literacy toolkit that included a workbook and multiple storybooks, encompassing the main components of learning: phonics which is the learning by correlating sounds with symbols, fluency and comprehension.
In 2015, the founders officially registered MYReaders, realising that setting up an organisation would help greatly in solving illiteracy on a larger scale.
The toolkit was put to the test through a pilot project in a number of schools, and the results were positive.
The teachers at MYReaders instruct their students using a one-on-one approach, and if this is not possible, then teaching is done in small batches.
“If you teach in a big class, there are students with different reading levels and hence the effectiveness of the programmes are affected, since the teacher needs to cater to many at the same time,” Francis said.
MYReaders also provides training for teachers and parents so that they in turn can teach kids how to read.
The teaching aids are designed in such a way that even those without prior teaching experience find it easy to use, and the fonts are dyslexic-friendly.
“Parents are the most valuable resource as they know their kids best. That’s why we’ve been working a lot with them,” Francis added.
When the pandemic hit, MYReaders continued their mentor-mentee programme using WhatsApp, where content was converted into videos and classes were conducted through recorded images and voice notes, Francis said.
In fact, this method proved so effective that it is still being used today, as many are opting for the online approach either due to distance or time differences.
According to Francis, their volunteers usually have a strong personal reason for working with them – it’s either that they themselves struggled with literacy-related issues before or they knew of someone who did.
Francis said that because of how sophisticated education had become, many people were totally unaware that certain groups of children were still illiterate in this day and age.
“A large part of it can be attributed to the income gap, because parents in the lower income group have less time to spend or teach their kids compared to their higher income counterparts. This is also why most of our programmes are aimed at B40 communities,” she said.
Another reason for illiteracy among children is that preschool is not mandatory in Malaysia, so a literacy gap between kids who don’t attend and those who did is already present from the moment the kids start primary school, she said.
MYReaders’ mission now is to create as many literacy hubs as possible in the country, to support marginalised communities in gaining literacy through training, volunteer tutor matching, literacy resources, and support to start and sustain their own literacy programmes.
“Learning to read is not something that’s unique to a kid’s background. It’s a skill that everyone should have,” she said.