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Promoting a passion for reading on remote Malaysian islands

© UNICEF Malaysia/2007/Mohan
Indigenous students from Sabah's Timbang Island Primary School improve their reading and spelling skills, using special learning aids such as 'English Literacy Computers' donated by UNICEF.

By Steve Nettleton

TIMBANG ISLAND, Sabah, 29 February 2008 – As bursts of pink and orange peek through the cloudy morning sky, two young boys hop into a long wooden motorboat with their mothers. They are heading for Timbang Island, a half-hour journey away, where the two mothers work as teachers and the boys attend classes.

Small boats like these serve as the only means of transport for many children who go to school on remote islands in this part of Malaysia – if they go at all.

Primary school enrolment is significantly lower amongst the indigenous population of Borneo than in the rest of the country. Sabah, the state where Timbang Island is located, is the only one in Malaysia where the proportion of children reaching fifth grade in primary school has decreased significantly, falling 8 per cent between 1991 and 2001.

Poverty and the remote location of indigenous communities are seen as the main factors in this decline.

‘Drop Everything and Read’

© UNICEF Malaysia/2007/Mohan
Twelve year old Zaini Ali helps bring in the catch of the day for his fisherman father. Zaini enjoys learning English through the Ministry of Education and UNICEF DEAR program, hoping that it will build him a foundation to realise his future dreams.

To reverse this trend, a new program is promoting improved school attendance among indigenous children by making learning a more exciting experience.

Students in the program – known as ‘Drop Everything and Read’, or DEAR – work with computers to learn pronunciation, vocabulary and spelling. Their teachers use educational games and materials designed to interest indigenous children and promote good reading habits.

With support from UNICEF and the Malaysian Ministry of Education, the program is being introduced to 30 schools across the states of Sabah and Sarawak. Three-day-long DEAR camps are also being organised, bringing students together to share experiences and compete in spelling bees.

“The most important thing is to catch their interest in education, to catch their interest in reading,” said Malaysia’s Deputy Minister for Education, Hon Choon Kim. “From the response from the parents and the officers, the feedback given to me is very encouraging.”

Building a foundation for life

Zaini bin Ali, 12, is one of the top students in his class. He not only keeps regular attendance at school but also takes part in the DEAR camps. He is Bajau, from the second largest ethnic group in Sabah.

Zaini’s family, like most on Timbang Island, makes a living from the sea. He often helps clean and prepare the shrimp and other catches that his fisherman father brings home. The boy says he particularly enjoys learning English and visiting the school’s new library with his teacher.

“One day I want to become a doctor,” says Zaini. “By studying English now, I can build a foundation that will help me later on in life.”

Advocates of DEAR hope a more interactive and enjoyable classroom environment will help ensure that school plays a greater role in the lives of young indigenous children like Zaini – both improving their performance in class and on national exams, and providing a deeper understanding of the world beyond their island homes.






February 2008:
UNICEF correspondent Steve Nettleton reports on a new program to encourage English literacy on remote Malaysian islands.
 VIDEO View 

International Literacy Day 2008

     8 September 2008

Education in a human right - Resources

  • Need for education
  • Legal frameworks
  • Action ideas


  • Literacy & education
  • UNICEF program

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