Literacy is defined as "reading skill and reading habit," and it has the power to unlock doors to opportunity. As Room to Read focuses on enhancing literacy skills in the nine countries where we work, we're introducing literacy pilot programs that include additional teacher training, curriculum development and supplemental classroom materials. Joel Bacha, Room to Read's Southeast Asia Program Manager for Literacy, describes a visit to a school in Cambodia where our literacy pilots have been initiated.
Walking with the principal toward the grade 1 classroom at Tatouk Primary School in Siem Reap province, we notice several students watch our approach through an open window. The principal explains that the grade 1 reading program is different this year: the students are more active – from his office, he can hear them sing songs and play games, and overall they seem to be enjoying school more. In today’s class, there are about 40 students. The teacher asks for volunteers and half the class raises their hands. The teacher calls on one girl who comes to the front of the class and chooses a letter. She holds it up to the class, and everyone calls out the name of the letter, “Shri-la.”
After we observed the class for 10 minutes, the teacher had the students go outside and line up in two lines. She asked them to draw the letter shape they had just learned in the air. Then the students bent down to write the letter in the sand. When they were finished, each student checked their neighbor’s work to see if they had drawn the letter correctly. For those who needed more help, the teacher provided extra guidance, and in some cases, the teacher directed students to help each other. To reinforce the lesson, students wiped the area in front of them clear and practiced writing the letter again in pairs. Afterwards, they washed their hands, returned to the classroom and pulled out their notebooks. The teacher wrote the letter on the board several times and the students followed by writing the letter in their note books at their own pace.
The literacy program is seen as important in Siem Reap where a large percentage of students are not reading at grade level by the time they reach grade 3. The program aims to promote a balanced approach for teaching reading where students are exposed to phonics instruction and structured reading time. Part of the challenge has been the limited training for teachers and the complex Khmer script which students are expected to learn in a short amount of time.
Earlier this fall, 36 grade 1 teachers from 20 schools in the local school district participated in a Room to Read literacy teacher training. However, while many grade 1 teachers are used to teaching phonics, teaching reading is still new. The teachers were introduced to interactive teaching and learning methods for phonics, reading and writing in the Khmer language. One of the teachers commented, “The extra activities in the [My Reading] book are really helpful. The students are learning better [than last year] because they are interested in the activities. I thought that trying the “new” way would be difficult. It takes more time to try at first, but once I get used to the activities, it seems better for students.”