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Pulau Mantanani's Children Learn English Through Phonics

Last update: 13/05/2011
By Kristy Inus

KOTA BELUD, May 13 (Bernama) -- The children of the Ubian community in Pulau Mantanani, located an hour boat ride from the mainland of Kota Belud, have hardly seen the outside world.

Their isolation is made worse by the limited electricity supply and the lack of communication and television channels. Therefore they are strangers to many things, including the English language.

Which is why when a Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) team came down to teach English using the phonics approach, the instructors were not very hopeful of the outcome.

However, much to their surprise, by the end of the six-month project they found that lower primary pupils had made significant improvements.

From hardly being able to pronounce anything in English, they managed to grasp the 30 pronunciation types taught to them.

Phonics helps students connect sounds in spoken English with letters or group of letters and to pronounce unknown words.

More importantly, the team, headed by UMS Head of TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) Programme Dr Lee Kean Wah, discovered something more remarkable.

The children were enthusiastic to learn English through the phonics approach, even though the language is alien to them.


Dr Lee said that though UMS had previously initiated projects on the island, this was the first one concerning teaching and learning English.

It was also the first project funded by the private sector, namely CIMB Foundation, and the approach is mandated under the Primary School Standard Curriculum or KSSR, which took effect this year.

"The phonics approach was meant to be supplementary to the existing one, known as the 'look and say' method, where students learn the first word as a whole."

"It's very good with visual learners, but it is not going to work with students who are not visual," he told Bernama.


Dr Lee said that the purpose of the programme was to improve the level of English among rural students, and they decided that the best way to do this is to start from the bottom.

He said the project was organised under the School Unit for Rural Education Research with the target being mainly grade one to primary three pupils.

The programme also offers TESL undergraduates the opportunity to apply what they learned in the classroom and to see for themselves the realities of teaching English to rural students.

"As most of my students are from Sabah and Sarawak, they are used to rural conditions. The programme provides them the opportunity to serve their own community," he added.

He said that their sponsor had given them an allocation of RM42,800 for the project, which will be implemented within half a year period with the money being handed over in January.

"Of course, to be honest, we could use more funding since the transportation costs are very high and the material, Jolly Phonics, was sourced from the Peninsula," he explained.

The project saw the researchers returning to Pulau Mantanani a number of times to record the progress of the target pupils. They conducted a one-week period for intensive teaching, learning and analysing of the results of the target group.

There were 94 pupils from SK Mantanani involved in the project; 27 were from preschool, 27 were from Primary One, 16 were from Primary Two while 24 were in Primary Three. Eight UMS TESL undergraduates acted as their teachers.


"The pupils have performed beyond my expectations, I didn't expect such an impact on these students. I'm really amazed about the fact that within a few days of intensive guidance, the students performed so well."

"However, due to time constraints, we only managed to introduce 30 out of the 42 sounds in English. But in terms of their attitude, they were so enthusiastic. When we first came in January, they were not able to read in English. We did a diagnostic test on them, which mostly came out as zero."

"Motivation wise, they are willing to learn. That made my team more confident, and we would like to try it out in other rural schools," added Dr. Lee.

He said that the university is in the process of negotiating with CIMB Bank for further financial support to introduce the programme in other remote parts of Sabah as well.

He noted that two of the areas they have identified as in need of such educational assistance are the Pitas and Kinabatangan districts.

Many English teachers may also not be aware of how to teach using the phonics approach, since it is a new approach through KSSR.

"That is why when we continue the project in other schools, I will also need to focus on the school teachers. Therefore, I would like to try out TOT (training of trainers) during upcoming programmes," said Dr. Lee.