In the first of two articles about how some of the best and brightest emerging leaders are working to achieve literacy for all, we spoke with Jacob Olaoluwa Sule. Jacob is a 2019 honoree of the International Literacy Association (ILA)’s 30 under 30, an annual list that celebrates the rising innovators, disruptors and visionaries in the literacy field.
As literacy is fundamental to learning and absolutely essential to education in general, we thought it would be great to hear about a few of these individual journeys to create more awareness and inspiration about the important work teachers do.
This exclusive interview features Alex Lim. The co-founder of MYReaders Resources based in Kuala Lumpur, Alex’s story began in the quaint little town of Sungai Petani, Kedah in northern peninsular Malaysia. Alex was an English teacher in that town.
He was posted together with his co-founder, Charis, to a high-need public secondary school to serve as English teachers. There, they encountered various challenges in trying to deliver their lessons.
Students were highly disruptive.
The school environment was also far from helpful. Alex shared how they were dealing with student disciplinary problems on a daily basis. “Our solutions at the time were punitive in nature and not sustainable. We soon discovered that these students were largely illiterate,” Alex said.
Charis and Alex, joined by two other teachers, Sue Yen and Rachel, wasted no time in putting together a literacy toolkit to help the kids read.
Believing that students could do more than merely receive information and instruction from adults, he rallied the students in his school to mentor younger students to read.
He was looking to grow student leaders.
Looking back on those days, Alex elaborated on what sparked his interest in literacy. As a student, Alex once volunteered in an Orang Asli (native people) initiative to prepare the local indigenous youth for their major exam. He organised a motivational camp for them.
“I was a reluctant facilitator as there was no one else available. At the end of my session, I distributed feedback forms to evaluate the effectiveness of my session. My worldview crashed when I discovered that almost every participant had to reproduce their national identification cards just to write their own name on their forms. I knew something had to be done,” Alex explained.
Many people have ideas but then don’t take the action needed. What was different for you that you decided to take these steps?
Alex: We knew what we would stand to lose – a generation of students. None of us signed up to be teachers for life. We knew that we were only going to be a part of the civil service in the education sector for no longer than two years. What had to be done, had to be done.
How did you go about launching structured research-based programmes?
Alex: We didn’t have in mind the scale we see today. Back then, we only wanted to do what was right for our students. After experiencing success through our pilot experiment in our respective schools, we started sharing the material with other teachers within the same district.
As word got out, we began receiving requests to train teachers.
We soon realised that the need for remedial literacy was severely underserved. We came to the conclusion that in order for significant impact to be achieved, this initiative would require full-time management. So, we did not extend our teaching contracts beyond two years. Instead, we incorporated ourselves as an NGO and began exploring ways to access funding that could sustain our social initiative.
You would have faced hurdles in your campaign – can you share any major hurdle you faced and what did you do to manage it?
Alex: Operating within the social initiative space can be challenging. While many may believe in championing social causes like education, very few are prepared to invest in such initiatives. Their mindset is that either education should be free or it should be a state-led responsibility. We have also heard other reasons along the lines that there is often a lack of quick returns on the investment.
We have made it clear and consistently advocated that a human-centric initiative such as this does not necessarily produce quick positive outcomes. Managing social change is in fact a long-term investment.
To mitigate the lack of stable funding in our initial years, we each took on full-time jobs based on our respective former professions. We worked on refining our toolkit and providing support to the teachers on the side.
What do you have seen as some of the biggest challenges students face in learning reading and writing?
Alex: Our work primarily involves students from underserved communities. In our experience, we have seen that grit or the ability to delay gratification remains the primary gap for this community of learners.
Truth be told, our students were past the age where they were expected to learn how to recognise alphabets, enunciate words or even read passages. These students had every reason not to turn up and participate in our remedial initiative.
They could be having more fun riding on their motorcycles aimlessly or hanging out with their friends from rough neighbourhoods than spend time confronting their deepest fear – that they may know nothing and be redundant in their society.
In light of that, we developed a methodology to support and help our learners understand and believe that this painful and strenuous process of learning is a worthwhile investment. We invest the time and effort to ensure that the parents are equally co-owners of their children’s learning journey.
What ideas have you found useful in helping you increase student readiness and interest in reading and writing?
Alex: Gamification. I find that it’s like doing a sales pitch, except that we’re not in a boardroom. There are no suits or formal wear here. We came to realise that in order to help students learn better and in a sustainable manner, they would need to own their learning journey and process. Key to such ownership is ensuring that students know their learning journey. They must be able to articulate how a learning objective today will help them master the subsequent learning objectives. All of these are pivotal to the student achieving the big learning goal that has been set beforehand.
Alex Lim Xiong Chun graduated with an LL.B (Hons) from University of London and is an Advocate and Solicitor of the High Court of Malaya. As a co-founder of MYReaders, his goal is to work towards empowering children through communities by providing a structured and sustainable programme so that one day, every child will be able to read.
He was interviewed by Rowena Morais from Writing Legends. With the current challenges teachers face in terms of school closures and distance learning / remote learning, Writing Legends is proud to be able to provide assistance. Writing Legends is free of charge through to July 31, 2020. To register as a teacher, please visit www.writinglegends.com