I never thought the word “mat” would give me such joy as it did on Wednesday morning.
At Sovann Komar, I generally teach from an excellent Oxford University Education syllabus through which the school has equipped the children with workbooks and class books, and the teacher (me) with a teacher book. The latter literally offers a step by step guide to each lesson, from welcoming the children as they arrive, to short activities and games, to additional work. It’s brilliant, not least because I don’t have to plan any lessons at all! However, after a few weeks back at Sovann Komar and beginning to get to know the children I was teaching a little better, I realised that the mix of abilities in my Grade 3 class was staggering. My top student, a seven year old, was reading at a higher level than all of my Grade 4 class, and my weakest student, a fourteen year old, didn’t know the alphabet. Faced with a year of teaching this ability disparity three mornings a week, I decided to take action!
When I first came to Sovann Komar in 2009, myself and my co-teacher Anna were given free reign to teach whatever we wanted. We decided that as we were facing a long stint as volunteers (six months) we may as well embark on a decent project for our Kindergarten class. After considering our possibilities, we decided that teaching the children to read would not only be an invaluable skill but also speed up their ability to learn English in the future. We used an adapted Jolly Phonics method we found online. And by adapted I meant we couldn’t afford to buy the workbooks ourselves so for several months we spent out lunch hours drawing worksheets for each of the 42 phonics and making seven workbooks to accompany each jolly phonic sound groups. Sadly, and depressingly, our extensive curriculum materials have all been lost over the past six years so when I decided to revive our Jolly Phonics work, I had to start from scratch. But it has been so worth it.
Each morning I begin my Grade 3 class by teaching them a letter, a sound, and an action, followed by a worksheet to consolidate the phonic. For example, the letter “es”, the sound “sssssss”, and the action “moving your hand like a snake”. I then use a blending technique to encourage the weaker children to combine the sounds they have learned. This has been a daily pattern for the past six weeks now. Some of them are catching on well but there are still some which are unable to connect two sounds together.
One such child is Bot, a sweet kid but one who’s comprehension of spoken English is virtually non-existent, and who cannot read at all. He does appear to be an excellent mathematician however, something I inadvertently discovered one lesson. Each Wednesday I spent the final hour of my teaching with Grade 3 in Sovann Komar’s onsite library, affording me the opportunity to spend some one-on-one time reading with each child, further aiding them in their development of this vital skill. For the past three months/twelve weeks/nine (Khmer holidays always fall on a Wednesday) library sessions, Bot and I have been reading “Cat”. I think you can guess how the book goes. The starting page is “Cat sat on the mat”. Firstly, Bot has been reading “on” as “no” every week since we started until last week. But the real breakthrough was on Wednesday this week. The previous week I had taught the children “em”, “mmmmmmmm”, “rubbing your tummy like you’re enjoying some nice food”. The letters/sounds “a” and “t” are taught early on in the Phonics syllabus but it was not until this week that Bot had all the components he needed to blend together “mat”. I had fully expected to be prompting him through it and eventually give him the word but to my great surprise and delight, he began blending the sounds without any encouragement from me. I sat next to him, my hands hovering over the keypad where they were ready to write in his spreadsheet “still cannot read mat”. Holding my breath, I watched his face, scrunched up in concentration and he carefully sounded through “m” “a” “t”. The moment “mat” came, hesitantly at first, from his lips, I felt a wave of euphoria that I rarely experience. Here, grinning up at me, was proof that my teaching is working, that I am making process with a kid who tries so hard and yet so often cannot accomplish even the simplest of reading tasks. Giving Bot a high five and sending him off to lunch with a smile on his face, I don’t think he will ever comprehend the combination of happiness and pride I felt in that moment. It may only be a three letter word, but “mat” now holds a special place in my heart. It’s the little things ….