Helping students find their voice

IN the global campaign to end the Covid-19 pandemic and with a series of rollout of vaccinations in countries around the world, there have been concerted efforts by leaders, experts in the medical profession, and even the Queen of England, to get people to have their jabs.

This chorus of authoritative vocals reverberating around parts of the world where the vaccines have landed has now been joined by a group of preschoolers and schoolchildren in Sabah, giving the campaign an added voice, so to speak.

These are participants in the virtual public speaking competition organised by the Sabah English Aspiration Society (SEAS) for children in rural schools.

Topics for the virtual contest are related to Covid-19 and the vaccination. The driving force behind the competition is a London-based husband-and-wife team: Dr Zainab Kassim, a neonatal specialist, and orthopaedic surgeon Dr Burhanuddin Busu, both from King’s College Hospital in London.

Their tireless efforts, since establishing SEAS in 2017 with the aim of helping to improve English language proficiency among the students in Sabah’s rural areas, have seen the setting up of an English Corner and English summer camps, as well as the empowerment of women to help their children master the language.



“This online public speaking competition has multi-pronged objectives, such as improving English (proficiency), building confidence and learning the skills of public speaking. As the topics in the competition are related to Covid-19, it is also a good health education and health promotion,” said Zainab, who is overjoyed with the response received from parents and the community.

That Zainab is enthusiastic about the programme is an understatement. For her, it is a lifelong commitment to pay back to the community she never left.

The mother of three still remembers her arduous journey from SK Pg Pimping Membakut to a university in Dublin, where she studied medicine. Her struggles with the English language mercifully ended when her aunty, who worked as a cleaner in a school in Kota Kinabalu, helped her to get a place there.

The rest, as they say, is history. Since SEAS started, there has been a positive development, not only among the children but also parents due to programmes involving them too.

The current virtual competition, dubbed 4SY Competition, which stands for four minutes of Short Sessions of Speak up and Stand out for Youth, will see five winners this Wednesday involving preschoolers.

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The first competition involved schoolchildren aged between 12 and 13 speaking about the issue of vaccine hesitancy. As one of the judges during the final round, I was certainly impressed by the confidence of the finalists who had done their research before their presentation.

English teacher Zaiazeyana Yantie Zainal, who is involved in the programme, believes the projects by SEAS had greatly benefited the children, as well as the parents.

Students lacked confidence when speaking English, understandably so because the norm in society was to laugh at mistakes and mispronunciations, she observed.

“I had to use different strategies in teaching them, such as using peer dynamics, music and songs and the Internet,” said Yantie.

She is seeing more children speaking English confidently and even organising their own programmes in English.

Yantie and other teachers in rural areas have more challenges especially during the time when lessons are delivered online; Internet connectivity is one of them. And the other is reaching out to children from underprivileged families who can’t afford smart phones or laptops.

Meanwhile, Zainab continues to remotely organise the event from London and says that with encouragement and sponsors like Maybank Asset Management and community leaders, she plans to organise the competition every month until June.

She is determined to give the children the voice and the confidence that she, at one time, lacked.

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