Challenges ahead

Research has shown time and time again that the early childhood years may be the most influential period for a child’s personal development, especially when it comes to forming linguistic abilities

With a national literacy rate that staggers behind the EU average, the road ahead will not be an easy one. An effective national literacy strategy is vital if we are to improve the levels of literacy in the Maltese islands.

As a result of globalisation, communication has become more important than ever before. Even manual labour nowadays requires a minimum standard of literacy. One of the main objectives of the Ministry for Education and Employment therefore is to equip individuals with the right skills to succeed in a modern working place. It is also important for the wider community to be aware of the importance of raising literacy standards if negative repercussions at the social and economic levels are to be avoided.

Research has shown time and time again that the early childhood years may be the most influential period for a child's personal development, especially when it comes to forming linguistic abilities. Basic language education is an intrinsic part of the current formal curriculum; we must maintain and develop our policies and practices so that children master basic linguistic skills.

This issue should be addressed by policymakers, educators and, of course, parents. As parents spend most time with their children during their early years they themselves need to prepare their children through informal education. By simply engaging their children in conversation, they facilitate the literacy development process. Meaningful dialogue must also be practised in childcare and kindergarten centres. These centres shouldn't be seen as just a place to park children but as facilities for the foundation of a child's creative and personal development. Children who do not receive a stimulating and well-planned early years' education fall behind later in their educational experience and struggle to catch up with their peers.

Unfortunately, reading is often viewed as a boring and dull activity. This can be counteracted by offering children books which they can relate to. Every adult gets to choose the books that they enjoy reading, and this should not be any different for children. Rather than forcing books on children we must find ways to make a book a natural choice for each and every child.

Moreover, children should be screened regularly to ensure that anyone with literacy difficulties is aided at the earliest possible stage. Thus there should also be better coordination between day and afterschool provisions. Although the ultimate aim of this literacy strategy is for the population to be equipped with the necessary reading, writing and oral skills, it also targets the integration of a bilingual policy, allowing individuals to develop dual literacy skills and become proficient in both Maltese and English. In the modern world, both languages have to be seen as a prerequisite, rather than as 'nice to have'.

This strategy also seeks to focus on the older generation, too. The idea of education as a lifelong process needs to be engrained in our mentality. Moreover, educational administrators should be offered opportunities for professional development. Through more investment and efficient planning, we aim to empower society, providing the tools for all to succeed in an ever-challenging world.

Evarist Bartolo is Minister for Education