Surrounding ourselves by books

 At a time when things around us move at a breakneck speed, a book can bring calm and a healthy solitude to our overly-connected lives

As a bilingual country, it is important that our children in schools get a good and practical understanding of both languages they will be using to communicate, live and grow. In 2015, Malta signed an agreement with world-renowned Cambridge English, of the University of Cambridge, to assist in the development of the pedagogy of the English language locally. The results of a study on this were published last year, while local educators continue to receive training and assistance in developing high-class teaching for their classrooms through this important agreement.

This was also the reason why Malta participated in PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) through the Maltese language only, as opposed to the two languages in the previous one. Malta participated for the first time in the PIRLS study in 2011. The reading literacy assessment was administered to Year 5 students, in Maltese (as a benchmarking exercise) and in English (as a main test). In 2016, the reading literacy assessment was administered as a main test in Maltese to Year 5 students. This was in view of the fact that Maltese is the first language of the large majority of students in Malta, and that Cambridge English was doing a similar exercise.

The results differ, because the base study is inherently different. Moreover, in 2016, we have a much larger share of non-Maltese students in our schools who may not possess the natural ability in the language like Malta-born students. This, in turn, will affect results. As readers of this newspaper well know, I am not shy of criticising the education system and policies introduced then and now, when they don’t succeed. But it would be very unfair to compare apples with oranges, and give a different impression. This is not to say our work ends here. I do believe that we need to accelerate efforts to help non-Maltese, in their growing numbers, familiarise themselves better with the Maltese Language.

At the moment, we have around 15% of students who are not Maltese at primary level alone, totalling around 3,400. This number is increasingly growing. Being a relatively new phenomenon, at least in scale, is not an excuse not to do our part and provide quality education in this area. I do believe that inclusivity in a society, in its true meaning, also means an effort from those coming to work to Malta, sometimes temporarily and others permanently, to learn our language. When we talk about the need for adaptation and change in education, of a system that is alive and responsive, we’re also talking about such challenges.

This is why it is important to understand the mechanics of a study, before simply dishing out the result. Moreover, I do believe efforts in recent years in literacy and reading have gathered momentum and are delivering exceptional results. This has, in part, been reflected in the PIRLS study. In education, results take time. Focusing our efforts on early age education means the fruit will take some time to bear. But we now have more children surrounded by fresh books, whether in school or at home, and this is very positive. The initiatives on this front are endless, and they are reaching all corners of society, not just children.

According to the study, Malta has registered a significant increase in home reading resources in the past five years. The same significant increase was registered in home digital resources, according to parents. Early literacy activities and related children performance at entry in primary schools have also increased, according to parents. The proportion of students with early literacy skills has increased too, according to heads of school. The percentage of Maltese school libraries having more than 500 book titles is significantly higher than the international average. Maltese parents have very positive views of their child’s education. Maltese students’ engagement in school is significantly above the international average. Students’ reading enjoyment has improved too. Framing reading outside the traditional academic approach is crucial. Reading must have the connotations of fun and pleasure, rather than dreary work. We must link reading with a sense of escapism and adventure, and I do think things are improving. The worst thing that can happen is children who grow up seeing books in a negative light. Surrounding them with great titles and literature which fits their wants is very important, especially in the early steps of this journey.

It will come as no surprise that my suggestion for a Christmas present this year would be a book. But not any book. Take the time to have a conversation with your children and help them pick one of their choosing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a biography of some footballer or singer you’ve never heard of. Taking the plunge is half the job. The most important thing is that they’re reading something they’re passionate about, or a title they will enjoy. At a time when things around us move at a breakneck speed, a book can bring calm and a healthy solitude to our overly-connected lives.


Evarist Bartolo is minister for education and employment

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