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Cultivating A ‘Third Space’ To Boost Teen Literacy

The home and the classroom by themselves often may not offer the best environment for getting adolescents to read.

Taking teens out of traditional spaces can aid in encouraging them to read. (Education project by Asian Development Bank)

By Faizah Idrus, International Islamic University Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 6 – Adolescent literacy in Malaysia is deficient, with 162,000 primary or secondary school Malaysian students being rated as illiterate. Malaysian learners’ overall English literacy rate is only 27.2 per cent.

Adolescent literacy targets students aged 13 to 17, a stormy phase, but literacy research has centred mostly around early literacy skills as well as adult literacies. Comparatively, little attention is given to how to sustain and upskill adolescent literacy. 

Literacy advocate Joan Sedita has said that adolescent literacy should not be just limited to teenagers but should be expanded to students in grades 4 to 12.

The axiom is that up to grade 3, students are learning to read, but beginning in grade 4 they shift to reading to learn, making grade 4 the logical place to make the jump from early literacy to adolescent literacy. 

A critical, contributing factor is that reading is seen by many adolescents as ‘boring’. One way to encourage adolescents to read is to create a space for them. One space is the student’s own homes. 

A second space is the classroom. But these two spaces are the very spaces where they find the act of reading dull. The notion of the ‘third space’ refers to a place that brings people together. 

This space can be physical or abstract. It can be an informal meeting space (online or face-to-face) for students to meet and read or to exchange reading materials. The third space can free students from the rule-based constraints of the other two spaces.

If they are allowed to make their own decisions on their reading spots and set their own rules (as long as these don’t violate any other rules), it is more likely adolescents will pick up a book and then discuss the content with their friends.

Teachers have a wider role to play too when it comes to reading. Teachers must first be reading themselves. It is a painful fact, but not many teachers are reading. Teachers could use the third space for their own reading and role-modelling behaviour for their students.

The third space can allow teachers and students to negotiate understanding that is sometimes neglected in mainstream classes, for example, students may communicate and reflect on their cultural practices and beliefs that may not be understood by other students of different cultural backgrounds.

Storytelling is one of the best ways to get students to use the third space effectively with students encouraged to choose texts and stories to be shared with others. 

Discussion about the story can lead to healthy communication. Third spaces reinforce students’ learning. They give students the opportunity to share and demonstrate their understanding in real-world environments with real-life examples.

However, creating the third space has challenges. Students do not always have the skills to create a third space and facilitation from teachers may be required to encourage student interactions.

Teachers must be wary to not dominate, unlike in classroom settings, so that students will feel that the space is not another classroom situation. Another challenge is that academically strong students have the potential to dominate the space. 

If a third space is to be a success, it must be encouraged and supported by educators first and foremost. More importantly, funding needs to be allocated. 

One path forward is to ensure adolescent literacy is on the main agenda of the Malaysian Ministry of Education’s blueprint to enable it to develop on par with the early literacy and adult literacy movements.

There is still hope to see reading become popular again in Malaysia. With the proper framework, approach, tools, and support from the authorities and the community, this is not so far-fetched. 

Faizah Idrusis an associate professor at the Kulliyyah of Education, International Islamic University Malaysia.

Article courtesy of 360info.

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