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Malay Phonics – Easy, Essential and Elusive


Malaysian children are expected to read in the Malay language by the time they begin elementary education. After all, this is a reasonable requirement.

Firstly, schools use the romanized writing system to teach Malay. Second, all the consonants and vowels have consistent sounds. For example: in English, “a” has different sounds in ” bar,” “bag” and “ball” whereas in Malay, it is always the same as in “bar.” So it is possible to read Malay phonetically.

Then there is the compelling reason for every citizen to learn Malay, a language spoken by more than half of the population and the government’s effort in promoting it as the national language of Malaysia.

However, there are still many children, adolescents and even adults unable to read in Malay!

Official statistics on this problem are scanty and unprecise. The deputy Education Minister mentioned
about 100,000 students not able to read, write or count. Beware though: this could imply that some students can count but cannot read or vice versa or, other combinations.

The fact is: the number of students unable to read in Malay is worrying enough to have special classes organised to help them.

Actually Malay phonics, the logical solution, shouldn’t even be a problem for any normal person, IF…

1. The concept of “phonics” for Malay is ever promoted. As late as 2006, a study of Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris on the effectiveness of phonetic approach in teaching Malay was made public. The overall improvement among a group of 326 kindergarten children prompted the University to recommend the teaching of Malay phonics in elementary schools as well.

Traditionally, the popular method is learning by rote from a list of syllables. The students are left to figure out the combinations of the syllables. This works for majority with a problem.

The rote method harps on syllables that are rarely used such as “qa, qe, qo, qi qu ” while syllables beginning with “ny” and “ng,” found in thousands of words joined to prefixes are only briefly mentioned and I bet not all students know their sounds. The result is students having a hard time reading and spelling words joined to prefixes as they progress to intermediate level.

2. Teachers who are trained to teach Mandarin are not assigned to handle Malay classes. Strange but true and common stories in public schools. Malay language subject is not a game even for children these days as the standard is already of high level from the first year of elementary school. Bureaucracy of the education system has not helped much by sending the wrong persons to the children.

3. Publishers of children’s books in Malay are genuinely interested in quality education rather than making quick bucks. Just look around the book market and see if you can find something worthy to be called…a classic.

In conclusion, the only way to master Malay phonics is to revolt against the prevailing senselessness. Do you need to help a child struggling to read Malay? Looking for ideas on how to do it?

Check our related article here: children learning reading review

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