Work Harder to Erase the Stigma of Illiteracy

By The Nation
Published on February 17, 2010

Learning disabilities among Thai students should be recognised and rectified earlier, giving more people a better chance in life

The number of Thais who fail to develop their reading and writing skills to functional levels will increase if students with learning disabilities are not
diagnosed and accommodated.

New figures from the Office of the Basic Education Commission (Obec) show that a high number of Thai students are falling short of minimum competency in reading and writing. Some 80,000 Prathom 3 students – out of one million nationwide – are illiterate or have difficulty reading Thai, according to the Office of Research and Educational Standards director Benjalak Namfa. Obec wants all Prathom 3 students to be able to read, or read for main ideas, this year.

Two reasons are given for students who are deemed “illiterate” or have difficulty reading Thai. First, many come from families that do not speak Thai at
home. Many speak local dialects and thus shy away from speaking or even reading Thai at school. Many Prathom 3 students also do very poorly in reading because they don’t have sufficient materials and have not developed the habit of spending time with quality books. Obec and relevant agencies must therefore provide materials for teachers to help these students achieve better reading and writing skills.

The second reason is learning disability. This is a delicate and challenging problem, as teachers and schools have to give special attention to students
with special needs. The challenge lies in many Thai schools not being sufficiently equipped to accommodate students with learning disabilities, especially in the current traditional classroom environment of rote-learning.

Students with learning disabilities are often wrongly categorised as under-performing, even though they usually have average to above average intelligence and the potential for achieving in a wide range of subjects and skills.

According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, the term “learning disabilities” generally refers to a broad spectrum of processing disorders that arise from inaccurate information received through the senses, and the inability to remember or integrate information, or difficulty with oral, written and non-verbal expression.

The problem in Thailand is that students with learning disabilities usually go undiagnosed, especially in the typical classroom of around 40 to 50 students per class. Those with learning disabilities are often mistakenly thought to have low-functional skills. But their abilities could be realised if only there was better diagnostic recognition by teachers and others. But to be fair, in a classroom setting of more than 40 students, teachers are unlikely to have enough time to pay attention to those who have special needs.

Not surprisingly, those students perceived as slow-paced are left hiding in the classroom, learning little. Many with learning disabilities eventually drop
out of school prematurely because they feel discouraged after failing to keep pace with their classmates. Once they leave, chances are that they are unlikely to develop their reading and writing skills any further, if at all. Adults with learning disabilities usually feel uneasy about going back to school. They fail to develop to their full potential and end up in low-paying manual jobs.

There is a need for schools and parents to become aware of the greater challenge that some children face. Parents can detect such symptoms by spending sufficient time with their children, guiding them through reading and writing. Teachers must at least be made more aware of the delicate nature of learning disabilities, and instructed to be alert for the symptoms in any of their students. Early reference of students with special needs to educator specialists – who can administer diagnostic tests – may help a greater number of people with learning difficulties to become successful. But this can only be achieved if they receive proper multi-dimensional or sensory instruction. The onus is on the relevant government agencies and educational institutions to prepare educational specialists to accommodate such students’ needs.

The same efforts must also be applied to assist adults who are faced with learning difficulties. Many feel ashamed to seek help. Family members, friends and communities can help and support them. Reading is a rewarding experience. No one should be denied its benefits and pleasures simply because of ignorance of catering to special needs.

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