Neonatologist Dr Zainab Kassim showing a dictionary which she brought from London for the English Corner programme at SK Pengiran Jaya Pimping in Membakut.

MEMBAKUT: WHEN Dr Zainab Kassim is not teaching or providing specialised care for newborns, she returns to her quiet coastal village here to give English language “treatment” to children.

Based in the United Kingdom, the 44-year-old Membakut-born neonatologist at London’s Kings College Hospital would bring about 40kg of English books for her English Corner house when she flies home.

As of this month, Dr Zainab has brought more than 200kg of reading materials which she collected from donors or purchased from second-hand bookstores in London.

“I want to build bookshelves and fill this (English Corner house) project with a variety of books that are suitable for readers of all ages. I want to transform this space into an English library and clinic,” she told the New Straits Times while giving a tour of the newly-renovated building in SK Pengiran Jaya Pimping.

The English Corner was Dr Zainab’s initiative to assist Kampung Pimping children to master English language.

The idea began last year when her nephew, a pupil of SK Pengiran Jaya Pimping, showed her his monthly English test result. The result was appalling and checks showed that only one pupil had passed.

“I looked at the English paper and wondered what went wrong. The way he answered the questions showed that he had no idea about the language. I asked my nephew, who passed the test? He said ‘anak cikgu’ (teacher’s child).

“From that moment, it was a wake-up call for me. I’ve always wanted to do something for the school so I talked to a teacher and asked whether we could do something about the standard of English and we started an English camp last year.” Dr Zainab, who is also Sabah English Aspiration Society (Seas) president, said: “The camp needed a booster to maintain the motivation and run activities to improve pupils’ English. That was when the idea of having a special room for English came about.

“There was a dilapidated building in the school. I asked the headmistress whether I could have the building as my English Corner project and she was very supportive.”

The building was previously the teachers’ quarters and library, which was then used as a storeroom.

Neonatologist Dr Zainab Kassim (second from left) with Sabah English Aspiration Society members in front of the newly-renovated English Corner building at SK Pengiran Jaya Pimping in Membakut, Sabah. PIC BY IZHARI ARIFFIN

With support and funding from like-minded individuals, the building was renovated in January to provide a conducive and interactive learning environment.

“I started donation drives among my former schoolmates and doctor friends here as well as in London. During the process of setting up the English Corner, we established Seas in July so that we can properly run our programmes.

“The English Corner house will soon be installed with electricity, air-conditioner, furniture and other necessities. Once in place, we hope to start our programme next year and the first activity will be an English grammar clinic,” said Dr Zainab.

The English grammar programme will consist of three clinics, namely “general”, “specialised” and “follow-up”, much like medical treatment.

“Because I am a doctor, I would like to run this kind of intervention programme. Under the general clinic, we will ask students who are interested to come to our session.

“Just like a walk-in patient, we will assess the ‘wellbeing’ of their English, and from there, we can place them at the general or specialised clinic.

“For example, the very good ones will be put under specialised clinic so that they can become trainers. Then we will do regular follow-ups by giving them assignments and homework,” she said.

And the similarities with the medical profession do not end there.

These English language “patients” will have their own files for teachers and volunteers to check on their improvements each time they visit the clinic, much like a medical file.

“Why I want to do this clinic is because during the English camp, the main problem the pupils had was grammar. The English clinic acts as a fact-finding and diagnosing programme.

“Early intervention will lead to a good outcome and less complications, because when a child starts learning early, it will improve his or her English proficiency.

“When we ran our night tuition (during the camp), the pupils could not even write English sentences properly. Take the word feet, for example. The singular is foot but when it comes to plural, they wrote ‘foots’.

“The children asked me whether there was a (grammar) formula. I said there was none. The way to solve this is by reading. That’s why we need books so they can read.”

A former pupil of SK Pengiran Jaya Pimping herself, Dr Zainab used to struggle with English but managed to overcome her weaknesses with encouragement from her aunt.

She read dictionaries and storybooks — those by Enid Blyton being her favourite — and this helped to improve her grammar.

Dr Zainab said Seas would also engage with volunteers to assist pupils via a vocabulary diary concept.

The concept requires students to submit their English learning diary to allow teachers to assess their level of understanding in the subject matter.

“We also want to bring in successful people and expose the children to inspirational stories. We want to tell these children that to be successful, it is not cheap. They have to sacrifice and they need to master English.”

For Dr Zainab, the English Corner is one of her ways of giving back to society.

“I am grateful to receive support from doctors and nurses at Kings College Hospital.

“They want to donate and every single pound helps. There is no point in being successful when others are not. Therefore, we need to help each other.”

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