Mary Axisa'a experience

Mary Axisa, Learning Support Assistant, shares her experience:

Paulo Freire Institute (PFI) caters for children who are low achievers. Children attending PFI range from 5/6 years old to 10/11 years old (Year 1 toYear 6/Form 1 students). PFI depends totally on volunteers who teach literacy (Maltese and English) using phonics. Students attend PFI on a weekly basis – this scholastic year on Wednesdays between 5.00p.m. and 7.00p.m. These students are divided into groups according to age. Volunteers meet about 15 minutes before to prepare the resources and stay another 15 minutes after the lessons to evaluate the day’s sessions and discuss the following one. Mr Patrick Mercieca is the person who coordinates this voluntary work.

28th October 2009

This was the first time I attended PFI. I was introduced to Mr Patrick Mercieca, the coordinator, who briefed me about PFI. As I informed Mr Mercieca that I am attending a course for Learning Support Assistants and that one of the credits I was presently attending was Phonics, he immediately assigned me with the eldest group of students, consisting of about 12 students together with other 3 volunteers. These students were placed round a big table, placing students according to their literacy level so that each volunteer can follow one of the groups.

I was assigned with three students – Derek, Yvonne and Charles who are almost illiterate. A fixed timetable is normally followed. During the first five minutes, each group had alphabet cards. One student in each group had to sound the letter, other students in the group to repeat. I checked that each of them sounded and decoded the grapheme correctly. Then the students were given flash cards with graphemes like ‘ba]ar, ilma, bit]a’. The same procedure followed. One student sounded the grapheme, while the other student repeated the phonemes and articulated them to form the word. I had to help Charles to blend the phonemes and eventually sound the word.

The next activity was about concentration. The students were asked to concentrate for 5 minutes on some pictures and try to write words of what they were seeing. They were then asked to read two of the words that they had written. When it was Charles’ turn, he was unable to read any of the four words he had written (circle, rectangle, square and star). At that moment, I intervened to help him sound the last word, but to no avail. Up to this moment, I did not know that Charles is still illiterate in English. I eventually concluded that he was only able to copy the words from the book, but unable to read them.

The next activity was reading. Charles, Yvonne and Derek chose the book which they had started reading during the previous sessions. Derek had an English book which he continued reading, sometimes asking for my assistance. I helped him sound and decode accordingly. Yvonne and Charles had a Maltese book. They are still sounding and decoding most of the words in Maltese. They are able to do some sight reading only for a few small common words. I helped them go through the paragraph. Their next task was to write a couple of sentences about one of the words given to them. Derek chose the word ‘salvawomo’. Yvonne and Charles chose ‘stilla’. Then they were given two blank flashcards each and pinpoint to us two words which they found difficult to write. My task was to make them write these words on the flashcard, and then I had to write them large and correctly for them to sound and decode, and study at home.

After my first attendance at PFI, I can conclude that I am already building a good relationship, not only with the coordinator and the volunteers, but also with the tudents, who did not hesitate to ask for my help, even though I was new to them.

11th November 2009

During our meeting time before the session, the coordinator informed us that as from today, we will be having english phonic sessions. He explained that we are to speak to the students in English and encourage them to try and speak in English. This will help them to be more confident with the language. Different tasks were discussed and we agreed to leave the last 20 minutes for some craft. Today, we were 4 volunteers together with the coordinator.

When the students settled in their places, the coordinator explained that as from today, they will be having english sessions. They were informed that the helpers will be speaking in english and that they should try and make an effort to speak in english too.

The first task was sounding and decoding. The coordinator introduced the first six letters – s, a, t, i, p, n. Today, I was assigned to follow three students – Eric, Derek (a newcomer) and Bobby. Each volunteer was given a group of words made up from this group of letters, mostly 3-letter words (cvc). My task was to sound the phonemes and see that each student decode the phonemes correctly. All my students did quite well in this exercise. Then they were given a handout with some of the words they had previously decoded, which words they had to find in a wordsearch.

Some words were easy to find, however I gave them some hints in english where to find the other words. During this exercise, I could observe who could understand and follow my instructions in english. In fact, Eric and Derek were able to comprehend and follow my instructions. It took Bobby longer to understand, however with some further help, he was also able to find all the words. On the same handout, the students had to complete six sentences – “It is a ___________“ with a picture to help them find the word from the previous exercise. From this exercise, I concluded that all the 3 students could not find the corresponding word as they did not know their equivalent in english. However, with some further explanation and hints, they all succeeded to finish the task. I also listened to them to read these short sentences, paying attention to sounding the words in the proper way.

The last session was craft. They were all very excited. The students are still decorating their personal folders and boxes where to put their handouts and crafts. I helped Eric cover his box with brown paper. Derek gave a helping hand too as he doesn’t have a folder or a box yet, as today it was his first time at PFI. Bobby decorated his box with various potato printing. When the time was up, everyone gave a helping hand to clear everything and leave the place as clean as we have found it.

Today I felt more confident with my work at PFI. The fact that I see such students so excited and enthusiastic to attend PFI, gives me great satisfaction.

25th November 2009

Today, Mr Patrick Mercieca, the coordinator could not come for the session. He informed us about his absence via email a couple of days before. When I arrived at PFI, there was just one volunteer. So we planned the session together. Our target today was to reinforce the sounds of the first three sets of letters. This included the sounding and decoding of various words made up from the said letters. We then prepared a handout with some vocabulary about the food we have for breakfast, dinner and tea. Their task was to fill in with the words given, according to the pictures on the handout. Reading was to follow and then some crafts. In the absence of the coordinator, it was decided that I had to explain and conduct the lessons as the other volunteers do not have any knowledge of phonics. We informed Fr Vince about our lesson plan which he gladly approved.

When the students arrived and settled in their places, they were divided into three groups, as by that time, another volunteer arrived. My group included Derek, Eric and Jane. I reminded the students that we will be speaking in english and that everyone should try and make an effort to speak in english, even if we make mistakes.

I started the lesson according to our plans. The students were informed that we will be working in groups. I sounded the respective letters and the students repeated the sound in turns. Then, taking turns, Derek, Eric and Jane had to decode the graphemes which I sounded for them. All the graphemes were made up from the letters of the first three sets of letters. The three of them did quite well in this exercise. When all the groups were ready from this task, we read some words which the students had just decoded, and which they had to write down. Eric and Jane did very well, however Derek found it difficult to write down the words, even though he did well in the previous task. It was now the time for some reading in english. Some students brought a book with them from home. Others chose a book from the ones available at PFI. I followed my three students. Jane reads quite well, but she comprehends very little. Eric also reads well and his understanding of the language is better than Jane’s. Eric finds it very hard to read, even simple words in english.

The last part was dedicated to crafts. The students get very excited during crafts. They continued to decorate their pockets and boxes with potato printing using water colours. When the time was up, all the students helped the volunteers to clean up the mess.

When the students left, we (the volunteers) discussed with Fr Vince that two students, maybe three, are not catching up with the other students. We suggested that may be they can be given individual attention during the first part of the session in another room using phonics, to enable them to read. He agreed, but we have to discuss this with Mr Patrick Mercieca, the coordinator, next week.

The fact that the other volunteers put their trust in me to conduct the lesson, made me feel more confident with practicing phonics.

2nd December 2009

Today, there were less students attending PFI. Infact, today I supported two students instead of the normal three – Oscar and Bobby. Besides the coordinator and myself, there were another two volunteers. Before we started the sesson, Patrick, the coordinator, explained that as from today, instead of crafts, we will be practising carol singing as preparation for the Christmas festivities.

The first task was letter recognition and sounding (english). Oscar and Bobby did quite well, although I must say that Oscar did better than Bobby. The next task was blending and decoding of different words – cvs’s, two syllable words, initial word blending / final word blending. Both boys did very well in this exercise. Then we moved to reading. Each student found the book they were reading the week before. Oscar and Bobby both wanted to start reading a new book in Maltese (both written by Trevor Zahra). The coordinator accepted their request. I followed them reading alternatively. Both boys are still decoding most of the words, sight reading is very limited. Bobby does not even follow punctuation marks. I explained to them shortly the use of fullstops, commas and questions marks.

The next item on the timetable was sentence writing. The coordinator asked me to do the explanation for the whole class myself. After gaining attention of all the students, I explained that as Christmas was approaching, they were going to try and write a small paragraph about this topic. We did some brainstorming about Christmas – where was baby Jesus born, who and what animals were present for this occasion. I made a web on the white board with the important words. Each student had to pretend that he is a person or an animal or a thing that was present when Jesus was born. Bobby chose to be the cow and Oscar chose to be the star. However they were unable to write sentences in english. So the coordinator agreed that they say some sentences in Maltese and I translate them in English, but they had to try and write them. I wrote for them some difficult words on the white board.

The last item was carol singing both in english and maltese. (instead of crafts). All children were very excited and did quite well.

After every session at PFI, I convince myself more how much these children need academic assistance. The satisfaction I feel after each session is something which is not that easy to explain.

9th December 2009

Today there weren’t so many students at PFI. Infact, today there were only 7 students in our class together with the usual three volunteers. First, we helped the students with rehearsing some Christmas carols. Then we moved on to the academic. We agreed (the volunteers together with the coordinator) to dedicate more time to crafts today. So it was decided that I should explain the handout first (Things we do during the day) and work it out. We helped them to match the pictures with the statements given. Charles and Bobby needed more help than the rest of the students. But they managed to finish it off with some individual attention. In the meantime, the coordinator took turns with the students to revise on a one-to-one level some sounds, blending and decoding. Then it was time for crafts. Today we helped the students to do a pencil holder using recycling material. We used empty toilet paper rolls, used matches and water colours. The final result was very satisfactory, even though they made a mess with the glue and water colours. The students can take these crafts with them at home after an exhibition will be held.

Before we left, we discussed next week’s crafts session, which will be a Christmas tree.

16th December 2009

The number of students present today was more than that of last week. In fact today there were 11 students in our class together with three volunteers. The coordinator was present during the first part of the session. As usual, we started with a small prayer and continued with some Christimas Carols rehearsals.

I then explained to the students the task for the session, which I had already discussed with the coordinator before the students arrived. This was a booklet called ‘The Nativity’ with pictures and blank lines for them to fill in. I gave prompts to the students to write words or small sentences about the pictures in this booklet. For some students, this was not so difficult, but others found it quite difficult to complete without some adult assistance. Students took turns to write corresponding words on the white board. Some of them also tried to form short sentences, which I arranged and wrote on the whiteboard for them to copy on the booklet.

Then it was time for some crafts. As promised last week, we made a Christmas tree from green cartoncene. All the volunteers helped the students to trace two copies of a Christmas tree which they had to decorate before joining them together to form a 3D Christmas tree. All of them managed to finish their task and wanted to take it home with them to use it as a Christmas decoration. Before they left, I gave them a handout to take home with them and colour. All the pictures included different Christmas themes which I had downloaded from the internet and printed at home. All the students were very excited as I let them choose the picture themselves. Seeing such children so happy with such a small thing filled me with great satisfaction.

We also informed them that our next meeting will be on Tuesday. We will be having mass, taking the students for some Carol singing at Dar Nazareth in Zejtun (managed by Dun Ang Seychell). Then the students will be having a small party at PFI premises.


I must admit that PFI are doing a great job with teaching literacy to students who are low achievers. The fact that the method to teach literacy at PFI is phonics, helps me to combine what I learned during the course for LSAs with my experience at PFI.

The satisfaction which resulted from this voluntary work convinced me to continue attending PFI and help students to become literate, even after I finished my 12 hours of voluntary work assigned with my course for LSAs. Infact, I am now one of the regular volunteers at PFI.

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