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How we can help in combating learning poverty

World Bank estimates our learning poverty at 40%, which needs attention (Charlein Gracia - Unsplash)

By: Dr Tengku Nurfarhana Nadirah Tengku Hamzah

Have you ever heard of the term ‘learning poverty’? It was a new term for me which I learned after listening to an engaging ‘Keluar Sekejap’ podcast hosted by none other than Mr. Khairy Jamaludin and Mr. Shahril Hamdan. This term refers to the inability of a child to read and understand a simple text by the age of ten. What was even more surprising to me was that learning poverty is considered to be one of the key indicators of a country’s economic growth by the World Bank.

Dr Tengku Nurfarhana Nadirah Tengku Hamzah

In 2023, the World Bank published a report on the state of learning poverty in Malaysia, which revealed a rate of over 40%. This statistic is concerning, particularly for the young generation hailing from low-income families and marginalized communities. As a mother of two young children, I am disheartened by this situation and compelled to question the flaws in the Malaysian education system. Upon delving into the topic of low literacy rates among students, it becomes evident that this is a complex issue with various underlying factors. One of the primary factors is the lack of access to quality education and resources, which is often caused by socioeconomic status and geographic location.

Additionally, inadequate teaching methodologies that fail to engage students and language barriers for non-native speakers further compound the issue. Interestingly, despite the widespread belief that the shift to online teaching due to the COVID-19 pandemic is solely responsible for low literacy rates, the reality is that this problem has always existed. The pandemic has only exacerbated it by creating additional challenges such as a lack of in-person instruction and limited access to technology for some students.

As a dentist and an educator, I believe that instead of blaming others, we should focus on what we can do to bring about positive change. Learning to read is a vital achievement that lays a solid groundwork for future success. Dentists, whether working in government or private clinics, are often invited by teachers to schools and pre-schools to participate in community engagement activities for oral health education. However, over the years, dentists have preferred to give lectures and conduct toothbrushing activities, which often results in one-way communication and has a lesser impact on children since it is typically a yearly one-off event. The most anticipated aspect of these events is receiving a free toothbrush, with or without toothpaste.

Thus, it is crucial to implement a more structured educational approaches that not only enhance knowledge and oral hygiene habits but also foster the development of essential skills in reading, writing, arithmetic, and reasoning known by the acronym 4Rs. The existing evidence suggests that various techniques have been found effective, including demonstrations, distribution of printed materials, provision of oral health kits and audio resources, information technology-based methods, and exhibitions.

These methods have been demonstrated to yield positive results and better engagement during activities with minimal supervision required. To ensure that preventive information and health promotion are effectively disseminated to children, it is necessary to combine it with all materials for any intervention made available in school. This can be achieved by integrating

such information and activities into the school curriculum, extracurricular activities, and any other educational materials provided to the students. By doing so, teachers can effectively instil healthy habits and practices in children that can help them lead healthier and more fulfilling lives.

Collaboration between universities and dental clinics is highly encouraging in developing a robust module that can be used in schools, even in the absence of dental personnel. It can be beneficial in improving the quality of care provided to patients. For example, dentists can share their clinical data with researchers to conduct studies on various treatment approaches, prevention strategies, and oral health education interventions. Such studies can help dentists provide evidence-based care that is customized to the unique needs and preferences of each patient. Additionally, academics can offer continuing education opportunities to dentists to keep them updated with the latest research findings and best practices. This can further enhance the quality of care provided by dentists to their patients.

To ensure that our oral health education program is effective, it is important to develop modules and materials that complement the teacher’s role in nurturing 4R skills (Respect, Responsibility, Resourcefulness, and Resilience) in children, especially those who are under 10 years old. This will help to ensure that children are not only learning about oral health but are also developing important life skills that will serve them well in the future.

To achieve this, greater collaboration is needed between researchers, clinicians, and teachers. By working together, we can ensure that the materials developed by our researchers are used effectively in the classroom and that clinicians are not wasting resources when conducting the program. This will help to save time, energy, and costs, while also improving the overall effectiveness of the program.

In addition to developing modules and materials that complement the teacher’s role, it is important to ensure that they are age-appropriate, engaging, and easy to understand. This will help to ensure that children are motivated to learn and can retain the information presented to them. Finally, it is important to regularly evaluate and update the program to ensure that it remains effective and relevant in the changing landscape of oral health education.


The author is a Dental Lecturer at the Department of Paediatric Dentistry and Orthodontics, Faculty of Dentistry, Universiti Malaya, and can be reached at

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