In 2018, the Philippines participated for the first time in the PISA international assessment test for 15-year olds (Programme for International Student Assessment). The headline news was that the Philippines scored lowest in Reading and second lowest in Mathematics and Science among the 79 participating countries.
15-year olds tested in Reading literacy had an average score of 340 (out of a possible 600) versus the OECD average of 487. A breakdown of this score revealed that 81% were reading below level. And of this number, 24% were one level lower and 57% were two or more levels below.
In Science literacy, the average scores were similar. The average score for the Philippines was 357 versus the OECD average of 489. In Mathematics literacy, the average score for the Philippines was 353 versus 489 for the OECD average. Philippine girls, in all three tests, were marginally better than boys but not by much.
Two more international assessment tests were taken by Filipino schoolchildren over the next two years – TIMSS for Grade 8 students (Trends in International Math and Science Study) and SEA-PLM (Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics) for Grade 5 learners – with similar poor results. All three international-level tests pointed to one major conclusion. Filipino children were not comprehending what they were reading and hence could not process clearly what needed to be processed. The ability to find meaning or understand what they were being tested on given to them in written form was at the root of the problem.
The initial conclusion of low levels of reading comprehension is shocking for a country that prides itself on having a high level of literacy. The name of the game today, however, is about functional literacy (Reading, Writing, Arithmetic plus an ability to follow written and verbal instructions to accomplish given tasks and solve problems) proceeding to more complex problem-solving. The latter requires an ability to break down problems into smaller parts and then re-assemble these in a meaningful manner in order to come up with a solution or create something new.
Our 15-year olds, for the most part, are having difficulty doing this based on the PISA, TIMSS and SEA-PLM test results. Reading with comprehension is at the heart of this difficulty for many Filipino schoolchildren.
Learning to read should be taught early because reading is a fundamental skill every child should have in their toolkit. Reading opens up self-learning. A child who can read early will be able to find meaning in written stories and text on their own. They can begin to move at their own pace independent of a teacher nearby or elders, though the importance of mentors to guide this learning cannot be underestimated.
The Department of Education (DepED) had a motto among teachers in the primary grades in the 2000s: “Every child a reader by Grade 3.” This battlecry was repeated over and over again by a colleague of mine at DepED – Undersecretary Fe Hidalgo who herself started out as a public elementary schoolteacher. In truth, however, every child can be a reader by the end of Grade 1 or even earlier as later stories in this essay reveal.
What has been the early reading experience of Filipino schoolchildren?
Here, I turn to the experience of Dr. Milwida ‘Nene’ Guevara who heads Synergeia Foundation which, over almost two decades now has been a champion of early reading.
Dr. Guevara’s Synerbeia Foundation (which she heads) is the proponent of the USAID-funded EdGE program (Education Governance Effectiveness) where one of the key result areas is early reading. From different quarterly reports are observations of Reading Performance of Grade 4 Children using the DepEd’s Philippine Informal Reading Inventory (Phil-IRI) test in silent and oral reading. In this test, children are classified as Non-Readers, Frustrated Readers, Instructional Readers, and Independent Readers depending on their test scores and reading speed. Many, but not all public schools, administer the Phil-IRI and the processes for organizing and reporting the data are not uniform and consistent.
To enable Synergeia to make the comparisons, Dr. Guevara’s team organized the results of the English-language tests for Grade 4 students. The initial results for Silent reading were from 14 LGUs while the pre- and post-test data for oral reading were from 21 LGUs scattered in the Panay (Antique, Capiz, Iloilo), La Union, Metro Manila, Negros Occidental, Nueva Vizcaya, Lanao del Sur, Misamis Oriental, Marawi City.
“We used Grade 4,” wrote Dr. Guevara, “because it is the last year of Primary School, and one of the indicators targeted under EdGE was the percent of learners who demonstrate reading fluency and comprehension of grade level text at the end of primary grades with USG assistance.”
Many LGUs in first class municipalities and towns were shocked that 56% of the children were frustrated readers by the time they reached grade 4. Three percent (3%) of the children were non-readers. Only 12 percent were able to read independently and 29% could only read with the assistance and cues from teachers.
“We were happy to note,” Dr. Guevara continued, “that with the help of EdGE, support for a structured remedial reading program had been provided. The post-assessment results in oral reading showed a reduction in the number of frustrated readers by more than 50 percent. The children had moved up to being instructional or independent readers. The number of instructional readers had increased by 38% and independent readers, by 158%.”
The results of the pre-tests on oral reading were not significantly different. About 7% of the children were non-readers and 43% were frustrated readers. In total, one-half of the children were poor readers when they reached grade 4. “Reading interventions were able to improve reading skills,” the Synergeia EdGE report read. “Post-assessment results showed an improvement in reading competencies: A reduction in the number of non-readers to 4.0% and a 70% increase in the number of independent readers.”
These averages concealed significant variances among different cities and municipalities, however. One particularly bright spot was the municipality of Mambusao in Capiz Province. The post-test results on silent reading show that more than 70% of the children from Mambusao children had become independent readers. In contrast, there were LGUs where only 9% and 7% of the children had developed into independent readers. The children from Mambusao, Capiz also performed the best in oral reading. Sixty-three percent of them were classified as independent readers. On the other hand, there were first-class cities and towns where only 9% and 10% of children were independent readers.
What are children grappling with?
Ms. Sab Ongkiko is an elementary school teacher in Culiat Elementary School in Quezon City. I posed this question to her in a conversation we had on Learning. “I can only speak for our school because I haven’t seen the Division results,” she said. “We evaluate the reading results every year because it is included in the School Improvement Plan (SIP). Our results over the years showed that we have a lot of frustrated readers. Back in 2018, for example, we had 264 frustrated readers in Grade 5 (pre-test) which went down to 164 frustrated readers at the end of the year (post-test). For Grade 6 (graduating students), there were 125 frustrated readers at the beginning of the school year which went down to 69 frustrated readers at the end of the SY (2018). Frustrated readers are those who cannot read at their grade level. I’ve had students in Grade 6 who can only read and understand at Grade 2 and 3 level texts. The numbers are the results of the English Phil-IRI. There are really more frustrated readers in English than in Filipino.”
HOW DO CHILDREN LEARN TO READ?
In education, teaching reading to young children is a never-ending, continuous cycle. Every year, a new cohort of students enter Kindergarten and Grade 1. These are the learners we would like to develop into Independent Readers. But developing the facility in reading takes time and practice. No one can develop a facility for any skill without practice. Reading is like that.
Reading at level is a step-by-step process. Hand-holding is needed at the start but independent reading is the key to success because it frees a child to move at their own pace which can be much faster than the curriculum-centered pace.
The problems become compounded when children move on to higher grades without developing the skill to “read at level”. When a Grade 5 child is reading at the Grade 2 level, absorbing Grade 5 content becomes labored and difficult. The longer this persists moving up the schooling ladder, the more compounded the learning problem becomes.
This is what the international assessment tests are revealing to us. We cannot expect a student in Grade 9 to score well if they don’t in the earlier grades. And if they are not reading at level by Grade 4 as the Synergeia EdGE scores were revealing, this is at the root of the problem of learning.
The key to all this is not to be discouraged by the bad news but to build strong foundations for future learning to be possible, says Dr. Guevara. “We are pleased with how Grade 2 students performed,” one Synergeia EdGE report reads. “They know how to say their sounds well and can blend them to form words. They also understand their meaning. Their weak spots are in understanding the meaning of English words in Filipino (or in a language which is not their mother tongue). They find it difficult to differentiate a proper noun from a common noun. The difficulties of students in identifying proper nouns are carried through Grade 3. They find working with singular and plural nouns difficult, as well as using correct punctuation marks for sentences that are declarative, exclamatory and interrogatory. But their waterloo is writing correct sentences. Only 25% of the students are able to do this well.
“Grade 4 students are struggling with comprehension and are unable to use techniques such as word association and contextual clues in understanding words. Only one-half of the students are able to correctly answer questions after reading a story. Grade 5 students need more lessons and practice in using adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions, especially verbs. Verbs are tricky. Children have to learn to use them in the correct tense and in plural and singular forms. Then, students are relatively weak in analyzing cause-and-effect. Grade 6 students need more exercises to help them develop creative thinking such as interpretation. They are still unable to distinguish facts from opinions (which is a weak spot of their adults, too).”
FOR EDUCATORS, WHERE TO START IN ORGANIZING HOW TO LEARN?
The origins of language as a means to learning has its beginnings in how our early ancestors discovered writing tens of thousands of years ago. The Egyptologist couple, John Darnell and Deborah Darnell, found strange written inscriptions that predated the earliest known alphabet by several centuries. The Darnells believed that the Semitic tribes living in Egypt in the Hyskos period (1900-1800 BCE) invented this script which appears to have exploited the capacities of the small Egyptian consonantal system. Frank Moore-Cross of Harvard University concluded that the system was “clearly the oldest of alphabetic writing”. This was important because it signaled a shift from one type of writing system – the syllabary – to the alphabet. (Syllabary – a set of written characters representing syllables and [in some languages or stages of writing] serving the purpose of an alphabet.)
The former, because of its reliance on symbols to denote sounds required thousands of symbols which made it unwieldy. The alphabet was a much smaller set of symbols called letters or characters which when put in much more expansive combinations formed words. This is what expanded writing and with it, reading. (For an interesting historical sweep of the early history of reading and writing, I found Maryanne Wolf’s book “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain” fascinating (2008).)
Reading is therefore a form of seeing symbols (letters), grouping them into combinations that can produce sounds (words) to which meaning can be ascribed by convention (language). While verbal communication may have emerged naturally, writing and reading had to be learned from the conventions established.
A young child may create sounds to express him or herself and even mimic elders. But reading and writing is not naturally picked up by a child. The letters of the alphabet are learned by convention and putting letters together to build what we call a vocabulary takes time.
Language thus becomes the means of communication. Language allows a young child to describe things, situations, happenings. Language is used to describe the unknown or the first time discovery of things. Until a word is found which can be used as its handle by convention (what people in general agree something can be called), combinations of words are used to describe it.
People can talk about it but it is only when people write about it that things can be more easily and efficiently transmitted. It is in developing a facility in writing that communication really expanded and where knowledge could be built on previous knowledge in a way that expanded beyond the person.
To write, one needs to know how to read or decipher meaning first from symbols, and later from letters, words and sentences. From learning to read and write, one can begin to expand what they know and this is the key to learning – both early learning and lifelong learning.
EXPERIENCE IN EARLY READING
How early can children learn to read? For this, I turn first to my three children, now grown-ups, and their experience.
My two eldest girls, Bunny and Abbi, picked up reading by age three and have been voracious readers ever since. My son, Raj, was a relative late bloomer but he, too, learned to read independently by Grade 1 though he was more mathematically-inclined and more visually-oriented. (In their early years, on summer trips abroad I would give each of the three small journals to write down their memories. Bunny’s would be filled with stories and drawings. Abbi’s would be accounts what she saw. Raj’s were always lists of lists of things – cars seen, planes ridden, food ate. It was Howard Garner’s multiple intelligences theory in my home.)
To develop readers at a very young age, children must be exposed to stories and this is where my wife, a former high school teacher, played a most important role. Every night, Elna would read the kids the same books over and over again. (“Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown was a early favorite bedtime story.) As they read together, the kids would learn their alphabet and a whole slew of words.
Learning to read early for Bunny came even before she turned three years. It was at a day care center run by the Women’s Club in Bacolod City where she would spend a few hours everyday and where a kindly elderly social worker would read to the kids every day. By the end of the summer, Bunny knew all the books by heart and was able to sound words phonetically (which I believe is the right way to teach reading). Once she learned how to sound words phonetically, first syllable by syllable until words were formed which she recognized, every trip anywhere became a reading experience. Menus in restaurants, missalettes in the church, magazines anywhere had to be looked at and sounded.
Abbi’s development was similar and translated into buying an untold number of child and teen fiction pocketbooks. Raj was a relative slow reader by comparison more inclined to playing with his blocks and working on puzzles. Reading was slow until mother and older sisters showed him how to read phonetically. Then something in his brain clicked and he realized letters strung together formed sounds that were suddenly recognizable as words. With this “eureka” moment, he began to stop everywhere to read signs.
That’s how children learn to read, says Dr. Guevara. They learn to sound letters at first as individual letters and later as letters in combination, and finally as letters in a word and words strung together in sentences.
Does the language of reading matter? This is a major point of discussion in the Department of Education: In a country as diverse as the Philippines, should early reading be in the mother tongue or in English or in Filipino? And does it advantage or disadvantage children if in either of the three?
I’ll leave this discussion on the different schools of thought to a later essay. But this much I will say. It shouldn’t matter at all.
In the Philippines, our children speak Filipino, English or a local language or dialect. The beauty of our language systems is that we use the same letters to form words in the different languages. In Filipino and the mother tongue languages, the sounding of words is more straightforward than in English with its many additional conventions and exceptions to the rule and hence easier to learn. But in all three languages, reading can be learned phonetically in a similar way. So, teaching early reading can be taught similarly. Once words are learned, building a vocabulary becomes key.
THE BATTLECRY: EVERY CHILD A READER BY THE END OF GRADE ONE
The key to learning is to help each child become an Independent reader by the end of Grade 1. An independent reader should be able to sit by themselves and read independently.
Reading independently does three things for a child.
One, it allows a young child to learn on their own.
Two, it allows a child to communicate their own thoughts in a more efficient and effective way through words and sentences.
Three, it helps develop imagination and to give this structure through words – the key to knowledge.
EdGE continues to face challenges in strengthening the reading skills of children, Dr. Guevara admits. “Since the teacher plays the most important role in helping children,” she wrote in one of the EdGE quarterly reports, “we want to ensure that every teacher is trained well. We have discontinued the training of mentor-teachers. Instead, we are encouraging LGUs to help us train all the teachers to ensure uniformity and standardize delivery of training. We have also advised teachers to group students in accordance with their proficiency skills in remedial reading. We are emphasizing the development of decoding and comprehension skills and have developed simplified manuals and workbooks. These new approaches have been piloted in the summer remedial reading program in Valenzuela City and we will proceed full blast as soon as we have evaluated the results.”
Without early reading skills, our children will struggle learning more complex things in future. The international test scores will reveal this in later years.
When the PISA test is given at Grade 9 or the TIMSS test in Grade 8 or the SEA-PLM test in Grade 5, it will be a reflection on how well they started learning as far back as Grade 1, nine years earlier.
This early learning starts with the ability to read early.
 Sab Ongkiko was awarded the MetroBank Teacher’s Award at the Elementary school level in 2021.
Juan Miguel Luz is a Fellow, FEU Public Policy Center. Member, Board of Advisors, Philippine Business for Education (PBEd). Former Undersecretary, Department of Education.