In the June 4 edition of Public Education NewsBlast, an online weekly of the Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP), is a link to an article by Motoko Rich that first appeared in the New York Times titled “In Raising Scores, 1 2 3 Is Easier Than A B C.” A title as catchy as that will certainly draw attention.
The article cites classroom examples where teachers are able to help students figure out their math in an easier and more efficient way than they can reading comprehension. With math, teachers can easily diagnose where the students’ weaknesses are and drill them on the necessary skills—and in a few weeks they are fine.
Not so with reading comprehension, which appears to be the larger stumbling block to learning. The teachers are not quite certain of the problem: Can it be vocabulary, a background knowledge issue, a question of sentence length, or level of complexity of the given text? It simply takes longer to develop reading proficiency. Math is described as “close-ended,” and deciphering reading issues is more complex.
One reason offered for the difficulties that reading teachers experience is that students who come from low-income families have such literacy deficits at age four to begin with, bearing the liability of having heard 32 million words fewer from their parents than their peers with professional parents.
To prove the point that math is learned more predominantly in school (something that those who espouse everyday math will dispute, of course), a professor states: “Your mother or father doesn’t come up and tuck you in at night and read you equations. But parents do read kids bedtime stories, and kids do engage in discussions around literacy, and kids are exposed to literacy in all walks of life outside of school.” He contrasts the background knowledge of cultural and historical references that eases the reading of text, with the universality of the language of math and it being culturally neutral. An example he gives is the Pythagorean theorem, which will be as intimidating to any child regardless of social and economic background.
What are the implications for us in the Philippine setting? The link between the literacy deficits and the poverty level seems oversimplified, as affluent families do not necessarily nurture proficient readers and learners, as we all know.
It takes a considerable amount of time to learn and practice reading skills, as research and common sense indicate. But a positive sign is the evidence that “if we can take kids from kindergarten and take them through 12th grade, I think we can get there.” We have a long way to go, but we are at least headed in the right direction now.
The burden remains with the teachers, especially if the parents cannot or have been unable to provide the vocabulary and the background knowledge young readers need. Are our teachers prepared and themselves motivated?
It was a welcome indication of the importance that the current Department of Education leadership places on literacy that three days before school began, two of its undersecretaries, Francisco Varela and newly appointed Dina Ocampo, were plenary speakers at the Little Litfest of the National Book Development Board and the Museo Pambata, which focused on the children’s literature industry.
There could not have been a more apt choice than Ocampo, education undersecretary for programs and projects, as she is an impassioned advocate of reading education and the Mother Tongue-Based Multi-Lingual Education program. That should indicate where her priorities lie. She is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Education, where she majored in special education for her undergraduate degree and earned a master’s degree in reading education.
In her talk prepared with Leonor Diaz of the UP College of Education and which highlighted the need for teachers, parents, and students to be travel companions on the road to reading progress, Ocampo pointed out that reading comprehension happens when background knowledge overlaps with the content material. The less the overlap, the more challenging the text becomes.
Books used in classrooms need to be interesting and relevant to the students. Students like books that they are knowledgeable about. The big challenge is to match the reader to the book, to make the book not only a tool for instruction but also for motivating. One becomes a good reader by reading; it is as simple as that.
Introduce laughter and humor in books. Must learning be dour and serious? Literature is there for laughter, releasing tension, reliving different lives, and for the sheer enjoyment of it. We turn off students by making every reading piece something for utilitarian purposes, rather than allowing them to indulge in flights of fancy. Remember and heed Einstein’s words, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
We need to lead the students to see books and reading as pleasurable leisure activities. We need to empower them to make meaning out of their schoolwork and, more important, to make meaning out of their lives. We owe them that.
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (email@example.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.