Reading: not easy to teach or learn


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 He contrasts the background knowledge of cultural and historical references that eases the reading of text, with the universality of the language of math and it being culturally neutral.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 ( is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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    “. . . plenary speakers at the Little Litfest of the National Book Development Board and the Museo Pambata, which focused on the children’s literature industry.”

    “Museo Pambata”

    That caught my eye. I was there last May. Just a month ago. One of the exhibit rooms there is apparently “devoted” to climate change. It’s the room where there’s a “Moon Rock” on display. It’s also the room where you can see a “message” written prominently on one of the brightly-colored and regularly-shaped solid figures standing on the room’s floor. I took a picture of the “message.” It read as follows:

    “Climate is the condition which makes life possible in our planet. The Earth, in it’s more than 400 billion years of existence, has been experiencing extreme changes in temperature and weather. The Philippines, like any other island nation is not exempt from the difficulties of the effects of global climate change. As children, what can we
    do to help slow down global warming? How can we lessen our carbon footprints?
    Walk through this exhibit and find ways to save our Planet Earth.”

    Here are my observations about that “message”—-

    1. “Climate is the condition which makes life possible in our planet.”

    That’s a rather unorthodox way of defining or describing “climate”. Besides, climate can very well be the “condition” that can make life impossible in our planet, at
    least, with respect to some species, including humans. And of course one may talk about the climate in Mars, Jupiter, etc. The kids who visit the Museo Pambata should be gently advised to stick to the dictionary or textbook definition of “climate”.

    2. “The Earth, in it’s more than 400 billion years of existence, has been experiencing
    extreme changes in temperature and weather.”

    This time the kids who visit the Museo Pambata should be vigorously advised to reject this one insofar as the age of the Earth is concerned. With the current scientific consensus placing the age of the Universe at 13.82 billion years, this would make the Earth older than the Universe by around 386 billion years. Lastly, it would be a fruitful digression for any teacher to give a short clarification about the difference between “it’s” and “its”. It’s a common error to confuse the contraction with the possessive pronoun; but with kids I’m sure it can be easily nipped at its inception.

    3. “The Philippines, like any other island nation is not exempt from the difficulties
    of the effects of global climate change.”

    While some usage consider it correct to classify the Philippines as an “island nation,” perhaps it would be better to call it as it is—-an archipelago. With its more
    than 7,000 islands, there simply is no point calling the Philippines an island country, and just like Nauru. As to content, that statement is also liable for suggesting that only island nations are confronted with “the difficulties of the effects of global climate change,” whatever that phrase means. Anyway, the Resident Editor of the Museo Pambata can always explain it to the kids who go there to learn outside the “mere confines of the classroom.” While at it, he could also spare a second to supply the
    missing comma in that quoted sentence.
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