No read, no write
I recently had to go to the office of a publishing firm to look for books I couldn’t find in our more mainstream shops.
“Can you please write out the titles?” the security guard asked me in Tagalog, which I did.
She looked at the piece of paper for a few seconds then looked at me apologetically, admitting she could not read what I had written down.
Now, I pride myself with my handwriting—I feel that a badly handwritten note can be insulting—but then I thought maybe the guard had difficulties because it was in cursive penmanship, so I redid it in block letters.No luck for the guard, who actually asked me to read it out, which I did, while still trying to rationalize that maybe she had difficulty because the titles were in English.
She then picked up their phone-intercom to call their salespeople. When someone answered on the other end of the line, she looked at me again with despair and I realized, she could not read.
I was shocked. She was young, in her 20s, and to be a security guard you have to have finished at least high school.
But then I reminded myself about my constant struggles with many people having difficulties reading and writing.
One of my drivers, also a high school graduate, sends these exasperating texts that you need a few minutes to decipher because of the spelling, grammar and just plain lack of logic.Let’s not fool ourselves anymore, declaring we have one of the highest literacy rates in the world. In the 21st century, it is not enough to know your ABCs (and I wonder even then, looking at the spelling of young people). It’s being able to grasp what you read, and to be able to use that comprehension to make important decisions, whether choosing from several brands of a food product or signing a consent form for a particular medical procedure or one of the many contracts that characterize modern life.Conversely, it also means being able to communicate, in written form, to request for, or to complain about something from the water or electric company, or from the SSS or GSIS, to follow up on that request, or, simply, to write a letter of thanks, or a love letter.
There’s a vicious cycle here. People who are not comfortably literate end up with an inferiority complex, ever fearful of having to deal with the written word, especially when they are part of government bureaucracies. My driver gave up on a disability claim some years back because he just couldn’t deal with the SSS bureaucracy, even when I assigned someone to go with him. Whenever he has to deal with government, and, lately, even private utility companies, he gets around to asking if we can use a fixer. I say no and assign the housekeeper to go with him, or even call the office to find out what’s going on.
Red tape lives in both the public and private sectors, and is a scourge for our barely literate Filipinos.
So I was not surprised to see the results of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). In the latest 2018 Pisa, involving 15-year-old students in 79 countries, the Philippines ranked last in reading, and second to the last in mathematics and science. The top-ranking countries were China (and, separately, Macau and Hong Kong, both part of China), Singapore, Estonia and Canada.
The country report gave other findings on Philippine high schools, underscoring the problems of deficits in the learning environment. The Department of Education responded quickly after the Pisa report was released, promising to take action.
We’ve been trying to fix our schools for years, even as we work harder around curriculum development, textbook production and teacher training. Meanwhile though, what do we do with the millions of barely literate Filipinos who lose out every day by making bad choices, getting fooled by marketing and advertising scams, and, most importantly, are left unable to tutor their children?
The problems will worsen with cell phone texting and social media blogs, where all that matters are emoticons and ranting. Throw in YouTube and cable TV and you can see why our bookstores are closing down. We will lag further behind our neighbors, who are upgrading the literacy skills of their citizens to make them creative and discerning while we are content with producing a labor force with just about enough literacy to take orders (and even there, I wonder).
Worse, as automation intensifies, it will be these barely literate Filipinos who will lose their jobs first, and who will find it more and more difficult to get new work.
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