Filipinos are reading less than before | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Filipinos are reading less than before

One of the sources for my opening keynote at the Asian Literacy Conference in Manila next week is the 2023 Readership Survey commissioned by the National Book Development Board (NBDB). At first glance, the figures are very depressing, with readership of nonschool books measured at 42 percent, way below the 2017 peak at 80 percent. One need not be defensive nor apologetic about the figures, we shouldn’t blame anyone or any institution for the significant decline. I think the figures have to be read, differently, in the context of changing literacies.

Despite pessimists that have long predicted the death of the book. I think that the decline of one medium leads to the rise of another. People are reading more today than they have ever done so since the Gutenberg bible was first printed in the 1450s.

In the 6th century, people read aloud. There is a charming reference in the “Confessions” of St. Augustine where he was surprised to seeing St. Ambrose reading silently with his eyes rather than his lips. When did “silence” signs begin appearing in libraries that were once filled with people finding “the voice of the pages” from manuscripts, that later gave rise to printed books, that later gave rise to audiobooks? There may be a decline in print reading today but there is a substantial increase in reading via: android phones, tablets, laptops, and desktops.

Filipinos may find Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” a bit of heavy lifting but there are alternatives in audiobooks, abridgments, and movie versions. Filipinos have not read Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” or “Anna Karenina” but they remember the telenovela: “Anna Karenina.” GMA 7’s “Maria Clara at Ibarra” was not an adaptation of Rizal’s “Noli me tangere” and “El Filibusterismo,” but it did encourage renewed interest and reading of the novels outside of a school requirement.


To justify its existence and plot, a national book development plan, the NBDB commissioned the first readership survey in 2003 when readership of nonschool books was measured at 68 percent. Readership peaked in 2017 at 80 percent but dropped to 42 percent last year. I am wary of surveys that give us a picture of the whole from a slice of the pie. For example, when asked if “Reading books is a good leisure activity” 89 percent of adults and 88 percent of children said yes, but what they said and actually did are two separate things. Only 42 percent of adults and 47 percent of children reported reading nonschool books in the past 12 months.

What Filipinos read seems to mirror the National Bookstore (NBS) bestseller list, where the most popular genre for adults are: bibles, picture books, and romance books, while children are partial to picture books, short stories for children, and the bible. While I occasionally break into the NBS bestseller list, I lag far behind bibles, devotional, self-help, and cookbooks! It was heartening to note that majority of Filipinos read Filipino authors (57 percent adults, 55 percent children), but at the top of the list is Jose Rizal with only 3.6 percent readership, followed by the late Miriam Defensor Santiago’s funny one-liners at 2.2 percent. Balagtas only got 0.7 percent readership even if “Florante at Laura” is required reading in K-12, just as Rizal’s novels are required both in K-12 and tertiary level education.

Most distressing figure in the survey is that adults only began their reading journey around 16 years old, with Filipino as the preferred language. Children started reading earlier at nine, with preferred languages: Filipino, 66 percent and English, 31 percent. Shouldn’t people be reading books at a younger age? According to World Bank data on learning poverty, about 90 percent of Filipino schoolchildren aged 10 struggled to read or understand simple texts. For that we can blame “stunting” (malnutrition that hinders growth and development potential in children) or current teachers who can’t even score 50 percent on reading comprehension, language structure, and writing. Looking at our dismal Programme for International Student Assessment results, I can’t even imagine how we can turn the tide.

According to the NBDB survey these factors encourage Filipinos to read: Words are easy to understand 23 percent, books have pictures or illustrations 17 percent, interesting material 15 percent, book talk with authors 10 percent, and celebrities or influencers reading/endorsing books 10 percent.


Three in 10 people surveyed considered books a luxury. They considered books a good gift to give or receive, but the threshold for book buying is P99 or less for a print, nonschool books from a physical bookstore. That’s lower than the price of the cheapest short brewed coffee at Starbucks. Fifty-five percent of adults and 49 percent of children preferred to acquire books by borrowing. That’s a no-brainer since there is no cost involved.

As a senior citizen, I agree with the majority that reading books can be tiring. As a writer and book author, I can only pray that NBDB sees light at the end of the tunnel.



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TAGS: opinion, Reading

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