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Levers and fulcrums

We have about 20 million learners currently enrolled in our schools. About half a million teachers are there to look after the students’ learning needs, as best as they can with whatever they have, which isn’t all that much. We have a scenario where we need to amplify the effort of a relative few to move a great number. We’ve got the lever, but we need two more things: a good fulcrum and the right place to put it.

At the recently concluded Literacy Policy Dialogue conducted by the Department of Education, Leroy Marshall of USAid Philippines said that literacy is the foundation of all learning. One would think that Mr. Marshall is just stating the obvious, until one realizes that in the context of Philippine basic education, that foundation has been so eroded that for many students—and their hopeful parents—going to school today probably feels like one long remedial process. The general underachievement of our young learners, as evidenced by their scores in both local and international standardized tests, only serves to show that our learners are standing on shaky ground.

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Indeed, Education Undersecretary Yolanda Quijano emphasized that a shared understanding of literacy is critical to the success of current education reform efforts. Quijano particularly pointed out that DepEd and education reform advocates need to identify and articulate sound theories and practices on teaching reading as a specific skill set.

DepEd has taken a step, actually two, to aggressively initiate genuine and lasting changes to basic education. First, it promulgated Department Order 74 in 2009 calling for the implementation of Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTBMLE) across the public school system. This year, DepEd has set in motion a series of measures that repurposes learning around a 12-year curriculum, more popularly known as K to 12.

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Both MTBMLE and K to 12 are not new, both as concepts and as education practice. There are volumes of evidence from schools and education institutions all over the world that prove beyond all doubt that using the child’s mother tongue as a medium of instruction in the early years greatly helps that child succeed in school. And most countries now have basic education cycles that are founded on a 12-year curriculum.

Unesco points out that carefully planned MTBMLE programs can, and should, produce students who are multilingual (using two or more languages in their everyday interactions and for learning in school), multiliterate (reading and writing competently in both, or all, of their languages), and multicultural (comfortable living and working with people from outside their community while maintaining their love and respect for their home culture and community).

These are some of the benefits that we can expect from MTBMLE, but what is the situation right now? Clearly, literacy remains a major issue.

In his presentation on their initiatives in selected schools in Mindanao, Marcial Salvatierra, chief of party of the Education Development Center, showed that serious work needs to be done if we wish to significantly improve our learners’ competency in reading. In their USAid-funded project called Equalls2 (Education Quality and Access for Learning and Livelihood Skills), Salvatierra described the Whole School Reading Program, in which all teachers and students in the target community were involved in interventions to improve literacy. He presented data showing that just after six months of continuous work, they were able to “decrease dramatically”—by as much as 30 percent—the so-called frustration category of readers in all grade levels as well as increase the proportion of students moving up to the instructional category. (Students who read below their grade level belong to the frustration category; those who are reading at their grade level are in the instruction category.)

Meanwhile, Joseph DeStefano of the Research Triangle Institute said the definition of literacy can be fairly straightforward and fairly complex, but there is also a simple, intuitive way to understanding Reading: “Can a child read a grade level text? This is an essential element,” said DeStefano, who also described the Early Grade Reading Assessment (Egra), a tool that they use to accurately determine the learner’s reading ability.

He said the Egra methodology revolves around Oral Reading Fluency, which is measured by the number of words correctly read by a student in one minute. Expectations for how many words of grade level text a child should be able to read is based on the relationship between reading fluency and comprehension, with full comprehension being directly proportional to oral reading fluency. The beauty of Egra is that it necessarily has to be done in the child’s mother tongue.

Dr. Catherine Young of SIL International, a leading MTBMLE implementor worldwide, said that in a linguistically diverse country such as the Philippines, issues sometimes crop up among teachers on which mother tongue to use. In this case, Dr. Young offers a very sensible, and truly heartfelt, piece of advice: Find out which language offers the children the best chance of understanding what is being taught, and use that.

Butch Hernandez ([email protected]) is the executive director of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: education, featured column, K to 12, learning needs, literacy, MTBMLE
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