Spell well, read well, write well | Inquirer Opinion

Spell well, read well, write well

/ 12:36 AM September 08, 2012

In a number of forums on literacy and mother-tongue-based multilingual education (MTBMLE) that we’ve attended, discussions become rather animated when teachers start talking about how the dearth of properly crafted reading materials in a particular mother tongue tend to, shall we say, dampen their eagerness to transform their young wards into fully competent readers as quickly as possible.

Every teacher that I’ve spoken to fully appreciates MTBMLE’s promise of genuine literacy. For these teachers, teaching a child to read in a language that he or she already knows is really a no-brainer. Yet these same teachers find it frustrating that they cannot move forward as much as they would like because they do not have the reading materials they need.

Why is this so? The problem lies in orthography, or more specifically, the absence of one for the desired mother tongue. Orthography is actually the set of spelling and writing rules that govern a particular language. For instance, in English the letter C can sound like a K (as in cat) or an S (as in cease) but the symbol used to write the word is still “C.” (How a symbol or letter is supposed to sound is called a phoneme. How it is supposed to be written is called a grapheme. You’ll be hearing and reading these words more often as the discussion on MTBMLE ramps up in the coming days).

In her piece “How Spelling Supports Reading,” Louisa Moats, a literacy research and professional development expert, explains that “research has shown that learning to spell and learning to read rely on much of the same underlying knowledge—such as the relationships between letters and sounds—and, not surprisingly, that spelling instruction can be designed to help children better understand that key knowledge, resulting in better reading.”


Moats adds: “Research also bears out a strong relationship between spelling and writing: Writers who must think too hard about how to spell use up valuable cognitive resources needed for higher level aspects of composition. Even more than reading, writing is a mental juggling act that depends on automatic deployment of basic skills such as handwriting, spelling, grammar, and punctuation so that the writer can keep track of such concerns as topic, organization, word choice, and audience needs. Poor spellers may restrict what they write to words they can spell, with inevitable loss of verbal power.”

At present, the Department of Education’s DO 16 identifies 12 mother-tongue languages as learning areas, namely Tagalog, Kapampangan, Pangasinense, Iloko, Bikol, Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Waray, Tausug, Maguindanaoan, Maranao and Chabacano.

This order further outlines two teaching models. Model 1 calls for the use of one of the 12 mother tongues as the medium of instruction in Kindergarten and Grade I. Model 2 calls for the use of the prevailing lingua franca as the medium of instruction in cases where there are three or more mother tongues spoken by groups of pupils in a class, or there are variations of the lingua franca without an approved orthography.

Do 16 further states that “when an approved orthography of the mother tongue is available and learning resources have been developed with trained teachers, the schools are encouraged to use the desired mother tongue.”


For MTBMLE to make headway, the needed materials have to be developed by the community that uses the particular mother tongue so that the content of these materials is culturally sensitive. However, the task of leading the materials development effort rests mainly with the teachers, and they can’t do that if they don’t have clear spelling and writing rules to guide them.

Developing a working orthography is an area where our teachers need the help of linguistics experts from the academe. In his concept paper, Dr. Ricardo Nolasco writes: “A vital prerequisite for developing educational materials in a local language is a working orthography consisting of written symbols that represent the important sound features of that language and the rules for using these symbols. A working orthography is not THE standardized written form of the language. It is the embodiment of all spelling conventions actually used and decided on by language users for official and academic purposes at a particular point in time. Such orthography has to be tested, revised and retested in the crucible of practice before standardization and final decisions can be made by the language community.”


While all this is going on, I’d like to invite teachers and education stakeholders to a forum, titled “Quality Education for All through MTBMLE,” and to be held on September 15 at Ateneo de Davao University as part of the celebration of International Literacy Day. Organized by Ateneo de Davao University Language Center, DepEd Region XII, SIL Philippines, Save the Children, Translation Association of the Philippines, University of Southern Mindanao (College of Education) and Eggie Apostol Foundation, this forum aims to heighten public awareness on issues on literacy in the country and how MTBMLE under the new K to 12 curriculum addresses these issues.

There’s a nominal registration fee of P700 inclusive of meals, snack, conference kit and a certificate of participation.

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

TAGS: Butch Hernandez, Commentary, education, Language, literacy, opinion, Reading, writing

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