What’s to blame for the low reading comprehension of the Filipino youth?

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Could failing reading comprehension rates in the Philippines be one of the factors that has hampered the country’s economic success?

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — If literacy is one of the key factors by which a country’s overall competence is gauged, then we could easily say that the Philippines stands tall above most of the world. As of the third quarter of 2019, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) ranked the Philippines above its Southeast Asian neighbors in terms of literacy with 97.95 percent of the total population able to read, write, and count, surpassing even more economically advanced nations like Singapore.

However, this seems to be at odds with reality: as literate as our people are, many Filipinos still live below the poverty line and even those who have finished education at the tertiary level still struggle in the global workplace where workers from countries such as India and Vietnam have far outstripped them in terms of competence.

How could the people of a highly literate nation be left behind in terms of both academic and economic progress? It turns out that the key issue here isn’t so much about literacy, as it is about comprehension. Indeed, as Frederick S. Perez, current president of the Reading Association of the Philippines (RAP), puts it, it isn’t just a question of being able to read and write.

As seen by PISA

In December 2019, the nation was thrown into an uproar by the release of the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) Report which stated that high school students in the Philippines got lower scores in reading comprehension, mathematics, and science than most of those surveyed in other nations. In fact, the country’s overall score in reading was a measly 340 points. China, which ranked first, received 555 points. Based on the findings, over 80 percent of Filipino students around the age of fifteen did not reach the minimum level of proficiency in reading

“I think [in terms of] literacy, we are really struggling,” Perez says of the current state of literacy and reading comprehension in the country. “Our results in the NCAT and NEAT show that [our students] really do get low scores in standardized tests. This is because our students are not being given proper instruction in literacy and numeracy.”

This, in and of itself, is ironic since in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the national curriculum featured a rich variety of materials for improving one’s ability to read and comprehend the written word. Workbooks were attuned to specific skills such as reading comprehension, literary appreciation, and grammar were distributed and used in both public and private schools throughout those decades. By extension, students would also be instructed to “read between the lines,” to infer the main theme of a text by analyzing details or corresponding graphs and charts — skills that many students in the present day don’t seem to have. That said, it would be easy to think that our current educational system has regressed rather than advanced.

Perez, however, begs to differ. “I can’t say that we’ve regressed,” he says. “The demands of literacy and numeracy have evolved, but literacy instruction in the Philippines still revolves around narratives. In fact, when we say ‘reading,’ we still tend to equate the word with narratives, with stories. But in 21st century learning, we should already be exposing our students to expository texts which deal with information. If you look at the sample PISA tests, they are mostly made up of expository texts and call for the processing of information: information gathering, verification and cross-checking of facts, and the interpretation of graphs.”

The need for critical literacy

The end result of not exposing students to expository texts and improper instruction in the processing of information can be seen all too clearly in social media. The Philippines may be one of the most active countries when it comes to platforms like Facebook and Twitter, but the prolific posting of unverified materials and the sharing of fake news on messaging apps such as Viber and WhatsApp show that Filipinos can’t seem to read beyond the narrative. Most minds seem to operate on a “what you see is what you get basis.”

“Our students do not know how to process the text,” Perez opines. “A lot of young people whom I’ve met and spoken to just pass on the materials they see on social media; they just pass it on without thinking. There is no process for verifying information and that leads to misinformation.”

In the context of the current Covid-19 pandemic and the enhanced community quarantine imposed upon much of the country, this is a potentially dangerous thing. Misinformation tends to spread quickly in the Philippines, with materials ranging from “health tips” from dubious sources to alleged government warnings being passed from person to person online faster than the virus itself. It is even worse when considered from a socio-political perspective, particularly when ideological die-hards demand that those who disagree with them shut up and take whatever they have said as fact.

“Most people at this point in our history only see their side and tend not to listen to the opinions voiced or the information offered by other people,” Perez says of this social media phenomenon. “This shouldn’t be the case in the 21st century. Right now, there is a need for critical literacy wherein both sides of a piece of information should be analyzed and cross-checked objectively.”

However, giving students a solid grounding in critical literacy is also a challenge at the present time. Teachers of reading are themselves unable to cascade the concept of critical literacy to their students. Many teachers’ training institutions still focus on the gathering of details as opposed to the analysis of materials, but this focus should already shift towards enabling students to visualize, synthesize, and make connections to and beyond the materials that they are given.

On moving forward

While private schools in the country can afford to send their teachers out for specialized training or source enrichment materials with which to augment their students’ learning experience, the road to improvement is a difficult one for both teachers and students in the public educational system.

Overcrowding, underfunding, and unable to progress because of a lack of long-term planning have long been the collective Calvary of public schools in the Philippines. According to the PISA report, expenditure per student in the country is 90 percent lower than the global average and the ability of each student to learn and comprehend the materials presented is further hampered by the absence of viable teaching materials and an environment that is not very conducive to classroom learning. This lack of proper investment in those who are, essentially, the future of the nation has led to serious underperformance and the inability to compete with their peers overseas.

“We have to do a thorough and honest analysis of the PISA results as well as our standardized tests,” Perez says when asked as to how the Philippines can turn this situation over. “We have to verify, check, and see where we can improve. We should begin from the four basic elements of reading: word recognition, vocabulary, fluency, and reading comprehension.”

He is also of the opinion that teaching students how to read should be contextualized and regionalized, given the linguistic diversity of the Philippines. Adapting teaching methods to suit 13 diverse regions may seem like a Herculean task, but Perez says that it is possible and a framework for it has already been set up.

“It’s possible,” he says. “We have already started with a mother-tongue language acquisition model. The first language of a child enables him or her to learn a second or even a third language.”

Strengthening the literacy and comprehension programs we already have as well as working on the nationwide K-12 curriculum are also key when it comes to improvement.

“[We need] to strengthen the programs we already have, particularly for those in the primary years,” Perez explains. “Later on, we can work on the curriculum for the K-12 program which we have already started. We are now in the seventh year of the program and, perhaps as we reach the 10th year, we can have an evaluation; it can be our benchmark. This is a national issue, so there has to be an evaluation of the curriculum by both the public and private sectors. I also think that the private sector can help the public education system in this a lot, especially in the senior high school level.”