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  • No substitute for ‘black marks’ on a page

    By Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
    Philippine Daily Inquirer
    Saturday, May 24th, 2014

    When Joseph O’Reilly, the UK-based Save the Children senior education adviser, prefaced his opening remarks on “Getting the World’s Children to Read” with staggering statistics—that 61 million children are out of school and that 200 million schoolchildren in developing countries struggle to read basic words—the audience needed no convincing about what he called a global learning crisis.

    The early December conference of Save the Children, First Read, and the National Book Development Board on writing, illustrating, and publishing books for the Filipino child may have been eclipsed by the usual holiday frenzy. But the objective of the undertaking needs revisiting, especially as a new school year is upon us—and with data that compel us to catch potential readers early.

    Children who have difficulty reading in the early years are set back even more each school year because “reading ability is progressively used as a tool for acquiring other types of knowledge.” That is the major reason students drop out in the upper grades, as learning becomes more complex for the deficient reader.

    Save the Children emphasizes promoting learning especially among the world’s most underprivileged children through its First Read initiatives. No, it is not the typical book-donation endeavor but a comprehensive no-nonsense drive to develop age-appropriate and culturally-sensitive books for these children. O’Reilly built a case for early learning intervention with First Read, recognizing that the early preparation for reading begins with these initial steps, one building upon the other: talking and learning, understanding words and sounds, knowing the alphabet, understanding print, and knowing what books are.

    “There is no substitute for black marks,” O’Reilly said, referring of course to what may look exactly that to the young child. There are no two ways about it, and he emphasized information that can no longer be ignored: Access to books is essential to the child’s reading development. That sounds rather commonsensical, but is access available to every Filipino child?

    Consider the related issues he raised: The number of books in a child’s home has a direct correlation with his reading scores; the more varied the available reading materials are in the home, the higher the student fares in reading proficiency; the more reading the child does, results not only in his being a better reader but also in his earning higher math scores.

    In view of these research findings, First Read has partnered with local publishers to produce high-quality, age-appropriate books for children up to four years of age. The emphasis is on books in the local language, gifting families with the books, teaching young parents to talk, sing, count, and share books with their young, and supporting communities in continuing this advocacy. Community book collections are encouraged and supported.

    To make high-quality, local-language books available to communities, First Read offers training for the local publishing industry, involving authors, illustrators, editors, and publishers. Specific guidelines and relevant advice are provided during the entire stage of book production. It also ensures the purchase of a specific number of copies for book distribution to target beneficiaries and promotes book sales through festivals and similar activities.

    Thus, on that conference day at the UP Ayala Technohub in Quezon City, the undisputed highlight was the launch of First Read’s first commissioned titles in partnership with the Summer Institute of Linguistics Philippines and its director, Jason Griffiths. These included “Tukay Gumnè,” a Blaan translation of “Bahay Kubo” (a Tahanan Books for Young Readers title with pictures by Hermes Alegre); “Danga na Mangayse: Tagakaulo Children’s Games”; and CDs of “Gusamtifun I Fukal Lingag: A Collection of Blaan Songs, Rhymes, and Lullabies,” “Pagsumbukan: Tagakaulo Songs, Rhymes, and Lullabies,” “Udé Segtón: A Collection of T’boli Songs and Rhymes.” Appropriately enough, these books came wrapped in lovely T’boli woven fabric.
    These books may not be among the 19 major local languages used as medium of instruction from K to Grade 3 under its Mother-Tongue-Based Multi-Lingual Education (MTB-MLE) program, but they are nevertheless helpful and welcomed by First Read beneficiaries in Mindanao. Education Undersecretary Dina Ocampo, who has always emphasized the importance of stories from the Filipino child’s own direct experience, spoke of the magical and memorable experience this will be for the child—the rare discovery of a well-produced book in his own language. What a powerful gesture that would be for him and the other children in the community.

    * * *

    With all these in mind during my grandnanny duty in the United States that has just wound up, I made certain that part of my daily routine with my younger grandson Emilio—who was born on Dec. 23—was reading time. In the early weeks, he did not react to the words I was reading out loud, but eventually he broke out in a wide smile when he saw a book and heard the words. Not that he understood them as yet, but he obviously appreciated the musicality of language. Yes, the stepping stone to literacy.

    Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ( nenisrcruz@gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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