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Literacy in the Philippines: The Stories Behind the Numbers

By Len Cristobal
 | Aug 06, 2015

In the Philippines, the ability to read and write is a priority, so any effort to promote literacy by the government, organizations, or even private individuals is celebrated.

“It is through literacy that one is empowered to interact in his community and realizes his worth, what he can do and eventually make him do things that contribute in sustainable development of his society,” said Department of Education’s (DepEd) Literacy Coordinating Council OIC Dina Ocampo in a speech during the 2014 National Literacy Conference and Awards.

That “community” progressively expanded, based on the country’s literacy data collected through the national census. Results from the National Statistics Office’s 2010 Census of Population and Housing (CPH) show that 97.5% of the 71.5 million individuals who are 10 years old and older were literate or could read and write—an increase from the 2000 CPH record of 92.3%.

Prior to World War I, the literacy rate in the Philippines was at a dismal 20%. But it was one of the countries that experienced rapid school expansion in the late 1930s, according to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) 2006 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, and, as a result, literacy rates rose to the middle range during the 1950s (35%–75%). UNESCO has said literacy transitions are linked to educational expansion.

The same findings echoed the observations of Dr. Michael Alba, a research fellow and professor at De La Salle University-Manila. In his journal article, “Estimating Literacy Rate: A Study Relating Literacy Rate With Combined Gross Elementary and Secondary Schools Enrollment Rate,” he attributes the growth of literacy rates in the Philippines to the formalization of the education system there and its success in achieving its basic objective: to prioritize literacy skills for students.

From the top

Shifts in the country’s education system were rooted in structural changes and policymaking bodies throughout history.

The creation of regulation surrounding education took some 70 years to evolve and 1960 and 1970 literacy data did not include education offered outside regular classrooms, including community learning centers and public halls, for out-of-school youths, dropouts, and differently abled (documented as “nonformal education”). The establishment of the National Manpower and Youth Council, the agency tracking nonformal education, Alba said, made a huge impact on the 1980 literacy rate improvement to 91.79%, according to UNESCO figures.

For John Arnold S. Siena, a director for the National Educators Academy of the Philippines, part of DepEd, the high literacy rate in the country and the 95.24% school participation of children in elementary schooling were achieved through the campaign of the government, particularly DepEd, to bring more school-age children to school. He said initiatives that focused on this goal include the following:

  • The Alternative Learning System, which provides opportunity for out-of-school youths to use the education services of DepEd and take the accreditation and equivalency test, paving the way for further education
  • Open high school and night school opportunities
  • Establishment of schools in areas without schools
  • The Kindergarten Law, which makes attending kindergarten a requirement

Literacy-specific initiatives include the following:

  • Every Child A Reader Program, which mandates all schools, school divisions, and regions to develop interventions addressing reading in schools based on certain assessment techniques such as the Philippine Informal Reading Inventory (Phil-IRI)
  • The Library Hub, established nationwide, in which a vast collection of book titles appropriate for children of various ages is located and in which the books are circulated in schools and made part of the learning competencies of the children
  • A focus in K–3 curriculum on language development, including reading
  • The mother tongue–based multilingual education as part of the K–12 program (under this program, teachers are trained to teach mother tongue competencies to prepare for learning of a second language)
  • Journalism program RA 7079, which offers teacher and student training in journalism
  • Activities throughout the year, including Book Week and National Reading Month

A shared goal

By 2000, organizations inside and outside of the Philippines measured youth literacy rates between 95% and 96.6%.

The Philippines committed to Education for All (EFA) 2015 Goals at the World Education Forum in Dakar, resulting in the Philippine EFA 2015 National Action Plan, “Functionally Literate Filipinos: An Educated Nation.” This plan focuses on achieving wider access to education and life skills programs, a 50% improvement in levels of adult literacy (age 15 and older), and remarkable learning outcomes in literacy, numeracy, and essential life skills.

Siena said he provides continuous support to teachers and other personnel critical to the reading program in schools. For example, the DepEd provides training, support materials, and guidelines on how to operationalize early literacy programs.

DepEd is currently finalizing the policy on Learning Action Cell implementation and strengthening. According to Siena, this is envisioned as “a sustainable and cost-effective means of supporting teacher development.” He added that Learning Action Cells are group-based intervention toward improving teaching practice, and that the reading program, especially in the K–3 stage, will benefit substantially from the intervention.

“The Department of Education also seeks to develop more reading experts from the ranks of teachers through scholarships, long-term trainings, locally available or abroad, to help strengthen the reading programs,” Siena said.

But education reforms and literacy projects cannot be in the hands of DepEd alone. Schools implement their own strategies to contribute to literacy development, like the Reading Literacy Extension Program (RELP) of the University of Northern Philippines (UNP) in Tamag, Vigan.

The effectiveness of RELP, as assessed by Ocarna Figuerres, provided “remarkable” improvement, noting in particular the popularity of the program and the growth of subsequent local literacy programs.

Book drives initiated by the private sector are also popular in the Philippines, such as the Philippine Toy Library, which collects books, board games, and even musical instruments; Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation (With Books, One Will Be Famous); and Books for a Cause, a movement that distributes books to schools located in remote areas.

The teacher’s role

“One more notable aspect about the project is that the lessons were tested through demonstration lessons in the different schools of Naga City and were revised to incorporate the collective suggestions and feedback of teachers,” says Anna Bella F. Abellera, an English teacher at Naga Central School I. “This project is really a huge collaborative effort of teachers and the city officials and community as well.”

Abellera believes that people should never give up on guiding and inspiring children in achieving literacy.

“It may be redundant to say, but I always ask myself, ‘How many lives did I touch lately?’ Or ‘How many did I inspire today?’”

len cristobalLen Cristobal is a freelance writer, blogger, and editor from the Philippines.

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