June 2007
Literature and Literacy

A nation of nonreaders

WHY IS it that despite our supposedly high literacy rate, many Filipinos can barely read and write? Why haven’t we been able to develop a reading habit among Filipinos?

THE problem of nonreading lies at the heart of why the Philippines is so uncompetitive in the world economy and why so many of our people continue to live in poverty or barely escape it. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

Straightforward questions about something so fundamental. Yet there are no easy answers to such a complex problem. Worse, the problem of nonreading lies at the heart of why the Philippines is so uncompetitive in the world economy and why so many of our people continue to live in poverty or barely escape it.

Someone once remarked that we are not a nation of readers; we are a nation of storytellers. Ours is a culture of oral history passed on by word of mouth not through the written word. Perhaps that is why most of the information people receive today is gathered from television (62 percent) and radio (57 percent). Newspapers and magazines are read by only 47 percent and 36 percent of the population respectively, according to a 2003 government survey.

In the modern era, however, this is too low a figure. And how did this happen when we pride ourselves as being a highly literate people? Then again, are we really?

To start with, let’s establish the difference between literacy and reading. They are related, but literacy is a level of competence, while reading is a skill. One can be literate but not necessarily a reader because reading, as a skill, requires the development of a habit that must be exercised daily if it is to be retained and enhanced. If left unexercised, the skill becomes rusty and can even be lost.

We begin this discussion with literacy, for which there are two measures: simple and functional.

Simple literacy is the ability of a person to read and write with understanding a simple message in any language or dialect. Functional literacy, meanwhile, is a significantly higher level of literacy that includes not only reading and writing skills, but also numeracy (the ‘rithmetic that completes the ‘three Rs’), which leads to a higher order of thinking that allows persons to participate more meaningfully in life situations requiring a reasonable capacity to communicate in a written language. The simplest, most direct measure of functional literacy is the ability to follow a written set of instructions for even basic tasks. Thus, functional literacy is the more important indicator of competence when it comes to adults in the workforce.

FOR DECADES, the Philippines has reported a simple literacy rate in the mid-to-high 90s. In 2003, the simple literacy rate was actually lower at 93.4 percent for the entire population at least 10 years of age. Girls show a higher rate of simple literacy than boys (94.3 percent versus 92.6 percent). Not surprisingly, Metro Manila reported the highest rate at 99 percent; the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) had the lowest at 68.9 percent (and falling compared to the 1994 rate of 73.5 percent).

Over the last 10-year period (measuring simple literacy is part of the national census taken once a decade), there has been a disturbing occurrence. Nine of 15 regions (under the old regional configuration) showed a slight decline in simple literacy from 1994 to 2003. These included two of the three Visayan regions (VII and VIII) and all of the Mindanao regions. Overall, simple literacy for the entire country fell by 0.5 percent from 1994 to 2003. (See Table1)

Table 1. Simple Literacy Rate
(for the population aged 10 years and older)
Source: National Statistics Office

1994 93.9 93.7 94.0
2003 93.4 92.6 94.3

What do these numbers mean? Based on a population of 80 million, 6.6 percent illiteracy translates into 5.3 million Filipinos who cannot read or write; a number that grew by about 1.6 million over the past decade.

I suspect, however, that our simple literacy rate might even be overstated, meaning there may be even more Filipinos incapable of reading and writing a simple message, with understanding, than reported officially. The measure of simple literacy, after all, is not determined by a test but rather by a census question. A census-taker asks respondents: “Can you read or write a simple message in any language or dialect?” It’s easy to imagine that quite a number of household heads would answer affirmatively to hide the fact that they are illiterate, out of a feeling of hiya (shame). And I do not think census-takers take the time to test the literacy level of a respondent during the survey.

Professor Dina Ocampo of the University of the Philippines School of Education says that literacy is really about the ability “to construct and create meaning from or through written language.” To do so will require a higher degree of abstraction. Therefore, the true measure of literacy must be functional, not simple.

THE FUNCTIONAL literacy rate in the country is more realistic — but again, it may be overstated, even though it is measured by a test and not the subject of a survey question. Curiously, the test itself is called the Functional Literacy, Education and Mass Media Survey (FLEMMS), which is done by the National Statistics Council in partnership with the Department of Education and the Literacy Coordinating Council.

Table 2. Functional Literacy Rate
(10-64 years old)
Source: FLEMMS, 2003

1994 83.8 81.7 85.9
2003 84.1 81.9 86.3

In 2003, the functional literacy rate was determined to be 84.1 percent of the population aged 10-64 years old. Again, girls showed a higher rate at 86.3 percent of all females surveyed versus boys at 81.9 percent of all males. (See Table 2)

While the overall rate for the entire country rose slightly in 2003 versus 1994, seven of 15 regions fell over the same period with Regions II, VIII, IX, X and XI showing drops in both simple and functional literacy rates.

More revealing is functional literacy by age group based on the 2003 FLEMMS: Adults closest to college graduation age (20-24 and 25-29 years) showed functional literacy rates of over or close to 90 percent. But school-age children (10-14 and 15-19 years) showed rates far below the 100 percent that would be assumed since functional literacy is based on a grasp and facility with the ‘three Rs’ (reading, writing, and arithmetic) that we hope our children are mastering. The numbers, however, say otherwise. (See Table 3)

Table 3. Functional Literacy by age group
Source: FLEMMS, 2003

10-14 78.8
15-19 89.9
20-24 91.6
25-29 89.1
25-29 89.1
30-39 86.3
40-49 84.2
50-59 78.6
60-64 68.6

This relatively lower figure reflects the high dropout rates of children before the start of Grade 4 (or by age 10). Department of Education (DepEd) data show that for every 100 children who enter Grade 1, close to 15 do not make it into Grade 2, and roughly one-quarter (24 percent) have dropped out before Grade 4.

Grade 3 (10 years old) is a critical year in terms of formal schooling. Since preschooling is neither compulsory nor part of the package of free public education guaranteed by the Constitution, Grade 3 marks the third full year of basic education for children who attend public elementary school and the year when the facility to read, write, and do the four operations of arithmetic with competence is expected. (Less than 20 percent of those who go to public elementary school actually attend a full year of preschool education.)

Dropping out before this grade level thus becomes a major contributor to the lack of functional literacy, which in turn has a negative impact on adults and their eventual work productivity. This is assuming, of course, that by the end of Grade 3 (or the third year of formal full-time schooling), our children’s competence in the three ‘Rs are being honed fully. But as we are seeing, that may not be happening in far too many schools.

WITH LOW-LEVEL literacy comes poor reading skill. In elementary schools in the Division of Manila, reading test scores reveal that only one-sixth to one-third of pupils can read independently at the desired grade level. By the end of the elementary cycle (Grade 6), over one-third of elementary graduates were identified as “frustrated” readers; another one-third were “instructional” readers. Both levels are below the desired reading level at the end of the elementary cycle. (See Table 4)

Table 4. Reading Levels of Children in the City Schools Division of Manila
Source: Philippine-IRI Test, Schools Division of Manila, SY 2003-04

1 64.41 20.17 15.42 23,114
2 49.98 31.45 19.07 28,170
3 47.59 32.47 19.94 26,843
4 44.82 32.17 23.01 25,493
5 50.78 28.48 20.74 30,288
6 36.50 34.67 28.83 27,199


The Phil-IRI (Philippine-Informal Reading Inventory) test is an oral test given to a pupil to measure reading ability. Five test questions are administered constituting the entire test.

Independent reading level – Pupil can read with ease and without the help or guidance of a teacher. In the Phil-IRI test, they can answer four or five correct answers (out of five test questions) and can read with rhythm, with a conversational tone, and can interpret punctuation correctly.

Instructional reading level – Pupil can profit from instruction. In the Phil-IRI test, they answer three out of five test questions correctly.

Frustrated reading level – Pupil gets two or below in the Phil-IRI test (out of five test questions). They show symptoms or behavior of withdrawing from reading situations and commit multiple types of errors in oral reading.

What is troubling, in my view, is that the Philippine Informal Reading Inventory (Phil-IRI) test is hardly a robust test and tends to score in favor of even poor readers. The DepEd has resisted using international test instruments based on the argument of cultural soundness (or lack thereof on the part of international tests with regard Philippine culture). The tendency to go with an “easier” test, however, defeats the purpose of measuring results.

If Metro Manila shows a higher literacy level than the rest of the country but low levels of reading competence, one can only expect even lower reading scores in other regions of the country with less endowments and educational facilities than the National Capital Region.

Here then is the crux of the problem: With poor reading comes poor learning.

In high school, science and math learning require a degree of reading ability since much of what is learned is actually self-taught. The classroom experience in science is expected to focus on experimentation. Learning basic facts and theory in science is supposed to be read as preparation for this. Since Filipino schoolchildren have shown low levels of reading, science and math proficiency are similarly poor because much of what is learned is not self-driven or internalized; rather, it is passed from teacher to student in the old-school rote learning fashion. This largely explains why so few high-school graduates are equipped for university-level science and the subsequent lack of a technical/technology culture among our working population. Without such, the manufacturing and technical sector will continue to be weak in this country — explaining to a large extent our lack of competitiveness in the global economy.

Poor reading is also a reflection of poor language proficiency, whether this be in English or in the national language. One sees this immediately in the language proficiency of public school teachers.

In 2003, responding to the reality that English language proficiency was sorely lacking or being lost among Filipinos of all ages, then Education Secretary Edilberto de Jesus embarked on a nationwide campaign to raise the language proficiency of public school teachers beginning with high school teachers.

Starting with over 53,000 secondary teachers teaching English, science and math — languages that require a good degree of English communication skills — a Self-Assessment Test in English (SATE) was administered to determine the proficiency level of these teachers. Only one-fifth (19 percent) passed with a score of at least 75 percent correct. While the vast majority were able to answer more than 50 percent of the test questions correctly (65 percent), close to one-fifth were obviously deficient in English and should not have been teaching subjects that require a degree of English communication skills in reading and writing. (In education scoring, a mark of 75 percent or more constitutes “mastery.” A grade between 50 percent and 75 percent is considered “nearing mastery.” A grade below 50 percent is a measure of “no mastery.”)

THE KEY to learning is better reading skills. But this reading skill need not be confined to English only. The ability to read and write in any language or dialect is what is important. From this “life-long learning” or “survival” skill, one can develop the ability to “learn for life.” These are important elements for building individual competence and achievement that can be translated in the future into a competitive workforce.

Note, however, that the issue of English-language skill in the workplace is another issue altogether. At least it should be, but it often gets entangled with our plans on what to teach in our schools. We are concerned by the decline in English proficiency of our workers. But take note that Japanese, as well as Korean, Thai, and even Malaysian workers, are not required to speak in English on the factory floor. They communicate in their own native languages and they do so with competence.

The English language becomes important when workers are forced to work in situations where supervisors and managers are foreign or the work system is adapted from abroad. English then becomes the intermediate language of reference and a necessary element of communication. Because many Filipino workers are forced to work in such situations either in-country or abroad, English proficiency becomes a critical factor. But because the formal part of the language is stressed at so young an age when learning is still beginning, the ability to learn more science and math content is sacrificed. This is, in large part, why productivity among Filipino workers and managers suffers and why competitiveness, as a country trait, is low.

This bears repeating: Grades 1 to 3 are critical in the child’s learning cycle (assuming no preschooling for most public schoolchildren.) At this age, the fundamentals for literacy have to be established and the start of a reading habit developed.

SHOULD WE despair? Not yet — because while the vast majority of our public schools struggle to manage deficiencies and shortages in the system, there are diamonds in the rough sprinkled throughout that provide hope for all.

“Models-of-excellence” (MOE) schools were born out of a program called “Books for the Barrios” set up by a former Subic-based couple, Nancy and Dan Harrington, over 15 years ago. The Harringtons collected books from U.S. families, schools, and publishers (e.g. publishing overruns) and had these shipped to Philippine elementary schools to set up libraries and reading programs. In later years, Professor Isagani Cruz of Far Eastern University (and formerly De La Salle University) developed a reading program for them that focused on “words of the day” from Grades 1 to 6 to help hone a vocabulary set that would equip very young children to read.

In Agusan del Sur, Amy Ronquillo, the dynamic young principal of Pisaan Elementary School, took a poorly-performing school and transformed it into an MOE school where children are able to read well within the first year of their formal schooling. The result has led to a transformation of the school with parent involvement so high that what was once a school with a high dropout rate is now overcrowded, as parents compete to get their kids enrolled there.

In Negros Occidental, ESKAN or Eskwelahan sang Katawhan Negros (literally “school for the people”) set up district-level reading programs to improve on the achievement of pupils in schools in each of the towns. First started in the sixth-class towns of San Enrique and Toboso, the program has expanded to other towns in the province (E.B. Magalona, Murcia, La Castellana, Moises Padilla, and Silay) before being exported to the neighboring province of Iloilo (Concepcion and Ajuy).

Poor school performance was traced to a dearth of student-friendly instructional materials in most schools; inadequate skills and formal mechanisms for teachers to handle children with learning difficulties (chief among these, poor reading); and the minimal participation of the local community (i.e. parents) in local school matters.

To address these deficiencies, Grade 1 teachers in participating schools went through a 15-day rigid training on reading; para-teachers were recruited and trained to handle pupils with reading difficulties; and a pool of local trainers from DepEd developed instructional materials now being used by all Grade 1 pupils in schools in all ESKAN municipalities. The net effect: a decline in the number of slow and nonreaders in schools in all these municipalities, even within months of implementation.

Then there is the Sa Aklat Sisikat (SAS) Foundation whose program began in the Makati schools division before branching out to other cities and provinces. To date, SAS has set up reading programs for over 125,000 Grade 4 children in 525 public elementary schools. The program targets Grade 4 because it does not really teach reading; rather, it works on a school age group that already knows how to read in order to build a reading habit.

READING PROGRAMS, in fact, have been set up in all school divisions by both public and private groups. But in order to develop a reading habit, schoolchildren need books that tell stories in an interesting manner while developing a broader vocabulary. Textbooks, which are more lesson-oriented, lack the imagination that children need to develop the reading habit.

The problem of providing libraries of reading books in public schools becomes a question of logistics and the lack of resources. To provide reading books for over 37,000 public elementary schools becomes prohibitive in terms of cost. As an operating strategy to get around this constraint, the DepEd embarked on a program to build library hubs in each of the 186 school divisions.

These hubs are, in effect, warehouses of reading books in pre-packed book bins lent to schools within a given division on a wholesale basis. Teachers then lend out the books from the bins to children in their classes and encourage each pupil to read at least one book per week. After a 30-day borrowing period, schools return book bins and are eligible to borrow other book bins. Each library hub is stocked with anywhere from 25,000-50,000 reading books. Thus, while it is costly to build tens of thousands of school libraries with a small number of books, each school within a library hub area can have access to tens of thousands of books in a schoolyear even if it does not have a school library.

By early 2007, DepEd had set up 35 library hubs throughout the country servicing as many as 3,000 schools. In the plans are a total target of 300 library hubs, with larger school divisions getting as many as three to four hubs to service the hundreds of schools within their jurisdiction.

The DepEd, however, has been ambivalent whether this is the right strategy or not. Traditional administrators remain biased toward building school-based libraries, ignoring the high cost of such a policy. The success of the Library Hub program today, despite providing only 10 percent of the overall target, can be attributed to the sole staff working on the project: a young, energetic individual named Beverly Gonda. Working principally with local government units to set up library hubs under the sponsorship of the local school boards, Gonda has made library books available to hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren through this infrastructure-building program.

With people like Gonda and Ronquillo, and organizations like Sa Aklat Sisikat and ESKAN, along with the rest of the MOE movers and shakers, there is hope for quality education outcomes. Clearly, however, a system-wide approach to literacy, reading, and learning has to be implemented if we are to claim true literacy and become a nation of readers.

Juan Miguel Luz, a former education undersecretary, is the president of the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction.