A MOTHER and her son board an early morning jeepney for work and school. When the woman pays for their fare, the boy asks for money for a school project. Irked, the woman quizzes her son before grumbling that she would have to look for this amount.

Corporate volunteer Vera is worried, too. Since she began helping slow readers in a public school as part of her company’s community outreach, Vera is bothered that students are promoted to the next grade level when they can hardly read and comprehend.

Updates on President Benigno Aquino III's presidency

In many cases, a teacher’s pity often glosses over a student’s early inability to read. Vera feels the sympathy is counterproductive because an early reading inadequacy is later compounded by lack of reading support at home and escalating academic difficulties, which erode a student’s interest to learn and stay in school.

Such economic and educational realities impede the existing process of producing graduates who can be employed and help lift their families and the rest of the nation from present difficulties.

These should anchor the Aquino administration’s dream of reforming the current 10-year public basic education program to a 12-year cycle for enhanced global competitiveness.

Bridging the lag

“How?” is the critical question facing the reformers.

First in the basic education reform plan, as discussed by Juan Miguel Luz, head of the Education Reform Team, in his article published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s (PDI) Aug. 14 issue, is the reintroduction of the Bridge Program.

Sixth graders who perform poorly in the National Achievement Test (NAT) will enroll for a one-year enhancement program on English, Science and Math. After completing the Bridge Program, the students will automatically be promoted to the first level in high school.

It may be enlightening for the proponents to study the example of the University of the Philippines (UP), which once required a Summer Bridge Program (SBP) for all students who acquired scores below the cut-off in the UP College Admission Test’s subtests in mathematics, reading comprehension and language.

A five-week intensive program, the SBP was intended to “bridge the gap between the students’ high school exit skills and their UP entry requirements.” However, implementing the SBP required an office to administer the program (the Learning Resource Center), as well as teachers, modules, facilities and even volunteers. On May 26, 2005, UP’s Board of Regents made the SBP optional.

Whetting of reading

The second step in Aquino’s basic education reform plan is to ensure that by the end of the third grade, pupils should be reading independently and performing proficiently the four mathematical operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division).

Miguel wrote in the same PDI article that when students are this competent, the Bridge Program can be eliminated and give way to a five-year high school program.

Education officials say reading difficulties account for poor NAT performance. While experts say that reading and comprehension are honed by increasing the child’s activities with books, public school students suffer from having no libraries or even reading centers in school or at home.

In the public school curricula, reading is not treated as a separate subject but only as one of the skills to be acquired in the subjects of Filipino and English. A public school student then has to learn reading along with writing, listening and speaking within the class time allocated for these subjects.

Less exposure to reading, combined with the challenges of coping with many languages (a local language or dialect, the national language, and English as a second language), weakens Filipino students’ acquisition of skills and building of competencies. Educators say that in addition to knowledge and skills, students must have competency, which taps cognitive and non-cognitive resources to carry out a complex task.

Two reading difficulties observed in Filipino students—an inability to see the bigger picture due to an overemphasis of details, and a confusion about the literal and the figurative—have been interpreted by educators as a reflection on the current system’s emphasis on memorization and recall, to the detriment of logic and analysis.

These inadequacies can be corrected early, such as by opening public preschools for five-year-olds, streaming six-year-olds in kindergarten and enrolling seven- and eight-year-olds in grade one. All these schemes are cited in the basic education reform plan.