Open letter to DepEd: How to teach kids to read

Learning to read is not a mystery. It’s just like learning numbers, money,or any language. You need to know what a word means, then you need to memorize it. Then keep practicing.

We learn that number 1 refers to one thing. Kids need to remember what 1 looks like so they learn to identify it, write it, sound it, and match it to a quantity of one item.

Same way with letter A. Kids need to know what a capital A and lower case A looks like. They need to be able to identify it in all its forms, whether in print or handwritten, then they learn to write it to familiarize themselves with its form. They have to sound it, first in its basic phonetic Ah as in apple then in its long A sound like ape. Advanced levels tackle the tricky combinations and sound deviations from the norm, like laugh and boat.

It’s then critical that kids memorize the 26 letters in the English alphabet. Once they can recall how each letter looks and sounds, we can combine it in basic phonetic words like bat, pen, car.

We can’t complicate things by teaching Tagalog sounds alongside English because they are not related nor interchangeable. Tagalog is easy and intuitive because it’s phonetic—it’s sounded as it looks. Kanin is spelled and spoken as it looks. By default, Tagalog is spoken widely so we don’t need to teach it so formally as we do English. Whether we learn it in school or not, every Filipino knows how to speak and read in Tagalog. So let’s concentrate on English reading.

Memorize the symbols to learn the code

A neighbor asked me what kids learn in kindergarten, well obviously, they learn skills to help them learn to read. You start with basic identification of the simplest things.

Learning to read begins BEFORE the actual reading lesson. Kids need to be able to decipher figures and symbols. That’s why we start with the simple shapes: a circle will later look like a letter O or the number zero.

A triangle is part of the capital A or a number 4. Curvy and straight lines are found in all written form. Learning shapes and figures helps kids hone their visual acuity that will help them identify letters, numbers, and words from grades 1-2.

It’s the same with mastering numbers, which is as much a part of literacy as letters. Not everyone can read letters but anyone can understand money. If I give you P100 and say it is P1,000 you know I’m lying because you can buy so much more with a thousand. We learn what is close to our hearts.

The first word most preschoolers learn is their name. Kids learn the look and sound of it. It’s the first word they learn to write, draw, and decorate. Then they move on to Mom and Dad—good phonetic words rich with personal meaning. Next comes family members, pets, hobbies, sports, music, and passions. Anything that piques their interest.

Teachers form basic phonetic words and pair this with pictures for kids to memorize. Think flashcards. Once kids know what the word means, we test them by letting them match the word to the picture. Like any code, we need to know what symbols mean to learn it in combination with other symbols.

Kids need lots of good books.

So if kids know the individual sounds of the letters A, N, T then they know how to read ant and ANT. If they match this word with the picture of the insect or know what ant means, then they can read and understand the word ant.

That’s why preschool and kinder classes need to label EVERYTHING in the classroom. The word Table on a table will imprint the word and meaning in the child’s mind. The word Bag on his bag makes the word meaningful and unforgettable.

Ivy Digest ⦁ Ivy Lopez

That’s the key to learning to read. Kids must know what a word looks, sounds, and means so they can learn it and remember. If they see words on objects they already know, then it’s so much easier to remember that the Clock tells time in the Classroom and Blackboard is where Teacher writes with a Chalk. Easy right? It’s basic learning theory, start with what they already know first then build from there.

Reading is not the same as comprehension

Young kids must first learn to read before they can comprehend. If you can’t read Stop or Go you don’t know what to do. Many simple words give directions: Enter, Exit, Left, Right, Up, Down, Walk. Comprehension involves understanding what a group of words mean together. Don’t Walk, No Littering, No Smoking. But how will you know what littering and smoking means?

Meaning is derived from experience or knowledge. If we have experienced something, we know what it means. So we know clean water, refreshing bath, hot soup, loving embrace. That’s why it’s important for toddlers to experience as much of the world as they can. Let them play in mud, enjoy nature, roll in the grass, and explore animals and plants. These are all words that they will learn in school.

But the problem is when words don’t mean anything to a Filipino child, like Snow or Fall. Yes, you can show pictures, but what IS it? Learning English necessitates learning American or English culture. Just as there is no English translation for Halo-Halo, there is no Tagalog translation for Autumn or Winter. So teachers need to adapt English words to what Filipino kids can understand. Just teach words we will use.

So if a young child’s reading comprehension is low, that means the material is not relatable to his experience or knowledge. Maybe the material is too removed from the child’s reality. Revise the material to fit the child.

Difficult material is still understandable with the teacher’s help, especially through read-aloud, as long as the child can relate to the story or material. That’s why many young readers enjoy Harry Potter because it is about a boy who feels lost, afraid, and unloved. Who can’t relate to that? But if the text is about a boy who plays in the snow, a boy from a tropical country will not understand it.

The other problem is that so much reading material is just too BORING that no reader cares to understand it. Thus, the child fails comprehension. Well written educational books and materials are rare because they are usually written by equally bored writers.

Books are the best way to read well

We need to read books and stories that appeal to kids, that speak to their interests and issues. Instead of boring data, let’s give them thrilling stories of fantastic adventures, heroic deeds, amazing lives. Biographies are full of obstacles, wars are all about conflict, and dramas are riveting parodies of bad actors. That’s why young children adore fairy tales, it’s got all the action, drama, and depravity as real life.

Sure books can be expensive, that’s why we need public libraries that can buy books and lend it to teachers and students. Teachers can ask for donations to build their own classroom libraries. Parents can ask for book gifts for their home libraries. But there are many resources to avail of books cheaply. You can even ask authors and publishers to donate a copy to your school or library.

A 6-year-old avid reader.

Books are still the best way to practice reading. Digital books are not as accessible as physical books. (Isn’t it funny I have to distinguish these books?) Audio books can save time because students can listen during story time while the teacher or parent takes a break or does something else (like sit down). Audio books are also great for long car rides.

All reading is good reading. Anytime a book engages the mind and imagination, it’s reading. It’s more important for me that he keeps reading books.

Snobs think audio books are not at par with physical books, but good writing sounds good. Auditory acuity is also important for kids to know how words are spoken, like Colonel and omelet. English is not phonetic so listening to it helps build vocabulary and teach correct pronunciation.

The no-cost audio book is still the traditional read-aloud. You need to read to your child daily or as regularly as you can. Read anything in print: headlines, book titles, ingredients, instructions, product descriptions, your chats and emails.

A nightly reading ritual has so many proven benefits for the child because it associates a special time with a parent with reading. So in theory, the child will enjoy reading because he of such fond memory. But I’m a bookworm who was never read to so being a lonely child also helps foster the reading habit. What matters is access to plenty of good books.

No need to rush the kids

While the race to read early has been a historical craze, there is no rush to learn to read early. This is borne by the consistent statistic that Filipinos have always had a high literacy rate of at least 94% so obviously nearly all kids will eventually learn to read English well. This is also supported by the steadily growing enrollment of our neighboring Asian citizens like Korea who come to Manila just to learn English.

The Philippines is the premier destination for English speakers in Asia. Our ability to speak English has opened work opportunities locally as business processors and overseas as contract workers or permanent high skilled workers. Filipinos with means can study or live abroad seamlessly wherever English is spoken. What’s even more impressive, Filipinos can adopt an almost American accent, just like our radio DJs.

Learning to read early is like eating vegetables at two then saying you’re healthy for life. What matters is the regular consumption of veggies, not the early start. If you want to be a good reader, you need to keep reading regularly. Read books or publications outside of work. Newspapers, magazines, online publications all count as long as they keep you reading and entertained.

I used to think only serious books should be read, but I’ve relaxed with my son when he got into graphic novels and comic books. All reading is good reading. Anytime a book engages the mind and imagination, it’s reading. It’s more important for me that he keeps reading books.

Where to start without a budget

Schools always bemoan lack of funds as a deterrent to quality education. But resourceful teachers and parents have always found ways to teach their kids to read with little money. Just use what we have around the house and community. We are surrounded by English words.

Start with products and brands you use around the house. What brand is your toothpaste, shirt, favorite snack, or dairy? What car do you drive?

Go out and find words. What company do you work for? What’s your school, street, store? What’s your neighbor’s name? Where do you eat? What food do you order from the menu? Let your child help you find grocery items or let him order his own food. That also teaches decision-making, confidence, and a sense of esteem that he is capable.

When you watch TV or surf online, what is the website or app? What is the show or channel? What’s the title of the post or description?

We don’t need fancy posters and materials. We just need to look for opportunities to teach. Kids LOVE learning about the adult world. They love being in on what everyone knows. Like money.

So we can also start by teaching kids about money because reading, and all learning, are interrelated. We don’t read in isolation of the real world. We read to navigate and understand our world.

Get a P20, P100, P1,000 note. Ask the child to find all the words and numbers he sees then tell them what they mean. It’s also a simple math lesson, that five 20s equal a 100, and 10 100s equal a thousand. Mind-boggling.

Part of reading is writing. Kids need to write out words. This physical act imprints the word into their long-term memory and gives them an experience with the word. Kids should do daily writing exercises of new words, words they found, words they like, words they don’t know, special words, difficult words, impressive words. Then they write sentences until they can make paragraphs and short essays.

Any skill must be practiced regularly or else we lose it. Reading is the same. Educators complain that kids don’t read enough, as if THEY read a lot. But what is enough? Isn’t it enough if the child reads online, types a search term, scrolls through the results, reads a post AND understands it?

We read for information or entertainment, or both. We get 90% of our daily information visually, and that means a LOT of reading. Every school and job demands that we read and communicate what we understood. If we are to stay competitive globally, we need to inculcate the importance of reading AND writing in English.

Teaching a skill like reading is daily practice of the basics. Every champion athlete practices basic drills no matter how accomplished they are. Same with reading. It’s not a one-shot thing. We need to keep reading at all levels in school and all throughout our lives if we truly want to be skilled readers.