MANILA, JUNE 5, 2012 (INQUIRER) By: Roberto S. Salva - In K + 12, the new basic education program, the Department of Education is not introducing a formal science class until the third grade. It wants the children to focus on learning how to read first.

Filipinos in the science community are aghast. Children’s natural curiosity should be cultivated and molded, as early as possible, toward formal scientific investigations. On Facebook, a friend questioned the competence of those behind the design. “Don’t tell me they are still wasting children’s time with ba be bi bo bu, ka ke ki ko ku,” she wrote.

A Filipino scientist now teaching in Georgetown University also complained about the late introduction of formal science classes. He suggested that if the children are to be taught reading, they should be taught to read in English as materials in the language abound.

In his book, “Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read,” Prof. Stanislas Dehaene reestablishes the best route to learn to read, and that is: learning first the sounds of each letter and combination of letters. Various studies had earlier proven this, but Dehaene, acknowledged as the leading authority in the neuroscience of language, uses his research into the brain to emphasize it.

We learn to read by first learning the “babebibobus” and “kakekikokus,” the connection between written letters (graphemes) and sounds (phonemes).

Dehaene debunks the “whole-word” method to teach reading. In this method, teachers teach children to recognize the direct association between whole words or sentences and their corresponding meanings. Teachers, thus, throw the “babebibobus” and “kakekikokus” out of the classroom windows and waste not the children’s time.

Linguistics researchers note that this debate between the two methods is only quite heated in English-speaking countries. Other countries in the West have been clear with the efficiency of the grapheme-phoneme approach in the teaching of reading.

In a 1998 academic article, Usha Goswami of the University College London and his team speculate that this may be so because the English language is orthographically nontransparent. Each letter and combination of letters of the English language do not have a consistent pronunciation. (The pronunciation of “ough,” for example, is different in “bough,” “bought,” and “tough”).

The 40 sounds of the English letters and letter-combinations, according to a different study, can be represented in 1,120 ways. The 25 sounds of Italian—a transparent language, on the other hand—can be represented in only 33 ways. As a result, Italian children can read any Italian word after only six months of schooling.

In an early 2000 study comparing the children who just finished first grade in 15 European countries, Italian children had a 5-percent reading error rate compared to British children’s 67 percent. French children, who learned to read in a language that is nontransparent but less so than English, had a reading error rate of 28 percent.

It takes around two additional years before English children are able to read at the level of French children.

The Italian, French and English children have been learning to read in their respective mother tongues. They are learning to read in languages in which they have found themselves submerged.

Italian children learn any Italian word in only a couple of months of schooling, the French in a year or so more after, and the English in around two years more after the French. How long, then, would Filipino children learn to read in English well?

If “yer honeurs” followed the impeachment trial and “wetnessed” how our “politayyycians” and lawyers read English words, we could say that we may need ample years more.

Reading the sounds of English letters and words right is not the most important in reading—that is, if you already know how to read. But learning to associate the correct sounds with the right letters or words is a crucial step in learning how to read.

Thus, the plan to use the mother tongue as the language for teaching primary graders until the third grade is enlightened. We have finally realized that our native languages are not handicaps, that what we have are not necessarily hindering us from succeeding.

Our languages have transparent orthographies. We can read them as they are written. If the children are taught to read in the languages in which they have found themselves submerged, they could perhaps read in these languages efficiently in less than a year of schooling.

The use of mother tongues as the first language of instruction, first promulgated in 2009 by then Education Secretary Jesli Lapus, is introduced after various studies done since the 1970s have shown the efficiency of using the mother tongue as medium of instruction compared to using a second language like English. The same studies have shown that a good grasp of the structure of a first language is also a good bridge in learning another language.

The lack of materials in our mother tongues is an opportunity for local writers and publishers. In the past few years, the production of children’s books written in Filipino has risen. If you read them, you would notice that they are quite good and inexpensive. Filipino children’s books are able to capture something in ourselves that foreign books do not.

Reading, then, in K +12 is off to a good start. Our children are beginning with what they have—the language to which they were born. Hopefully, they will inch their way, step by step and wasting their time, until they are able to read with “K.”

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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