Three Ways Libraries Can Promote Mother Tongue Reading in the Philippines

For the past three years, the Philippines education system has been immersed in a transition from English and Filipino to mother-tongue language of instruction for grades 1 to 3. In a country with more than 100 languages, this is a formidable challenge, but one that is critical to confront. Research has repeatedly shown that children learn to read best when taught in the language they’re using at home.

In this new educational environment, kids need every resource available to help them learn to read. Can the public library system can play a useful role in this environment? With more than 1300 libraries around the country, is there an opportunity to make use of these community institutions to provide extra support in reading to children and parents alike? To begin answering these questions, on March 4, representatives from the Department of Education, NGOs, the National Library of the Philippines, and public libraries met at the Tondo Congressional Library in Manila for a discussion of where libraries might fit in the picture of meeting the early-grade reading challenge.

Participants highlighted three major issues:

1. Access to materials

Materials in most local languages are still pretty scarce.  In many of the country’s 19 main languages, teachers and students don’t have materials beyond textbooks, if at all. Teachers hunger for their students to have access to supplementary materials like story books that can help get children practice in reading and help them associate reading with leisure. While the Department of Education has ambitious plans to create and disseminate materials in all the languages, this process by nature will take time. With limited materials, it’s important to help communities maximize what exists through shared resources. Libraries can serve as hubs for the local language materials that do exist so they can be easily accessed and shared among everyone. This can include local magazines, stories, and online content.

A public library's children's corner in Malabon, near Manila.

A public library’s children’s corner in Malabon, near Manila.

2. Creation of materials

But where local language materials are scarce, children still need some way to practice reading in them, and confining their reading in a language to textbooks risks turning literacy into an academic subject rather than a functional one. Additionally, within regions, there is considerable variance between localities in terminologies that are most commonly used, so some local language books don’t closely resemble the language spoken at home. When there is a need for self-created local-language materials, libraries are often centers for community-driven content creation. Libraries run activities like creating little books with families, establishing both a repository of local language learning materials at the library, and materials that children can proudly take home. They also organize storytelling sessions to record community history and folklore, helping to preserve culture while providing new, locally-relevant materials.

3. Community engagement

Reading efforts need families to be involved. Parents – whose own education was usually in English and Filipino – also need assistance in the process helping their children on assignments in mother tongues. Many don’t have books for leisure reading at home and aren’t used to practicing at home the activities like shared reading that will strengthen children’s reading skills. Libraries are a community resource that can play this role, organizing regular activities that help parents get more involved in their children’s reading development.

As children, teachers and parents navigate new educational needs, it’s critical to make use of all opportunities available to support the literacy effort. The participants in last week’s discussion were eager to explore how the country’s libraries can serve as a key partner in helping every child in the Philippines learn to read.