Why schools are failing our children

M. Gunigundo I

By Magtanggol T. Gunigundo I

Philippine Daily Inquirer, Saturday, November 19, 2011

Despite its claim to being research-based, the present K-12 curriculum actually ignores language-in-education findings when it provides for the use of the first language (L1) as medium of instruction for only up to Grade 3 and thereafter, with no transition whatsoever, shifts to English and Filipino as second languages (L2s) for instruction. The scheme clearly underestimates the role of oral language development in the early grades as a strong foundation to learning to read and write in both the L1 and in the L2. The provision for the L1 as a separate subject is laudable but cannot make up for the deleterious effects of the early-exit nature of the K-12 curriculum.

The challenge of language-minority students in the United States who cannot read and write proficiently in English led the Department of Education in 2002 to create a panel to address this problem. One of the panel’s major findings is that oral proficiency and literacy in the L1 are crucial determinants for literacy in English.

The research suggests that the disparity between the word-level and text-level (comprehension) skills of non-native and native English learners can be traced to the difference in their oral language proficiency. Oral proficiency in English is not a strong predictor of English word-level skills among non-native English speakers, but is strongly associated with comprehension and writing skills for these students.

Children’s ability to learn an L2 is enhanced when their L1 is the primary language of instruction throughout the elementary grades. L1 fluency and literacy lay a cognitive and linguistic foundation for learning additional languages. When the child fully develops his cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) in the L1, this can provide a successful transfer of the communication ability in the L2. If you have reading ability in your L1, this ability can be transferred to the L2; you do not have to learn to read again.

According to Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, six years of L1 education is an absolute minimum but eight years is better. She found that in Ethiopia those who had eight years of mainly L1 medium and who have studied Amharic (the dominant national language) and English as subjects produced the best results in science, mathematics and English. Those with six years were not as good, and those who quickly shifted to English, fared the worst.

A UP College of Education study in 2004 made by Prof. Lourdes Mae Baetiong shows that the CALP threshold level in written Filipino is approximately reached in Grade 6. More importantly, the same study shows that the stronger the development in the L1, the stronger the proficiency in the L2.

In contrast, in the submersion model (which is what we have now) children are trained to mechanically repeat what their teacher is saying but fail to decode and understand the meaning of the utterances. The submersion model further assumes that the child will automatically master the language of education during the process of education. What is happening now in most of our schools is a lot of decoding but without understanding. This is one of the reasons our schools are failing our children.

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, data from the 2008 Functional Literacy and Mass Media survey (FLEMMS)  tend to show that the submersion model really does not work. Consider the following:

  1. Some 5 million of the 9.6 million elementary graduates had no comprehension skills.
  2. Another 5.2 million of the 12.8 million students who had reached high school had also no comprehension skills.
  3. Nine million Filipinos could not compute.
  4. Twenty million Filipinos (3 out of 10) did not understand what they were reading.

These are the underlying reasons I sponsored House Bill No. 162, otherwise known as the Multilingual Education and Literacy Bill. The bill promotes the use of the L1 as MOI from Grades 1 to 6. It advocates the strong teaching of English and Filipino as subjects before these become the MOI in high school with the L1 as auxiliary medium. It also pushes for the intensive pre-service and in-service training of teachers and materials development in the L1. It also provides that the language of teaching must be the language of testing.

My proposal accords with one of 10 things President Aquino promised to fix in Philippine basic education. This concerns the rationalization of the medium of instruction. The President believes that we should become trilingual as a country and that we should “learn English well to connect to the world, learn Filipino to connect to your country, and retain your mother tongue to connect to your heritage.”

We live in a multicultural and multilingual world. All languages are equal to the task of accessing and constructing this world. But I believe we should educate our people primarily in their first languages or L1 and not in English or in Filipino which are second languages (L2) to most Filipinos.

Magtanggol T. Gunigundo I represents the second district of Valenzuela City and is a deputy majority leader in the House of Representatives.

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