Multilingual Reading: Forming a Bridge to English, culture, and broader society

Jenny Lynn Lee

One of the greatest challenges and the greatest obstacle to learning in Philippine education is the use of English as the official medium of instruction.  Almost all of the learning materials, from kindergarten onwards, are in English.  This may be surmountable—and perhaps not even much of a challenge—for places and households with a high level of education and an easy facility in and exposure to the language.  However, in upland areas and in poor households where parents have low educational attainment and there is not much exposure to and use of the language, English is the greatest barrier to learning, confounding students and making the learning experience frustrating and a wealth of knowledge inaccessible to children who might otherwise be excited to learn about the world they live in.

Prior to the pandemic, students could get by because teachers explained the material in the mother tongue.  This was true not only in the grade school but also in the high school classes.  However, this meant that students were dependent on the teachers’ lectures and had no direct access to the original learning materials.  This also meant that much of their learning was oral and their reading and writing skills were underdeveloped. 

With the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 and the shift to home-based modular distance learning, students could no longer get by on their teachers’ lectures.  Many of them found themselves overwhelmed and sorely unprepared to deal with the learning materials, such as in the subjects Math, Science, and English, which require extensive reading and a good grasp of English to make sense of the materials.

One of the strategies in the grade school, long implemented at APC, was the use of the mother tongue to develop beginning language skills before transitioning to Filipino and English, and its use as well to teach Math and Science to facilitate learning in these content areas.  In the Philippines, Social Studies is taught in Filipino and this is much more accessible to students.  However, there are no Math and Science resources in Filipino, and so students really have to contend with English.

The question then is, how do we help students overcome this obstacle?  The English subject, as it has been taught so far, has been wholly inadequate to prepare students for the academic language used in Math, Science, and other subjects in the Senior High School.  How do we strengthen our English curriculum so that students can advance more rapidly in expanding their vocabulary, given limited English resources at home and in the village, and thereby proceed at a much faster pace towards developing their English comprehension and engage meaningfully with the learning materials in English?

This school year, APC began implementing a Multilingual Reading subject from Grades 1-12.  Since the biggest problem is limited vocabulary, and consulting English dictionaries or even English-Filipino dictionaries prove to be inefficient and much too time-consuming, the strategy is to lay out a particular reading material in its mother tongue, Filipino, and English versions, side-by-side, to make the English text more easily comprehensible and the students can more easily learn a great number of English words.

What kind of reading materials should we use then?  In the high school, the strategy is to use biblical books, as these are the ones with readily available texts in the mother tongue (called Pinulangiyen or Binukid, as it is more widely known), Filipino, and English.  In the grade school, APC uses published Filipino and English reading materials and teachers work on translating them to the other languages.  Teachers then develop vocabulary and reading comprehension exercises for students to accomplish.

Initial feedback from students and teachers show that the Multilingual Reading subject greatly helps in facilitating students’ comprehension of English texts.  Beside the development of vocabulary skills, a significant outcome is the sense of empowerment that students feel – that English texts are not inaccessible and they can make sense of English texts on their own. This also encourages them to read and develops their ability to engage with longer and more advanced texts.

So the Multilingual Reading subject serves as a bridge to EnglishIt also serves as a bridge to the mother tongue, and this is also an equally important part of the culture-based education that APC seeks to implement.  In the culture, oral tradition is the way to transmit knowledge.  By continuously engaging with multilingual texts, we hope to develop students’ facility not only in English, but also in the national language Filipino that allows them to relate with greater Philippine society, and in their mother tongue Pinulangiyen so that they continue to be immersed in the conceptual world of their culture and they can contribute to the writing of oral traditions as well as the expression of indigenous knowledge and traditions in English, enabling them to communicate with the wider world.

Jenny Lynn Lee is the School Manager of the Apu Palamguwan Cultural Education Center.

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