When it comes to teaching children how to read, Susan Gopez swears by the power of the MP3.
No, she does not mean the digital music player. In fact, except for the blue laptop she occasionally used to screen short video clips before her pupils at the remedial reading class she taught this summer, there was hardly anything electronic in her arsenal of teaching tools.
“I don’t have to worry about a computer or speaker breaking down in the middle of the class. I have the MP3 – manila paper one, two, three,” the elementary school teacher of 18 years laughingly said, her arms mimicking the turning of a flipchart’s pages.
Gopez’ faith on the material was showcased by the array of visual aids she had been able to fashion out of manila paper. The four-week remedial reading class was already on its third week and the class was tackling Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. On the blackboard hung an actual chart with words containing the soft c sound found in the story. The attribute wheels, one each for the Tree and the Boy, had between their spokes the characters’ traits. The story quilt, on the other hand, brought together all the scenes from the story, from the Tree giving away her fruits to the Boy to her diminishing into a stump, good for nothing but as a seat for a tired old man. All these “graphic organizers’, as Gopez prefers to call them, are made of the yellowish, speckled, and lightweight paper.
“The pupils fail to comprehend the story unless it is graphically told,” said Gopez, whose smile and shape bring to mind a matryoshka doll. “It’s not enough to simply read it to them. You should use visual aids, too.”
Visual aids have long been de rigueur in teaching, used to pique students’ interest and ultimately, help them understand lessons. In a time when children learn to recognize the logos of fast food restaurants even before they begin to speak straight, the need for a picture-based approach to learning has become more palpable.
At the Summer Reading Camp in Valenzuela City, which ran from April 27 through May 22, the curriculum had been designed with this need in mind. No activity here was done without the teacher using a visual aid or the children making one themselves, so much so that any class, with the children cutting away at a piece of cartolina or drawing a picture from the week’s story, often resembled an arts and crafts class than one meant to help poor readers in English.
Hard time expressing themselves
The Department of Education (DepEd) prescribes that a child should be an independent reader by third grade, able to recognize words, read with the right speed, and make meaning from the reading material without prodding from a teacher. However, some children fail to master these skills even well into sixth grade. Frustrated readers are those who still have trouble recognizing words, read slowly, and understand little of the material read. Nonreaders, on the other hand, stumble right on word recognition.
The Reading Camp’s goal was to bring these readers to independent level, or, at least, to instructional, where the child can read but with guidance from a teacher.
The 16,277 camp participants this year were picked based on the results of the Philippine Informal Reading Inventory (Phil-IRI) in English. Given as a pretest in June and as a posttest in October, the Phil-IRI measures pupils’ reading proficiency, paying particular attention on word recognition, speed and comprehension.
Now on its second year, the camp is held by the Local School Board for 22 days every summer in public elementary schools in the city. The curriculum adapts a story-based approach where one whole week is dedicated to tackling a single story. The varied classroom activities range from word drills to storytelling sessions; from singing to playacting; from workbook exercises to arts and crafts. A class lasts from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.
Shirley Equipado, lecturer of early childhood education at the Philippine Normal University (PNU) who trained Reading Camp teachers, said comprehension is where frustrated readers often fall short. “Sometimes they are not made aware that what they are reading carries meaning.”
Teacher Girame Mascarinas’ experience confirms Equipado’s observation. “When they are asked questions like ‘Who is the story’s main character?’ they can answer that. But when it comes to HOTS [higher order thinking skills] questions, those that require critical thinking, such as ‘If you were so-and-so, would you do the same?’ they keep mum,” said Mascarinas, the reading coordinator at the Apolonia F. Rafael Elementary School which, at 231 nonreaders and 1,156 frustrated readers, has one of the most number of camp participants. “They have a hard time expressing themselves.”
Teachers believe the use of visual aids is organic to the process of building comprehension among students. Riza Tejano, teacher at the said school, saw particular benefit in using flashcards in introducing her camp wards to unfamiliar English words like patch-eye and stubbed-toe, both from the story Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin, Jr. “Children have problems in comprehension when some terms in the story are unknown to them. You take a poor reader and have him read a story with unfamiliar words. Expect everything to just go over his head,” Tejano said.
Tejano and her student aide took it further and created their own story books. The pages of the one they made for Rosie’s Walk were as tall as her third grade charges, big enough for everyone in her class of 20 to see in detail the paper-cutout scenes during storytelling sessions.
Out of their shells
For Tejano, these storytelling sessions were magical moments. The children would fall silent, all eyes on the teacher, rapt in attention. “It’s different when the teacher tells a story,” said the teacher of three years, who wore a black tutu-like chiffon skirt during this interview. “Stories widen the imagination. It is also in storytelling where values are formed. It teaches them discipline. When the teacher begins to speak, the child knows he has to keep quiet. He has to listen.”
These were the same children who had tried Tejano’s patience during the camp’s first week. “It was difficult asking them to form groups during activities. Some were shy, ‘Teacher, I don’t know anyone here; I don’t want to join a group.’ Other times, it’s ‘Teacher, he curses so we are not taking him in.’ But once I had told them enough that there was no need to be shy, they went, ‘Teacher, let’s do the group activity now. I want him as groupmate.’”
Not only were these group activities opportunities for the children to create their own visual aids, they also helped to ease the children out of their shells.
Apolonia fifth grader Chel Nicole Casin said her most memorable time in the camp was when she made paper lockets and bouquets and a Mother’s Day card for Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever. “There were just three of us in the group, but we did well,” Casin said, adding that getting to work with other children and meeting new friends were what she liked best about the camp.
For teacher Joyce Ariado, it was also the reed-thin and soft-voiced Casin who showed the most improvement among her class at the camp. “She was very shy in the beginning, but she would later become a frequent leader in group activities,” said Ariado.
Last year, the camp was able to turn 6,448 third and sixth graders, or 41.5 percent of the total 15,546 participants, into independent readers; and 6,591, or 42.4 percent, into instructional readers. As of press time, the DepEd is still preparing the results for this year.
Too many kids, too little time
Despite their glowing reviews, the teachers admit it would be difficult to copy the camp experience into their regular classes, where the children are simply too many and the time, too short.
“I wouldn’t have done it in a regular class,” said Gopez. “I have sixty students in a regular class. Here, I have only 20. With students as few as these, all of them can move around the room during activities. How could have I done that with 60? How could I have motivated 60 to work?”
Having to teach seven first grade subjects in a day, Mascariñas said she often runs out of time to make visual aids and would sometimes teach lessons without any. Also, though the school provides manila paper and felt-tip markers, most of the materials for visual aids have to bought by herself. She estimates she spends at least P150 a day for bond paper, construction paper, popsicle sticks, and the like. At the camp, the materials were supplied the teachers for free.
The ample time a camp class spends on a single lesson is another thing that teachers can only hope to have in their regular classes. A camp class would last for three hours every morning, which would logically produce better results than a rushed 50-minute regular class.
“Here in the camp, the children get to learn to the hilt. That’s because we do not hurry. It’s their solid learning we’re after,” said Gopez.
It was already 10 minutes before 11 but the children in Gopez’ class were still sitting cross-legged on the floor, some even lying on their stomachs, engrossed on the story quilt they were working on. No one seemed ready to go home yet. Gopez said her camp class of 20 pupils entering sixth grade was always the last among all at Silvestre Lazaro Elementary School to go. “I just can’t make them stop an activity when they are so enjoying it,” she said.
When it comes to improving the quality of education, the trend among policymakers these days is to bring in some piece of electronic technology (Think One Laptop Per Child). But the Summer Reading Camp, part of Valenzuela City Government's Education 360 Investment Program, has shown that the best solution need not always come with a sleek LCD screen. Perhaps, all it takes to teach a child to read is a teacher, enough time, and some pretty visual aids, essentials as bare as a sheet of a manila paper itself.