By Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Saturday, December 27th, 2014

Quite a conundrum to wrestle with.

I had run many literacy workshops before, but this one for teachers of Marikina public schools, where Teach for the Philippines (TFP) fellows are assigned, was particularly challenging—and initially frustrating. While I have always enjoyed facilitating workshops on nurturing a love for reading, the topic given me by Margarita Delgado, former CEO of TFP and a literacy advocate herself, was to help teachers inculcate the love and habit of reading among their students in environments without books. I was discouraged from using books because I would otherwise be veering away from reality.

I resisted the very idea of not using books for the workshop, knowing only too well the power and magic of stories. The classroom with a no-books scenario sounded too embarrassingly pathetic. But I was careful not to lose focus by allowing my strong biases to cloud my perspective. The urgent need, as relayed by school principals and superintendents, was: The majority of the Grade 3 students could not read, in complete “mockery” of the Department of Education’s catchy slogan—“Every Child a Reader by Grade 3.” The reasons: How does one learn reading in an environment that does not promote it, both at home and in school? How does one learn to love books when there are not enough of them in the schools to read and reread over and over? There is the prevailing problem of students being automatically promoted to the next grade despite their lack of reading skills, so the problem persists. Teachers, requesting anonymity to protect their tenure, have admitted to the “pass-on system,” as it is less complicated that way.

So, how and where does one begin? It was long decided that there was no need to talk about the importance of reading (ho-hum) and perhaps to just dwell on current reading research. I could not begin without remembering the gifted writer Rene O. Villanueva whose seventh death anniversary was Dec. 5, a day before the workshop. There was instant energy gained from remembering Rene and reciting his “Kay Sarap Magbasa” verse. Encouraged by ideas from fellow trainors from the Sa Aklat Sisikat years (Titing Villamor, Grace Cubacub, Zarah Gagatiga) and International School Manila colleagues (Letty Sala and Carol Austria), I suddenly had divine inspiration and was ready to go. It was a good omen; despite the fact that it was the morning of the day Typhoon “Ruby” (international name: Hagupit) was expected in Manila, the session went on as scheduled. I brought a black garbage bag full of the household’s discarded container cases—cereal boxes, popcorn canisters, printer ink boxes, anything that carried print.

A few quick exercises they enjoyed were: writing about a topic they knew and loved best (their own selves), picking new vocabulary words from the print materials and writing a piece in no more than 25 words, and going through a shared language experience like class activities that lead to a class book or individual minibooks authored by the students.

Who really needed to emphasize the importance of starting them young when my audience were only too willing to share their own experiences? They were not interested in statistics, which they have had too much of. They were more interested in real-life stories, like successful media personality Boy Abunda crediting his mother, a public school teacher, for making him read all the signs on the houses in their neighborhood—beyond ads, the stereotype nameplates declaring the lawyers, doctors and engineers in a house.

Two teachers spoke of how their love for reading began in their homes, with books they could find, and with elders reading to them. Wilfredo A. Santos Jr., Grade 6 teacher at the San Roque Elementary School, was entranced with his discovery of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”; while reading remedial teacher Purita B. Banila from Barangka Elementary School was impressed with “Hope for the Flowers.”

Ester Peñaflor, a Grade 3 remedial teacher at the Concepcion Integrated School, bought her own printer because she realized the need for and importance of her special students to be in a “print-rich” environment. Mafe Montalana from St. Niño Elementary School enthused about exposing her young child to books; the child is now seven years old and a reader. It was great to hear her refer to the hilarious “King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub”—which she said she found in a library to which she takes her child.

The teachers were in an upbeat mood, more upbeat perhaps than I would have been in their situation. I did tell them that the cereal boxes and the student-made books should just be a stepping stone, as there is still nothing like a good story in a “real” book. (I did cheat and brought a few of my favorites, like recent 2014 Best Read choice from Adarna, “Hating Kapatid,” by Raissa Rivera Falgui, illustrated by Fran Alvarez.)

I left with a heavy heart, thinking of the many children who have never owned a book. A book in every child’s hand; is that too much to ask for?

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ( is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.