In the fight against illiteracy, a call for more local language materials

Librarians in the Philippines taking part in a local language book creation workshop. Photo by: IREX

As program supervisor for the department of education in the Philippines, Gina Amoyen grapples with the challenges of getting locally relevant materials in the hands of early grade learners.

“One of our biggest problems is the lack of learning materials in Ilocano for Grades 1-3,” said Amoyen, referring to the local language.

Without sufficient books in the local language, kids struggle to learn to read. Children who fall behind in early grades are often unlikely to catch up, setting them up for reduced educational attainment and increased risk of leaving school altogether. The process of learning to read — recognizing letter sounds, decoding words and comprehending passages — is iterative and cumulative: Without practicing and then mastering the fundamentals of reading, kids are unable to learn other subjects including history, science and math in later grades.

Scarcity of local language materials is a not a new problem and it’s not one that’s unique to the Philippines. Over the past 10 years, many countries have responded to research and the latest understanding among literacy specialists by implementing mother-tongue instruction policies that require children in early grades learn to read first in their local language.

But as Amoyen notes, there just aren’t enough books. In partnership with IREX and with the help of a new software tool called Bloom developed by SIL International with support from USAID, several communities in the Philippines are starting to build their own collections of children’s books in their local language.

To do this, community libraries are hosting book creation camps that bring together educators, librarians and representatives from the Department of Education to learn how to produce books in their local language and then practice creating and printing their own publications. Bloom makes it easy to write leveled, decodable books in any language, add pictures, and easily print their book on an inkjet printer.

Each creation camp generates 15-20 books, and some libraries have set up special sections to showcase the local language materials. In the coming weeks, participants will train more educators and will engage more members of the community in gathering stories for the books. After training more than 180 people over the last month, three communities in the Philippines have created nearly 300 books in four local languages — Ilocano, Pangasinense, Cebuano and Hiligaynon.

Bloom allows the book creation process to happen quickly and for communities to learn as they go. As we learn alongside these communities, here are three lessons for international NGOs focused on early grade reading to ensure the spread of relevant local language content.

1. The stories already exist.

First, communities are rich with stories and those stories provide a foothold to start creating the books they need. Development agencies and implementers can contribute to the expansion of local books by amplifying the stories already in communities. It is not necessary to limit this activity to professional writers. Bloom works best at filling the basic gaps that communities face in access to text. So, it’s possible for many members of the community to create books using songs, rhymes, traditional folktales, local history, or stories of local heroes.

2. Creativity over perfection.

Creating books is the beginning, not the end of the process. International development practitioners should remember that sparking community-driven book creation is different than developing classroom materials. In the community driven process, the first books created won’t be perfect and initially, they are unlikely to be perfectly leveled for all readers.

But the community can create a wealth of books that can be shared between new readers and those with more experience. If ongoing local language book creation can be sparked through a tool such as Bloom, the long-term impact could be far greater than professional, but one-off publications. As we’ve started to see, that process becomes a feedback loop that encourages more creation and use.

3. Call upon libraries.

Finally, development partners should redouble their efforts on identifying a community organization that can serve as a node linking reading promotion to families and the broader community.

Technology tools such as Bloom work best when they are embedded in community institutions with the capacity to adjust and respond to evolving community needs. Schools are already stretched thin, so IREX has found that often libraries offer a natural place to make this connection, augmenting the work that schools are doing and expanding access to local language materials for parents, caretakers and children.

The need for locally relevant books is enormous and these books are needed now. Across many countries, education departments are in search of new tools to create relevant local language materials. Bloom provides an entry point for communities into the world of book creation, but the communities themselves are the real solution to that challenge. What development partners can do is amplify the stories that already exist in communities, help record and share them, and expose more students and families to them.

As Urdaneta City Librarian Arnulfo Cortez said, “I now realize that as a librarian, I can also make my own Ilocano books for children going into our library, as well as for my own children.”

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About the author

  • Matthew Vanderwerff

    Matthew Vanderwerff is the deputy director for information and media at IREX, where he currently works on technology for development programming, providing direct program management and technical assistance in Washington, D.C.

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