education in the Philippines

[OPINION] Ang unang aklat: Early literacy in a child’s first 1,000 days

Chi Laigo Vallido

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[OPINION] Ang unang aklat: Early literacy in a child’s first 1,000 days

Graphic by DR Castuciano

'Eighty percent of a child’s brain develops from birth until age three'

“While I was pregnant with my son Fritz, I read aloud to him. Books like Grimm’s Fairytales and whatever I was reading for my class.”

Dr. Marela Mancenido Bolanos, associate professor of Philosophy at the University of Santo Tomas, believes that reading to her child prepared him for school and developed his love for books. Last summer, in fact, during the strict lockdowns due to COVID-19, then-10-year-old Fritz had finished reading Norse Mythology

Significant impact

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life begin from conception to the second birthday, and is a period that has a significant impact on a child’s development. Eighty percent of a child’s brain develops from birth until age three.

In December 2018, child rights advocates celebrated the passage of Republic Act 11148 or the First 1,000 Days Law. According to the Department of Health, 4.2 million Filipino children are stunted, and stunting affects children’s cognitive and intellectual capabilities. But early stimulation including early literacy can help improve brain and child development, together with proper nutrition and other health protection measures. 

Ensuring that children get proper nutrition is a challenge for poor families.  That’s why advocates of early literacy like Dr. Carmen Ramos-Bonoan emphasize that while food and nutrition do impact child development, stimulation activities like talking, reading, rhyming, singing, and playing with a child from birth will also build strong parent-child relationships. It will also foster early language skills, promote cognitive and social-emotional development, as well as motivate a child’s interest to learn.  

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According to Dr. Bonoan, who is a pediatrician and national director of Reach Out and Read (ROR) Philippines, the first 1,000 days is the window of opportunity – when the interactive influence of genes and experiences shape the architecture of the developing brain.

“It is the most rapid period of brain growth when the sensory pathways for vision and hearing first develop, followed by early language skills and the higher cognitive functions,” she said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), an organization of over 60,000 pediatricians in the United States and other countries, including the Philippines, promotes early literacy development for children beginning in infancy. Doctors and health providers integrate literacy promotion and emphasize the importance of reading aloud to children, including providing developmentally and culturally appropriate books during health care visits that the child can take home and keep.

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Promoting early literacy

The original Reach Out and Read program, founded in Boston in 1989 by pediatricians and an early child educator, found out that a mother provided with a book during her health care visit is six times more likely to read to her child than the one who does not have a book. ROR’s is the only national pediatric literacy model endorsed by the AAP.

“In a poor Filipino household, a mom would always choose food for the family over books for her child. That’s why we hope that our local government units will expand their maternal and child health services through the integration and promotion of early literacy to support parent-child relationships,” said Dr. Marilen Danguilan, Executive Director of the Philippine Center for Population and Development. 

Beyond the conventional understanding of literacy as reading, writing, and numeracy, literacy according to UNESCO must also be understood as a “means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich, and fast-changing world.” The application of these literacy-related skill sets determine an individual’s functional literacy level.  

According to the latest Functional Literacy, Education, and Mass Media Survey (FLEMMS 2019) by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), among the estimated 57.7 million Filipinos between 3-30 years old, an estimated 24.8 million did not attend school. Too young to go to school was the reason of 16.6% of this population. This is about 4.11M young children out of formal school, where early literacy can play a crucial role. According to FLEMMS, Filipinos who do not receive any early childhood education have a functional literacy rate of 2.7. –

Chi Laigo Valido is co-founder of Women Writing Women Philippines and is a consultant at the Philippine Center for Population and Development.

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