SONA: State of the Nation’s Aptitude (for reading)

By Raymund Magno GarlitosJuly 23, 2017

Are Filipino kids still reading in this era of digital disruption?


EVERY THIRD TUESDAY of July, the National Children’s Book Day (NCBD) is quietly celebrated, without stately fanfare or announcement, by thousands of Filipinos young and old – not the ones who have a smartphone or a tablet as an extension of their selves, but those who turn pages of storybooks and novels during recess or way past bed time. And for Flor Marie “Neni” Sta. Romana-Cruz, the NCBD is that holiday for kids and kids-at-heart who love reading.

For the veteran librarian who once filled the International School Manila’s huge learning media center with books produced in the Philippines, she has witnessed the very first commemoration of the NCBD in the Philippines in 1983. She explained why, as a legal non-working holiday in the Philippines, it did not have a fixed date 34 years hence and probably beyond that.

“It commemorates the anniversary of the publication of Jose Rizal’s The Monkey and the Turtle in 1885 in Trubner’s Oriental Record in London, a magazine devoted to literature from the East,” explained Neni, as she is more known in the circles of publishers, educators and the bigger audience of readers, in her weekly column in another newspaper.

“The editor had asked Rizal to contribute two fables. That is recognized to be the beginning of Philippine children’s literature.”

The NCBD is capped with the annual program where the Philippine Board on Books for Young People (PBBY), an association of stakeholders of the children’s book publishing industry that includes representatives from the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the National Library and Museo Pambata, announces a yearend report and the awarding of the Alfredo Navarro Salanga Prize for best story written for children and Larry Alcala Prize for best illustrations.

Children’s book author and DLSU literature professor Genaro R. Gojo Cruz claimed his second medal, a first back-to-back win in the history of the contest.

As chairman of the National Book Development Board, her mission (and that of NBDB’s) is to build a culture of reading and foster an environment where creators of books are encouraged to proliferate and produce quality books at par with the best of the world’s.

But are Filipinos and Filipino kids reading in general? If they do, what kinds of books or reading materials interest them?


Declining Figures

In 2012, the NBDB conducted its third National Readership Survey (the first being 2003 and 2007) in partnership with the Social Weather Stations. The results revealed that there is a slight decline in readership of the four different materials, namely books, newspapers, magazines and comics, with Metro Manila readers registering the sharpest discrepancy (from 99% to 93%). It also revealed that only 12% of all book readers read books every day.

While there is the perceived notion that newer forms of entertainment and leisure are distracting Filipinos from reading, the same survey revealed that those exposed to these stimuli are most likely to be reading non-school books (NSB), or books that are voluntarily read and not prescribed as learning materials in schools. More significantly, 100% of these NSB readers are actually Internet users who access social media and read websites and blogs.

It also revealed that NSB readers who read for leisure grew from 13% in 2007 to 16% to 2012, as compared to those who bought and read books purely for purposes of education and information. They are also the biggest purchasers of digital products like computers, tablets and smartphones and are purveyors of digital content, including literature produced in digital format in the form of e-books, apps, websites and blogs.


Rearing A Generation of Booklovers

Despite the slight decline, the survey also revealed that more Filipinos are beginning to read NSB at a much younger age, starting as early as 0 to six years old, with the majority of adult readers saying they started reading NSB between the ages of seven to 12 years old. This underscores the vital role that parents, family, day care centers and pre-school teachers play in encouraging a love for reading.

Many of these young readers that are school children in the elementary grades are exposed not only to textbooks but other forms of learners’ materials such as picture storybooks, non-fiction books, religious materials (the Bible remains the most read book by Filipinos, according to this survey) and non-print materials such as videos stored in DVDs or made available online.

The 2012 National Readership survey also showed that students in private schools read more books than those from their counterparts in the public schools. They also have easier and greater access to a wider variety of materials in print and online, with bigger library resources, ability to purchase books, and access to online content like the Internet and social media.

In an interview with NBDB deputy executive editor Atty. Ana Katarina Rodriguez, she said that there is a surge in the interest for young adult (YA) literature, or books made for teenagers and follows the international trend in YA literature. “We can attribute this to the digital disruption and the increase of locally published comic books and zines,” she explained.

Digital disruption is defined as a transformation caused by emerging digital technologies and business models whose innovation can impact the value of existing products and services offered in the industry, therefore ‘disrupting’ the current market of these goods and services.

She also disclosed that more Filipino books are bought and being read contrary to the trend before where locally produced literature takes a backseat in the publishing market. “There is an increase in [the publication] of young adult literature to answer for the demand,” she said.


  • Flor Marie ‘Neni’ Sta. Romana-Cruz, chairperson of the National Book Development Board


Fostering a Nation of Readers

It also helped that the NBDB has become very active in spearheading activities to promote the production of Philippine literature like writing seminars, lectures by experts.

“As for incentives, the NBDB offers income tax holidays and duty-free importation of paper to its stakeholders,” NBDB director Anthony John Balisi said.

On school-based books, they are in coordination with the Bureau of Learning Resources (BLR) of the Department of Education (DepEd) through capacity-building activities to textbook evaluators, who monitor and inspect textbooks for DepEd-managed schools.

The NBDB also holds two important book publishing awards in the country – the National Book Awards with the Manila Critics Circle (MCC) and the National Children’s Book Awards, with the Philippine Board on Books for Young People (PBBY). The former chooses the best produced books in literature, non-fiction, reference, and even leisure, while the latter, held biennially, chooses the best output from the hundreds churned out by established and new children’s book publishers.


Seeking Answers to Questions

In her column though, Neni posed more questions than answers.

“After 34 years, one must pause to ask a few hard questions,” she said. “What has the impact of National Children’s Book Day been over the years? Has the love of reading been experienced by the young? What is there to learn to love when books are scarce? Have all the initiatives brought a book in every child’s hand? How does our culture of reading fare? Do we have adequate books for children to lose themselves in?”

So, are Filipino kids still reading in the era of digital disruption? Yes. While there is a general decline among adult readers, a younger generation of readers is already reading this early. There is an optimism that our country will still have readers in the future.

But clearly, the formidable task of building a nation of readers is an unfinished chapter in this country’s chronicles, one that will be authored by this generation of writers and readers who visualize the written word as digital inkblots on a tablet screen.

Illustration courtesy of Liza Flores (