Open Letter to the Senate re K-12 Bill

Dear Senators:

This letter is in regards to Senate Bill No. 3286, “An Act Enhancing the Philippine Education System by Strengthening its Curriculum and Increasing the Number of Years for Basic Education, Appropriating Funds Thereof and for Other Purposes.” We are aware it will be voted upon very soon. May we earnestly request, before doing so, that you consider one further revision.

We, a coalition of concerned education advocates, would first like to congratulate the Senators involved in the formulation of the aforementioned K-12 bill. In particular, we are delighted by the provision for mother tongue education found in Sec. 9:

SEC. 9. Medium of Instruction. - The mother tongue of the learner also known as the first language (FL), home language, native language or vernacular shall be the primary medium of instruction for teaching and learning from the kindergarten level to Grade 3 of the elementary education. The DepEd in coordination with the Commission on Filipino Language and in close collaboration with academic and research institutions concerned with education shall formulate a mother-tongue-based multilingual framework for teaching and learning in the kindergarten and elementary education.

This provision affirms the importance of Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education (MTBMLE) in linguistically and culturally diverse countries such as the Philippines, and is aligned with the Department of Education’s policy reforms. DepEd’s ongoing implementation of MTBMLE is the first time the Philippine education system has seriously addressed the language education needs of the nation’s basic education learners. We believe that this is a landmark legislation that improves on previous educational initiatives.

The provision of Section 9, however, falls short in delivering an education system that is truly accessible and equitable for all Filipinos. Local and international research attests to the superiority of using the mother tongue for six to eight years, alongside second languages as subjects. Adequate representation of the mother tongue has proven to foster cognitive, academic, language and socio-cultural development, and eases the process of learning other languages like English. Please see attached document for elaboration on this crucial concern.

Thus, may we respectfully propose an amended version of SEC. 9 of SB No. 3286 as follows:

SEC. 9. Medium of Teaching and Learning. - The mother tongue of the learner also known as the first language (L1), home language, native language or vernacular shall be the primary medium of instruction for teaching and learning from the kindergarten level to Grade 6 of the elementary education. The DepEd in coordination with the Commission on Filipino Language, National Commission of Indigenous Peoples, academic institutions, and research organizations concerned with education and languages shall formulate a mother-tongue-based multilingual framework, which shall include a gradual introduction of other languages in preparation for higher levels.

Alternatively, instead of specifying a Grade 6 horizon for mother tongue education, the text could read “until at least Grade 3.” This would give DepEd flexibility to extend the program based on future evaluation.

The K to 12 basic education framework—with an adequate multilingual policy—will address our educational goals head on, creating analytical, confident, and versatile students.  

Thank you for your consideration.


Societies marked by plurality call for multilingual and multicultural education systems. The Philippines is a diverse country comprised of over 150 native languages, with the largest dozen accounting for over 1 million speakers each. We have gradually come to the realization that one size certainly does not fit all in education practice, and hence the emergence of Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTBMLE) in the discourse of policy reform.

The first and foremost principle of a quality MTBMLE curriculum is the use of the learners’ first language (L1) for the majority of subject matter, for as long as possible.

International research in education, language acquisition, psycholinguistics and applied linguistics[1] come to the same following conclusions with regard to effective language education:

       The first language (L1) generally needs to be reinforced and developed for 12 years in order for successful second language learning and academic success to take place, i.e. from birth to 12 years old (6 years in the home environment and another 6 years in formal schooling).

       International second language acquisition literature indicates that under optimal conditions, it takes from six to eight years for a student to learn a second language in school (as a subject) sufficiently well to use it as a main medium of instruction.

       Language education models that remove the first language as a primary medium of teaching and learning before it has been used for six years will facilitate little success for the majority of learners. Language education models that retain the first language as a primary medium of instruction for at least six years can succeed under very well resourced conditions. Eight years of mother tongue education may be enough under less well-resourced conditions.

Given these findings, our position is that Filipino children are being under-served by the K-12’s restriction of the first language (L1) to only Grades K-3. Additionally, we have observed that this minimum standard is being regularly eroded by some who are saying that learners can be transitioned from L1 education even earlier.

Thus, based on the research above, allow us to summarize a rationale for extending the mother tongue policy to Grade Six:

1         Higher enrollment, retention, and achievement rates are correlated with longer use of the mother tongue / first language (in the majority of cases), especially in developing countries and marginalized populations.[2]

2        Academic gains observed from mother tongue-based education can regress if a child is pulled out of the language before developing mastery in it. A Grade 3 cut-off makes it difficult for the child to adjust to a new medium of instruction (for which he has only received 3 years of second language instruction, rather than a more solid 6). An early transition from L1 to L2/L3 not only relegates the child to Grade 3 proficiency in his own language, but also frustrates the learning of other subjects. According to Save the Children, children can become “stranded between languages,” with only very basic skills in each. They may never achieve the level of learning and communication they need to get basic education qualifications and do well later in life.[3]

3        It is a pervasive myth that the first language (L1) needs to be pushed aside so that the second language (L2) can be learned. There is little scientific evidence supporting the superiority of an early exit model (transition from the L1 at Grade 3) over an extended model (transition at Grade 6 or beyond). In fact, longitudinal research such as that of Thomas and Collier (1997, 2002) demonstrates that long-term L1 development results in the most successful L2 learning and overall school performance (see Attachment A).  In this regard, the process of learning important global languages like English is made easier if children can begin learning in their mother tongue and strategically transfer to the new language at the appropriate time.  

4        The use of the Mother Tongue (MT) until Grade 6 has a better chance of delivering what DepEd promises of the K-12 curriculum — multilingual, multiliterate, and critically thinking Filipinos. Whereas, given the poor track record of early exit models, the current Grade 3 exit will likely fail in raising achievement levels and undermine the original intent of the reform.

5        Apprehension and confusion are evident among implementers about the Grade 3 exit. DepEd mass trainings have presented the theories and motivations of MTB-MLE, sharing slides containing information confirming the advantages of using the mother tongue for as long as possible. The teachers and administrators are then left wondering why DepEd’s mother tongue policy is cut short at Grade 3. Why does the length not conform to the very research DepEd cites in justifying the MTB-MLE program?

6        Six years of learning English and Filipino as subjects (with mother tongue being used for all other subjects) will give learners time to gain sufficient competence in the respective languages to use them effectively as mediums of instruction after Grade 6. Furthermore, teachers and pupils will have more time to make a smooth and measured transition from the mother tongue to these languages.

7        Local governments, such as the Provincial Government of La Union, have submitted position papers to the Senate and Congress in support of MTB-MLE until Grade 6, with concomitant strengthening of English at the secondary level. 

8       The extended use of the mother tongue is legally sound. The constitution does not specify the number of years the national and official languages must be used as mediums of instruction, it merely states that they are mediums of instruction. The use of various Philippine languages until Grade 6 would not negate the fact that English and Filipino continue to be mediums of instruction in our educational system, both as mother tongues (for some pupils), separate language subjects, and in high school. Furthermore, mother tongue education—as witnessed by numerous pilot studies—shall improve learning of English and Filipino, thereby supporting their official functions.

9        UNESCO recommends “bilingual and/or multilingual education at all levels of education as a means of promoting both social and gender equality and as a key element of linguistically diverse countries.”[4] Being among the top 20 most linguistically diverse countries in the world, it is especially important that the Philippines pays close attention and sensitivity to its language-in-education policies.   Robust multilingual education plays a crucial role in safeguarding linguistic and cultural heritage of humanity; sensitizing youth to dialogue, tolerance, and mutual respect between different cultures; and democratically expanding access to knowledge.[5]

10    The best language-in-education models include a role for the first language or mother tongue (L1) throughout all year levels until the end of high school. These are known as additive education models (see Attachment B for a comparison of various medium of instruction models). Using the mother tongue until Grade 6 should thus already be considered a compromise and is the bare minimum recommended.

11     The current K-12 curriculum structure as presented in D.O. 31 s. 2012 contains some anomalies. Despite the fact that the K-12 Steering Committee, the Regional K-12 Summits, the K-12 informational videos and the mass K-12 trainings have all shown that MAPEH will be in English (after the mother tongue period), D.O. 31 surprisingly indicates that it will be in Filipino for Grades 4 and 5, followed by English. EPP/TLE follows the same pattern, which is a relic of the BEC curriculum of 2002. There is no evidence that jumping to Filipino for two years shall facilitate the learning of these subjects nor ease the transition to English. Such a sequence would also establish an inequality: given the fact that Filipino is based primarily on Tagalog, the use of Filipino in Grades 4 and 5 will essentially bestow pupils in Tagalog regions with 6 years of mother tongue education (K-G5), with a single significant transition to English occurring in Grade 6. By contrast, children in other regions will only enjoy mother tongue until Grade 3, followed by two major transitions—Filipino at Grade 4 and English at Grade 6. This shall create inefficiencies in learning and pose extra burden on non-Tagalog children. The extension of the MTBMLE program to Grade 6 would cleanly eliminate the bizarre sequence contained in D.O. 31, ensuring that all children make only one language transition per subject, and all at the same time.

Given the above facts, our position is that mother tongue / first language (L1) education in all subject areas must be preserved for at least 6 years (K–G6). If it is not, cognitive development in the L1 – which in turn allows for effective skill development, including critical thinking and problem-solving skills in other languages – will suffer significantly. In turn, achievement and retention rates in school will remain mediocre.

At the very least, certain subjects such as Araling Panlipunan, EPP/TLE, MAPEH, and EsP should use the mother tongue until Grade 6. These are the subjects most often cited by teachers as naturally suitable for the mother tongue, as they generally do not require esoteric technical vocabulary and the content lends itself to localization. Additionally, a separate Mother Tongue subject beyond Grade 3 is advantageous to allow the continuing transfer of linguistic and cognitive skills across languages.

In 5 to 10 years, we are confident that DepEd and national legislators will have the positive results to justify why they chose to adopt the stronger mother tongue model.

Appendix A: Expected proficiency in a second language of pupils in different education models.

Graphs adapted from: Thomas & Collier, 1997:53. Their study, being one of the largest and longest-range studies of its kind, illustrates that students who transition from the mother tongue (MT) after Grade 3 show improvement during the MT years but regress thereafter. Students who transition later, at Grade 6, level off in performance, but at least do not regress. The pupils who showed the highest English reading proficiency by the time of graduation were those in dual medium programs, wherein MT formed a part in the curriculum until the end of schooling. Although this experiment was for non-English students in North America, recent studies in Africa show remarkable similarities in student performance, with early exit MT models (Grade 3) producing disappointingly low proficiency in the target language (e.g. English) compared with programs in which the MT was integrated for longer (Ouane & Glanz, Eds., 2011). The theories of language acquisition are well established, and for this reason, we earnestly recommend the use of the mother tongue until at least Grade 6.

Appendix B: Types of education models:

Subtractive Education Model: The objective of the subtractive model is to move learners out of the mother tongue and into the official/foreign language as a medium of instruction as early as possible. Sometimes this involves going straight to the official/foreign language medium of instruction in the first year of school. Many countries in Africa and Asia use these models inherited from the colonial era. This is the model that the Philippines has used for most of its public education history.

Early-Exit Transition Model: The objective of this model is the same as the subtractive one. It is designed for fluency in one or two target languages by the end of school years; the target being a national and/or foreign language. The learners may begin with the mother tongue and then gradually move to the official/foreign language as medium of instructionIf the transition to the official/foreign language takes place within one to four years it is called an early-exit/transition model. This is the model followed by the current K-12 curriculum espoused in D.O. 31 s. 2012.

Extended Transition Model: This model involves the transition from mother tongue as a medium of instruction to a different target language after five or six years. This model promotes additive multilingualism, where effective first and second language pedagogy is used in the classroom along with adequate content area literacy instruction. The extended transition model can be further enhanced with the inclusion of a mother tongue subject at higher levels. We recommend this model through the extension of DepEd’s MTBMLE program until Grade 6.

Additive (Full Bilingual/Multilingual) Education Models: In the additive education model, the objective is the use of mother tongue as a medium of instruction throughout the school years (with the official/foreign language taught as a subject) or the use of mother tongue plus official/foreign language as simultaneous media of instruction until the end of school. In the additive education model, the mother tongue is never removed as a medium of instruction and never used less than 50 per cent of the day/subject. Therefore, the target is a high level of proficiency in the mother tongue plus a high level of proficiency in the official/foreign language.

[1] (see for example: Malherbe, 1943; Bamgbose, 1984a, 2000a; 2004a, b; Fafunwa, 1990; Macdonald, 1990; Ramirez et al., 1991; Hartshorne, 1992; Dutcher and Tucker, 1995; ADEA, 1996, 1997; Garcia and Baker, 1996; Elugbe, 1996; Küper (ed), 1998; Thomas and Collier, 1997, 2002, 2004; Baker, 2002; Heugh, 2003)
[2] Save the Children, 2011. Closer to Home: how to help schools in low- and middle-income countries respond to children’s language needs
[3] Save the Children, 2009. Steps Towards Learning: a guide to overcoming language barriers in children’s education
[4] UNESCO Guidelines on Language and Education as found in Education in A Multilingual World, UNESCO Position Paper (2003)
[5] UNESCO Resolution on “Implementation of a language policy for the world based on multilingualism,” Records of the General Conference, 30th Session, 26 October–17 November, 1999, Volume 1. pg. 35

Sincere Regards,

Nakem Conferences Philippines/University of Hawaii-Manoa

College of Education, UP Diliman

Translators Association of the Philippines

Commission of Higher Education

Akademiyang Bisaya Foundation

K-12 Curriculum Consultant - DepEd
Former Regional Director, DepEd

Integrated Creative Resources Institute

Former Undersecretary - DepEd

Language Study Center
Philippine Normal University

Consultant, Office of the Governor
Provincial Government, La Union

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