What does it mean to read? In 2019, our test results from PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) provides feedback to this simple question from between our history’s squiggly lines.

At first glance, it might seem – the young Filipino student is the world’s most disabled reader, coming from our current standing in global assessment.  This is the first time the Philippines joins PISA. Out of seventy-nine participating countries, we placed last in the comprehension of the English language in its written form. One might think we had enough chances to reach an average proficiency in a language that pervades the thinking processes of one of the largest English-speaking nations on Earth.

In the simpler view, learning to read is one of the school’s most requisite occupational facilities. Reading is commonly regarded a basic syntactical skill necessary for employees to function in many social working environments. Business managers, teachers, lawyers, doctors utilise English terms and concepts that are non-transferrable into Filipino.

On a deeper level, the true assessment of Reading is founded upon a people’s ability to comprehend meanings hiding within written texts.


The Story of Meaning

Historically, the science that deals with reading comprehension is Hermeneutics, the theory and methodology on how readers interpret the complex meanings in texts that are often difficult to ascertain.

The Hermeneutic tradition arose in religion first. Prior to Protest Reformation in the 1600s, the reading and interpretation of the Bible was mostly relegated to Catholic authorities. As Martin Luther’s radical ideas spread across Europe in subsequent centuries, readers of the Holy Book were suddenly given the personal freedom to relate to sacred scripture without the intercession of priests and the pope.

It was during this same period that Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press (the first book to be widely printed on it was the 42-line Bible) was to gain popular usage. As literacy (learning how to read) pervaded society, so did the interpretation of literature become one of the backbones upon which the Age of Enlightenment burgeons an intense intellectual progress that happens across Europe and slowly spreads into other parts of the world.

Since the invention of writing, the foundations of education were built upon systems of interpretation that emerge whenever the imaginative mind learns to synthesise complex ideas, a capacity made possible when the mind is able to externalise its inward thoughts through writing and reading.

In Europe’s 17th century onwards, readers found they had many questions beyond just how to understand religious books.  Cultural, political, philosophical and economic literature were just as incomprehensible as spiritual texts, requiring cognitive toolkits previously inaccessible to most illiterates.

Books always had the power to influence its wide readership, and especially after the invention of the printing press, history has outlined a long list of wars and battles first fought on the printed page.  Hermeneutics provided some of the basic foundations for critical thought. Whenever people learn how to read, it coincides that they are also in a process of learning how to think for themselves.

The core framework of interpretation begins with what is called the Hermeneutic Circle. For one instance, before reading this article, the title may have given you a preconception of what this article is about. When you similarly read the book blurb at the back of a novel, there is enough premise to start reading its pages, word per word, paragraph, page and chapter at a time.  As your mind takes in each part, the whole comes alive, reflexively informing each successive part of the story, which altogether paints a dynamic sense of a holistic narrative.


Reading is Relatedness

It is the Whole which holds interrelatedness between life’s many parts; meanings arise in the ways each day, person and place interconnects in a life puzzle.

Reading brings about convergences of the past and the present. Reading also brings a reader, the author and text into a profound unitive process – an act of signification.  Reading, in a sense, brings the literary work into existence.  The value of an author’s intention is equal to the mysterious interpretative effort placed by the reader.  Hermeneutics notices that the reader is therefore just as responsible for constructing meanings, as the author and the texts themselves.

The German hermeneuticist Hans-Georg Gadamer describes this symbiosis as a “horizon-merging” – that moment complex historical contexts within the text merge with the innate cultural resources available within the reader’s mind.

To look towards the horizon is to perceive the world as far as one can see – that distant point in which boundaries become indistinguishable. The genuine act of reading grants the power to break apart cultural judgments and our individualistic mental barriers.

Within the person, hermeneutics lays the ground for the many overlapping stages in cognitive development. Hermeneutic systems of interpretation check and humble one’s exclusivist judgements in correspondence with objective epistemologies afforded by the many sciences (one of two subjects in which Filipino students placed second last in PISA).

Our national hermeneutics looms over the global horizon at this moment schools shift from traditional classroom-orientation towards virtual learning spaces (through DepEd’s blended learning programs). Throughout the next years, local educators and learners bear the equal  opportunity to read the planet’s deep historiographies.

In a world over-filled with meaning, providing meaningful channels is DepEd’s urgent new role.

Who writes the stories we were originally made to read?” Perhaps, the effects of colonization linger in the ways information is still handed to sensitive young minds who wait for the right conditions they are given a chance to interpret the meanings in their own intelligent minds.

Reading becomes difficult when the writing activity is made separate from it, just as listening is strained when a person is not given a chance to speak in turn.  What new technologies brings interpretive learners is the power to immerse not just in the reading of stories, but the chance to co-author them in new digital domains.