Reading the future by going back to basics
COMMONNESS - Bong R. Osorio () - August 30, 2004 - 12:00am
While scholars and pundits continue to debate over the causes of our many national ills, Dr. Tess Calderon has long been proffering a solution to what she considers the root cause of our country’s maladies.

"We do not have a reading culture in the Philippines," observes Calderon. "Reading is the cornerstone of a literate society and a person’s lifelong learning." Calderon speaks with authority on the subject; she is the world’s fastest reader.

At the tender age of 15, Maria Teresa Calderon was documented in Britannica Encyclopedia (1971) as being able to read at a rate of one second per page on college level essays. Working with her mentor, a Dr. Florence Schale from Northwestern University in the US, Calderon improved her reading velocity and attained a top speed of 80,000 words per minute with 100 percent comprehension under ideal laboratory conditions.

Calderon believes that developing the habit of reading among our populace can significantly improve our overall literacy level. A literate and informed society will make correct decisions on important issues affecting our national interests. She further stresses that "reading can give you an expansive view of the world, allowing you the opportunity to see other realities, other ways of doing things so that you are not locked in by the limitations of your world."
Reading Advocacy
For Calderon, this belief, this conviction, has prodded her to embark on a mission, one that has found echoes in the four corners of the world, and, particularly, in this country as well. "I have been advocating and promoting reading as a fundamental learning skill not only among our young students, but even in the top corporate and government management as well. We pay lip service to this global paradigm, but our perspective, our points of view on life, business and society are still very parochial. Reading can liberate us from this narrow-mindedness and open up a truly global awareness."

Asked to explain how an ordinary person could attain an incredible reading speed, she responds, "Speed reading simply means efficient reading. I believe that this ability is but a reflection of the way a person lives his life – a lifestyle. An efficient lifestyle means an organized and methodical approach to daily chores and, even, the process of decision-making. Applying this to reading means being organized and being methodical when scanning a page, and assembling the meaning together to form one gestalt or essence."

At 18, Calderon was teaching top government officials and business executives her secret to this efficient approach to reading, impressing both her students (who were old enough to be her grandparents) and the press. A thick compilation of newspaper clippings featuring her reading prowess attests to her well-deserved sobriquet, "world’s fastest reader."

Many decades since (how many, we were not made privy to this one well-guarded datum), Calderon has globe-trotted and preached the gospel of speed-reading, and has, finally, settled down on Maharlika terra firma. Specifically, she currently applies her skills imparting the value of reading among students of the First Asia Institute of Technology and Humanities in Tanauan City, of which she sits as Dean of the College of Humanities and VP for Academic Affairs.

Why she chose a campus in a quiet southern city instead of an elitist university in Manila, Calderon is pragmatic and philosophical at the same time. "The affluent can always avail of my services through my seminars and workshops. Corporate and academic clients benefit from an extensive training program. I would like to replicate my skills among the suburban and rural kids as well. Being with First Asia Institute allows me to be with students who could benefit significantly from a better appreciation of and improved skills in reading."
Drop Everything And Read
Calderon’s work at this surprisingly Manila-grade (or better) campus has influenced both the teachers and students’ daily campus life. "We initiated a program called DEAR, for ‘Drop Everything And Read.’ At certain times during the day, computer screens in all classrooms flash the ‘DEAR’ line, a signal for everyone to stop what they’re doing, dig up their preferred reading material, and be allowed a period of uninterrupted reading time. First Asia Institute’s unified school (grade school and high school) has adopted DEAR and is getting encouraging feedback from its students."

To complement its efforts at inculcating the habit of reading among its students, new words are flashed on screen when students switch on their computers, helpful aids to increasing their vocabulary.

"We are simply taking advantage of the technology available in the campus," says Calderon. "By putting together a mix of teaching aids, visual cues and interactive technology, we have been able to provide a conducive environment where reading is encouraged."
Reading Habit Begins At Home
While she may have settled down to a college deanship and is flexing her creativity promoting reading in her campus, Calderon believes any teacher or school can foster the habit of reading among the young.

"It starts in the home. It doesn’t mean having a roomful of books; it means parents who impress upon their kids the importance of reading. They can teach their kids to borrow books from the public library and show them that they, too, read – be it newspapers, magazines or books.

"In school, teachers can show the way as well. They can share the excitement and the adventure to be experienced in reading books. They can also tell their students about the books they have read. In this age of the Internet and sound bites, reading is still the most comprehensive form of information-gathering; these kids need role models who can show them that reading can be useful and fun, at the same time."

Calderon is not a voice crying in the wilderness. Many well-meaning institutions and individuals have advocated reading skills training. Just recently, another newspaper was promoting its reading campaign; development foundations and corporate patrons have, likewise, espoused reading as an advocacy.

But none have been as revolutionary or as practical as Calderon’s quiet but direct approach at pushing for a reading mindset among students. Clearly, such motive begs a reexamination of today’s educational thrust in basic education: Are our grade schools and high schools teaching our kids the proper and necessary skills for them to be competitive in today’s global community? Reading as one of the "Rs" in the olden "3Rs" – the other two being ‘riting and ‘rithmetic – was taken for granted as a basic competence. How has it happened, therefore, that the current crop of graduates can hardly comprehend, much less compose, a scholarly essay or a business report unless it were illustrated with anime characters?

To say that reading is the miracle pill that would solve the country’s ills is ludicrous. But, then again, the bounty of knowledge and personal fulfillment one gets from reading may yet hint at a more profound and more fundamental reward – which, ultimately may create better insights and more enlightenment for a society of men and women – is cause for optimism. Reading may be, after all, a habit, which could liberate us from the shackles of ignorance. At least, Calderon believes it to be so.
* * *
E-mail bongo@vasia.com or bongo@campaignsandgrey.net for comments, questions or suggestions.

ACADEMIC AFFAIRS BRITANNICA ENCYCLOPEDIA CALDERON CENTER DEAN OF THE COLLEGE OF HUMANITIES DROP EVERYTHING AND READ FIRST ASIA INSTITUTE READING STUDENTS
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