Getting up to speed

Many South African school-leavers are not adequately prepared for the academic tasks they face when at tertiary level. Reading has long been acknowledged as the most important communicative skill for successful learning at tertiary level.

School-leavers are underprepared for several reasons, some of which include bad schooling, lack of understanding of print conventions, lack of an adequate general knowledge, which is vital to being able to read academic texts. Many students study in their second language and do not have an adequate vocabulary and language knowledge to read fluently.

Targeted funding by the government, which requires higher completion rates, has spurred tertiary institutions to develop interventions to deal with the problem.

Institutions across South Africa take different approaches to language-development programmes. Alternative access routes give students more time to complete their studies and gain the language competency needed to succeed.

The University of the Free State is taking an innovative approach towards developing students’ reading abilities.

Students are tested on entry to the university and, based on the results of an academic language test, are channelled into a language-development programme, which has a strong reading component.

Learners do out-of-class reading from graded readers in their own time, but have to read about 100 pages a week.

Graded reading books are written in accessible language to aid people such as second-language or foreign-language readers with room to improve their reading.

They are required to keep a log of all the books read during each semester and write a short reading reaction to each book. The reading-reaction formats differ from year to year to prevent plagiarism and copying.

Students write a reading proficiency test and are placed at a reading level that constitutes comprehensible input. Most students fall into the low intermediate to intermediate reading levels and the goal is to develop their reading skills to the required advanced level.

They read about 10 books at the initial level and then advance three or four more levels during the rest of the year. Students read about 40 books each by the end of the year. In the second semester the focus is on raising awareness of the audience and students choose from a selection of creative writing formats, each aimed at a different audience. These formats vary from writing to a friend about the book or writing a eulogy for one of the characters in the book to writing to the author about the book.

Books are selected from a number of available series, such as the Oxford Bookworms Library series and the Cambridge English Readers series. There are also other series available. Initially money for the first graded readers came from sponsorships, but the university library now buys and regularly updates the collection, which is growing and includes a large selection of fiction and non-fiction titles.

During a 12 notional-hour week students read for four hours out of class, which makes the reading component quite heavily weighted in terms of assessment and time. Tutors on the programme play an important role, motivating the students and monitoring their progress.

Implementation of an extensive reading programme requires tutors to take on certain reponsibilities, the first of which is to convince students that the programme will improve their reading skills. An orientation session at the beginning of the year gives tutors the opportunity to explain the programme’s rationale and benefits.

Tutors must also monitor the students’ reading and to ensure they keep up with the requirements. At the same time, this monitoring should not interfere negatively with the students’ actual reading. Students should read the books for enjoyment and understanding, not for studying as if for a test.

A small-scale experiment was set up to explore whether extensive graded reading could improve the reading proficiency of our student population. A group of first-year, second-language English speakers was selected for the experiment, which was reported on in the South African Journal of Higher Education.

The students were all on a university access programme and registered for an academic literacy course. The course was based on intensive classroom reading and writing. Topical passages were selected from a variety of sources and coupled with activities focusing on features of the text, such as the use of pronouns, the differences between fact and opinion, the authority of the writer, pre-reading and post-reading strategy training, vocabulary building, comprehension and a writing activity aimed at synthesising the information gained in the reading process.

About 48 students followed the intensive classroom reading programme with the extensive graded-reader programme. The control group (48 students) followed the same in-class activities, but did no graded reading. Students did a reading test as well as a reading rate test at the start of the programme.

Both groups scored the same level for reading rate as well as comprehension. Both tests were taken again at the end of the academic year. The students all wrote the same examination paper and the results were tabulated.

The experimental groups read about 136 words a minute while the control groups managed 102.

The reading rate and the reading comprehension of the experimental groups showed higher scores than the control groups, which had not been exposed to an extensive out-of-class reading programme. The experimental groups outperformed the control groups in the examination. The experiment seems to suggest that an extensive graded-reading programme has some benefits, but much more testing needs to be done.

The programme has been running for the past four years and the university is positive about the research results, which show that the programme is successful in significantly boosting students’ reading proficiency levels.

Part of this piece is an excerpt of an article published in the SA Journal of Higher Education (Vol 21, No 2, 2007)

Arlys van Wyk is a senior lecturer in the University of the Free State’s department of English and classical languages

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