Academically lost in translation

The spotlight will soon fall on the matric results and we can expect the familiar soul-searching and browbeating on the state of South Africa’s education system. Who is to blame? The teachers, pupils, curriculum designers, examiners, or the education department?

But instead of apportioning blame, we need to find workable solutions. One attempt to do so is in my forthcoming textbook, Academic Literacy for Education Students, which aims to provide student teachers with good communication skills in English.

The book is the outcome of my studies in academic literacy and my work in an education faculty. My PhD research at the University of Johannesburg, supervised by professors Elizabeth Henning and Sarah Gravett, focused on course design for integrating language and subject content in higher education. The curriculum for the textbook was shaped by practice and influenced by theoretical input and linguistic debate.

My research findings indicated that many students who enter higher education were linguistically unprepared, or underprepared, for the rigours of academic life. Entry into higher education can be exhilarating for some and alienating for others. Those who have the potential but lack the necessary skills and strategies to study at university are the most seriously disadvantaged.

For many of these students a major obstacle to academic success is their lack of familiarity with the language of the academy, which has its own rules and conventions and demands a difficult transition from school to university. As a result, students are faced with the daunting task of having to develop their often inadequate knowledge of the language while learning conceptually challenging subjects and discipline-specific content. Can you imagine studying quantum physics in Mandarin if it is not your home language?

The dominant practices of higher education are textual, whether it be the lecture hall, textbooks, internet or written assignments. Reading and writing are central processes in almost every academic setting. Students who cannot read fluently and understand what they read cannot learn from texts. They also cannot write about what they have learned in clear, unambiguous language.

Many students simply give up
Limited competence in these meaning-making skills prevents students from attaining the intellectual growth and transformation that should accompany investment in higher education. In many instances students simply give up and drop out of the system.

In designing the textbook my approach has been two-pronged. First, I wish to introduce education students to the language and literacy of their field of study while helping them to develop the reading, writing and thinking skills needed to succeed at university. Recent research strongly supports the notion that students should be actively engaged in learning the vocabulary, grammatical structures and genres particular to the discourse of their chosen field of study.

The language of specific academic domains varies according to conceptual demands and language resources, as well as the formal structuring of these discourses. Each discipline has its own specific organisational structures, methods of inquiry, habits of knowledge construction and text representation.

We need only to compare the languages of science, law and medicine to understand that each discipline uses words and thought structures in a distinctive way. For example, unless you are familiar with the territory, it would be extremely difficult to follow a conversation between two engineers or two computer scientists.

This suggests that students working within their own knowledge areas can develop a better understanding not only of its concepts, but also of its rhetorical processes and linguistic strategies. By exposing students to the language, strategies and genres they are likely to encounter in their subject areas, Academic Literacy for Education Students hopes to demystify academic literacy by making transparent the conventions and values of a learning community.

Second, as future educators, student teachers need to have a good understanding of the processes involved in language development and be able to set a good example of language use in the classroom. Language is central to the act of teaching, because it provides both the means and the medium for learning and understanding.

Quality of learning is determined by quality of communication
The quality of learning is determined by the nature and quality of communication in the teaching situation. Instructions are given, questions are asked, explanations are provided, ideas are exchanged and so on.

How teachers talk to students, structure the spoken language in the classroom and provide written feedback for assignments, and how students interact with one another, can either open or close opportunities for learning. Effective teachers are those who can use language creatively and interactively to engage with their learners in a dialogic relationship.

The 14 units in the textbook focus on different skills and strategies for discipline-specific literacy learning in higher education. Activities are arranged in a progressive order to give students the opportunity to gradually develop competence in interpreting and negotiating meaning from texts and enable them to transfer that understanding to their own composition.

The aim of the textbook is to develop critical readers and writers who question what they read and find ways to relate what they learn to a wider context. It provides students with opportunities to reflect on their own learning and experiences and encourages them, through talk and writing, to develop a deeper understanding of the content area they are required to study. All the learning activities, texts and discussion topics serve as a support structure for students’ emerging mastery of academic knowledge and academic language.

Dr Judy Seligmann has designed curricula and provided academic support to undergraduate and postgraduate students at several universities for the past 15 years and she co-ordinated the Writing Centre at the University of Johannesburg. Her book, Academic Literacy for Education Students, will be published next month by Oxford University Press.

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