The ABC of boosting literacy

If resources are limited, children may develop negative attitudes towards reading. (Oupa Nkosi, MG)

If resources are limited, children may develop negative attitudes towards reading. (Oupa Nkosi, MG)

Acquiring literacy involves a profound personal change for pupils. If reading is not an everyday practice, you need a shift of identity to learn to value reading. And if the practice is not affirmed, there is little chance for it to become embedded,” said Professor Chrissie Boughey, dean of teaching and learning at Rhodes University.

Boughey was speaking at a Teachers Upfront seminar that considered academic literacy and language competence in higher education. It was the first in a series of dialogues focusing on language in education and is the result of a partnership involving the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of education, the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) education faculty, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Bridge education network and the Mail & Guardian. Dr Judy Seligmann, language consultant to the University of Johannesburg, and Dr Nhlanhla Thwala, director of the Wits school of languages, joined Boughey in addressing the seminar, held at the Sci-Bono centre.

Boughey described literacy as an educational “buzz word” that involved “the ability to encode and decode sounds into print”, but also entailed “a disposition or willingness to read and write certain kinds of things in certain ways — a disposition which is developed in social contexts and which relates to who we are”.

“Academic literacy is based on -values about what can count as knowledge,” she said, commenting that schools and universities focused on different kinds of knowledge and therefore one would expect that their literacies would be different. 

Teaching pupils and students to encode and decode was not enough, she said, and “we need to support [them] in finding reasons to read and write in contexts where those reasons may not be obvious”.

Academic literacy is a goal, not a starting point
At universities, “academic literacy is a goal, not a starting point, and literacy development needs to make clear the values underpinning language use and reading and writing. Thus, it needs to take place in the disciplines and should not be left to the so-called language specialists.”

Seligmann, claiming that “reading and writing are central components of the academic process and language is central to the development of higher mental functions”, noted that many pupils entered university with poor reading comprehension and thus became members of the knowledge society who did not participate in it.

“Many students have limited or no reading resources at home or school and little opportunity to be enculturated into texts and thus develop negative attitudes to reading, which tend to remain stable from childhood through to adulthood.” She also said school literacy might, in fact, be in conflict with home or community literacy and the mismatch encouraged a feeling that school texts were imposed and alien.

Seligmann said “we can either pay lip service to academic literacy or we can recognise it as a central component to success and introduce -programmes that support student learning”, because literacy remained the gateway to higher learning. She pointed out that subject lecturers were generally averse to offering literacy support, especially because they had a large curriculum. “We can’t teach the way we taught 20 years ago. We have a different student cohort,” she said.

Thwala said the role of higher education was “to educate citizens in key skills sets required for personal and national development goals and to capacitate South Africa to become a producer and not just a consumer of knowledge, but language impedes the achievement of [those] goals”.

 Language in higher education was critical in three key contexts, he said: the language of administration, of instruction and assessment and that used in employment. But, he said, “higher education institutions usually concern themselves only with the language of instruction and assessment for reasons that are unfathomable, and the dominant languages of instruction and assessment are English and Afrikaans”.

Learning in a second language
“Sixty-three percent of students who enter university learn in a second language, even though students who learn in a first language do much better in graduation rates and dropout rates than second-language pupils. Although foundation literacy courses for second-language pupils increase success rates, some higher education institutions have discontinued [them], citing 
finance constraints.

‘”Language does matter and yet the role of language in the overall education system and national development strategy has never been defined, and the truth is that we do not know what strategic role -language should play in the big scheme of things,” Thwala said.

He proposed that three languages should be taught in the basic -education phase to enable citizens to communicate internationally and operate in the workplace while affirming their different cultural identities. “The first language should be the language of cultural affirmation and identity, the first additional language should be the language of education or employment or both, and the second additional language should be the language of national solidarity, one which enables broader communication with fellow citizens,” he said. “A foreign language in tertiary education would enable graduates to connect internationally, thereby advancing their employment prospects and positioning South Africa to be internationally competitive.”

The audience agreed that foundation courses had to be reintroduced. Debate also took place about the role of social media and students’ growing disposition to read electronic texts instead of paper texts. It was suggested that we needed to interact more with students at the level of what they were trying to say. Getting clarity of thought is vital, as is using available resources to obtain that clarity — “trying to make the thought clearer”, as one audience member 
put it.

Barbara Dale-Jones is chief operations officer in the Bridge education network. For debates on the -Teachers Upfront series, see The M&G’s articles on -previous seminars are at

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