Academic Literacy courses at universities are here to stay
According to Dr Gustav Butler, director of the School of Languages at North-West University’s Vaal Triangle Campus (NWU Vaal), academic literacy courses seem to have come to stay as part of the added curriculum elements at universities in South Africa, since grammar is neglected in the South African school curriculum.
Since 2005 it has been integrated with other aspects of language study. Learners are often coached to pass their matric exam, but despite passing their matric many have poor functional language skills when they enter tertiary education.
At the NWU first-year students write an academic literacy test at the start of the academic year to determine their language skills. Those who do not pass the test must complete the academic literacy module during the first semester, and complete the second semester’s more advanced module with the rest of their first-year student class mates. Currently, the majority of students require the first semester academic literacy module to ensure they are able to cope with the demands of tertiary education.
The academic literacy test has been in existence for about 10 years and been refined over the course of time. Students’ functional language skills are tested, which include whether the student is able to identify the essence of a paragraph; can he identify the main idea? Can the student identify what is being referred to when demonstrative pronouns like this, that, and these are used in a sentence instead of the name of a thing or person? Can the student discern the logical flow in a text?
According to Dr Butler good correlation exists between the reading (comprehension) and writing components of the test – meaning that good scores in one component is a good indicator of the student’s ability in the other. To enable them to test the great number of first-year students each year and provide the results as quickly as possible, the writing component was eventually omitted.
Ensuring value is added to students’ learning experience
Since students will gain very little from the course if they have a negative attitude about this mandatory module, a lot is done during especially first several weeks to communicate to students the value of the academic literacy course.
School-specific first semester academic literacy modules have been developed for all of the seven schools of the Vaal Triangle Campus. Over the past two years academic literacy lecturers have redeveloped the first semester module to address the specific academic literacy demands placed on students in the degree courses of each school. Whereas the original first semester course was generic across the NWU, Vaal Triangle Campus students now get academic literacy instruction that employs text relevant to their specific degree course. For students from the School of Behavioural Sciences for example, the carrier module is psychology – the one module common to the various degree courses within the school. In 2016 the second semester module that is compulsory for all first-year students will be adapted in the same way.
Difficulty not restricted to undergraduate students
Dr Butler notes that students’ academic literacy problems often follow them into postgraduate studies and even PhD students still require assistance with their academic writing.
Due to rising numbers of undergraduate students at universities, the number of written assignments given to students by lecturers is declining. The end result is that students at undergraduate and even honours level don’t get enough opportunity to practice and improve their academic writing skills through assignments. This translates into an increasing number of students requesting assistance with academic writing.