Academic journal article Reading & Writing

Promoting Literacy through Reading Programmes for First-Year University Students

Academic journal article Reading & Writing

Promoting Literacy through Reading Programmes for First-Year University Students

Article excerpt

Introduction

Literacy is a paramount concern for academics teaching in higher education. Although South Africa may boast a youth literacy rate of 98.8% (Literacy Rate - Youth Total in Trading Economics 2015) with women being slightly higher at 99.27% than men at 98.50% (South Africa Literacy Rate 2015), this rate may only reflect those individuals with the ability to read and write in simple sentences for everyday comprehension, as the strict definition of literacy implies. Kelly Long, literacy programme coordinator for GADRA Education, counters that 'to truly be literate one must be able not only to decipher the symbols which make up words but also to interpret text or read for meaning' (Pretorius 2013).

Research has shown a clear correlation between literacy and reading. Carole Bloch, Director of Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA), asserts the importance of reading in developing literacy skills:

Storytelling and reading expose children to a special form of language that is holistic, rich and complex. This allows them to tune into the rhythms and structures of language and broadens their conceptual worlds and their vocabulary to express themselves. (2012:11)

Additionally, studies have long supported the connection between reading and academic performance (Aitchison & Harley 2006; Caskey 2008; Falk-Ross 2002; Livingston et al. 2015; Nel, Dreyer & Kopper 2004; Pretorius 2002). Nel et al. (2004:95) argue unequivocally that 'Reading is the skill upon which success in every academic area is based'. Bharuthram (2012:205) supports this statement by adding that: 'poor reading skills lead to poor academic performance which in turn adversely affects student's overall development'.

Reports from the National Benchmark Tests confirm that students entering university lack proficiency in reading and writing. This may be understandable as 2014 witnessed an increased failure rate for students writing home language and English papers for matriculation (Saba 2015) with Eastern Cape students scoring the lowest with only 64.5% passing matric (IOL News 2015).

Therefore, many students may be entering university underprepared for the reading and writing levels at which they are expected to perform. In a study examining the relationship between reading ability and academic performance amongst undergraduate students at the University of South Africa (UNISA), Pretorius (2000) found that urgent attention needs to be given to improving the reading ability of students at tertiary level, for 'reading constitutes the very process whereby learning occurs'. Pretorius explains that:

reading is important in the learning context not only because it affords readers independent access to information in an increasingly information-driven society, but more importantly because it is a powerful learning tool, a means of constructing meaning and acquiring new knowledge. (2000:169)

Given that students entering university must now decipher and decode meaning in an academic discourse with which they are unfamiliar at best and unprepared at worst, it is understandable that they are struggling.

A student's limited reading ability is further exacerbated by the sheer volume of reading required at university although programmes targeting reading speed and comprehension appear efficacious (Livingston et al. 2015:1). Further, a student's ability to make meaning out of texts through the process of intertextuality enables him or her to gain empowerment in the meaning-making process, opening further doors to literacy (Kalua 2011:5). Boakye (2015:1) also argues that a higher level of self-efficacy, defined as 'the belief about one's ability to perform a task successfully', also influences reading proficiency. Studies have also shown that learning may be further enhanced within a gender-based, single-sex environment (Hughes 2007).

With all of these key areas of learning enhancement in mind, the English Department at the University of Fort Hare, East London campus, designed a reading programme to assist in improving students' academic performance by developing their reading skills. …

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