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Durban - The inability of university students to read with comprehension warranted immediate intervention, a recent research article by a Cape Town academic has urged.
Sharita Bharuthram, from the University of the Western Cape, has said there was a strong case to be made for tertiary level reading to be taught across the curriculum in higher education.
Her findings preceded statistics released by the Institute of Race Relations at the weekend which showed that of the 236 226 school-leavers who enrolled for a three-year degree in 2009, 32 655 (or 14 percent) went on to graduate in 2011.
The institute slated the National Senior Certificate “for failing to equip pupils for life after school”, adding that higher education institutions, such as the University of Johannesburg, were spending tens of millions on academic and socio-psycho support.
The statement coincided with another from the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), whose national executive committee resolved to investigate the causes of the spike in the number of students who dropped out of the higher education system.
Sadtu said it had observed an increase in the bridging courses being offered by the post-schooling sector.
In Bharuthram’s article, published in the South African Journal of Education, she pointed to poor literacy rates among pupils.
This had been revealed by the Annual National Assessments, and independent benchmarks such as the Progress for International Reading Study, which had sketched a picture of the deficit of skill which universities were confronted with.
Bharuthram said while many students could easily decode texts, they lacked comprehension skills, and university support programmes could not cope with the large numbers of students needing help.
She cited a previous study which found that, among first-year law students, the average score in a reading comprehension test was 48 percent. Another revealed that of 766 students who later qualified as teachers and sat for an English literacy skills assessment test, 95 percent had functional skills in English below Grade 8 level.
“The vast majority are teaching English and/or using English to teach content subjects. Hence the lack of teacher English proficiency is passed on to students, thus perpetuating the cycle,” Bharuthram said.
She did note that the National Reading Strategy, launched by the Basic Education Department in 2008, had recognised the problem, and had introduced teacher training and support programmes.
Mandy Hayes, a Grade 1 teacher at Manor Gardens Primary, explained on Monday that simply having pupils memorise the phonetic composition of a list of words did little to develop comprehension.
Instead, a multi-pronged approach, which included having pupils use their existing vocabulary to put a story to their experiences, and allowing them to develop at their own pace, was the key to developing comprehension.