Graduates celebrate at UWC. Picture: Jeffrey Abrahams/African News Agency.
Graduates celebrate at UWC. Picture: Jeffrey Abrahams/African News Agency.

Why academic literacy is crucial for students

By Fiona Stanford and Dr Rose Richards Time of article published Sep 7, 2018

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In 2015, South Africa's literacy rate was around 94.37%. This means over 90% of South Africans can read and write. However, are we truly literate?

Today's world is a complex place and the literacy requirements at university and in the job market are complex too. For one thing, information is much easier to find these days.

We also are exposed to different media that require different types of literacy, and we are bombarded with information on a daily basis from many different sources.

A recent article in The Guardian (25 August) by neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, from Tufts University in the United States, describes what happens to your brain when constantly exposed to digital media. Your ability to deeply contemplate ideas and your insight and empathy are prevented from developing. In other words, this affects what she describes as the “deep reading circuit” of the brain.

Today's media allows people to know a little about a lot of things. This means that people may believe they have more knowledge on a topic than they actually do. It also means we are in the habit of reading shorter items on topics, instead of longer ones. Accordingly, students often struggle to read longer items and find it difficult to concentrate or follow complex arguments.

Students need to be reminded that reading is pivotal for solving many language-related issues and is essential for building one's vocabulary.

Students may feel daunted when they do not move ahead with their studies as fast as they expected.

At university, students are, moreover, expected to be literate in very particular and very sophisticated ways and so just being able to read and write is woefully inadequate at tertiary level.

According to French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, academic language is nobody's native language, and it has to be learned. For instance, as linguists Kris van der Poel and Tobie van Dyk remind us, university students “are expected to be able to use an online database and perform literature searches on a given topic, decide on the relevance of the literature found, determine the core of an article and match the argumentation with their assignment, interpret tables and graphs and draw conclusions from them with a bearing to their argument, formulate a proper thesis statement and communicate it with support and using the relevant terminology in appropriate (written) language and style”.

Being academically literate must include the ability to acknowledge the merits of opposing views.

This may even involve using non-academic sources of information judiciously and evaluating all of this information to provide informed, nuanced points of view on research topics.

Since the expectations for assignments at tertiary level differ so significantly from school assignments, many students find the transition to university extremely daunting. For this reason, the Language Centre at Stellenbosch University (SU) supports and guides undergraduate and postgraduate students in terms of academic literacy and the development of associated communicative skills.

Academic literacy courses for both mainstream and extended degree programmes, modules in professional communication, free one-to-one consultations on academic writing as well as access to an online reading programme, are among some of the services offered by the Language Centre. We have found that postgraduates need to develop their academic literacies as well and so we offer post-grad consultations and writing workshops for honours, masters and doctoral students across a number of faculties.

When considering their own experience with students' literacies, both Academic Literacy lecturers and Writing Lab consultants at Stellenbosch University agree that first-year students find academic language a challenge and often struggle to comprehend the instructions lecturers set for them in assignments.

For postgraduate students, the literacy demands are slightly different since they are more experienced when it comes to academic writing. Often they are returning students who have worked in other environments for some time, and have been exposed to other types of literacy besides academic literacy.

Sometimes they feel disadvantaged because they have been out of academia for a long time and have either forgotten how to write and read academically, or they worry that academic writing conventions in their field have changed and they have not kept up. Sometimes the students profess to never having had any explicit academic writing instruction and, once they are shown some of the basics, they are able to take these and run with them.

The leap from undergraduate literacy to postgraduate literacy is as large as the leap from high school to university. One of the things that postgraduates have to do differently from undergraduates is that they need to use their academic voice more.

Academic voice, your unique academic identity, is central to the academic literacies tradition according to socio-linguist Theresa Lillis and education researcher Mary Scott.

Maryanne Wolf maintains that we need to become "biliterate"; so that we can navigate both digital and traditional texts with equal ease. But perhaps we should really be triliterate: Perhaps our third type of literacy should be self-literacy - understanding who we are and why we are the way we are so we can navigate the seas of digital and academic literacies effectively.

* Fiona Stanford and Dr Rose Richards work at the Stellenbosch University Language Centre.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media

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