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vol.10 issue1Bachelor of Laws (LLB) students' views of their literacy practices: Implications for support in a time of changeExploring teachers' instructional practices for literacy in English in Grade 1: A case study of two urban primary schools in the Shiselweni region of Eswatini (Swaziland) author indexsubject indexarticles search
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Reading & Writing

On-line version ISSN 2308-1422
Print version ISSN 2079-8245

Reading & Writing vol.10 n.1 Cape Town  2019

http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/rw.v10i1.241 

'Students will be able to pass this module without using the textbook.' (LB, Engineering, female)

The students realise that the lecturer will review the needed sections of the textbook and so they are not forced to develop their reading in order to become better readers:

'We start with the lecturer's slides so we know what is going on. That way we won't look at unnecessary information in the textbook.' (S11, Economic and Management Sciences, male)

This cycle indicates that students themselves realise that they need to develop their reading abilities, but they would rather be non-compliant readers than take active steps to improve their reading abilities. The fact that lecturers take responsibility to 'teach' textbook content to students (e.g. identifying core aspects that could also be asked in tests etc.) reinforces students' non-compliance and their reading abilities are not improved. These findings on the negative cycle of non-compliance are supported by Ryan (cited in Hoeft 2012:2) and Bean (2001:134). Non-compliance and low reading ability definitely hinder students' reading development.

Barriers within the text

According to all 14 lecturers, the textbook they prescribed for their module was suitable for first-year students. It seemed as though the lecturers matched the outcomes of the module to the content of a textbook. As one lecturer justified:

'It is the only textbook available about the subject which is specifically suited for first-year students.' (LA, Natural Sciences, male)

The majority of students held a different opinion on their textbooks. They thought many of their textbooks were too 'difficult' and 'unnecessary'. This difference in opinion can be due to a 'mismatch' of students' reading abilities and the difficulty levels of the textbooks. The opinion of students that the textbooks were not suitable can also be traced back to the fact that reading was not essential in many of their modules. A student's frustration with realising that reading a textbook was, in fact, not necessary is evident from the following comment:

'The lecturer would say "prepare chapter 7 of the textbook" and he literally only uses a few points, and there I go and study the whole chapter, where I could have just like done something else.' (S2, Humanities, female)

The opinion of students that the textbooks were unsuitable can additionally be ascribed to the availability of other texts in the module. Students in different focus groups and two lecturers stated that it was not necessary for students to read the textbook with reference to certain modules. One lecturer said that she 'helped' the students by preparing notes which the students could photocopy. As a result, students had little or no use for the textbook.

Students depended on the lecturer to give the gist of the content and expected to be 'trained' for assessment and, in many cases, the lecturers met their expectations. This seems to nurture a non-reading culture where students can pass the module by only attending class and studying notes. In fact, from the analyses of all seven focus group interviews, it was clear that most students made use of notes as a primary text. These notes either took the form of 'handouts' from the lecturers' PowerPoint presentations, or were notes compiled by a peer. Furthermore, it became clear that selling and buying module notes was a practice among students. Students preferred these notes because information was summarised, to the point, and the key concepts were identified. These notes were, in many cases, the only text necessary to 'read' to complete tasks. The following comment made by a student indicates how the availability of notes influenced his perception of the necessity of reading:

'In the beginning of the year, I really studied from that textbook. Then when the test came, I did poorly. The next time I did not open the textbook, I just studied the notes. Now I've learnt my lesson.' (S1, Engineering, male)

The availability of notes partly influences students to adapt such a pragmatic approach to reading. Students run a 'cost-benefit analysis' when it comes to prescribed academic reading as they determine the minimum reading investment that will help them reach at least the minimum task requirements (Schwartz n.d:1; Del Principe & Ihara 2016:203). It seems that using information for different purposes is a characteristic of the current generation of students generally referred to as millennials. Morreale and Staley (2016:357) note that this generation of students 'are more likely to repurpose, recycle, and reuse information from others for their own creative purposes' than read seminal works and build their own knowledge. When other texts are available such as notes, and students can use the notes to complete the task, students see no reason to 'go to all the trouble' to read the textbook. It seemed as though students stopped looking for information when they found it in the slides. They generally do not read the textbook after they have studied the slides. This is definitely a barrier to their reading development.

Barriers within the task

From the data analysed it is clear that students and lecturers had different perceptions about reading as a requirement for task completion. All the lecturers remarked that students needed to read the prescribed texts to be able to complete the task. Different lecturers used the word 'force' as the following comments indicate:

'The purpose of the tests is to force students to work through the content.' (LB, Natural Sciences, male)

'The individual tests definitely force students to read the textbook.' (LA, Economic and Management Sciences, female)

The lecturers generally communicated the requirement of reading before starting the task, by providing students with relevant page numbers and informing them that reading is important. The link between the text and the task was clear to the lecturers, as they designed the tasks. For the students, however, the link between the text and the task was generally vague and in some cases absent. The barrier related to the task as variable seemed to be the format of the task.

To illustrate this barrier, I will discuss two examples. In one specific module, students had to give a presentation on a chapter in the textbook. The students worked together in groups of 10. According to the students, not all members took responsibility to read the chapter:

'I do not like the group work. Not everyone read the book. Just those who had to talk made sure they read the chapter.' (S2, Economic and Management Sciences, male)

In the second example, the students in one of the focus groups explained that one of their tasks was a tutorial class test. This test took place during a set time, where the students had to answer a set of questions using their textbook. Discussions among students were allowed and a lecturer was present. According to the students, the format of this tutorial test led to very little reading, but a lot of discussion, which they clearly preferred:

'I think it is much quicker when someone tells you something, than when you have to read a whole paragraph in detail. It takes long to read, reread and try to make sense of everything.' (S1, Natural Sciences, male)

During the focus group interviews students mentioned that they were content with 'getting by' (i.e. achieving a pass mark of 50% for a task). Students remarked that they would always try to find 'the easy way out' in terms of task completion, which would lead to at least 50%. In other words, if the format of the task is group work where one can depend on another student to read the chapter, or a tutorial where peers and the lecturer are present to discuss difficulties, it is conceivable that for a goal of 50% task achievement, such tasks will lead to little or no reading development.

Barriers within the socio-cultural context

Within the socio-cultural context, the barriers of throughput pressure and lecturers' assumptions were uncovered. In the higher education environment, there is pressure to grant students access to university and make sure that they succeed. It seems as though lecturers experience pressure from institutional managers who are running a university like a business. More students equal more government subsidy and so throughput must be ensured. The following comments of two lecturers support this statement:

'I am of the opinion that lecturers do not pressure students to struggle with the textbook on their own, because all lecturers are under pressure to have a good throughput rate of students in their modules. As a result, the lecturers take on more and more responsibility and the students take on less and less. That negatively impacts the way students engage with their textbooks.' (LB, Natural Sciences, male)

'I also think that you have to find a balance between throughput figures in your module and knowledge that the students need to obtain. There is a lot of pressure not to have students fail your module, so it is not going to work if the material is too difficult. I try to achieve this balance with tutor classes and having the technical aspects of the essay count as much as the content of the essay. However a student can pass my module without doing a lot of reading, as long as they attend classes and do the needed assignments.' (LB, Humanities, female)

Throughput pressure is one of the barriers to reading as it seemed to increase lecturers' willingness to make their slides and notes available to their students. It also influenced the tasks they designed (including the format), as is clear from the comment that the technical elements of an essay count as much as the content, for example. When lecturers, as important role players within the socio-cultural context, make choices based on the pressure to help as many students as possible to pass their module, reading development can be hampered.

From the students' perspective it is understandable that they would not deem reading the textbook as an essential activity, as the lecturers provide summarised texts. It seemed as though this help is superficial. When lecturers make notes available that summarise a section of content, the students are deprived of a reading development opportunity to learn how one goes about making summaries from a section of a textbook. When students can attain 50% for a task by making sure the technical aspects are in place, for example, they are also in a way deprived of the responsibility to produce well-written content, like a well-structured argument, for example. This assumption also leads to a dependency on the lecturer as students do not learn how to be independent scholars - something they will need increasingly as they continue with further studies.

Lecturer's assumptions were another barrier that I uncovered within the socio-cultural context. Lecturers seemed to assume that their students can read independently and that students intuitively know how to 'use' scholarly discourse, in other words, what is expected in the discipline in terms of scholarly engagement. The following comments of different lecturers illustrate these assumptions:

'I cannot understand why students do not do well in this module. It is very straightforward. The students have to read, remember and give the information in a test.' (LA, Economic and Management Sciences, female)

'They should have read something before they enter my class.' (LA, Law, female)

'I think the vocabulary and language (of the textbook) are suitable for first-year students. I do not think it is difficult.' (LA, Natural Sciences, female)

From the data analyses of the focus groups, it seemed that many of the students are not independent readers and struggle with scholarly engagement:

'I just look at the [text]book and I get drained.' (S8, Humanities, female)

'With one of my modules I read and read, and I still don't understand.' (S1, Education, female)

I think the textbook of this one module is way too complicated.' (S5, Education, female)

'The textbook compresses the information in such a way that it is there, but it is not there.' (S3, Economic and Management Sciences, male)

'It [reading the textbook and completing a certain task] is nothing like that which we did at school. We do not understand it well.' (S4, Natural Sciences, male)

Because of the assumption that students should be prepared for scholarly engagement and reading, the interviewed lecturers did not seem to make any provision for students' reading development. Students seemed discouraged about their own reading practices within the context of their modules. They seem to realise that their reading abilities are not meeting the lecturers' expectations, but they are unsure how this can be remedied. One student remarked that he did not fare well in a task and that in future he is going to read the notes 'better'. This is ironic because the student failed to realise the core issue: he was not reading the textbook, but rather someone else's summarised version of it. I am of the opinion that lecturers' assumptions create a distance between the lecturers and the reading development needs of the students.

The reading mechanism

As the final part of the results, I present a visual representation as a summary of the discussed reading barriers (see Figure 1). This representation was developed through a combination of theory and the findings of this qualitative study. As stated, reading is the product of the interaction of variables (RAND Reading Study Group 2012). Based on this view of the reading process, I present the interrelated variables as cogs in a mechanism. In this visual representation, the barriers are presented as smaller 'broken' cogs that obstruct the functioning of the bigger cogs and thus also the functioning of the reading mechanism. This metaphor indicates that the uncovered barriers hamper students' reading development.

 

 

Ethical consideration

The setting of the study was the Potchefstroom campus of the NWU. The study population was first-year students and lecturers responsible for first-year modules. As the highest attrition occurs in the first year of study (Scott et al. 2007), first-year students and their lecturers were chosen as participants. All participants volunteered to take part in this study and approval was obtained from the university's ethics committee.

 

Conclusion

Higher education institutions in South Africa have a responsibility to help the students who gain access to a tertiary education to succeed. From a lifespan developmental perspective on reading, all students can develop into competent readers; they just need to be provided for (Alexander 2005). If reading is understood as the interaction between the variables of the reader, text and task within a socio-cultural context (RAND Reading Study Group 2002:11), generic reading support cannot be the answer to our students' reading challenges. A handful of academic literacy practitioners or support staff cannot effectively help undergraduates from different faculties to, for example, read their chemistry textbooks or court cases. The lecturer teaching academic content is a critical role player in students' reading development. As is clear from the visual representation in Figure 1, the lecturer usually decides on the task (design and format) and the text (including whether or not to make notes available). These choices influence the reading process. Although reading abilities and non-compliance are barriers within the reader, we cannot place the responsibility for reading development squarely on the shoulders of our students. They do not have a reading 'illness' that can be 'cured'. In my opinion they are new apprentices in need of guidance from an insider within a discourse community (Gee 2003). In my mind, there is no better insider than the lecturer.

It is a fact that the South African school system is not preparing our students optimally for university. The academic literacy and support departments can definitely contribute to improve students' academic literacy, of which reading is an integral part. However, other role players like lecturers, faculty boards and institutional management should move beyond blame shifting to accountability in terms of students' reading development. Van de Poel and Van Dyk (2014:172) refer to a collaborative approach. Lecturers are appointed at universities because of their expertise in a certain discipline. As lecturers, the teaching and learning policy of the university states that they should guide students to reach module outcomes 'through active learning activities suitable to the level of autonomy expected at a certain level' (North-West University 2011:1). Disciplinary experts do not necessarily have knowledge of what constitutes such a suitable activity and might therefore be unable to design activities that closely link the text and the task so as to aid students' reading development. The teaching and learning support structure of a university includes individuals who are skilled in developing active learning activities and have knowledge of the reading process, but they lack disciplinary knowledge. The Education Sciences faculty can also contribute in terms of how reading support should feature within curriculum design. Such a team effort can possibly result in synergy between disciplines, the fostering of a relationship between role players who take responsibility and students who have the needed opportunity to develop their reading abilities.

The aim of this article was to uncover reading barriers that students and lecturers perceive so that role players can gain insight into the reading support needed at higher education institutions. One limitation of the study is that the uncovered barriers might only exist for the specific context in which the study took place. It will be naive to think that addressing each separate barrier will help students to read better. It would not be theoretically sound to take the reading 'mechanism' apart and attempt to 'fix' the separate cogs. All role players have to understand that reading is an interconnected and complex process. Role players, especially lecturers, should take cognisance of some of the reading barriers that lecturers unintentionally cause and students unknowingly experience, and how the variables of the reader, the text and the task influence each other within the context of a discipline. In this way, we can move a step closer towards collaboratively planning the developmental reading opportunities our students need as opposed to the limited generic reading support that is presently offered.

 

Acknowledgements

The author would like to express her gratitude to Prof. Carisma Nel for her expert guidance in this research project. Also thank you to all the lecturers and students who participated and were willing to share their experiences.

Competing interests

I declare that I have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced me in writing this article.

Author's contributions

I declare that I am the sole author of this research article.

Funding information

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

Data availability statement

Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no new data were created or analysed in this study.

Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any affiliated agency of the author.

 

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Correspondence:
Kristien Andrianatos
13132873@nwu.ac.za

Received: 15 Apr. 2019
Accepted: 07 Aug. 2019
Published: 30 Sept. 2019

 

 

1 . In this article, the term 'barriers' will be used to refer to some of the reasons why students struggle to read, as it figuratively stands in the way of students' reading development.

^rND^sAlexander^nP.A.^rND^sArcher^nA.^rND^sBerndt^nA.^rND^sPetzer^nD.J^rND^sWayland^nJ.P.^rND^sBernstein^nB^rND^sBharuthram^nS.^rND^sBharuthram^nS.^rND^sClarence^nS.^rND^sBoakye^nN^rND^sSommerville^nJ.^rND^sDebusho^nL.^rND^sButler^nG.^rND^sDel Principe^nA.^rND^sIhara^nR.^rND^sHaggis^nT^rND^sHallett^nF.^rND^sHoeft^nM.E.^rND^sHoward^nP.J.^rND^sGorzycki^nM.^rND^sDesa^nG.^rND^sAllen^nD.D.^rND^sJacobs^nC.^rND^sMacMillan^nM.^rND^sMcLoughlin^nK.^rND^sDwolatzky^nB.^rND^sMorreale^nS.P.^rND^sStaley^nC.M.^rND^sNel^nC.^rND^sDreyer^nC^rND^sKlopper^nM.^rND^sNiven^nP.M.^rND^sPretorius^nE.J.^rND^sPretorius^nE.J.^rND^sStyan^nJ.B.^rND^sTaraban^nR.^rND^sRynearson^nK.^rND^sKerr^nM.^rND^sVan Dyk^nT.^rND^sVan de Poel^nK.^rND^sVan der Slik^nF.^rND^sWingate^nU.^rND^1A01^nPatience^sDlamini^rND^1A02^nAyub^sSheik^rND^1A01^nPatience^sDlamini^rND^1A02^nAyub^sSheik^rND^1A01^nPatience^sDlamini^rND^1A02^nAyub^sSheik

ORIGINAL RESEARCH

 

Exploring teachers' instructional practices for literacy in English in Grade 1: A case study of two urban primary schools in the Shiselweni region of Eswatini (Swaziland)

 

 

Patience DlaminiI; Ayub SheikII

IDepartment of Instructional Design and Development, Institute of Distance Education, University of Eswatini, Manzini, Eswatini
IIDepartment of Language Education, Faculty of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa

Correspondence

 

 


ABSTRACT

BACKGROUND: Literacy education in the foundation phase is a global concern. Studies have shown that mastering literacy in the first three years of school ensured academic success and lack of it had negative effects academically, socially and economically. This research study sought to explore teachers' instructional practices for literacy in English in Grade 1 in the Shiselweni region of Eswatini.
OBJECTIVES: The objectives of the study were to establish what instructional practices teachers used in their literacy classrooms, why they used those instructional practices, and how they experienced the teaching of literacy in English in Grade 1.
METHOD: A qualitative case study design was followed where three teachers from two urban schools were purposively sampled and participated in semi-structured interviews and classroom observations. Focus group discussions with teachers who had experience teaching literacy in English in Grade 1 in each school were conducted, and document analysis was done. Vygotsky's sociocultural theory was used as a lens to understand teachers' instructional practices in literacy.
RESULTS: Data were analysed using thematic content analysis. The findings of the study showed that teachers' instructional practices reflected their lack of pedagogical knowledge for teaching literacy in English in the foundation phase. The study also found that the teachers' experiences were their rationale for their instructional practices.
CONCLUSION: The study showed that teacher resilience was important for teachers to thrive under trying school conditions; developing a positive attitude towards literacy teaching enabled teachers to develop strategies to improve literacy teaching and learning.

Keywords: English education; literacy; knowledge; primary schools; Swaziland; Eswatini.


 

 

Introduction

Studies have shown that in most African countries, learners' performance in literacy in English in the foundation phase remains poor regardless of efforts to mitigate the situation. A critical view is that developing strong literacy in the foundation phase equips the individual child for continuous learning (Lesaux 2013:3). In the long term, early development of literacy also plays its part in revitalising the economy and containing the scourge of unemployment; it further combats poverty, improves health and promotes social development (Chowdhury 1995). Researchers affirm the view that exposure to an early childhood programme boosts the cognitive and social development of a learner, attributes that are needed for successful schooling (Barnett 2011; Castro et al. 2011). However, in Swaziland - henceforth Eswatini, this is not happening on the ground, as a large number of preschool-age children continue to begin the first grade at school without this essential early childhood education experience. The effect of lack of early childhood education in Eswatini is evident through the high number of learners who continue to perform poorly in English literacy in the foundation phase, repeating foundation phase classes, especially Grade 1. The high repetition rate results in some learners dropping out of school without having mastered basic literacy in the English language, thereby exacerbating the gap between literate and illiterate youth in the region (Ndaruhutse 2008). Similarly, Eswatini is plagued with persistent high failure rates in Grade 1. As a consequence, learners drop out of school without basic literacy.

National reports show that the government of Eswatini has made education its priority since the inception of independence in 1968. However, little improvement has been seen in early childhood education which in an ideal education system should be a feeder to Grade 1. This is ascertained from the education reports in the country. For instance, the Eswatini (2015) 'Education for All' review report shows that less than 1% from the budget of the Ministry of Education and Training goes to early childhood education. This shows that government has little commitment to improving the situation in the foundation phase as the report also states that preschool education was not a prerequisite for children to enrol into Grade 1 (Government of Swaziland, 2015). The report further states that government was not responsible for training, engaging and remunerating early childhood education teachers, the very people who are responsible for laying a solid literacy foundation for learners.

In the researcher's practitioner experience as a subject advisor, the problems of literacy in English in the foundation phase in Eswatini could possibly emanate from poor instructional practices in the classroom. The problem is that, in Eswatini, there is a high failure rate in Grade 1. As a result, some learners spend more years at primary school than they should. The national education profile (2014) update shows that the repetition rate in Grade 1 in 2014 was at 17.9%, with a 29% dropout rate which could be a result of failure. A number of reasons account for the learners' failure. For example, the Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ 2013) showed that schools in the northern part still faced challenges as the level of achievement was lower than the expected standard due to lack of resources and poor socio-economic conditions. Eswatini fared better in the SACMEQ study, although the failure rate in Grade 1 remains high.

The problem is further aggravated by the fact that some learners reach Grade 3, not having mastered the basic skills of reading and writing, end up dropping out of school at this level. The 20.7% failure rate in Grade 3 is evidence of the problems the learners experience in literacy learning and is something that compromises their future academic achievement. This is counterproductive to the view that a strong literacy foundation is the cornerstone for education and economic development for all nations. Researchers agree that children who acquire strong foundational literacy in their early years are more likely to progress well academically than children who fail to develop literacy in the early years (Barnett 2011; Castro et al. 2011). It is in view of the value of the foundation phase in the education cycle that the researcher developed an interest in studying the teaching and learning of literacy in English in Grade 1. The reason for the focus on the Grade 1 class is that this is the level where most learners in Eswatini begin their education in public schools. The researcher wanted to understand what teachers do in their teaching of literacy in English classrooms, why they do what they do and how they experienced the teaching of literacy in English to the diverse Grade 1 learners.

 

Scientific value

Numerous studies have shown that Grade 1 teachers play an important role in shaping the foundation for early literacy skills for primary school learners (Clay 2005; Lenyai 2011; Pressley et al. 2001; Roskos, Tabors & Lenhart 2009). The teachers are the implementers of the curriculum and their expertise is central in the teaching-learning process as they are the ones to select the appropriate approaches, methods and techniques for fostering literacy in English (Lenyai 2011). In earlier research, Clay (2005) asserted that the first years of school are very important because this is when a solid foundation for literacy learning is laid. Verbal learning, central to an individual's academic life, is also developed at this level.

Roskos, Christie and Richgels (2003), in their study of the essentials of early literacy instruction, concluded that play has a significant role in children's education in the early years. Therefore, linking literacy and play is one of the most effective means to make literacy activities meaningful and enjoyable for children. They suggested eight strategies teachers could use with learners in the foundation phase and even at the intermediate and upper primary school levels. These include: rich teacher talk, storybook reading, phonological awareness activities, alphabet activities, support for emergent reading, shared book experience, and integrated, focused activities. It would be a good idea for Grade 1 teachers to initiate learning with play-based literacy activities that make learning enjoyable in the classroom.

A study done in Botswana (Republic of Botswana/United Nations 2004) shows that there was a high failure rate and level of school dropouts, especially in the remote parts of the country. This was partly attributed to poor supply of teaching and learning equipment by government, teachers' unreceptive attitudes to children from these isolated areas and the socio-economic conditions of the families of these children, as most were reported to travel long distances to and from school. These conditions altogether were not conducive for learning. Consequently, learners performed poorly and ended up dropping out of school in lower grades not having attained even basic literacy (Government of Swaziland, 2015). Lekoko and Maruatona (2005) observed that half of the student population who enrolled in Grade 1 dropped out before completing primary school thereby creating a large number of students who ended up enrolling for adult basic education in later years.

No systematic research has been undertaken to explore how Grade 1 teachers carry out their activities in teaching literacy in English in Eswatini. This study therefore explores teachers' instructional practices in literacy in English in Grade 1 focusing on two urban primary schools in the Shiselweni region of Eswatini.

 

Theoretical framework

This study was underpinned by Vygotsky's (1978) sociocultural theory. In linking the sociocultural theory to teaching and learning, Lantolf (2000) holds that the human mind develops by mediation. As a result, in the early years of school, learners largely depend on the teacher and other adults to support them with different tools in order to transform what they learn into personal knowledge they can internalise for future use. In essence, the teacher and other knowledgeable adults become mediators for learning. It is the responsibility of the teacher, therefore, to utilise the learners' sociocultural experiences as a frame of reference in learning literacy in the second language. Vygotsky was of the view that it is not practical to understand the cognitive development of an individual outside his or her social and cultural context; one's mental skills are considered to develop as a result of communication with other people in the social context. Daniels, Cole and Wertsch (2007) state that Vygotsky views the development of schoolgoing children to be a result of systematic school instruction. That being the case, the instructional practices of teachers are key in making sure that the learner develops systematic thinking and makes sense of their world, which they have already partially experienced. This perspective resonates with sociocultural scholars such as Freire and Macedo (2005) and Dyson (2013) who concur that children first read the world before they read the word. These scholars hold that learning literacy has to do with the relationship between the learners and the world. The adults are responsible for shaping the children's learning through different social activities. Vygotsky argues that the scientific concepts within the academic subjects are important for the schoolgoing child as they give the child an opportunity to use them consciously and intentionally. The teacher, therefore, is essential in unpacking these concepts in the academic subject for the students to develop as learners.

 

Research design and methods

This study followed a qualitative case study design. The researcher used the case study design to get rich, thick data of teachers' instructional practices in literacy in English in two urban schools in Nhlangano town, Eswatini. Another compelling reason for the choice of this design is that the researcher is able to study the subject in its natural setting, thereby getting a holistic picture of the case being studied from the point of view of the participants (Creswell 2009; Small & Uttal 2005; Yin 2003). The qualitative case study design therefore enabled the researcher to explore teachers' instructional practices from their settings in the schools and in their Grade 1 literacy English classrooms.

The two schools from which data were collected were located in Nhlangano, the administrative town of the Shiselweni region of Eswatini. It is important to mention that these two primary schools are government-owned mixed schools where both girls and boys are enrolled. The teachers are government employees, the curriculum followed is developed by the government, through the National Curriculum Centre, education of learners is paid for by government under the free primary education plan and the general infrastructure in the schools is owned by government. Though these schools are both in the urban area, the learners that were enrolled were mainly from the rural and peri-urban areas of the region. Most of these learners travelled to school by public transport as they stayed far from the schools. A very small number of learners stayed in town and walked to school. The Nhlangano town where this study is focused has only three urban schools; one was used to pilot the data collection instruments and the other two were used for the actual study.

Khoza (1999) noted a clear linkage between rural and urban poverty in Eswatini. He observed that the rural-urban migration of people in search of jobs and other income-enhancing opportunities transferred rural poverty into the urban areas, resulting in an increase of low-income peri-urban settlements which exacerbated urban poverty in Eswatini. Currently, the situation has not changed as Motsa and Morojele (2017) confirm in their recent study. Their study shows that in Eswatini, schoolgoing children undergo severe conditions due to the HIV pandemic and poverty as 24% of schoolgoing children were living with HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS 'AIDSinfor' 2017). This situation impacted negatively on various social services such as health facilities and schools. The available schools in the urban centre experienced high enrolment of children who lived in abject poverty in the peri-urban areas. Nhlangano town where this study is based is also affected by urban poverty. The children enrolled in the urban schools are victims of this socio-economic condition.

Three teachers were the main participants in this study. These teachers were interviewed and observed teaching Grade 1 literacy in English classrooms. The teachers were purposively sampled because they were currently teaching Grade 1 in the two sampled schools. They prepared schemes of work and lesson plans for the Grade 1 literacy in English lessons. All three teachers were Swazi females; one teacher from school A was responsible for teaching literacy in English in both Grade 1 classes in the school and two teachers from school B taught the two Grade 1 classes separately; each class had an average of 53 learners.

Additional data were collected from two groups of teachers who had experience teaching literacy in English Grade 1. These teachers participated in focus group discussions: four teachers from school A and six teachers from school B. Analysis of relevant documents used by teachers to plan for instruction was also done to understand teachers' instructional practices. The documents analysed were the English literacy syllabus, textbooks, teachers' guide and learners' books, schemes of work, lesson plans and tests given to learners.

Teachers who currently taught literacy in English in Grade 1 at the two schools were interviewed and observed. Those who participated in the focus group discussions all had experience teaching literacy in English in Grade 1; they had lived experiences of the phenomenon (Cohen, Manion & Morrison 2011). Table 1 provides a summary of data collection instruments and participants.

 

 

Pseudonyms were used to ensure confidentiality and protection of the participants' identity. This was in line with the ethical standards in research as suggested by Johnson and Christensern (2000) who assert that the researcher should guard against any possible physical, emotional and psychological harm that may occur to the participant during the course of the study. For the purpose of data presentation, teachers who were interviewed and observed were referred to as Teacher 1, Teacher 2 and Teacher 3. Teacher 1 was from school A and Teacher 2 and Teacher 3 were from school B.

 

Data collection and analysis

This study was a qualitative case study, situated in the interpretive paradigm. Various data collection methods were used to gain a holistic understanding of the case. Semi-structured interviews, classroom observations, document analysis and focus group interviews were the main data collection instruments for this study. Interviews and focus group discussions were audio recorded and then transcribed at the end. Field notes were recorded and pictures taken for classroom observation. The transcripts were later sent to the interviewed teachers to check if they correctly captured and presented their views.

Analysis

As this study was purely qualitative, the most appropriate data analysis method that the researcher followed was thematic content analysis. According to Krippendorff (2004:18), content analysis is a 'research technique for making replicable and valid inferences from text (or other meaningful matter) to the context of their use'. Data analysis began as soon as the data-gathering process commenced. This was done to create a coherent interpretation of the data (Maree 2007:111). This process began with the verbatim transcription of data gathered from the three Grade 1 teachers who were interviewed. The transcription was backed up by notes taken during the interviews. The transcripts were read thoroughly to identify key themes that emerged from the data, codes were given to the themes, and similar ideas were categorised under one theme for further analysis (Ary, Jacobs & Razavieh 2002; Cohen et al. 2011; Maree 2007). The aim was to make sense of what the data suggested about the phenomenon under study and teachers' instructional practices in literacy in English in Grade 1.

Ethical consideration

Ethical clearance was issued by the University of KwaZulu-Natal after all consent letters were submitted to the relevant gatekeepers and participants. Ethical clearance number: HSS/0442/015D.

Results

The data that yielded the four major themes came from the interviews and observations of the three teachers who taught literacy in English in Grade 1. Data from focus group discussions and document analysis corroborated that data. The four major themes were: teacher navigation between half transmitter and half facilitator, rationale for teachers' instructional practices, teachers' experiences of teaching literacy in English, and teachers' ideas for improving literacy teaching and learning.

Theme 1

The first theme showed that teachers had a theoretical knowledge that instructional practices in literacy in English involved multiple activities that teachers did together with the learners to ensure that learning occurred. Those interviewed stated that the transmission role required teachers to tell learners what to do and how. On the other hand, the facilitator role required teachers to create opportunities for learners to discover things on their own and in the process acquire new knowledge.

'We do everything with Grade 1 leaners, there is a time when we tell learners everything to do and a time when we help them discover things for themselves, facilitating their learning.' (T1, Grade 1 teacher, female)

'Some of these learners are very clear, they know a lot which you as a teacher do not think they would know.' (T2, Grade 1 teacher, female)

'When I ask a question, I first allow them to say what they know even if it is out of point, when they fail, it is then that I tell them the correct thing.' (T3, a Grade 1 teacher, female).

However, classroom observations showed that the teachers did not always use the learner-centred approach in their classrooms; they still dominated classroom activities and hardly created opportunities for learners to work together to discover information. This was contrary to the sociocultural theory that saw teachers as facilitators for learning through the use of the learners' sociocultural experiences (Vygotsky 1978).

Theme 2

The second theme revealed that the rationale for teachers instructional practices in the literacy classrooms was based on a number of factors, such as their pedagogic content knowledge in literacy, beliefs about the teaching and learning of literacy, in-service training, learner academic needs, curriculum standards, learner background (preschool and home background) and parental involvement. Interviews with the three teachers showed that they lacked clear understanding of what literacy in English entails; their definitions of literacy were general and not specific to what literacy is.

'Literacy is the learning and reading of English, the way they learn and understand the English and teachers should try by all means to help learners speak English.' (T1, Grade 1 teacher, female)

'Literacy is more than understanding English and understanding writing, literacy is the correctness of the language and the rate at which the learner picks up the information the teacher gives.' (T2, Grade 1 teacher, female)

'Literacy is when you encourage learners to communicate in English to make them have a strong command of the language; they have to learn how to express themselves.' (T3, Grade 1 teacher, female)

The teachers also said that they lacked pedagogic content knowledge of foundation phase literacy education as pre-service training did not adequately equip them for teaching literacy to Grade 1 learners; as a result, they were not confident in their practices. There was no balance between their pedagogic content knowledge and classroom practices. The classroom practices were contrary to Shulman and Shulman's (2004) and Hashwesh's (2005) view that pedagogic content knowledge balances what teachers should know about the subject they teach (subject matter knowledge) and preparation of how the content should be taught (pedagogy). The teachers stated that what they did is what they had learned on the job:

I think the teaching of literacy must be something for the teacher who has the knowledge and the skills of teaching literacy with young learners. (T1, Grade 1 teacher, female)

Teacher 4 from the focus group corroborated this view:

'We find it very challenging to teach English literacy in Grade 1 because we don't have all the skills, sometimes we are not sure of what to do with these young learners because we were not trained to teach in the foundation phase.' (T4, Grade 3 teacher, male)

The interviews with the teachers also revealed that teacher belief has played an important role in the way they carried out their practices in literacy in the English classroom. Squires and Bliss (2004:756) state that all teachers bring to the classroom some level of belief that influences their decisions. The interviewed teachers and those who participated in the focus group interviews believed that teachers were role models in the classroom and learners unconsciously copied what they did. Consequently, there should be careful planning to eliminate errors:

'They copy what I do, young children do what you as a teacher do, even the way you speak; they would speak like you, even writing. If I have made a mistake, they copy the mistake as it is.' (T1, Grade 1 teacher, female)

Teacher 2 shared a similar view:

'In Grade 1 what you must know is that the children depend very much on the teacher. How you pronounce words, they will do exactly, if there is a mistake, they take it from the teacher.' (T2, Grade 1 teacher, female)

'If you make a mistake in a word, you have to correct it very fast because they just hold on to that.' (T3, Grade 1 teacher, female)

The finding also showed that to a large extent, what teachers did in class reflected their understanding of what literacy is and how it should be taught. They viewed themselves as the most important people to help learners learn English literacy.

Theme 3

The third theme that emerged was that of the different challenges experienced by the schools, learners and teachers.

Lack of mentoring and lack of teaching and learning resources made the teachers' experiences difficult:

'The first time I taught Grade 1, it was very difficult because I had no experience in teaching the lower grades, but I learnt a lot about the child. I did not know how they behaved and I had no one to help me on how to handle these young learners. The first year I was just confused, in the second year I started correcting myself, where I felt I wasn't sure of what I was doing.' (T1, Grade 1 teacher, female)

'At first it was very challenging because I was fresh from college and no one helped me. The next year, it became better.' (T2, Grade 1 teacher, female)

'Since it is my first time, there are challenges, and no one is there to hold me by the hand but then, as I continue teaching, I find it easier by the day.' (T3, Grade 1 teacher, female)

The absence of mentoring for teachers in the teaching of literacy in English, especially in the foundation phase, corroborates the views of Hanushek (2009) who affirms that the quality of teachers is the key element in improving student performance. Mentoring of the teachers ensures the desired quality and capacity.

A school-related challenge was the lack of teaching and learning resources, and lack of time by teachers to prepare teaching resources due to heavy workloads resulting from high enrolment in the schools. Moreover, the schools have no proper library facilities:

'We know that we have to use relevant materials such as pictures because children understand better when they see pictures and other reference materials but the problem is that we don't always find them.' (T1, Grade 1 teacher, female)

'Sometimes you know that if I can have this resource or maybe share with other people the lesson could be effective, only to find that you don't have the time to visit some places where you can maybe get the material because we [are] always busy.' (T2, Grade 1 teacher, female)

'Even if you think of preparing something to support the learners, you cannot because of the work load; you have to do a lot of paper work in the classroom. Also, the enrolment is high and these children need a lot of patience.' (T3, Grade 1 teacher, female)

Teacher 4 from focus group B shared a similar view:

'We teachers need more time for our planning, and to be able to research on our work but we don't have enough time, sometimes you have to do your own research only to find that there is no time.' (T4, Grade 3 teacher, female)

'We do have library material but we don't have time because even if they go to the library, it must be the teacher who's teaching the languages to help these children because there is no one employed for that, and with so much work to do, we don't have that time.' (T6, Grade 2 teacher, female)

Learner-related challenges included lack of a common starting point due to poor management of early childhood education programmes in the schools, lack of environmental support for learning (parental support and community support), learners' lack of interest in reading, as well as linguistic and cultural diversity. Data from the focus group discussions and interviews with the three teachers showed that a major challenge teachers faced with Grade 1 learners in the participating schools was a lack of a common starting point for school. As a result, learners began school with different entry competences. The data showed that in Eswatini, preschools were still privately owned and not government sponsored and followed their own curriculum. Parents were not compelled to take their children to preschool; as a result, learners began school with varying degrees of competence with respect to language and literacy skills. This disparity in the learners' experiences when they begin school was a challenge for the teachers who had to complete a syllabus and ensured that learners mastered the different literacy skills.

One teacher from focus group A said:

'The main challenge I have encountered is that most of the pupils were learning English for the first time since some of them did not even go to preschool, you find that while you are teaching English, there are some things that you have to explain to them in SiSwati because some are just not following.' (T5, Grade 2 teacher, female)

The lack of early childhood education does not augur well for learners' education and scholars agree that early childhood education is critical in developing the child holistically, physically, socially, emotionally, cognitively and culturally for successful schooling to take place (Barnett 2011; Castro et al. 2011).

The findings of the research from focus group A showed that although the learners were in urban schools, they were mainly from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and lacked necessary support from home and from the community. The teachers in the focus groups stated that most learners stayed in the townships with single parents who worked in the textile industries and never had the time to support learners in their school work. They left home very early in the morning and returned tired in the evening. Data from focus group A confirmed what Teacher 1 from school A had said and teachers agreed that, in cases like these, there was little support parents could offer to the learners, which hindered the pace at which learners mastered literacy skills. The teachers stated that parents rarely made voluntary visits to the schools to find out how their children were progressing and how they could assist them. Parents only visited the school when they were requested to do so and, when they came, they did not give themselves time to talk to the teacher to understand their children's challenges. One teacher from the focus group said:

'The parents only come to the school during the open day, they only need the report, they are only interested in their children's result, and they don't care about other things. When you talk to them, "please help us with your child" on this aspect, you could see that you are delaying them, they are rushing, that's the problem!' (T2, Grade 1 teacher, female)

Theme 4

Another theme that emerged was teacher initiatives to improve literacy learning. This theme was based on strategies the teachers used to counter challenges. Teachers in the case study schools had devised some strategies to counter some of the challenges they experienced in their teaching of literacy in English in Grade 1. These strategies include developing a positive attitude for the work, providing reading materials for their classes, organising internal workshops with other teachers and remediation. The findings showed that since teachers were the implementers of the curriculum, they had to devise strategies to counter the challenges, without which the teaching and learning of literacy in English could be a futile exercise. The teachers stated that developing love and appreciation for the different learners helped them to be patient with their inadequacies and to try by all means to help them learn. They had this to say:

'I love the subject; I get involved and use whatever I come across if I think that it will help my children understand because I love the subject.' (T1, Grade 1 teacher, female)

'I make sure that I motivate learners to love the subject and make them practise whatever I teach them; for example, practise speaking English when they are playing outside. I make sure that they use the language and encourage them to love it.' (T2, Grade 1, teacher, female)

'I try my best to be supportive, I bring all magazines I have just for them to page and look at the pictures. I also ask those who can to bring some old magazines from home.' (T3, Grade 1 teacher, female)

Classroom observation showed a box of old magazines and newspapers that Teacher 3 brought to her class for learners to page through and look at the pictures. They were even allowed to cut out pictures they liked and paste them in their exercise books.

Teacher 5 from focus group B said:

'As a teacher you need to be a role model to the learners. Give them the reason why they should speak in English rather than forcing them. I just use English every time so that they take it from me, and that has helped me over the years.' (T5, Grade 2 teacher, female)

 

 

Another important theme that emerged from the focus group discussions was possible ideas to improve literacy teaching and learning of literacy in Grade 1. The data showed that although there were a number of challenges teachers experienced in their teaching of literacy in English in Grade 1, teachers also had ideas they believed could improve the teaching and learning of literacy at this level. The ideas included the integration of information technology in the teaching and learning, use of mother tongue, teacher specialisation in the foundation phase and teacher-parent associations.

A view from the focus group discussion:

'The use of information technology tools can help, most of our children are advanced in the knowledge of these gadgets, and maybe even more than us because, at some homes they do have these resources but when they come to school, they find that we still don't have them.' (T4, Grade 3 teacher, male)

The teachers' idea of the use of information technology in literacy teaching and learning is supported by Furlog (2011) who argues that the use of information technology motivates learners, supports knowledge construction and creates a context for supporting learning by doing and conversing. Based on the teachers' view, supported by empirical research, the researcher concludes that an integration of IT in literacy learning, therefore, could benefit both learners and teachers to create a better classroom environment.

 

Discussion

Teacher navigation between half facilitator and half transmitter

The first theme revealed that teaching literacy in English at Grade 1 was a highly specialised activity that required teachers to play a role of being half transmitters of knowledge and also half facilitators of learning. The transmission role required teachers to tell learners what to do and how. On the other hand, the facilitator role required teachers to create opportunities for discovery learning. From this study, the transmission of knowledge was more dominant than the facilitation of learning. The teachers' practices were not clearly aligned to the sociocultural perspective that advocates for the social and cultural experiences of the learners to be at the centre of their learning, especially in the foundation phase. Moreover, they were not in line with the views of Sarigoz (2012:253) who holds that play-based techniques to teaching literacy to Grade 1 learners, such as games, songs, puzzles, crafts, stories and drama, were suitable to create a child-friendly language learning environment. Instead, teacher instructional practices showed that teachers did what worked for them in their classrooms without basing it on sociocultural theory. This also revealed their lack of the required expertise for teaching literacy in English in Grade 1.

In their instructional practices, teachers made an effort to motivate learners in their classrooms and displayed their works on the wall and constantly praised and clapped hands for learners who made an effort to respond to oral questions. From the researcher's observation, teachers were keen to support learners in their efforts to acquire literacy in English. The challenge was that their teaching approaches were not balanced and they placed more emphasis on explicit teaching and writing activities at the expense of creating a more enabling environment for literacy learning. The teachers' practices were not clearly aligned to the sociocultural perspective that advocates for the social and cultural experiences of the learners to be at the centre of their learning, especially at the foundation phase. The teachers' instructional practices were also contrary to the view of Uzuner et al. (2011) who argue that it is important at an elementary level to include a concise and balanced literacy system that has the advantage of increasing students' comprehension of literacy.

Rationale for teachers' instructional practices in Grade 1

Teachers had a wide-ranging rationale for their instructional practices in Grade 1 literacy. These included teacher pedagogic content knowledge in literacy, teacher beliefs about the teaching and learning of literacy, in-service training, learner academic needs, curriculum standards, and learner needs which include preschool and home background, learner developmental age and learner interest. The teachers were of the view that their knowledge about the subject of literacy in English was important in determining what they taught and how they taught, a view supported by Shulman and Shulman (2004) and Leong et al. (2015) who hold that pedagogic content knowledge balances what teachers should know about the subject they teach (subject matter knowledge) and preparation on how the content should be taught (pedagogy).

Teachers raised a concern that learners who enrolled in Grade 1 had no common introductory ground as some were from preschool and others were not. The study showed that the disparity of the learners who enrolled in these two urban schools was mainly caused by urban poverty in the region. The background showed that there was a high rate of rural-urban migration in Eswatini and this exacerbated poverty. Some learners who lived in the town and attended the two urban schools were actually from impoverished families and had no support from home. If it were not for the free primary education some of these learners would not be at school. The high cost of preschool education prevented most parents from enrolling their children for preschool education which caused the disparity in the learners who enrolled in Grade 1.

The study showed that the teachers' knowledge of the learners' needs was important in guiding the teachers' planning of lessons. This view is clearly articulated by Lyons and Pinnell (2001) who state that the most important concern teachers have is for their individual learners' strengths, habits, attitudes and needs. They are of the view that when teachers know their learners individually, it is easier for them to guide and support them in their literacy needs. Lyons and Pinnell write:

Knowing our students is critical to teaching literacy successfully, because they bring knowledge and experience to the literacy process. Recognizing what the students bring to reading and writing powers our instruction. The meaning and the pleasure of literacy resides within the individual. (p. 35)

Teachers' experiences of teaching literacy in Grade 1

The study showed that there are a number of issues that make up teachers' experiences of teaching literacy in English in Grade 1. A major conclusion that emanated from this study was that teachers faced a lot of challenges in the teaching of literacy in English at Grade 1 level and these challenges made their experiences unpleasant especially for new teachers. The lack of mentoring for teachers who taught Grade 1 literacy for the first time was frustrating. Also, having to deal with learners who came to Grade 1 with different entry competencies because there was no common starting point for all learners increased the teachers' challenges. However, the resilience that the teachers developed with time helped them to devise effective strategies that improved learners' achievement in literacy. These include development of a positive attitude, engaging learners in remedial work and organising internal workshops with other teachers. These mitigating measures helped improve the situation and made the teachers' experiences bearable. The study showed that a positive attitude was important for teachers to develop resilience in their work.

Strategies teachers used to counter the challenges

Teachers in the case study schools had devised some strategies to counter some of the challenges they experienced in their teaching of literacy in English in Grade 1. These strategies include developing a positive attitude for the work, providing reading materials for their classes, organising internal workshops with other teachers and remediation. The findings showed that since teachers were the implementers of the curriculum, they had to devise strategies to counter the challenges, without which the teaching and learning of literacy in English could be a futile exercise. The most critical aspect was to work on their attitudes; they stated that developing a positive attitude towards their work helped them to cope. The positive attitude enabled the teachers to make an effort to provide reading materials for the learners, provide remedial lessons for struggling learners, and also organise internal workshops among themselves. The idea of teachers' collaboration in the schools is supported by Wium and Louw (2011:86) in their work on the 'exploration of how foundation phase teachers facilitate language skills'. They assert that the development of a child involves an interdisciplinary field of knowledge that teachers bring to the profession.

Ideas to improve the teaching and learning of literacy in English in Grade 1

The study showed that regardless of the challenges teachers experienced in their teaching of literacy in English at Grade 1 level, they had ideas that they believed could improve the teaching and learning of literacy in Grade 1. These ideas included the integration of information technology in the teaching, use of mother tongue, teacher specialisation in the foundation phase and teacher-parent associations. The teachers were of the view that employing teachers who had specialised in foundation phase education could improve literacy teaching because these teachers would know which effective instructional practices to implement in order to meet varied learners' needs. Moreover, the teachers believed that the integration of information technology in the curriculum would benefit learners because children were fascinated by technology. The teachers' idea corroborated the views of Aubrey and Dahl (2008) who argue that the use of information technology motivates learners, supports knowledge construction and creates a context for supporting learning by doing and by conversing. Van Scoter (2008) also holds that the use of information technology with young children can help to support meaningful learning as it increases one's understanding of the world through communication, language, literacy and problem solving.

 

Conclusion

The results of this study showed that teachers understand that Grade 1 is an important foundation phase level and teaching at this level requires specialised training. They acknowledged that they lacked the necessary expertise for effectively teaching literacy in English at this level. Consequently, there is a strong recommendation that government considers hiring teachers who are qualified to teach at the foundation phase for effective literacy in English instruction. It is believed that teachers who are qualified in foundation phase education would be able to meet the diverse needs of the learners. The study also showed that there are various factors that explain teachers' instructional practices: teacher-related, learner-related and school-related factors. Altogether, these factors make up experiences of the teachers. As implementers of the curriculum, teachers had to deal with these challenges, most of which they had no control over. The most glaring challenge was that learners who enrolled in Grade 1 did not have a common starting ground as there was still no Grade 0 in the public schools.

Recommendations

There is a strong recommendation that government introduces Grade 0 in the schools to bridge the gap for learners who enrol for Grade 1. It might also be essential for the curriculum designers to integrate technology-based literacy in English programmes in the foundation phase to improve literacy learning.

 

Acknowledgements

The teachers of the two primary schools that participated in this study. They provided useful data; without them, this study would not have been possible.

Competing interests

The authors have declared that no competing interest exists.

Authors' contributions

P.D. is the one behind this idea and A.S. guided her as she did this work.

Funding

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial and not-for-profit sectors.

Data availability statement

Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no new data were created or analysed in this study.

Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any affiliated agency of the authors.

 

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Correspondence:
Ayub Sheik
sheika@ukzn.ac.za

Received: 31 Jan. 2019
Accepted: 05 June 2019
Published: 17 Oct. 2019

 

 

Note: As from April 2019, the country formerly known as Swaziland is officially known as (the Kingdom of) Eswatini. The University of Eswatini was formerly known as the University of Swaziland (UNISWA).

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ORIGINAL RESEARCH

 

Perceptions of undergraduates on the relationship between exposure to blended learning and online critical literacy skills

 

 

Titi J. Fola-Adebayo

General Studies Unit, The Federal University of Technology, Akure, Nigeria

Correspondence

 

 


ABSTRACT

BACKGROUND: Exposure to a blended experience has the potential to heighten students' online critical literacy skills, and prepare them to participate in the new online communities that emerge within a networked society.
OBJECTIVES: This article considered the perceptions of a cohort of third-year undergraduates of the Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, on the relationship between exposure to blended learning (BL) and the development of online critical literacy skills.
METHOD: A BL mode, which took the form of a face-to-face approach and the use of a virtual learning environment, was employed in teaching Critical Literacy, a component of the Developmental Reading Skills course designed for undergraduates of English as a second language. For 4 weeks, 80 students were trained to read web-based information critically and evaluate web pages in the Developmental Reading course, after which their perception of the relationship between exposure to BL and the development of online critical literacy skills was investigated. This work, for which data were obtained through focus group discussion and administration of a structured questionnaire, is grounded in both critical literacy (Janks 2013) and social constructivist theories (McInerney & McInerney 2002). Frequency distribution and Pearson correlation coefficient were employed in analysing the data collected.
RESULTS: The results revealed that the students perceived a positive relationship between exposure to BL and the development of online critical literacy skills.
CONCLUSION: Many of the respondents showed a preference for the BL mode, and the benefits they derived from it include: the improvement of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) skills, the acquisition of more knowledge after the class, convenient time to work and ease with self-expression.

Keywords: Digital literacy; meta-cognition; reading; second-language reading; reflective thinking.


 

 

Introduction

The last decade witnessed the rapid adoption and use of various learning management systems (LMSs) in some parts of Africa. Though researchers (Mbete & Raisamo 2014) claim that the uptake of technology for pedagogic purposes is rather low in sub-Saharan Africa, a few exceptions exist, one of which is its use and high uptake in one Nigerian university, namely The Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA), Nigeria (Aborisade 2013; Fola-Adebayo 2010). Several factors led to the choice of a blended learning (BL) approach at FUTA: large classes, the need to expand students' learning spaces, the need for learner engagement, issues associated with quality assurance and acknowledgement of the fact that social contexts for learning have changed as students are no longer consumers of information but knowledge creators. The General Studies Unit at FUTA caters to the academic and communication needs of students of science and technology who have varying academic, language and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) competencies through instruction in a specially designed English for Academic Purposes (EAP) course.

Concerning pedagogic development, the FUTA EAP course has gone through three different stages. Phase 1 was patterned after the traditional grammar-translation and structuralist approach and influenced by behaviourist theory, while Phase 2 was designed along the tenets of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), with a focus on the learner, their motivations and learning styles. The curriculum was focused on tasks and skills, and was problem-based in this second phase. The third phase witnessed the integration of technology in language teaching alongside the adoption of a BL approach which was underpinned by the social constructivist methods of creating innovative learning spaces, engaging the learner, fostering authentic inquiry-based learning projects and creating opportunities for student-student and student-teacher interactions (Aborisade, Fola-Adebayo & Olubode-Sawe 2013). Adopting the BL mode allowed the use of the combination of the traditional face-to-face method and use of resources afforded by the LMS - Moodle (modular object-oriented dynamic learning environment), in this case.

The aim of the project reported on in this article was to replicate the FUTA experience in a near-similar teaching-learning context at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, during my tenure as visiting lecturer in the Department of Communication and Language Arts (CLA) at the university. The goal was to learn more about the perceptions that undergraduate students have regarding the relationship between exposure to BL and the development of their critical literacy skills. A face-to-face approach was traditionally employed in the course delivery at this university, but I decided to trial the FUTA BL approach in the undergraduate reading course that I taught. I employed BL to teach one component of the course, namely Critical Reading and Critical Literacy. The aim was to facilitate engagement and foster the development of online critical literacy skills among the students. Though scholars (Jonas & Burns 2010; Sharma & Barrett 2007) claim that a conclusive definition of BL is yet to emerge, this concept typically involves the integration of two learning platforms: the traditional face-to-face and virtual environments. As such, BL in this study is defined as a learning environment that combines instruction in a face-to-face setting with instruction that involves the integration of technology in teaching.

 

Theoretical background

Underpinning this study are critical literacy theory (Freire 1987; Riley 2015) and the social constructivist view of learning (McInerney & McInerney 2002; Vygotsky 1978). Riley (2015:417) claims that critical literacy 'attends to the ways that literacy is culturally, historically and politically situated'. Its common goals are highlighting socio-political issues, disrupting commonplace understandings about people and our world and promoting social justice through action (Parker 2013). Proponents of the social constructivist view of learning (McInerney & McInerney 2002; Vygotsky 1978), who believe that learning is situation based and context bound, posit that learners are acculturated into their learning community, and they create knowledge by interacting with their social learning environment. Fox (2001), however, comments on the limitation of the social constructivist approach by arguing that constructivism does not acknowledge the role of passive perception, memorisation and the mechanical learning methods inherent in traditional lecturing. Teachers also rightly observe that knowledge is cognitively and individually constructed. In spite of this limitation of the Vygotskian perspective, the theory underscores the role of socio-cultural influences in learning.

The social constructivist theory brings to place the learner-centred experiential approach (Duffy & Cunningham 1996), which offers learners the opportunity of examining discussions at hand from their own perspectives and building individual understanding of new ideas, concepts and information that are based on past experiences and knowledge. Although no single definition of BL exists, it is the assumption here that a BL approach incorporates several social constructivist methods in order to create innovative learning spaces. Poon (2013:274) describes BL as:

the convergence of face-to-face settings, which are characterized by synchronous and human interaction, with Information and Communication Technology (ICT)-based settings, which are asynchronous, text-based, and involve humans operating independently.

The BL approach - which involves a paradigm shift where the emphasis moves from teaching to learning (Nunan, George & McCausland 2000) - encourages students to learn interactively, collaboratively and at their own pace and time (Graham 2006).

The strength of this approach lies in its support of diversity, the enhancement of campus experience, operating in a global context and efficiency (Sharpe, Benfield & Francis 2006), as well as enhanced learning outcomes for students and improved attrition rates from courses (Lopez-Perez, Perez-Lopez & Rodriguez-Ariza 2011). Furthermore, through a BL approach, learners are equipped with the requisite skills and strategies for managing information in a technology-enhanced environment. In their study on academic reading in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) and modern technology, Levine, Ferenz and Reves (2000) concluded that an online networked reading environment can provide opportunities for the development of authentic reading experiences, and is important for the development of critical reading skills. In order to help learners develop critical literacy skills for reading and conducting research online, they recommend the following:

  • Letting students have web-evaluation experiences.

  • Applying a constructivist, learner-centred approach that will prepare students to work with ever-changing technology.

In our case, following the advice of Levine et al. (2000), students used the Internet to search for, read and evaluate web-based materials and sites on the topic assigned to the class, namely 'violence', a theme that was trending in the traditional and new media at the time, and from which groups developed different perspectives and sub-topics, such as:

  • Domestic violence against women in Ibadan, South West Nigeria.

  • Effects of ethno-religious violence in Borno State, North East Nigeria.

  • Causes and effects of cultism in Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago Iwoye, Ogun State, Nigeria.

  • Female genital mutilation as a form of violence against women in South East Nigeria.

  • Effects of domestic violence on career women in Ibadan, South West Nigeria.

  • Effects of xenophobic attacks on African nationals in South Africa.

  • Effects of xenophobic attacks on the economy of South Africa.

  • Causes of inter-tribal violence in Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria.

  • Forms of child abuse in Ibadan, South West Nigeria.

The assignment required that, in line with the requirements of critical literacy, students generate ideas and offer solutions that hinge on social change and democratic ideals, and call for socio-political action on the type of violence they addressed in their assignment. The reading route used for these assignments was in line with the requirements of critical literacy theories, as students were showed how to be code breakers, meaning makers, text users and text analysts. As code breakers, they were instructed to read text first at surface level; as meaning makers, the instruction they received helped them to comprehend text at the level intended by the writer; and as text users, they were trained to analyse the factors that influenced the author and text. As text analysts, following Leu et al. (2004), they were trained to critically evaluate information, to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate information, important and unimportant information and biased and unbiased information, and to synthesise information and rapidly and clearly communicate solutions to others.

 

Research questions

This study investigated the perception of undergraduates regarding the relationship between exposure to BL and the development of online critical literacy skills. The study was guided by the following research questions:

  • What, if any, benefits did students at the University of Ibadan derive from learning through a BL approach?

  • What is the perceived relationship between the exposure to BL and the development of online critical literacy skills of the undergraduates?

  • How did exposure to learning through the BL mode contribute to the development of the online critical literacy skills of undergraduates at the University of Ibadan?

  • What are these students' perceptions of the hindrances associated with the use of Moodle?

 

Methodology

Research context and participants

The CLA Department, which envisions itself as a centre of excellence for training in communication skills development, is located in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ibadan. The department provides training in communication skills that are required in various settings: interpersonal, group, organisation, cross-cultural, mass and instructional communication. One of the courses offered by the department and the reading course that I taught, CLA 301, offers a presentation of fairly advanced theories and exercises on various types of reading (including flexible, inferential, critical and creative reading) and discussion of the different patterns and sources of reading difficulties at tertiary level and their corrective procedures. The course, a three-unit compulsory course with a 3-h weekly contact period, which ran for 13 weeks in one semester, was offered to approximately 80 third-year undergraduates with backgrounds in Communication and Language Arts, English, Linguistics, Library and Archival Studies, and Education. Sixty-four students (52 female, 12 male, with an age range of 19-30 years) took part in the study. More than half of the respondents (35; 54.7%) fell within the age range of 16-20 years, followed by 26 (40.6%) within the range of 21-25 years and 3 (4.7%) within the range of 26-30 years. Some of these students had laptops and many had smartphones with which they browsed the Internet.

Concerning the ethical considerations of this study, the permission of the Head of Department of CLA was sought before the commencement of the study, and student volunteers whose anonymity was guaranteed were recruited among students taking the course. These were given the option of opting out of the study. The purpose of the study was explained to the participating students, who were informed that the Critical Literacy component of the course would be taught using the BL mode and that the site of The Federal University of Technology, Akure, Nigeria, would be used since the BL mode was employed in teaching EAP at FUTA. Appendix 1 (see Figure 1-A1) shows the landing page of the FUTA e-learning site.

Research design and procedures

The study utilised a mixed-method framework, as it contained both a quantitative and qualitative aspect. Focus group discussion and a questionnaire were used to gather data for this study. These instruments elicited information on: the learning mode preferred, the benefits that students believed they derived from learning through a BL mode, the perceived relationship between exposure to BL and the development of online critical literacy skills, the extent to which students believed that exposure to the BL mode led to the development of specific critical literacy skills, and students' perception of the hindrances associated with using Moodle. In terms of data collection, the questionnaire was administered before the focus group discussion was carried out.

The blended learning approach

The course had a 3h weekly contact period which ran for 13 weeks. Moodle was introduced (https://www.learn.futa.edu.ng) midway through the semester after a substantial amount of work had been done on topics such as the reading process, reading comprehension, the word, word attack skill, the sentence, foregrounding, the paragraph and thought-flow patterns. Before the students used Moodle, they received an orientation programme on the use of the resource, and they were provided with a PowerPoint presentation on how to log on to the e-learning site. Practice sessions on how to navigate the site access resources on the site and create forum posts were provided. Students formed groups of five based on their common research interest and were guided by the researcher on the use of Moodle. Links on website evaluation guides were provided in class. The students found the evaluation guide of the University of California at Berkeley (www.lib.berkeley.edu/TeachingLib/Guides/Internet/Evaluate.html) helpful. It was reviewed with the students, who went on to read and evaluate web-based information on the topics they had chosen. Using criteria of the guide, groups evaluated and rated web pages along these scales: reliable, highly reliable and unreliable. Each group presented their discussion of the ideas generated, evaluation of web pages and group summaries to the class, and these summaries were eventually posted on the discussion forum.

The e-learning component of the course was hosted on the FUTA e-learning site, where space was created and learning materials uploaded for students' use. Only one component of the course (Critical Reading/Critical Literacy) was addressed online; this entailed weekly discussions, information from the teacher, group work and feedback from one another. Students also downloaded and uploaded assignments from and to the site and used the discussion forum.

Research instruments

As mentioned earlier, data for the study were obtained through the administration of a questionnaire and focus group discussion. For the questionnaire, a five-point Likert scale that measured students' level of agreement or disagreement was employed. Questions centred on the following: the learning mode preferred, benefits of the learning mode as far as the development of online critical literacy was concerned, students' reactions to exposure to instruction on critical literacy provided through the BL mode, how exposure to the BL mode led to the development of specific critical literacy skills, and challenges associated with the use of the FUTA learning management system. Questions asked during the focus group discussion were similar to the items in the questionnaire and students' responses were tape-recorded, transcribed and coded.

Data analysis

A total of 80 questionnaires were handed out; only 69 were returned, out of which 64 were duly completed and found usable. The qualitative data from the focus group discussion were analysed thematically, while frequency distribution and Pearson correlation coefficient (PCC) were used to analyse the quantitative data gathered with the questionnaire. The PCC was used to test for the existence of relationships between the students' exposure to the BL mode and the development of online critical literacy skills.

The PCC is defined as follows:

Where:

  • x = the 'scores' of the students in online critical literacy skills,

  • y = the level of exposure of the students to the BL mode,

  • = the mean score for online critical literacy skills and

  • = the mean exposure of the students to the BL mode.

 

Results

Preferred learning mode

Table 1 reveals that 46 (71.9%) out of the 64 students showed a preference for the BL mode, and 17 (26.6%) indicated that they preferred the face-to-face learning mode.

 

 

What benefits, if any, did the students derive from learning in a blended learning mode?

Table 2 presents a summary of the students' responses on the benefits of BL, obtained from the questionnaire they completed. The responses with the highest values are: the improvement of ICT skill (32.4%), the acquisition of more knowledge after the class (18.9%), convenient time to work (13.5%), ease with self-expression (13.5%), the improvement of literacy skill (8.1%) and the ability to interpret and use signal words (5.4%). Forty-eight (75%) students indicated that learning through the BL mode benefitted them academically, 12 (18.8%) were indifferent, and 4 (6.2%) students disagreed that the mode held any academic relevance for them. Forty-three (67.2%) students indicated that they were more at liberty to enter into discussion on an online forum than in class, 6 (9.4%) were indifferent, and 15 (23.4%) disagreed.

 

 

What is the perceived relationship between exposure to blended learning and the development of online critical literacy skills?

Table 3 shows the correlation coefficient of the perceived relationship between exposure to BL and the development of online critical literacy skills. A statistically positive relationship was found between students' perceived exposure to BL and the development of online critical literacy skills, as the correlation value of 0.391 was found to be significant at the 0.05 level.

 

 

How did exposure to learning through the blended learning mode contribute to the development of the online critical literacy skills of undergraduates at the University of Ibadan?

A summary of the students' responses on how exposure to learning through the BL mode contributed to the development of their online critical literacy skills is presented in Table 4. Forty-two (65.6%) students indicated that the BL mode to a large extent contributed to the development of their critical literacy skills, 21 (32.8%) revealed that the BL method only minimally contributed to the development of their critical literacy skills, and 1 (1.6%) student claimed that the BL approach did not contribute at all to the development of their critical literacy skills.

 

 

Some of the details of the students' responses on how exposure to learning through the BL mode contributed to the development of their online critical literacy skills are presented here. Only items that ranked the highest were considered. 'Exposure to instruction on critical literacy provided through the BL mode has enabled me to focus on the main ideas in a text' ranked highest overall (82.8%), suggesting that generally, the students were able to perform this sub-skill easily. The following items also ranked high.

Exposure to instruction on critical literacy provided through the BL mode has enabled me to:

  • make use of relevant background knowledge (78.1%)

  • think deeply about what I read (78.1%)

  • evaluate the passage that I am reading in print or online (71.9%)

  • evaluate the content of web pages (71.9%)

  • evaluate the quality of web pages (68.8%)

  • find out if the author has made use of exaggeration (65.6%)

  • draw inferences from what I am reading (65.6%)

  • be sensitive to the author's use of emotionally charged language (65.6%)

  • be sensitive to the author's use of signal words and phrases (62.5%)

  • check if the author has made use of propaganda (59.4%)

  • identify the author's purpose in the text (57.8%)

  • distinguish between facts and opinion stated by the author (57.8%)

  • follow the author's thought-flow pattern (57.8%)

  • synthesise ideas from what I read (54.7%)

  • interpret texts (54.7%)

The ability to monitor comprehension (48.4%) was not rated as highly as the others, suggesting that the students had not sufficiently mastered this skill.

What are students' perceptions of the hindrances associated with the use of Moodle?

In the questionnaire and focus group discussion, some of the students indicated that they had problems with Internet access and using the e-learning resource in spite of the orientation they had received.

 

Discussion

The results obtained regarding students' preference for the BL mode suggest that their choice of the BL platform may be linked to young people's attraction to technology, the pedagogic richness of the BL approach, the enhancement of learning it fosters and the interactive nature of ICT. These results are supported by the observation of scholars and practitioners (Morris 2014; Poon 2013) that the BL mode enhances students' learning, adds value to learning, and promotes student engagement and ubiquitous learning.

During the focus group discussion, students gave the following reasons why they preferred the BL mode:

'We live in a world that is a global village and it's network driven. I believe experimenting with technology in learning is ideal.' (Student 1, Female, 300 Level)

'It promotes the interaction with students and lecturers outside the class and makes learning not restricted to the four walls of the classroom.' (Student 2, Female, 300 Level)

Reasons regarding differences in learning style, technophobia and the stress involved in using the Internet may account for the non-preference of some students for the BL mode. Reasons for their choice of the face-to-face learning mode include the following:

'The use of technology in Nigeria can be very stressful and time-consuming as a result of poor network and it's always frustrating.' (Student 3, Male, 300 Level)

'I will be able to interact well and directly with the lecturer and I won't have to worry about the online expenses and failures.' (Student 4, Male, 300 Level)

'It is more efficient and stress-free, while it allows for questions and clarification process. It also enables the lecturer to evaluate the students' assimilatory process by noting their non-verbal cues.' (Student 5, Female, 300 Level)

The majority of the students' claim that BL benefitted them in several ways is affirmed by researchers who claim that BL has the potential to support deep and meaningful learning, offers immense transformative potential (Fola-Adebayo 2014; Garrison & Kanuka 2004), heightens students' learning levels, optimises their study time, reduces dropout rate and supports ubiquitous learning (Kose 2010). The responses from the focus group discussion attest to the fact that the participants considered the BL mode beneficial:

'I think it's something some set of students have been clamoring for and I think the time is right for us to embrace e-learning because I realise that most of us even outside the four walls of this faculty like to do a lot with our phones like browsing, playing games, etc., which doesn't add to intellectual capacity but an avenue came in which one can learn via phones and laptops and other gadgets; then it's very easy for us to learn and this has accorded us the privilege to learn and play. Which is a laudable effort and it should be a thing that should be employed at the faculty and even the university at large.' (Student 6, Male, 300 Level)

'It's an innovative step, it's a step in the right direction which exposes us to what we are supposed to do naturally, the use of paper and manual assignments are gradually fading, and anyone in the corporate world has to be computer savvy, because they have to be able to do some cogent work outline. So the exercises we get to do online enhance our electronic communication skills where we send mail to the lecturer and do presentations and this is like a simulation of the real environment.' (Student 7, Male, 300 Level)

'It's a wonderful initiative that I have been waiting to practice, and when the issue about the Moodle came up in class I was so excited to do anything to make it work.' (Student 8, Male, 300 Level)

Another benefit of the BL mode the students referred to was the formation of learning communities; the collaborative capabilities of the ICTs facilitate a synchronous, autonomous and collaborative learning experience and encourage learners to learn together and alone. In this way, the whole experience leads to the formation of communities of inquiry. The views expressed by some students in the focus group discussion regarding the link between BL and the formation of a community of inquiry is reiterated by Garrison and Kanuka (2004:97) who observed that:

Community provides the stabilizing, cohesive influence that balances the open communication and limitless access to information on the Internet. Communities also provide the condition for free and open dialogue, critical debate, negotiation and agreement - the hallmark of higher education.

Some focus group discussion participants had this to say concerning the benefits they derived from working in groups:

'There is still some fun in the groups, I had to sleep on an open roof so that I can send the assignment online when the portal wasn't connecting, and that keeps me going, that makes me continue even when the pressure was much and my group members were fantastic.' (Student 9, Female, 300 Level)

'Group work is a platform for you to develop. It builds you for the future; it builds you to become someone responsible.' (Student 1, Female, 300 Level)

'Group work exposes some people in the case that there are some people who are silent even in class they are knowledgeable and have it inside of them, group work exposes the people to share their thoughts and help in getting to create a relationship among all the group members.' (Student 2, Female, 300 Level)

While the majority of the respondents claimed that they benefitted from the use of the BL mode, others were apathetic. Technophobia, scepticism, time demands, the financial expense involved in its use, infrastructural issues, or mere resistance to change may account for the negative views they held regarding the use of BL as a learning approach. One of the students explained the challenges associated with the learning approach:

'It is a good initiative, though the Nigerian system is not yet ready to accommodate e-learning. Reason being that our Internet package is woeful because most students cannot afford to buy big data for browsing. Even if there is data, the network is not encouraging and people still have to stay up all night before they can submit their assignment.' (Student 10, Male, 300 Level).

The results of this study, which indicate a relationship between exposure to BL and the development of online critical literacy skills, are supported by the observation of researchers that BL leads to deep and meaning educational experiences, fosters student engagement and learning outcomes (Akyol & Garrison 2011; Morris, 2014; Sarabadani & Berenjian 2017), and presents a platform for dynamic interactive exchange and the development of teamwork skills development.

The claim by the majority of the students that exposure to learning through BL contributed largely to the development of their critical literacy skills can be explained by the substantial benefits a technology-supported medium offers; virtual learning environments deploy pedagogic tools that provide engagement and opportunities for enhanced learning. Researchers (Levine et al. 2000) also reveal that reading in an online networked environment facilitates the development of online critical literacy skills.

The results regarding students' perceptions of the hindrances associated with the use of Moodle are similar to the findings of researchers who reported that power failures (Okaz 2015), lack of IT knowledge and socio-economic factors (Holley & Oliver 2010) constituted reasons why students had problems with the use of BL. The responses of the students in the current study included the following:

'Because we are making use of the Moodle, there is a big problem with the Internet access, my group and I have spent hours in a café trying to log in. And it does impinge on the time allotted to other courses, as sometimes the planned time for other courses is spent on CLA 301.' (Student 6, Male, 300 Level)

'Logging in and network connections were my major challenges as well as [the] submission of assignments.' (Student 7, Male, 300 Level)

'I find it difficult to register or log in with [the] FUTA link platform. Thus I can't submit my individual assignment.' (Student 11, Male, 300 Level)

 

Recommendations

Based on the results of this study, the following recommendations are made:

  • Teachers of English as a second language should include the skills of critical literacy in their curriculum. Doing this will help students understand the political and economic contexts in which texts are created, shaped and embedded, and help them fully participate in the new emerging literacies and democracies.

  • Teachers should also focus on teaching the grammar and rules that attribute meanings to language and its use in political and social settings.

  • Finally, teachers should endeavour to teach critical literacy at the primary level in order to facilitate critical thinking in young learners; also, training in critical literacy will help children examine texts from multiple perspectives, and enhance their reading experience at the emergent level.

 

Conclusion

This study investigated the perceptions of undergraduates of the Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, of the relationship between exposure to BL and the development of online critical literacy skills. The participants were trained for 4 weeks to read web-based information critically and evaluate web pages in a Developmental Reading course. Data were obtained through the administration of a questionnaire and focus group discussion. The results revealed that the majority of the students preferred the BL mode and claimed that they benefitted from it. Some of the benefits they derived include the improvement of ICT skills, the acquisition of additional knowledge after class, control over time, ease of expression, the improvement of literacy skills and formation of communities of inquiry. Furthermore, the results showed a statistically positive relationship between exposure to BL and the development of online critical literacy skills. The majority of the students indicated that the BL mode to a large extent contributed to the development of their online critical literacy skills. This study confirms the results of similar studies on the usefulness of the BL approach. Yen and Lee (2011:138), for example, highlight the relevance of the BL mode in their assertion that 'BL, thoughtfully combining the best elements of online and face-to-face education, is likely to emerge as the predominant teaching model of the future'.

The study had as its main objective the development of online critical literacy skills among the indicated undergraduates. This objective was met as the students read texts on the topic of violence, generated ideas and provided solutions which centred on the need for change, and challenged societal response to the issue they discussed. They came up with democratic ideals and called for socio-political action on the issue of violence. Of particular interest to the class was the issue of xenophobic attacks on Africans and their businesses in South Africa, and a call for socio-political action mandating the African Union and United Nations to prevail on the Government of South Africa to defend fellow Africans and their interests in their country.

 

Future research

Future research in this area should focus on factors that facilitate the development of online critical literacy skills and consider policy framework and practice that guide adult online literacy in selected African curricula and countries.

 

Acknowledgements

The assistance received, including the opportunity to use the e-learning site of The Federal University of Technology, Akure, Nigeria, for the study, and the participation of undergraduates of the University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria, are gratefully acknowledged.

Competing interests

I declare that I have no financial or personal relationship(s) which may have inappropriately influenced me in writing this article.

Author's contributions

I declare that I am the sole author of this research article.

Ethical consideration

This article followed all ethical standards for carrying out research without direct contact with human or animal subjects.

Funding information

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

Data availability statement

Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no new data were created or analysed in this study.

Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any affiliated agency of the author.

 

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Correspondence:
Titi Fola-Adebayo
vinefort@yahoo.com

Received: 14 Mar. 2018
Accepted: 19 Mar. 2019
Published: 30 Oct. 2019

 

 

Appendix 1

 

^rND^sAborisade^nP.A.^rND^sAkyol^nZ.^rND^sGarrison^nD.^rND^sFola-Adebayo^nT.^rND^sFox^nR.^rND^sGarrison^nD.^rND^sKanuka^nH.^rND^sHolley^nD.^rND^sOliver^nM.^rND^sJanks^nH.^rND^sJonas^nD.^rND^sBurns^nB.^rND^sKose^nU.^rND^sLevine^nA.^rND^sFerenz^nO.^rND^sReeves^nT.^rND^sLopez-Perez^nM.V.^rND^sPerez-Lopez^nM.C.^rND^sRodriquez-Ariza^nL^rND^sMbete^nJ.S.^rND^sRaisamo^nR.^rND^sNunan^nT.^rND^sGeorge^nR.^rND^sMcCausland^nH.^rND^sOkaz^nA.^rND^sParker^nJ.K.^rND^sPoon^nJ.^rND^sRiley^nK.^rND^sSarabadani^nZ.^rND^sBerenjian^nA.^rND^sSharpe^nR^rND^sBenfield^nG.^rND^sFrancis^nR.^rND^sYen^nJ.C^rND^sLee^nC.Y.^rND^sZaka^nP.^rND^1A01^nTilla^sOlifant^rND^1A01^nMadoda^sCekiso^rND^1A01^nEunice^sRautenbach^rND^1A01^nTilla^sOlifant^rND^1A01^nMadoda^sCekiso^rND^1A01^nEunice^sRautenbach^rND^1A01^nTilla^sOlifant^rND^1A01^nMadoda^sCekiso^rND^1A01^nEunice^sRautenbach

ORIGINAL RESEARCH

 

Teachers' perceptions of Grades 8-10 English First Additional Language learners' reading habits, attitudes and motivation

 

 

Tilla Olifant; Madoda Cekiso; Eunice Rautenbach

Department of Applied Languages, Faculty of Humanities, Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria, South Africa

Correspondence

 

 


ABSTRACT

BACKGROUND: Owing to the dearth of reading practices within the South African literacy landscape, many learners neither engage in productive reading habits, nor exhibit a positive attitude towards English First Additional Language (EFAL) reading. Consequently, many learners experience reading challenges, which negatively impact on their academic performance.
OBJECTIVE: This study investigated the reading habits, attitudes and motivation of Grades 8-10 EFAL learners through the perceptive lens of EFAL teachers.
METHOD: This qualitative study employed a case study design and a thematic data analysis process. The purposively selected sample for the semi-structured interviews consisted of six Grade 8-10 EFAL teachers from two high schools in the Tshwane South district.
RESULTS: Teachers believe that learners experience academic challenges because they do not habitually engage with texts, have a negative attitude towards printed text and read only to progress academically. The results further indicated that all these teachers concurred that there is a corresponding relationship between productive reading habits, a positive attitude towards reading and the academic performance of learners. Regrettably, the data analysis reported that the teachers have a pessimistic perception of the EFAL learners' reading habits, attitudes and motivation to read. More disturbingly, most of the teachers lacked the responsibility for their contribution towards the ongoing demise of productive reading practices among learners in their classrooms.
CONCLUSION: The findings revealed grave implications about learners' reading habits, attitudes and motivation to read. Alarmingly, one of the most remarkable findings produced by this study is that the teachers themselves harbour negative perceptions about the reading practices of the learners in their classrooms.

Keywords: Teachers' perceptions; reading; reading habits; reading attitudes; motivation to read; English First Additional Language; EFAL; learners.


 

 

Introduction

Reading forms the basis for the literacy acquirement process of every learner. In South Africa, many learners use English as a second, third or fourth language, yet it remains the medium through which the learners access literacy in school. This sentiment is supported by Lemmer and Van Wyk (2010:226), who report that although only 9.6% of the South African population use English as their first language, it remains the primary language of access to education. For this reason, Lemmer and Van Wyk (2010:227) state that English First Additional Language (EFAL) learners are the dominant population in South African schools. Baatjies (2003:1) points out that reading is the most critical element of literacy education. Consequently, in both L1 and L2 or subsequently, in any language of learning, poor reading skills produce low academic achievement (Chall 2000). It thus appears as if reading ability in any language of learning can either advance or impede scholastic performance. Concurringly, Cekiso (2017:1) asserts that reading literacy is the essence of schooling, which enables the academic advancement of learners. Seeing that reading literacy affects learners' performance in school, it thus appears that the cultivation of productive reading habits and positive attitudes is likely to assist learners to progress intellectually and academically. In fact, reading habits and attitudes seem to be based on people's 'perceptions' derived from past reading experiences (Guthrie & Greaney 1991:87), regarding the pleasure and the value that reading provides.

Against this background, this study investigated 10 Grades 8-10 EFAL learners' reading habits, attitudes and motivation to read through the perceptive lens of the Grades 8-10 EFAL teachers, to obtain insight about the reading practices of the learners. The focus on teachers' perceptions is motivated by the fact that teachers play an important role in the reading performance of their learners. Teachers are the ones who create classroom environments that promote engaged reading. Moreover, not only do teachers have a significant influence upon a child's acquisition of the habit of engaged reading (Ruddell 1995), but teachers also appear to be very much aware of the need for motivating their students to read (O'Flahavan et al. 1992).

 

Purpose of the study

There is a pursuit for a better understanding of the EFAL learners' reading habits, attitudes and motivation to read, which has been a continuous, active area of research (Braguglia 2005; Majid & Tan 2007; Owusu-Acheaw & Larson 2014; Van Staden 2011). Moreover, Bruguglia (2005), argues that reading is essential to academic progress and intellectual prosperity. This sentiment is rearticulated by Majid and Tan (2007), who reported that learners are inspired to read for academically related reasons, with the purpose of advancing to the next higher grade. This view is echoed in the findings of a study conducted by Owusu-Acheaw and Larson (2014), who confirmed that the reading habits of learners, specifically Grades 8-10 EFAL learners in the context of this study, do indeed influence their academic performance. For this reason, Van Staden (2011) suggests that knowledgeable teachers, in other words well-trained and well-informed teachers, are instrumental in addressing and assisting with the reading challenges that learners experience in school.

As previously stated, teachers are regarded as primary contributors towards the learners' ability and attitude to read. For this reason, Richards in Rido, Ibrahim and Nambiar (2014) asserts that teachers operate as mediators, facilitators and monitors in classrooms, guiding learners through the reading process. This assertion is echoed by Mckenna (2001), who indicates that teachers, among others, contribute significantly in the mentoring as well as modelling of reading, which includes reading habits, attitudes and reading motivation towards EFAL reading. Concurrently, Kuzborska (2011) argues that the process of how a teacher understands and interprets the act of reading (through their pedagogy, paradigms and interaction strategies) impacts on classroom practices, and ultimately impacts the learner's academic achievement, which includes the practice of reading.

Therefore, insight into the learners' reading habits and attitude towards EFAL reading from the EFAL teachers' perspective is fundamental to address and assist with the reading challenges that these learners experience in school. Consequently, this study sought to investigate and describe the Grades 8-10 EFAL teachers' perceptions of reading habits and attitudes of learners in two high schools in Tshwane South district, Gauteng, with a view to making recommendations that can possibly promote the reading habits and attitudes among learners.

To achieve the purpose of this study, the following research questions were addressed:

  • What are the EFAL teachers' perceptions of the reading habits of the Grades 8-10 learners?

  • What are the EFAL teachers' perceptions of the attitudes of Grades 8-10 learners towards reading?

  • What are the EFAL teachers' perceptions of the Grades 8-10 learners' motivation towards reading?

 

Reading challenges

Schmidt, Rozendal and Greenman (2002:131) recapitulate that the ability to read is a fundamental building block in the schooling programme. Reading proficiency ensures not only academic success, but also success throughout life (Oberholzer 2005:2). In contrast, a learner's failure in reading, as noted by Bohlmann and Pretorius (2002:205), impairs academic success and may also prevent the learners from reaching their full potential in life. Although research (Matjila & Pretorius 2004; Pretorius 2002) affirms the importance of reading and accentuates the corresponding relationship between reading and academic performance, it is regrettable to note that 'the South African learners are reading far below the age appropriate expected level' (Department of Education [DoE] 2008:2).

A study by the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PRLS) (2011) reviewed the reading literacy levels of 40 countries, which included countries such as Australia, Austria, Botswana, Denmark, England, Germany, Indonesia, Morocco, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden and the United States. South Africa recorded the lowest reading comprehension ability among the investigated countries. PIRLS (2016) reported that 78% of the Grade 4 and Grade 5 learners are unable to read with interpretation. Congruously, the dearth in reading as experienced by the South African learners is also highlighted by Pretorius and Machet (2004:47), who affirm that primary, secondary and even tertiary learners exhibit inadequately developed reading skills. Furthermore, Benevides and Peterson (2010:298) propose that in an education system that shows signs of reading fragility, it is essential that teachers routinely evaluate their teaching approaches, methods and resources, to augment the perception that reading is a vital resource within the educational environment.

The poor reading ability displayed by learners is cause for concern not only in South Africa, but also for the global community. In the United States, 40% of children experience challenges to become competent readers (Hugo et al. 2005:210). A study conducted by Abadzi (2008:4) states that most learners in Francophone Guinea do not know the entire alphabet by the time they complete Grade 2, which resulted in the average learner being able to read only 4 of the 20 words presented to them in the study. The importance of productive reading habits and positive attitudes is also highlighted in the United Kingdom, based on a study by Twist et al. (2004:393-394), who established that as learners increase in age, their attitude towards reading declines and become more negative. Hence, research on reading habits and attitudes indicates that most learners have lost interest in reading (Bragulia 2005; Owusu-Acheaw & Larson 2014), and consequently display poor reading habits and a negative reading attitude.

Despite the many initiatives by the various South African governmental departments, non-governmental institutions and a number of enterprises (Ithuteng [ready to learn]; The South African National Literacy Initiative [SANLI]; project by Read 2010; Read2Lead 2015; Room to Read 2012; The National Reading Strategy [NRS] 2008; A National Book Week; Reading Association of South Africa; Read Educational Trust 2010 and the Drop all and Read programme [better known as Read Me a Book]), it appears as if the South African population exhibits a perennial and reluctant culture, interest and attitude towards reading. To add insult to injury, Cekiso (2017:1) postulates that teachers worldwide exhibit an inability to 'teach reading to learners whose mother tongue is not English'. Yet there remains a clear preference for English as medium to access education among most scholars (Lemmer & Van Wyk 2010:226).

An absence of literature seems to suggest that very little is known about the reading habits and attitudes of Grades 8-10 EFAL learners in South Africa, especially in Gauteng. Additionally, there also appears to be a deficit knowledge pertaining to teachers' perceptions regarding the issue.

 

Reading habits and reading attitudes

No child is born without the ability to learn how to read; however, reading is taught (and modelled) to the child through perennial reading and practice (Van Wyk 2002:30). The routine performance of this activity can possibly result in the establishment of constructive reading habits and positive attitudes.

Reading habits have been examined by several researchers (Akanda, Hoq & Hasan 2013; Chauhan & Lal 2012; Karim & Hasan 2006; Majid & Tan 2007; Scales & Rhee 2001; Shen in Annamalai & Muniandy 2013; Wagner in Chettri & Rout 2013). Reading habits, as alluded to by Wagner (2002) in Chettri and Rout (2013:13) are 'often considered in terms of the amount of materials being read, the frequency of reading as well as the average time spent on reading'. On the other hand, Shen (2006) in Annamalai and Muniandy (2013) defines reading habits as how often, how much, and what the readers read.

Reading attitude is explained as the feeling that an individual harbours about reading, which can be positive or negative, resulting in the learner either persisting with or desisting from a reading situation (Ajzen & Fishbein in Annamalai & Muniandy 2013; Karim & Hasan 2006). Alternatively, attitude (which includes reading attitude), is delineated by Guthrie and Knowles (2001:161) as 'affective responses that accompany behaviour of reading initiated by a motivational state'. To this end, Walberg and Tshai (1995) in Karim and Hasan (2006:289) point out that factors such as: (1) having a high self-concept as a reader, (2) believing that reading is important, (3) reading enjoyment and (4) growing up in a verbally stimulated and verbally interactive social context contribute to a constructive attitude among adolescents.

It thus appears that a positive attitude fosters a positive reading attitude, whereas a negative attitude fosters a negative reading attitude among learners.

 

The importance of reading attitudes

Why is reading important? Sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, the act of reading is part of our daily lives. It thus appears that reading is an act of engagement, an act of interaction with text in its various forms, from which we can construe that 'reading is alive'. This sentiment is supported by Van Der Walt, Evans and Kilfoil (2002:149) who advocate that 'reading is a search for meaning that requires the active participation of the reader'. Stahl and Hayes (1997:137) mention that the different interpretations readers arrive at when reading provide fresh and alternative perspectives to texts.

Sometimes voluntarily and sometimes involuntarily, consciously or unconsciously, the act of reading forms part of our socio-cultural practices.

Regardless of the purpose, be it for education, be it for leisure purposes, be it to administer medicine, or simply just to be able to voice your opinion on a topic of discussion, reading is embedded and a vital element of our daily lives. Consequently, our reading habits and attitudes are important as they influence our reading ability or inability. It is this reading ability or inability that enables the learner to advance academically or not.

 

The impact of reading habits and attitudes on academic performance

Numerous research projects (Bharuthram 2012; Gunning 2007; Majid & Tan 2007; Matjila & Pretorius 2004; Nel, Dreyer & Klopper 2004; Pretorius 2002) about the connection between reading habits and attitudes on academic progress have been conducted. Research conducted by Pretorius (2002) as well as Matjila and Pretorius (2004) indicate a parallel relationship between literacy (which includes reading ability) and academic achievement. Gunning (2007:3) asserts that when learners enter high school (Grades 8-12), it is expected that they have already accomplished a certain level of reading proficiency, since the development of reading occurs in primary school (Grade R to Grade 7), where the learners are taught to read. At high school level, learners read to learn. Consequently, reading is viewed as a process of cognitive development and the learner needs to exhibit a certain level of text comprehension by means of understanding, interpreting and relating the meaning of the text.

A study by Nel et al. (2004) reports that teaching learners how to apply different reading strategies can impact and improve reading ability. On the other hand, Bharuthram (2012) hypothesises that the teaching of reading across the curriculum both in school and in Higher Education can possibly advance the reading ability of the learners. It is for this reason that Majid and Tan (2007) conducted research on the impact of learners' reading habits and preferences, focusing on the learners' reading attitudes. These researchers found that learners who were motivated, that is, learners who had a positive attitude towards reading, showed improved language skills and performed better academically. Considering these studies, Lukhele (2013:2) suggests that both primary and high school teachers need to function more proactively in influencing learners to read. In other words, through teaching and modelling constructive reading habits and a positive attitude towards reading, teachers can motivate readers towards constructive reading practices.

Shanker and Cockrum (2009:2) are of the view that every learner needs to be taught how to read (and practise the habit of reading) at an age and grade appropriate level of difficulty. This will not only improve the learner's academic performance, but also stimulate personal growth and ensure the leaners' literacy empowerment within their socio-cultural context. Therefore, it is important that the EFAL teachers' perceptions about the EFAL learners' reading habits, attitudes and motivation to read also need to be analysed and understood so that their views can also be reflected on when designing literacy enhancement or remedial programmes to assist learners. Furthermore, it is important to consider the perceptions of the teachers, so that their views and suggestions can be evaluated when they are workshopped, facilitated and equipped to instruct reading literacy skills that will assist learners to improve their reading abilities, and subsequently their generic academic performance

 

Motivation to read

Motivation, specifically within the socio-cultural context, refers to the processes of interaction and learning (Moore, Viljoen & Meyer 2017:297). In addition, Alatis, Altman and Alatis (1981:114) point out that motivation refers to the willingness or desire that moves a person to perform a specific act. Congruently, Ormrod (2008:384) points out that motivation propels a learner in a specific direction. For this reason, the researcher would like to add that not only does motivation influence the willingness to read, but it also cultivates an innate desire to read as well as sustains the will to read, which can most probably culminate in constructive reading habits and positive attitudes towards reading.

On the other hand, Guthrie and Knowles (2001:3) argues that as learners progress through school they compare themselves with their classmates, which can possibly result in an inferiority complex and consequently decrease their motivation to read. In contrast, Cullum (1998:11) narrates that the interaction of learners within a class and among various grades may improve 'reading comprehension', which may bring about a positive attitude and enjoyment in reading, and subsequently stimulate the motivation to engage in more reading practices.

It thus appears to the researcher that when a learner demonstrates motivation to read, in other words, a willingness to read, it can cause the learner to move from a practice of not reading to a practice of productive reading habits and positive reading attitudes. For this reason, this study investigates, analyses and describes the reading habits, attitudes and motivation to read of Grades 8-10 EFAL learners through a socio-cultural lens.

 

Theoretical framework

The study was informed by the socio-cultural theory of literacy and the attitude-influence model of reading by Mathewson (2004). Literacy as Social Practice hinges on the diverse forms in which humanity employ literacy in their daily practices of society (Perry 2012:53). To put it differently, Literacy as Social Practice refers to the multiple ways in which people use numerous forms of text to perform various functions in their diverse lifestyles. Street (2001:430) maintains that 'an understanding of literacy (which includes reading, and subsequently reading habits and attitudes) requires a detailed, in-depth account of actual practices in different cultural settings', because literacy is a social practice that exists between people, within groups and communities, as well as the daily practices of society (Olifant, Rautenbach & Cekiso 2017:5). This suggests that the reading practices of learners and how they are modelled by teachers in the classroom (a socio-cultural context) can be influenced by and influence our perceptions and be interpreted in terms of motivation, beliefs, interest, habits and attitudes that the learners demonstrate when they read. Mathewson's attitude-influence model of reading (Ruddel & Unrau 2004:1431-1448) relates that variables such as attitude, motivation, involvement, prior knowledge, purpose and comprehension influence the learners' intention to read and, in turn, influence reading behaviour. This model increases one's insight into the understanding of the reading habits and attitudes of Grades 8-10 learners towards EFAL. Moreover, this model also expands our understanding about teachers' perceptions of reading habits and attitudes of Grades 8-10 learners towards EFAL in high schools in Tshwane.

 

Methodology

The study followed a qualitative approach in the exploration of the research questions. Hammarberg, Kirkman and De Lacey (2016) state that qualitative research seeks to understand a given research problem or topic from the perspectives of the local population it involves. The authors further point out that qualitative research is effective in obtaining culturally specific information about values, opinions, behaviours, and social contexts of specific populations. The qualitative research approach was deemed relevant for this study, since its aim is to get teachers' insight to the EFAL learner's reading habits, attitude and motivation to read. The study also followed a case study design. Yin (1984) defines the case study research method as:

an empirical enquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-context; when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident; and in which multiple sources of evidence are used. (p. 23)

Six Grades 8-10 EFAL teachers (one teacher per grade in two schools) served as sample for this study, which was substantiated by Batchelder (in Maree 2007:84), who states that 'small samples can be quite sufficient in complete and accurate information within a particular cultural context'. Furthermore, since the teachers were selected to serve the 'purpose' of the study and directly address the research questions, purposive sampling was implemented. Maree (2007:85) provided guidance by advocating that, in most cases, qualitative study uses purposive sampling. The use of an audio-recorder to conduct individual semi-structured interviews with the permission of the teachers allowed them the opportunity to narrate their perceptions about the reading habits and attitudes of Grades 8-10 EFAL learners. Handwritten notes were also made and corroborated the audio recordings, which considered the non-verbal responses of the interviewees. The interviews were conducted at a prescheduled time most suitable to the individual teachers, in their respective classrooms. The interviews with the six teachers covered the perceptions that the teachers had about the reading habits and reading attitudes of the learners towards English as a second language. The data collected were analysed thematically.

 

Results

Individual interviews were conducted with six EFAL teachers to obtain their perceptions about the reading habits, attitudes and motivation to read of Grades 8-10 EFAL learners. The focus of the data analysis was to investigate, understand and describe how the learners' reading habits, attitude and motivation to read impact on their academic performance, through the perceptive lens of the teachers.

The labelling procedure (Figure 1) produced three categories: 'Reading habits of learners', 'Reading attitudes of learners' and 'Motivation to read among learners'. The six teachers interviewed were labelled I1, I2, I3, I4, I5 and I6. What follows is detail extracted from the conducted interviews that generated the establishment of the categorised themes based on the perceptions of the interviewed teachers.

 

 

Theme 1: Reading habits

This theme related the perceptions of teachers about how they viewed the behavioural relationship that learners displayed towards reading according to their observations.

Teachers' perceptions of Grades 8-10 English First Additional Language learners' reading habits

The teachers noted that there were those learners who read for the enjoyment thereof, as well as relaxation, but that those learners were in the minority. During all the interviews with EFAL teachers, a strong notion of agreement came through that most learners did not participate in after-school reading practices. Teachers believed most learners read only per instruction in the class and for assessment purposes. Outside of school learners did not read.

The following interview extracts support the above:

'Many of our learners only read in class because they are forced to read. They read when it is necessary to read. Very few of them have developed a habit of taking a book for enjoyment, and for relaxation. There are very few that are into those habits that they read for just enhancing their knowledge, their skills and for the betterment and just for enjoyment.' (Teacher I3, Male, Grade 10)

'They only read when they are supposed to read in class, and they never read after that. They only do it when they're in class [referring to when do learners read] Yes, exactly, it's on request only. They also do it only for marks. If it's not for marks, they won't do it.' (Teacher I4, Male, Grade 10)

'Really not good. Reading, I'm struggling to force my learners to read. To read on their own at home and then start to read, start to force the habit of reading and trying to help them. I even asked them to read when they go to the toilet. I advised them to sit and just read something for that half an hour or 15 minutes they spend there. And that's where you develop reading interest and they don't even do that. They don't even do that.' (Teacher I5, Female, Grade 8)

The influence of reading habits and attitudes the learning process

The teachers agreed that the reading habits and the attitudes of learners influenced their learning experiences, with one of the teachers emphasising that it was important for learners to be able to read to understand and appropriately answer the questions put to them. Teacher I2 conceptualised the influence of reading habits and attitude of learners on their learning experience by pointing out that 'the more you read, the better you do in your test'.

The following interview extracts support the above:

'Definitely. If they are not able to read, they will not be able to study. So, studying is out. They do not study, and they take shortcuts, every mind map or everything they can try out without reading. And that is where our problem lies and our learners do not have enough content to show in answering their questions.' (Teacher I5, Female, Grade 8)

'Of course, it does. The more you read, the more, the better you do in your tests, in your, in your, anything else. But if you don't read, if you don't have a good reading habit, that's the reason for the marks being so low.' (Teacher I2, Female, Grade 9)

'It does. It does. Even though we are aware of the technology and everything, their question papers are still their question papers are still written in a formal language, they have to read so that they are able to answer questions. If they are unable to read, then they won't be able to answer questions, which will lead to them failing. Not failing because they do not know but failing because they do not understand what is expected of them when the exam comes.' (Teacher I4, Male, Grade 10)

Teacher I4 mentioned that learners sometimes failed because they did not understand what was expected of them (due to their reading ability) and Teacher I5 articulated that if learners were not able to read, they could not study. This opinion interlinked indirectly with Meeks's (1984:25) assertion that learning to read occurs in the early stages, such as primary grades. Thus, in the secondary school grades, the learners need to read to study to achieve academic success.

Theme 2: Reading attitude

This theme is related to the EFAL reading attitude of learners. It examined the teachers' viewpoint of the learners' reading attitude.

Teachers' perceptions of Grades 8-10 English First Additional Language learners' reading attitudes

The teachers disclosed that it was difficult to instil a positive reading attitude in learners. Teacher I4 reported that as teachers they were trying to cultivate a positive attitude towards reading among learners, but they were challenged by the careless attitude that learners displayed towards reading. All the teachers communicated that learners had a negative attitude towards reading, accompanied by what Teacher I1 referred to as learners' 'reluctance to read'.

The following interview extracts support the above:

'Children are generally reluctant to read. But I think the problem is they don't get a chance to read what they like.' (Teacher I1, Male, Grade 9)

'It's a difficult one to answer, because at our school the children are not very, very exposed to the outside world. It depends how things go At home, if the parents are buying newspapers and magazines, and fashion magazines, the children will read, but I think there's, there's a problem at home, I don't think that there's enough reading material there to motivate them to read.' (Teacher I6, Female, Grade 10)

'Sjoe, the minute they hear reading, they feel bored already. And they moan, and they complain. So [laughs] with the attitude I think, they feel negative about it.' (Teacher I2, Female, Grade 9)

'Their attitude is mostly, why do I have to read? It's negative.' (Teacher I3, Male, Grade 10)

'Lower grades, attitude, positive Like to read, like to read in class, but when we are doing the reading period. The problem lies with the Grade 10s who are not willing to show.' (Teacher I5, Female, Grade 8)

'We're trying, we're trying, but we have a huge obstacle of cell phone and the lax attitude of the learners.' (Teacher I5, Female, Grade 8)

'Then, our school doesn't have a library. So, it's, the access to to material to reading material is, a little bit restricted to them. And, then you have the influence of, your social influence out there, where people see reading as a waste of time and reading properly as a waste of time. And it is mainly displayed by their peers, friends outside, and sometimes it's been influenced in the habits of their elders, their parents at home.' (Teacher I6, Female, Grade 10)

From the teachers' responses, it was evident that they perceived that learners had a negative attitude towards EFAL. They were of the view that learners were reluctant to read because of a lack of reading material that is of interest to them, the absence of libraries on the school premises, the perpetual access to cell phones and lack of exposure to various types of reading materials. Based on this information, Mckenna (2001:139) proposes that to understand the reason why learners display either a positive or a negative attitude towards reading, causative factors should be considered.

Theme 3: Motivation to read

This theme examined teachers' perceptions on the learners' motivation to read. Teachers share their views on whether they perceive learners to be motivated to read, which subsequently constitutes the practice not to read, or the practice of constructive reading habits and positive attitudes towards EFAL reading.

Teachers' perceptions of Grades 8-10 English First Additional Language learners' motivation to read

In relation to the learners' motivation to read, all the teachers included and referred to extrinsic factors of motivation in their responses. Teacher I2 insinuated that the learners' reading ability may also be influenced by the fact that the skill of reading was not reinforced in learners during the primary grades, by saying that high school learners could not go back to teaching learners to read. Teacher I2 also articulated that it was not every learner that 'is not interested' in reading, and Teacher I5 said that the learners in themselves were not motivated to read.

The following interview extracts support the above:

'It's a difficult one to answer, because I don't think that there's enough reading material there [referring to the home environment] to motivate them to read. Because reading starts basically at home.' (Teacher I1, Male, Grade 10)

'[whistle] That's a tough one. [laughs and pauses] Look it's not everyone, not everyone is, not motivated. Not everyone is not interested. [pause] I think this is a [pause] this is a problem that comes from home. And since we're a high school here, we can't be going back to Grade 1 or Grade 2 standards where you have to teach someone to read.' (Teacher I2, Female, Grade 9)

'We're trying to motivate them, and they in themselves are not really good, well-motivated.' (Teacher I5, Female, Grade 8)

Practices that teachers perform to motivate the Grades 8-10 English First Additional Language learners to read

All the teachers concurred in their responses that they try to do what they can to motivate learners to engage in constructive reading practices. Teacher I6 suggested that schools should invest in on-site libraries which host a variety of print material, to motivate learners. Teacher I2 pointed out that learners should be 'trapped' into reading by allowing them to read about topics that are of interest to them. Teacher I1 directed the responsibility for motivating learners to read to their parents, as opposed to Teacher I3, who suggested that motivating learners to read is a collective effort among teachers.

The following interview extracts support the above:

'It starts at home. If there's if there's poverty at home the chances [that] the parents will have money to buy books and things are very, very slim, because they have to make a decision between what they are going what is priority for them to spend the money on. But I think schools should do more in terms of libraries, reading material and newspapers, I think the news the [news houses] can also help in this regard to help to sponsor schools to get reading material into the schools that the parents can't provide to their kids.' (Teacher I6, Female, Grade 10)

'I encourage children to read what they like. I tell them to bring the current topics into the class, in, in, in, reading form. And then before a child knows he's actually has been trapped into something that he didn't really want to do We must just give them a chance to read what they like.' (Teacher I2, Female, Grade 9)

'In my opinion, if you can get the mind-set of parents starting with parents, to develop and to show interest in the learners, in their children, we might have a better outcome. So, attention, basically, learners need the attention. I, I, I can't see any one of them getting that from home. Do you understand? So as a teacher, that is where I can, I try to pay attention.' (Teacher I1, Male, Grade 10)

'From any teacher's side, preaching and preaching and preaching. It's basically preaching the gospel of it pays to enrich your work power. I got that from school level, from the Reader's Digest, and, I don't know whether it was my brother or something that subscribed to it. Reader's Digest, and motivate children to [pause] read in groups. Exchange books in groups. Attend libraries. The library's open even on a Saturday, every second Saturday up here The public library. The internet has got a lot of information. Read about the topics that interest you. Not necessary you read a novel because it's a story that you must know. But now and then, read about things that interest you. Cooking, habits, things that you do at home. Hobbies. Read about it. But the skill in it is reading. That goes a long way. In your subjects. Everywhere. But from our side, I think, a teacher needs to preach about it. Because you must practise it. I read a lot, and many a time the children see I sit with a novel, I encourage them now and then, come read this passage for me, at random. And they may ask me questions around it. I'll, I supply them with newspapers whenever I can, and, my reading books are always there for them, and the more access they have to reading, the better.' (Teacher I3, Male, Grade 10)

In relation to teachers' perceptions on learners' motivation to read, teachers referred to various role players, processes and facilities that can assist learners to culitvate constructive reading practices. However, none of the teachers indicated that they make it a personal goal to do more to motivate the learners to engage in constructive reading habits and attitudes. Yet, Woolfolk (2013:364) stipulates that a person may not perform a specific behaviour until there is some motivation to do so. To put it differently, learners will refrain from engaging in constructive reading practices until they become motivated to do so.

The interview extracts show that the teachers' perceptions provided insightful knowledge in relation to the phenomenon of the reading habits, attitudes and reading motivation of learners, based on their observations and interaction with the learners.

 

Discussion

The gist of this study was that it provided evidence that substantiated that South African learners are not only experiencing a dearth of reading, but they do not engage in productive reading habits, nor are they motivated to read. Although the ability to read does not automatically ensure the learner of academic achievement, reading inability usually equates to academic decay. More alarming about the findings based on the perceptions of the teachers is that it appears that the teachers themselves exhibit a negative attitude about the reading habits and attitudes of the readers.

Furthermore, teachers concurred that although access to computer-based media presents learners with a wide variety of reading options at any time and anywhere with little effort, it undermines constructive reading habits, which require effort.

To achieve the purpose of this study and answer the research questions, the following points of discussion emerged from the interpretation of the findings according to the themes:

  • Teachers perceived that learners did not practise reading as a habit.

  • Teachers perceived that learners did not read enough to develop productive reading habits.

  • Teachers perceived that learners had a negative attitude towards reading.

  • Teachers have a pessimistic perception about the reading practices and attitudes of the learners in their classroom.

  • Teachers do not take responsibility for contributing towards the dearth of productive reading practices among the learners in their classroom.

This study revealed that teachers were of the view that learners were not in the habit of reading frequently. The interviews with teachers gave a clear indication that they believed the learners did not read at home or in their spare time.

Teacher I2 related: 'the minute they hear reading, they feel bored already'. It was evident from the data collected based on the perceptions of the teachers that learners displayed behaviour reflecting a lack of interest when it came to the reading of print resources. This behaviour indicated that learners had a negative attitude towards reading. The attitude-influence reading model of G.C. Mathewson in Ruddell and Unrau (2004:1431-1448) explains that a reader's attitude towards reading, such as prevailing feelings, and evaluative beliefs about reading as well as action readiness for reading, will influence the intention to read, and, in turn, influence reading behaviour. Concurringly, Woolfolk (2013:213) also postulates that when a specific action or type of behaviour is being avoided, it relates to negative reinforcement. Hence, if teachers can make learners aware of the benefits and advantages of reading, learners will start to appreciate (develop a positive attitude to) the skill of reading and, consequently, it will generate an inner driving force (motivation) to increase the habit of reading, and this development will give life to the words of Winston Churchill: 'Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference!'

Perceptions articulated by the teachers indicated that learners should read more because should their reading habits improve, it would have a positive effect on their overall academic performance. However, reading habits, attitudes and the motivation to read are not about academic ability per se and the achievements of the learner; instead, reading habits, attitudes and reading motivation influence the reading abilities (cognitive abilities) of learners, and as a result, they have an impact on the academic performance of learners. Furthermore, reading habits refer to the reading behaviour in which learners engage. Therefore, sound reading habits, attitude and reading motivation can influence academic performance and constructively benefit the academic performance of the learner. For this reason, we can thus conclude that if a learner engages in good reading habits, it can lead to good reading capabilities and, consequently, it can result in academic success. Since teachers play a pivotal role within the academic context, their observations can contribute to an insightful understanding of the reading habits, attitudes and the motivation to read of learners.

 

Recommendations

Learners, parents, teachers, caregivers, librarians, publishers, government officials from the Department of Education, community members and civil society, that is, every stakeholder within the socio-cultural environment, should all collaborate to assist learners to cultivate constructive reading habits and acquire positive attitudes and motivation to read.

Based on the findings of this study, which focused on the teachers' perceptions of Grades 8-10 EFAL learners, the following recommendations should be considered.

Early childhood reading development

Early childhood reading practices should be promoted by parents as well as early childhood teachers. Literature reveals that many factors influence the reading practices of a child; consequently it is imperative that the formation of positive attitudes and motivation towards reading be scaffolded in learners from an early age. Children develop habits, including the habit of reading, from an early age in life. Should a learner cultivate the habit of constructive reading practices at an early age, the motivation to read will augment a positive reading attitude. Also, parents and caregivers who set the example of positive reading practices contribute significantly to children developing a positive reading attitude, because as the child matures, constructive early reading habits can result in the incorporation of voluntary reading as a part of their lives.

Parental involvement should be increased

Parents should be encouraged to model reading to their children from an early age. Most of the time, children emulate their parents' behaviour; thus, it is crucial that parents expose their children to reading materials and practices from an early development stage, so that they can cultivate a constructive reading habit and positive attitude and motivation to read early in their lives. For example, the reading of bedtime stories by the parent or caregiver can contribute to enhance the child's interest in reading.

Parents and caregivers who buy books for children to read from a young age demonstrate to learners that the purchasing of books is a 'literacy investment' for their learning career. Furthermore, when parents and caregivers buy books for their children, it can possibly reverse the current lack of constructive reading habits and positive attitudes among learners, and substitute it with a reading practice that will increase learners' motivation to read.

Teacher-parent reading partnerships should be established

The establishment of effective teacher-parent partnerships may possibly amplify parental involvement and awareness of the reading practices of learners and, as a result, increase the chances of the learners of engaging in constructive reading habits and positive attitudes towards reading. Through effective teacher-parent reading partnerships, learners' perceptions of reading practices can be positively galvanised. If a learner thinks positively about reading, they will most probably be motivated to read more. To put it another way, when learners think positively about reading, it will motivate them to read more, and the more they read, the more they will grow into the habit of reading.

Teacher reading workshops and related dialogue should be implemented

For teachers to be better equipped to act as a model of constructive reading habits and positive reading attitudes in their classrooms, they themselves need to be skilled readers. For this reason, teachers should attend reading workshops regularly, to equip them on how to develop effective literacy skills and habits in their learners. These reading training sessions should also serve as an opportunity for language teachers to workshop different reading instruction approaches and strategies. Such teacher training sessions may establish and introduce dialogue channels in which teachers can have constructive conversations about classroom reading practices among themselves, as well as with their learners. These teacher reading workshops will also present teachers with the platform to reflect, internalise and share their reading experiences, which can be used to address reading behaviour. To put it differently, teacher reading workshops can be used to implement acute reading redress among learners.

Teacher empowerment using various literature genres and reading materials

When teachers are exposed to and equipped with the knowledge of a variety of literature genres, they will be empowered to introduce a wide range of literature genres in their reading lessons, which may possibly encourage learners to read for pleasure, rather than to focus on reading only for academic purposes, such as to pass exams.

Incorporation of cooperative learning and teaching strategies

Teachers should incorporate more cooperative learning and teaching strategies within their reading lessons. Strategies such as peer reading or group reading should be used as a reading support, a social activity that creates space for learners to enjoy reading together, as well as to discuss what they have read with their peers. Since group structures present multi-level reading habits, attitudes and reading motivations, it can serve as a constructive reading platform to contribute to the development of positive reading attitudes for the group, as well as for the individual learner. Silent reading opportunities for learners should be promoted because this improves learners' understanding. It helps them concentrate on what they are reading, rather than the pronunciation of individual words which takes place in oral reading.

Independent reading strategies for learners

Teachers should assign different reading tasks to learners, so that they should learn how to create their own opportunities and select their own material to read and practise the reading strategies that they have learned in class. To ensure the effectiveness of the independent reading strategy, teachers need to liaise with librarians to present learners with a range of reading options, such as non-fiction, fiction, contemporary writings, graphic text and digital texts such as audio books. To present learners with a reading choice that excites them will cultivate a positive reading attitude.

Introduction of reading support strategies

Teachers can also use storytelling, role play, folklore and poetry recitals as reading support strategies. However, teachers should select stories that are contemporary and within the knowledge and visualisation framework of the learners so that their interest to read can be stimulated and possibly promote and result in constructive reading habits.

School library facilities should be established and promoted at all schools

To assist learners to be exposed to and have access to a variety of types of print text, as well as develop good reading habits, it is essential that every school, regardless of the area in which it is located, should offer learners a library facility. The South African Schools Act of 1996 states that each school receives a financial allowance, from which they must provide for the operation and maintenance of their teaching and learning programmes. Accordingly, each school should invest in presenting learners with a contemporary library support facility and learners should be encouraged to use this facility.

 

Conclusion

The study sought to investigate the reading habits, attitudes and motivation of Grades 8-10 EFAL learners through the perceptive lens of EFAL teachers. The findings of this study highlighted the importance of acknowledging the teachers' perceptions about the reading habits and attitudes of learners and their motivation to read, which can contribute to ensuring that the literacy expectations of learners are proactive, realistic and in context with an ever-developing socio-cultural environment. Consequently, teachers' perceptions should be considered and recognised, since they can be used to contribute to the acute reading redress within the literacy landscape of South Africa.

Acute reading awareness is crucially needed in South Africa. Some of the findings based on the perspectives of teachers indirectly acknowledged that reading instruction elements within the EFAL classroom failed to support or motivate the learners in their reading practices. This perception is significant since teachers have to determine whether the learners' motivation is intrinsic or extrinsic. The results of the current study revealed that the learners had lower levels of motivation. The results further reveal a relationship between motivation to read and reading attitudes and habits. Thus, based on the teachers' perceptions, the lower reading motivation of the learners affected their choices of reading or not reading. It also affected the type of material they chose to read.

The findings of this study add to the body of knowledge on the phenomenon of reading by means of the personal narratives of the research participants. The teachers' observations, perceptions and recommendations made through this study should be considered to influence and model acute reading redress within our classrooms. The inclusion of teachers as research participants to examine their perceptions continuously, may provide a different approach on how we as a country can redress the reading deficit in our country. It is also likely to inspire teachers in other contexts to diagnose the reading habits, attitudes and motivation of their learners in order to provide a well-informed intervention.

 

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to express their great appreciation to all the teachers who took part in the study.

Competing interests

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Authors' contributions

All authors contributed equally to this work.

Ethical consideration

This article followed all ethical standards for carrying out research without direct contact with human or animal subjects.

Funding information

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

Data availability statement

Data used for this article is based on the corresponding author's MTech dissertation.

Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any affiliated agency of the authors.

 

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Correspondence:
Tilla Olifant
olifantfm@tut.ac.za

Received: 28 June 2019
Accepted: 07 Aug. 2019
Published: 04 Nov. 2019

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ORIGINAL RESEARCH

 

Barriers to reading in higher education: Rethinking reading support

 

 

Kristien Andrianatos

Centre for Academic and Professional Language Practice, School of Languages, Faculty of Humanities, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa

Correspondence

 

 


ABSTRACT

BACKGROUND: Reading is a functional academic literacy ability needed by students in higher education. In the South African context, inadequate reading ability is one of the reasons for high undergraduate attrition rates. It seems that role players within this sector are of the opinion that students have reading 'problems' that need to be 'fixed', often by generic reading courses. This article differs from the perception of reading 'problems', as reading is viewed from a lifespan developmental perspective. According to this perspective undergraduate students do not have reading 'problems' but experience reading barriers hindering their reading development and in effect their academic literacy.
OBJECTIVES: This study aimed to uncover some of these barriers by means of an empirical study conducted at the North-West University (NWU).
METHOD: The setting of this study was the Potchefstroom campus of the NWU. A qualitative methodology was chosen whereby 14 individual interviews and 7 focus group interviews were used. The purpose of these interviews was to better understand lecturers' and students' perceptions about the variables of the reading process, namely the reading ability of the reader, the text to be read, the task, and the socio-cultural context.
RESULTS: Lecturers and students perceived a number of reading barriers within each variable, namely students' non-compliance and lack of abilities, elements of the textbook and availability of lecturer notes, the format of the task, throughput pressures, and lecturers' assumptions.
CONCLUSION: Knowledge of these barriers and knowledge of the interconnectedness of the reading process could enable role players to collaboratively rethink undergraduate reading support, in which the lecturer has a crucial role to play.

Keywords: Academic literacy; higher education; undergraduate students; reading; reading comprehension; reading development; reading barriers; tasks; textbooks; socio-cultural context; lecturers.


 

 

Introduction

It has been known for a number of years that many learners who pass through the education system exit without being able to comprehend what they read (Berndt, Petzer & Wayland 2014; Pretorius 2002; Van Dyk, Van der Poel & Van der Slik 2013). For the fortunate who enter higher education, understanding an academic text seems to be a challenging task (Bharuthram 2012; Boakye, Sommerville & Debusho 2014; MacMillan 2014; Pretorius 2005; Schoenbach, Greenleaf & Murphy 2012; Taraban, Rynearson & Kerr 2000). As more and more students are gaining access to higher education (Wingate 2007:392), higher education institutions experience pressure to help an increasing number of underprepared students to succeed. Understanding what you read is integral in this success. Indeed, reading is one of the functional academic literacy abilities (Butler 2013; Pretorius 2005) and research indicates that inadequate reading ability is partly to blame for students' academic failure and the high attrition rates of undergraduate students in South Africa (McLoughlin & Dwolatzky 2014; Scott, Yeld & Hendry 2007; Styan 2014). As a result, many institutions in South Africa offer academic support to their students, which usually includes a reading component of some sort.

There is limited research available on reading support provided to undergraduate students. Notably, research on undergraduate reading is not at all prevalent (Alexander 2005:415). A possible reason for this is that at university reading per se is not assessed, only the outputs of reading in the form of assessments (Bharuthram 2012; Nel, Dreyer & Klopper 2004; Pretorius 2002:170, 2005:812). If one takes into account that in higher education, reading is learning (Taraban et al. 2000:284), I am of the opinion that role players need to know more about undergraduate reading and specifically the reasons why students struggle to understand what they read. In an attempt to address this lacuna, the aim of this article is to report on an empirical study conducted at the Potchefstroom campus of the North-West University (NWU) that investigated reading barriers1 that first-year students and their lecturers perceive. I am of the opinion that knowledge of these barriers could prove insightful to role players with regard to undergraduate reading support.

 

Research relating to reading support

Hallet (2013:519) states that literature related to learner-focused support views academic literacy as the mastery of a set of skills, namely reading, writing, speaking, listening and thinking or reasoning. Along similar lines Butler (2013:75) finds that conversations about reading at university are often based on an approach that advocates for the acquisition of these skills. I would also argue that the reading support currently provided at the NWU, where the study took place, falls within this approach. Students are offered a generic reading course aimed at improving their reading skills as part of achieving academic literacy.

Research shows that institutions choose this approach for a number of reasons. Firstly, it means that the lecturer teaching disciplinary content is exonerated. This approach suits lecturers, as they do not regard themselves to be responsible for 'teaching reading' (Howard et al. 2018:193; Niven 2005:786; Wingate 2007:396). Jacobs (2007:60) adds that this responsibility is thus shifted to the shoulders of academic literacy practitioners. Secondly, generic reading support courses are convenient in terms of 'cost-effectiveness and administrative effort' (Wingate 2007:393). Such courses only require a certain number of practitioners to cater for students of all disciplines. Thirdly, it seems that universities offer such generic support 'both as a politically astute form of marketing and as an attempt to combat undergraduate attrition rates' (Hallet 2013:519).

According to Archer (2006:450), defining academic literacy as a neutral set of skills that can be taught and acquired has increasingly become contested in this research field. Research has therefore started to note the ineffectiveness of the type of generic academic literacy skills courses of which reading courses typically form a part. This generic approach suggests that the 'problems' are situated within the students themselves and they are held responsible for their 'shortcomings' (Hallet 2013; Wingate 2007). Wingate (2007) and Hallet (2013) both further explain that generic skills courses are divided into reading and discipline-specific academic literacy. Butler (2013:78) confirms this division, adding that a limitation of generic support is that 'irrelevant content not grounded in the discipline is demotivating to students and the generic skills are not transferred to the disciplines'.

A fellow literacy lecturer, frustrated with some academics' short-sighted view on reading issues at the university, conjured a metaphor to explain this dilemma. My colleague believes that the perception among lecturers is that students who struggle to understand what they read have a so-called 'reading illness'. These academics do not consider themselves qualified to make the right diagnosis and they think that they do not have the right cure. Therefore, they hope that struggling students will find their way to the academic literacy department or the student or reading support office. Academic literacy practitioners or the support office are viewed as the doctors who have to figure out what is wrong with the students' reading so that they can give them the right cure.

I would argue, along with Alexander (2005), that reading needs to be viewed from another perspective in order to open up alternative approaches to reading support. Alexander proposes a lifespan developmental perspective on reading. According to this perspective, 'reading development is a lifelong journey that unfolds in multiple stages' (Alexander 2005:413). She states that readers never come to the point where their reading is perfect. All readers continue to encounter problems with written language in every stage of their development. Even seasoned researchers continuously grapple with texts that require them to, for example, adapt a different reading strategy or make use of reference materials. Similarly, all students are on a reading development continuum as they commence and continue their journey through their undergraduate course. According to Alexander (2005:426), the use of oppositional terms such as 'struggling' versus 'successful' do not fit into the complexity of lifespan reading development. She suggests a range of profiles of more and less successful readers. From this perspective, all students have the ability to develop into readers who can cope with undergraduate reading demands; they just need to be provided for.

Alexander (2005:430) then defines reading as a complex process of growth and development within a certain domain. Her perspective is situated within New Literacy Studies (Gee 1990, 2003) that views literacy practices as socially constructed and embedded within a context. Alexander (2005) and Gee (1990, 2003) share similar views. According to Alexander, students need guidance from more knowledgeable people within a specific domain, while Gee notes that guidance should come from 'insiders' of a discourse community. From these findings, it can be deduced that reading development should be contextualised within specific disciplines. As such, reading should be developed under the thoughtful guidance of lecturers teaching disciplinary content as they are more knowledgeable about what exactly the students have to master. It seems that embedding academic literacy development, of which reading development forms part, within a discipline is an approach favoured by a number of researchers (Butler 2013; Hallett 2013; Jacobs 2007; Wingate 2007).

In order to juxtapose the reading skills approach against reading support and reading development within disciplinary contexts, another metaphor is useful. This metaphor is informed by Butler's (2013:76) reference to students as 'apprentices'. Students entering higher education want to learn a trade. Reading is a key they need to unlock the knowledge of the trade. Students are in different stages of their reading development. Some need little guidance and others need more. It is the responsibility of the trade masters, or the more knowledgeable others, to cultivate the right set of conditions to guide their apprentices as they develop their reading abilities. With expert guidance, students can become more knowledgeable to the extent that, like the trade masters, they have enough experience to further their own reading development. In the next section I present the theoretical framework of reading that I used as a point of departure for this empirical study.

 

Theoretical framework of reading

The applicable theoretical framework of reading was developed by the RAND Reading Study Group (2002). The purpose of this American study group, chaired by Catherine Snow, was to propose strategic guidelines to support the improvement of reading comprehension. This group define reading 'as the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language' (RAND Reading Study Group 2002:11). The study group came to the conclusion that reading can be conceptualised as a combination of variables, namely 'the reader who is doing the comprehending, the text that is to be comprehended and the activity in which comprehension is a part'. These three variables occur within a fourth variable, namely the socio-cultural context that influences and is influenced by the reader, the text and the activity (RAND Reading Study Group 2002:11). This framework clearly indicates that reading is the product of the interaction of variables and that each of these variables, both individually and in combination with each other, has implications for reading development (Woolley 2011:21). Each of the variables is briefly defined below, as these descriptions informed the planning of the data collection as well as the data analyses of this study.

The reader (RAND Reading Study Group 2002):

The reader brings to the act of reading his or her cognitive capabilities (attention, memory, critical analytic ability, inferencing, visualization); motivation (a purpose for reading, interest in the content, self-efficacy as a reader); knowledge (vocabulary and topic knowledge, linguistic and discourse knowledge, knowledge of comprehension strategies); and experiences. (p. xiii)

In this study, the reader is a first-year university student.

The text (RAND Reading Study Group 2002):

Texts can be difficult or easy, depending on factors inherent in the text (such as the text features), on the relationship between the text and the knowledge and abilities of the reader, and on the activities in which the reader is engaged. (p. 14)

In the context of this study, the texts were the prescribed academic textbooks students were expected to read.

The activity (RAND Reading Study Group 2002):

Reading does not occur in a vacuum. It is done for a purpose, to achieve some end. Activity refers to this dimension of reading. A reading activity involves one or more purposes, some operations to process the text at hand, and the consequences of performing the activity. (p. 15)

In an undergraduate higher education setting, reading activities take a variety of forms. These activities are always part of an assessment where, for example, the students write a class test on a chapter of their textbook that they had to read. In this study the term 'task' will be used as a collective term for all the different activities that students complete as part of assessment within the context of the different modules.

The socio-cultural context: The socio-cultural context refers to 'everything going on outside the classroom which might impact upon learning outcomes' (Haggis 2009:380). As the focus of this study is reading in a tertiary context, this statement can be rephrased as everything going on outside the lecture hall, which impacts on reading. The RAND Reading Study Group (2002:16) identified two main aspects: the environments in which individuals live and function, as well as the context of instruction. In the socio-cultural context of the first-year participants of this study, the transition from the school environment in which they functioned for 12 years to the new university environment in which they need to function is an important aspect of the environment within the socio-cultural context.

Lecturers are central to the context of instruction by orchestrating the teaching and learning activities of their modules. Furthermore, according to Bernstein (1999), each discipline has a certain 'gaze', that is, a certain way of viewing knowledge with a particular focus. Schoenbach et al. (2012:40) refer to the 'habits of mind' characteristic of a particular discipline. Lecturers themselves have these habits of mind with which they engage in their discipline. Lecturers also need to impart this 'gaze' to their students by making certain choices in the disciplinary instructional context (Bharuthram & Clarence 2015:51). Lecturers usually have the freedom to choose the prescribed texts for their module and they also design the assessment tasks. As is clear from the theoretical framework, the text and the task influence the reading process and the lecturer can, to a large extent, choose and design these two variables. Thus, the lecturer plays an important role in reading development in the higher education context. In the next section I discuss the method and findings of this study.

 

Methodology

Design

At university the outcomes of reading are assessed in the form of tasks, but not reading itself (Bharuthram 2012:205; Pretorius 2002:170). Therefore, a qualitative method was used to uncover some of the problems lecturers and students were experiencing in terms of reading in the first year of study. The perceptions of students and lecturers on students' reading barriers were collected in semi-structured interviews held with lecturers and focus group interviews held with students. This qualitative study was part of my larger investigation of first-year students' reading comprehension and reading strategy use (Andrianatos 2018). The interview schedules of both the interviews and the focus group interviews were informed by the theoretical framework. As part of the larger study, the interviews and focus group interviews enabled me to compare students' and lecturers' perceptions about the students' reading abilities, the texts to be read and the tasks to be completed within a disciplinary context.

Setting, population and participants

A programme of study was randomly selected within the faculties of Humanities, Education, Natural Sciences, Health Sciences, Economic and Management Sciences, Law and Engineering. Thereafter lecturers responsible for the first-year modules within the programme were invited to take part in the study. The first two lecturers who responded per faculty were selected (N = 14), and I refer to the two lecturers within a faculty as Lecturer A (LA) and Lecturer B (LB). I then visited a class of each of the lecturers and invited students to take part in a focus group interview at a specific time and place. The students who volunteered were chosen as participants (N = 56). Participants from seven faculties took part, namely Humanities (N = 8), Economic and Management Sciences (N = 12), Education Sciences (N = 7), Health Sciences (N = 10), Natural Sciences (N = 5), Law (N = 6) and Engineering (N = 8). The focus groups were held per faculty. I included participants from different faculties on the campus to get a more holistic picture of reading challenges as opposed to reading challenges experienced within one faculty.

Measures, procedures and analyses

The qualitative data collection methods were individual semi-structured interviews and focus group interviews. The interviews were conducted according to a semi-structured interview schedule based on the variables of the reading process according to the theoretical framework (RAND Reading Study Group 2002). This schedule consisted of four main discussion points, namely the perceived reading abilities of the students (reader), the influence of the prescribed academic texts of the module on reading (text), the influence of the tasks on reading (activities) as well as the influence of the lecturer and the specific requirements of the discipline with regard to reading (socio-cultural context). A semi-structured interview worked best in this study as it allowed me to clarify, probe and crosscheck responses. I also altered and rephrased questions according to the responses of the lecturer (Joubert, Hartell & Lombard 2016:113). A focus group interview was held with a group of students from each of the seven faculties who were enrolled in the modules taught by the lecturers who were interviewed. The same interview schedule was used during the focus groups in order to gather data from the students' perspectives.

The data were analysed through the coding process of content analysis (Maree 2007:101). First, I read all the transcribed interviews and focus group interviews to gain a holistic view of the data. Stemming from the variables of the reading process as set out by the RAND Reading Study Group's theoretical framework (2002), the transcribed data were divided into sections: the reading abilities of students, the prescribed texts of the modules, the tasks, and comments relating to the socio-cultural contexts. These were the a priori codes. According to Maree (2007:107), this term refers to codes existing before data are analysed. After the data segments were divided, I made use of axial coding to uncover the barriers to reading within each of the codes.

 

Results and discussion

There are undoubtedly many barriers within the reading process. The results and discussion of the interviews and focus group interviews are presented per variable. Although these variables cannot be viewed in isolation from each other, their separation enabled me to analyse the different perspectives to be able to identify the perceived reading barriers.

Barriers within the reader

From the qualitative data analyses, I uncovered two barriers that can be situated within the reader, namely students' lacking reading abilities and their non-compliance with prescribed academic reading.

In general, the lecturers were of the opinion that students' reading abilities were lacking in terms of the reading demands of their modules. Some of their comments include:

'There are definitely many problems with reading, (and) understanding.' (LB, Education, female)

'I think less than 3% of my students truly engage with the prescribed reading material and can read with the needed insight.' (LB, Humanities, female)

Some of the students were also aware that they were struggling with reading:

'Because like, with the chapter when I read it, I get confused, so I just skim and scan, and when we do the actual chapter in class, that's when I literally understand.' (S4, Humanities, female)

Students experienced problems with understanding what they read, they are not complying with their prescribed reading, they 'take long' to read, and they struggle to understand 'difficult' words.

Their low reading abilities seemed to be one of the reasons why they did not read their prescribed textbooks. A cycle of non-compliance with prescribed academic reading emanated from the interviews. Firstly, students realise that their reading abilities are inadequate as they experience problems of comprehension as the following student comment indicates:

'The authors want to look smart. They wrote with their level, not our level.' (S7, Humanities, male)

Then, they do not allot the needed time to read the text with comprehension. It seemed that students could not sustain reading for longer periods and they might also have lacked the vocabulary needed to understand the textbook. This seemed to frustrate students:

'The textbook is so formal, so I do not have time to figure out what is going on. I rather study other modules where I understand everything.' (S3, Education, female)

As a result, students became dependent on the lecturer to explain what they were supposed to read:

'If it's important, the lecturer will explain it in class'. (S5, Engineering, male)

From the lecturer's viewpoint, it is evident that students are non-compliant with the readings and therefore, because of the pressure to help students pass the module, the lecturer devoted class time to teach to the text:

'Students will be able to pass this module without using the textbook.' (LB, Engineering, female)

The students realise that the lecturer will review the needed sections of the textbook and so they are not forced to develop their reading in order to become better readers:

'We start with the lecturer's slides so we know what is going on. That way we won't look at unnecessary information in the textbook.' (S11, Economic and Management Sciences, male)

This cycle indicates that students themselves realise that they need to develop their reading abilities, but they would rather be non-compliant readers than take active steps to improve their reading abilities. The fact that lecturers take responsibility to 'teach' textbook content to students (e.g. identifying core aspects that could also be asked in tests etc.) reinforces students' non-compliance and their reading abilities are not improved. These findings on the negative cycle of non-compliance are supported by Ryan (cited in Hoeft 2012:2) and Bean (2001:134). Non-compliance and low reading ability definitely hinder students' reading development.

Barriers within the text

According to all 14 lecturers, the textbook they prescribed for their module was suitable for first-year students. It seemed as though the lecturers matched the outcomes of the module to the content of a textbook. As one lecturer justified:

'It is the only textbook available about the subject which is specifically suited for first-year students.' (LA, Natural Sciences, male)

The majority of students held a different opinion on their textbooks. They thought many of their textbooks were too 'difficult' and 'unnecessary'. This difference in opinion can be due to a 'mismatch' of students' reading abilities and the difficulty levels of the textbooks. The opinion of students that the textbooks were not suitable can also be traced back to the fact that reading was not essential in many of their modules. A student's frustration with realising that reading a textbook was, in fact, not necessary is evident from the following comment:

'The lecturer would say "prepare chapter 7 of the textbook" and he literally only uses a few points, and there I go and study the whole chapter, where I could have just like done something else.' (S2, Humanities, female)

The opinion of students that the textbooks were unsuitable can additionally be ascribed to the availability of other texts in the module. Students in different focus groups and two lecturers stated that it was not necessary for students to read the textbook with reference to certain modules. One lecturer said that she 'helped' the students by preparing notes which the students could photocopy. As a result, students had little or no use for the textbook.

Students depended on the lecturer to give the gist of the content and expected to be 'trained' for assessment and, in many cases, the lecturers met their expectations. This seems to nurture a non-reading culture where students can pass the module by only attending class and studying notes. In fact, from the analyses of all seven focus group interviews, it was clear that most students made use of notes as a primary text. These notes either took the form of 'handouts' from the lecturers' PowerPoint presentations, or were notes compiled by a peer. Furthermore, it became clear that selling and buying module notes was a practice among students. Students preferred these notes because information was summarised, to the point, and the key concepts were identified. These notes were, in many cases, the only text necessary to 'read' to complete tasks. The following comment made by a student indicates how the availability of notes influenced his perception of the necessity of reading:

'In the beginning of the year, I really studied from that textbook. Then when the test came, I did poorly. The next time I did not open the textbook, I just studied the notes. Now I've learnt my lesson.' (S1, Engineering, male)

The availability of notes partly influences students to adapt such a pragmatic approach to reading. Students run a 'cost-benefit analysis' when it comes to prescribed academic reading as they determine the minimum reading investment that will help them reach at least the minimum task requirements (Schwartz n.d:1; Del Principe & Ihara 2016:203). It seems that using information for different purposes is a characteristic of the current generation of students generally referred to as millennials. Morreale and Staley (2016:357) note that this generation of students 'are more likely to repurpose, recycle, and reuse information from others for their own creative purposes' than read seminal works and build their own knowledge. When other texts are available such as notes, and students can use the notes to complete the task, students see no reason to 'go to all the trouble' to read the textbook. It seemed as though students stopped looking for information when they found it in the slides. They generally do not read the textbook after they have studied the slides. This is definitely a barrier to their reading development.

Barriers within the task

From the data analysed it is clear that students and lecturers had different perceptions about reading as a requirement for task completion. All the lecturers remarked that students needed to read the prescribed texts to be able to complete the task. Different lecturers used the word 'force' as the following comments indicate:

'The purpose of the tests is to force students to work through the content.' (LB, Natural Sciences, male)

'The individual tests definitely force students to read the textbook.' (LA, Economic and Management Sciences, female)

The lecturers generally communicated the requirement of reading before starting the task, by providing students with relevant page numbers and informing them that reading is important. The link between the text and the task was clear to the lecturers, as they designed the tasks. For the students, however, the link between the text and the task was generally vague and in some cases absent. The barrier related to the task as variable seemed to be the format of the task.

To illustrate this barrier, I will discuss two examples. In one specific module, students had to give a presentation on a chapter in the textbook. The students worked together in groups of 10. According to the students, not all members took responsibility to read the chapter:

'I do not like the group work. Not everyone read the book. Just those who had to talk made sure they read the chapter.' (S2, Economic and Management Sciences, male)

In the second example, the students in one of the focus groups explained that one of their tasks was a tutorial class test. This test took place during a set time, where the students had to answer a set of questions using their textbook. Discussions among students were allowed and a lecturer was present. According to the students, the format of this tutorial test led to very little reading, but a lot of discussion, which they clearly preferred:

'I think it is much quicker when someone tells you something, than when you have to read a whole paragraph in detail. It takes long to read, reread and try to make sense of everything.' (S1, Natural Sciences, male)

During the focus group interviews students mentioned that they were content with 'getting by' (i.e. achieving a pass mark of 50% for a task). Students remarked that they would always try to find 'the easy way out' in terms of task completion, which would lead to at least 50%. In other words, if the format of the task is group work where one can depend on another student to read the chapter, or a tutorial where peers and the lecturer are present to discuss difficulties, it is conceivable that for a goal of 50% task achievement, such tasks will lead to little or no reading development.

Barriers within the socio-cultural context

Within the socio-cultural context, the barriers of throughput pressure and lecturers' assumptions were uncovered. In the higher education environment, there is pressure to grant students access to university and make sure that they succeed. It seems as though lecturers experience pressure from institutional managers who are running a university like a business. More students equal more government subsidy and so throughput must be ensured. The following comments of two lecturers support this statement:

'I am of the opinion that lecturers do not pressure students to struggle with the textbook on their own, because all lecturers are under pressure to have a good throughput rate of students in their modules. As a result, the lecturers take on more and more responsibility and the students take on less and less. That negatively impacts the way students engage with their textbooks.' (LB, Natural Sciences, male)

'I also think that you have to find a balance between throughput figures in your module and knowledge that the students need to obtain. There is a lot of pressure not to have students fail your module, so it is not going to work if the material is too difficult. I try to achieve this balance with tutor classes and having the technical aspects of the essay count as much as the content of the essay. However a student can pass my module without doing a lot of reading, as long as they attend classes and do the needed assignments.' (LB, Humanities, female)

Throughput pressure is one of the barriers to reading as it seemed to increase lecturers' willingness to make their slides and notes available to their students. It also influenced the tasks they designed (including the format), as is clear from the comment that the technical elements of an essay count as much as the content, for example. When lecturers, as important role players within the socio-cultural context, make choices based on the pressure to help as many students as possible to pass their module, reading development can be hampered.

From the students' perspective it is understandable that they would not deem reading the textbook as an essential activity, as the lecturers provide summarised texts. It seemed as though this help is superficial. When lecturers make notes available that summarise a section of content, the students are deprived of a reading development opportunity to learn how one goes about making summaries from a section of a textbook. When students can attain 50% for a task by making sure the technical aspects are in place, for example, they are also in a way deprived of the responsibility to produce well-written content, like a well-structured argument, for example. This assumption also leads to a dependency on the lecturer as students do not learn how to be independent scholars - something they will need increasingly as they continue with further studies.

Lecturer's assumptions were another barrier that I uncovered within the socio-cultural context. Lecturers seemed to assume that their students can read independently and that students intuitively know how to 'use' scholarly discourse, in other words, what is expected in the discipline in terms of scholarly engagement. The following comments of different lecturers illustrate these assumptions:

'I cannot understand why students do not do well in this module. It is very straightforward. The students have to read, remember and give the information in a test.' (LA, Economic and Management Sciences, female)

'They should have read something before they enter my class.' (LA, Law, female)

'I think the vocabulary and language (of the textbook) are suitable for first-year students. I do not think it is difficult.' (LA, Natural Sciences, female)

From the data analyses of the focus groups, it seemed that many of the students are not independent readers and struggle with scholarly engagement:

'I just look at the [text]book and I get drained.' (S8, Humanities, female)

'With one of my modules I read and read, and I still don't understand.' (S1, Education, female)

I think the textbook of this one module is way too complicated.' (S5, Education, female)

'The textbook compresses the information in such a way that it is there, but it is not there.' (S3, Economic and Management Sciences, male)

'It [reading the textbook and completing a certain task] is nothing like that which we did at school. We do not understand it well.' (S4, Natural Sciences, male)

Because of the assumption that students should be prepared for scholarly engagement and reading, the interviewed lecturers did not seem to make any provision for students' reading development. Students seemed discouraged about their own reading practices within the context of their modules. They seem to realise that their reading abilities are not meeting the lecturers' expectations, but they are unsure how this can be remedied. One student remarked that he did not fare well in a task and that in future he is going to read the notes 'better'. This is ironic because the student failed to realise the core issue: he was not reading the textbook, but rather someone else's summarised version of it. I am of the opinion that lecturers' assumptions create a distance between the lecturers and the reading development needs of the students.

The reading mechanism

As the final part of the results, I present a visual representation as a summary of the discussed reading barriers (see Figure 1). This representation was developed through a combination of theory and the findings of this qualitative study. As stated, reading is the product of the interaction of variables (RAND Reading Study Group 2012). Based on this view of the reading process, I present the interrelated variables as cogs in a mechanism. In this visual representation, the barriers are presented as smaller 'broken' cogs that obstruct the functioning of the bigger cogs and thus also the functioning of the reading mechanism. This metaphor indicates that the uncovered barriers hamper students' reading development.

 

 

Ethical consideration

The setting of the study was the Potchefstroom campus of the NWU. The study population was first-year students and lecturers responsible for first-year modules. As the highest attrition occurs in the first year of study (Scott et al. 2007), first-year students and their lecturers were chosen as participants. All participants volunteered to take part in this study and approval was obtained from the university's ethics committee.

 

Conclusion

Higher education institutions in South Africa have a responsibility to help the students who gain access to a tertiary education to succeed. From a lifespan developmental perspective on reading, all students can develop into competent readers; they just need to be provided for (Alexander 2005). If reading is understood as the interaction between the variables of the reader, text and task within a socio-cultural context (RAND Reading Study Group 2002:11), generic reading support cannot be the answer to our students' reading challenges. A handful of academic literacy practitioners or support staff cannot effectively help undergraduates from different faculties to, for example, read their chemistry textbooks or court cases. The lecturer teaching academic content is a critical role player in students' reading development. As is clear from the visual representation in Figure 1, the lecturer usually decides on the task (design and format) and the text (including whether or not to make notes available). These choices influence the reading process. Although reading abilities and non-compliance are barriers within the reader, we cannot place the responsibility for reading development squarely on the shoulders of our students. They do not have a reading 'illness' that can be 'cured'. In my opinion they are new apprentices in need of guidance from an insider within a discourse community (Gee 2003). In my mind, there is no better insider than the lecturer.

It is a fact that the South African school system is not preparing our students optimally for university. The academic literacy and support departments can definitely contribute to improve students' academic literacy, of which reading is an integral part. However, other role players like lecturers, faculty boards and institutional management should move beyond blame shifting to accountability in terms of students' reading development. Van de Poel and Van Dyk (2014:172) refer to a collaborative approach. Lecturers are appointed at universities because of their expertise in a certain discipline. As lecturers, the teaching and learning policy of the university states that they should guide students to reach module outcomes 'through active learning activities suitable to the level of autonomy expected at a certain level' (North-West University 2011:1). Disciplinary experts do not necessarily have knowledge of what constitutes such a suitable activity and might therefore be unable to design activities that closely link the text and the task so as to aid students' reading development. The teaching and learning support structure of a university includes individuals who are skilled in developing active learning activities and have knowledge of the reading process, but they lack disciplinary knowledge. The Education Sciences faculty can also contribute in terms of how reading support should feature within curriculum design. Such a team effort can possibly result in synergy between disciplines, the fostering of a relationship between role players who take responsibility and students who have the needed opportunity to develop their reading abilities.

The aim of this article was to uncover reading barriers that students and lecturers perceive so that role players can gain insight into the reading support needed at higher education institutions. One limitation of the study is that the uncovered barriers might only exist for the specific context in which the study took place. It will be naive to think that addressing each separate barrier will help students to read better. It would not be theoretically sound to take the reading 'mechanism' apart and attempt to 'fix' the separate cogs. All role players have to understand that reading is an interconnected and complex process. Role players, especially lecturers, should take cognisance of some of the reading barriers that lecturers unintentionally cause and students unknowingly experience, and how the variables of the reader, the text and the task influence each other within the context of a discipline. In this way, we can move a step closer towards collaboratively planning the developmental reading opportunities our students need as opposed to the limited generic reading support that is presently offered.

 

Acknowledgements

The author would like to express her gratitude to Prof. Carisma Nel for her expert guidance in this research project. Also thank you to all the lecturers and students who participated and were willing to share their experiences.

Competing interests

I declare that I have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced me in writing this article.

Author's contributions

I declare that I am the sole author of this research article.

Funding information

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

Data availability statement

Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no new data were created or analysed in this study.

Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any affiliated agency of the author.

 

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Correspondence:
Kristien Andrianatos
13132873@nwu.ac.za

Received: 15 Apr. 2019
Accepted: 07 Aug. 2019
Published: 30 Sept. 2019

 

 

1 . In this article, the term 'barriers' will be used to refer to some of the reasons why students struggle to read, as it figuratively stands in the way of students' reading development.

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