The development and implementation of an English language and literature programme for low-proficiency tertiary learners
Van Wyk, Arlys Leslie
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The University of the Free State, like most other tertiary institutions in South Africa, is faced with the challenge of establishing a framework within the university for redressing inequalities in education: inequalities such as unequal access and opportunities for both students and staff along racial, gender and class lines. This research attempts to find ways of making tertiary learning accessible to a group of underprepared students who would, traditionally, have been excluded from tertiary learning in the previous apartheid dispensation. The study focuses on the language needs of learners who, for multiple reasons, have low English language proficiency. The problem is compounded for these students in that English is their chosen language of instruction. Thus, without English language proficiency, tertiary learning is inaccessible or, at best, extremely difficult for these students. The main aim of this study is to develop and implement a programme of language learning which will meet the requirements of the Department of English and, simultaneously, improve the English academic literacy skills of this group of SL learners so as to provide them with much-needed support to achieve academic success. The methodology selected to achieve the aim, is emancipatory action Research with its reflective cycles of planning, acting, observing and reflecting. The action research cycles involve planning to improve the process; acting to implement that plan; observing the effects of the plan and finally, reflecting on the effects which, in turn, become the framework for the next cycle of action research. Two processes are central to action research, viz. data gathering and an action component. Data-gathering occurred over a period of our years and various techniques were used, viz. interviews, classroom observations, samples of students' written work, a journal of facilitator meetings, various monitoring techniques, questionnaires to learners and facilitators, test and examination results. The study describes three action research cycles over a period of four years. Initially, it was intended that the course should include a literature component which, as a result of this research, was abandoned in the second cycle of the action research. The reasons for this decision are documented in the study. The findings of the research have led to the development of an academic literacy course with the following broad goals, viz. to develop the ability to read academic texts with good comprehension and critical attention; to develop thinking and study skills and to develop the ability to express information and ideas clearly, relevantly and logically in expository writing. Several useful guidelines, for the development of an English language course for Iow-proficiency tertiary learners, have emerged from the study. These guidelines encompass the following key issues, viz. prior learning, learner proficiency, learner motivation and interest, comprehensible input, learning context, learning strategies, extensive and intensive reading, teaching approach, language and literature teaching, materials design and research methodology. This study has led to the development and implementation of an academic literacy course founded on the following salient guidelines: • A teaching approach based on a combination of communicative language learning and input processing instruction; • Proficiency should be developed within the context in which students find themselves, viz. the academic context. Thus, academic literacy skills are systematically developed; • Comprehensible input is axiomatic to language learning at tertiary level, thus, reading and writing fluency should be developed through a programme which provides plenty of meaning-bearing input; Classroom instruction should be based on a combination of content-based instruction and task-based language teaching; • Reading and writing skills should be taught through a process of systematic strategy training; and • Contextual support, which facilitates SLA, should be provided in the form of strategy training, continuous evaluation, thorough feedback and activities that replicate real-world tasks.