Tap to Close  

 Tap to Close

Explore the Linguistics of Literacy

Project Leaders: Prof. Mark de Vos & Ms Kristin van der Merwe

The Postgraduate Strategic Early Literacy Imperative in the Linguistics of Literacy


Join our exciting research group on the linguistics of literacy.   Our research project (entitlted Linguistic and social partnerships in foundation-phase learning in languages in Africa)  looks at issues in literacies from a linguistic and psycholinguistic perspective.  A lot of our research looks at how literacy `works’  in languages indigenous to South Africa – although we also work with other languages too.  If you are interested in exploring literacy using linguistic analytical and methodological perspectives then read about the trend-setting research that our students have done.

Students, researchers and their cutting-edge research

A number of energetic and talented students and researchers are discovering new insights in how the mechanics of literacy “works”  in Africa and in African languages.

  • Kristin van der Merwe (PhD Fellow and Co-project-leader): The use of Blissymbolics in facilitating reading and writing in alphabetic orthographies with children with intellectual impairments
  • Caroline van der Mescht (Post Doctoral Fellow):
  • Jenny Katz (Masters): An analysis of foundation phase reading material that explores how phonological awareness and lexical development is encoded in teaching materials.
  • Kelly Shiohara (Masters): How an e-learning intervention improves comprehension and reading speed.
  • Kim Millard (Honours): The differences between reading isiXhosa and English using eye-tracking.
  • Maxine Diemer (Honours & Masters): Developing and field-testing a test suite for phonological awareness in isiXhosa and exploring the phonological awareness of isiXhosa learners in the Eastern Cape.
  • Sian Rees (Masters): Developing and field-testing a test suite for morphological awareness in isiXhosa and evaluating the importance of morphological awareness for isiXhosa foundation phase learners.
  • Tracy Probert (Masters): Developing and field-testing a test suite for lexical recognition in isiXhosa and Tswana and examining lexical recognition strategies and their interaction with LOLT.
  • Stefan Savic (PhD): A detailed study of lexical aspect in isiXhosa and detailing how aspect interacts with pragmatics in the understanding of texts.
  • Candice Grobler: Comprehension of implicit meaning by isiXhosa and English Foundation phase learners

 We are also proud of having an active and sustained programme to introduce undergraduates to the principles of research as part of curriculum transormation.  Our third year students have been an integral part of our literacy project since its inception.  It is vitally important to introduce students to the idea that knowledge is constructed by people in contexts and that our research and teaching can be integrated to provide knowledge that is responsive to our African context.   Correspondingly, these underpinnings encourage students to make a significant contribution to the field.  

Joining our research group: Student applications and funding (click here)


  • Useful Literacy Links

  • De Vos, M., Van der Merwe, K. and Van der Mescht, C. (2014) "A Research Programme for Reading in African Languages to underpin CAPS." Journal for Language Teaching. 48(2) pp143--171 (De Vos, Van der Merwe, Van der Mescht 2015. CAPS article)

    A Research Programme for Reading in African Languages to underpin CAPS.

    Although ANAs show language-conditioned problems in reading comprehension and decoding ability, most South African research focuses disproportionately on (a) English and Afrikaans and (b) macro approaches to literacy rather than formal and psycholinguistic analyses of reading. Obviously African languages are structurally and typologically different to English and Afrikaans; reading strategies required for the mechanics of reading are necessarily different and should be supported by languagespecific pedagogies. We argue for research programmes that situate reading pedagogy within the language-specific spaces defined by Linguistic approaches to understanding (a) orthography, (b) cognitive reading skills and models and (c) indigenous, languagespecific norms and resources.

    Private Papers.

    Work in progress: Word recognition strategies amongst isiXhosa/English bilingual learners: the interaction of orthography and LOLT

    Abstract: Word recognition is a major component of fluent reading (Aaron et al. 1999, Holm & Dodd 1997:199, Invenizzi & Hayes 2010) and involves an interaction of language structure, orthography and cognitive skills. This study examined reading strategies in isiXhosa and the transfer of these strategies to an additional language, English. IsiXhosa was chosen because of its agglutinative structure and conjunctive orthography. The results support the contention that reading strategies and cognitive skills are fine tuned to particular languages. Skills transfer occurs to a limited extent when the language of first literacy uses a transparent orthography, but is less predictable when the language of first literacy uses an opaque orthography. This study emphasizes that literacies in different languages present readers with different structural puzzles which require language-particular suites of cognitive reading skills.

    Kristin van der Merwe

    The vocabularies of bilingual Xhosa and English speaking children

    In this exploratory study, 22 Grade 3 bilingual Xhosa and English speaking children were administered a category fluency task to obtain samples of their vocabularies in each of their two languages. The children were asked to name as many items as they could pertaining to particular categories. Unlike most studies which impose time limits for category fluency tasks, no time limit was imposed for these children. This study aims to contribute to the normative data of first language Xhosa speaking children who have English as a second language.