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Rhodes > English Language and Linguistics > Research > Foundation Phase Literacy in African Languages

Filling the research gap: The Linguistics of Literacy in South Africa (Mark de Vos)

Date Released: Thu, 10 October 2013 12:31 +0200

Although reading is crucial in gaining access to the economy and economic transformation, literacy provision remains such a challenge for the South African education system.  Two decades after the end of apartheid, only 13% of South African grade fours reach the minimum international benchmark (PIRLS 2006; PIRLS 2012). This can be contrasted with 98% for Russia and the international mean of 94%.  Only 1% of South African grade fours reach the Advanced International Benchmark.  Most shocking of all is that only 1% of IsiXhosa, SiSwati and IsIndebele learners reach the minimum international benchmark by grade four.  This means that 99% of these learners are illiterate after three years of schooling.  Similar statistics are reported by the Department of Education: a longitudinal study showed a grade 3 literacy rate of just 38% in 2003 and, of the same cohort measured in grade six only 28% of grade sixes can read at their grade level (DOE Report 2005).  Although reading straddles “linguistic, neurolinguistic, cognitive, psychological, sociological, developmental and educational domains” (Pretorius & Mokwesana 2009:55), there is currently very little research on linguistic aspects of literacy in African languages and Pretorius and Mokwesana (2009: 55) talk of a “virtual absence” of research.

 

This paper will reflect on some of the linguistic dimensions of the problem and chart a research programme for the linguistics of literacy.   Being programmatic, it will outline current research on the issue and identify areas where more research is needed.  These include but are not limited to:

 

(a)    A nuanced and linguistically informed understanding of the orthographies of South African languages. For instance, an understanding of how a conjunctive or disjunctive orthography has its roots in the linguistic systems of specific languages including word and syllable structure.

 

(b)    Quantitative analysis of the effects of conjunctive and disjunctive orthographies on reading speeds and automaticity, including eye-tracking data (e.g. Sandra Land’s work), the effects of mapping between orthographic words and linguistic words, and comparative work between South Africa and countries like Turkey.

 

(c)    Establishment of norms and standards around issues of reading speed, vocabulary development, morphological awareness and phonological awareness.  These norms must, in turn be embedded in quality quantitative analysis and in a nuanced understanding of how different linguistic and cognitive systems interact with reading strategies

Source:Mark de Vos