Developing reading strategies in higher education through the use of integrated reading/writing activities : a study at a university of technology in South Africa.
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Higher education in South Africa faces severe challenges due to the under preparedness of many students entering the system. Research (Perkins 1991; Pretorius 2000, 2005; Balfour 2002) has shown that many students who enter higher education do not have the required academic literacy knowledge and strategies to engage meaningfully with the relevant texts in their disciplines. A major obstacle to students’ success is their limited reading strategies. A significantly large number of students are not able to read at the appropriate grade and/or age level. Yet, reading is one of the most important academic tasks encountered by students. This thesis focuses on the use of reading strategy interventions together with integrated reading/writing activities to enhance reading comprehension. The study is located at the Durban University of Technology, using as participants the students who were registered on the first year extended Dental Technology programme in 2004. The interventions are implemented through an action research project. The piloting phase of the interventions reveals the need for an understanding of the students’ backgrounds in, amongst others, their reading and writing practices, attitudes, approaches to learning, and motivational factors. Consequently, the action research project was conducted in parallel with an ethnographic inquiry into students’ reading worlds and practices. Given that reading and writing are complementary processes whereby the enhancement of the one has a positive effect on the other, the ethnographic inquiry also explores students’ attitudes and practices towards writing. Using the ideological model (Street 1984) and, in particular, the new literacy approach to teaching and learning as a framework for the thesis, I argue that the students’ early childhood and schooling experiences of reading and writing impact on their current attitudes and practices. I further suggest that for children from disadvantaged backgrounds learning and retaining literacy is more difficult than for children from advantaged, middle class backgrounds. The ethnographic inquiry involved a series of interviews with students, as well as a questionnaire to ascertain students’ attitudes and practices towards reading and writing. In addition, a questionnaire was designed for lecturers to obtain their attitudes and practices towards reading and writing in their disciplines. A major finding of the ethnographic inquiry was that the majority of participants in the study come from a background that can be described as traditionally oral in the sense that it is one in which very little or no emphasis is placed on reading. For some participants story telling was a more common form of interaction or communication with the elders. Also, the majority of participants come from lower socio-economic backgrounds where the purchasing of reading materials is considered a luxury. In addition, for many of the English additional language students, their school environment and experiences were not adequate enough to foster the need for reading and/or any engagement in reading. Based on my research, as well as the findings of other researchers, I argue that reading strategy interventions are essential in order to raise awareness and promote the use of reading strategies so as to enhance the learning (reading) process. The review of literature on reading development and the findings from the interviews indicate that the explicit teaching of reading strategies is essential for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds (Heath 1983; Delpit 1986; Cope and Kalantzis 1993). To this end the action research component of the study was implemented through the explicit teaching of three reading strategies, namely, identifying the main idea in a paragraph, using context clues to guess the meaning of unknown words in a text, and summarization. The focus of the intervention was on the process and on raising students’ levels of metacognitive awareness. The approach is novel in two ways. First, via the process approach to reading the chosen reading strategies were initially taught independently to the students using the explicit explanation approach which involved scaffolded tasks involving explanations, modeling (using the think-aloud protocol), practice, and transfer exercises. Thereafter, using the cognitive apprenticeship approach, students were taught to use all three strategies simultaneously during reading. Second, discipline specific materials were used as reading sources during the interventions which were conducted with integrated reading/writing activities. Data was collected by means of a language proficiency pre-and post-test, a reading strategy pre-and post-test, worksheets, student reflective pieces, portfolios, and observations. An analysis of the pre-and post-test data showed that the reading strategy interventions were highly successful. Students performed better in the reading strategy post-test than in the pre-test. Furthermore, their performance was better than that of a control group of students who were registered for the first year mainstream programme and who wrote only the reading strategy post-test. A marked improvement was also noted in the language proficiency post-test. These results stress the need for the teaching of reading strategies through integrated reading and writing activities.