Real or imagined worlds : an analysis of beginner level reading books for adult literacy learners in South Africa.
The content of books published for adult beginner readers reveals as much about how literacy is understood and valued as it does about how literacy learners are viewed and constructed. This research consists of a description and analysis of the corpus of easy readers or stories published specifically for adult beginner readers in South Africa from 1990 to 2000. It is based on the assumption that texts can be used as evidence of the educational theories which underpin and inform them. The research consist of three parts: the development of analytical tools; a broad descriptive review of books published in all South Africa's official languages; a detailed content analysis of English books. The analytical tools are derived from research into children's literature, dominant conceptions of the meanings and purposes of adult literacy and research into gender and language. The corpus of books is examined in terms of literary quality, pedagogy and ideology. 120 books published in all South African languages are analysed according to various criteria relating to genre, theme, setting and design. The 38 English books in the sample are, in addition, analysed in depth in relation to plot, narrative features, character, emotions, direct speech, gender, imagery and readability. The research reveals that unlike fiction for children beginner readers, fiction for adult beginner readers in South Africa is relatively restricted in terms of genre, theme and literary quality in general. While a significant number of stories conform to conventional notions of what constitutes good fiction, many others are simply overdetermined vehicles for "development" messages - non-fiction masquerading as fiction. Despite the presence of a surprising number of humorous titles, many of the books are characterised by overtly moralising and didactic themes.The majority of the books do not substantially challenge stereotypes. The readership is generally portrayed as docile, predictable, hard-working, decent and stoical. Male characters tend to be more varied and complex and female characters conform to their stereotypical roles. Stories are mostly set in domestic, racially homogeneous domains populated by poor African people. Although there are notable exceptions to the above trends, the stories generally depict an uncontested, harmonious, homogeneous and docile world. In terms of issues relating to pedagogy the corpus reveals an overwhelming dominance of English second language books. This suggests that literacy acquisition in mother tongue African languages is not a serious endeavour in the current South African context. In terms of readability features, aside from surface similarities, there are wide discrepancies between publishers. Books are mainly written in naturally occurring language and do not appear to be written with predictability or decodability features particularly in mind. The analysis overall illustrates the complex nature of fiction for adult beginner readers which has to meet the simultaneous demands of readability and engagement. The corpus of books for adult beginner readers reflects competing conceptions of the purposes of promoting adult literacy: functionality, immediate application and relevance versus long-term development of reading through the evocation of emotion and imagination.