Reading for foundation : why Science Foundation Programme students struggle and how scaffolding can help.
Reading lies at the centre of Science Foundation Programme (SFP) students' struggle for access to the very support that such programmes offer in preparation for undergraduate study. It is a skill that is generally not sufficiently improved over an initial year of university study because, apart from being underdeveloped in previous educational and life experiences, it is not explicitly developed at tertiary level where students are generally expected to process extended texts independently in a limited time period. This study not only probes the background literacy experiences of UKZN (PMB) SFP students, but also measures the reading ability, in terms of reading comprehension, rate, and receptive non-technical academic vocabulary, with which the majority begin their studies. To better understand why many SFP students struggle with their academic reading and find prescribed science texts inaccessible, student feedback on reading difficulties and reasons for not attempting homework reading is also considered. In response to such data from the 2005 cohort of about 180 students, a means of supporting or "scaffolding" student reading was investigated. This involved preparing an experimental group of students for independent reading by initially "talking them through" an overview of the text in commonsense terms so that even the weakest readers could begin the reading process with some understanding of the extended text that had been assigned. The other half of the student cohort made up a control group who were merely instructed to read the text for homework. Overall comprehension of experimental and control groups was tested, and questionnaires about reading difficulty administered. The effect, on reading rate, of using a paraphrased version of a text was also investigated by dividing students into an experimental group to read such a version and a control group to read the original. Reading rate was measured again at the end of the year, in comparison with a mainstream sample, for potential progress. Findings suggest that SFP students are largely under-prepared academic readers who are more likely to read a prescribed text, and this with comprehension, when initially talked through a commonsense paraphrase. It is hoped that provision of such scaffolding over the course of the foundation year will develop students' confidence to attempt reading the texts assigned to them so as to become more practiced academic readers, and thus better prepared for mainstream study.