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ALRU News Archives

2004/03/12: What is ALRU?

In 2001 a research unit was established in the Department of Linguistics, Unisa, to address issues of literacy development and accomplishment. In this, our first newsletter of 2004, we outlined the aims of ALRU and reported on the activities of the research unit to date.

Because language, reading and writing play such crucial roles in determining success in the learning environment, we felt that it is important to gain greater insight into the nature of such skills and the ways in which they are acquired, developed and sustained within a multilingual and sociocultural context, from pre-primary through to tertiary level.

A linguistic perspective that examines the role of language, reading and writing in the acquisition and construction of knowledge can contribute valuable insights into the nature of academic literacy and how it affects academic performance and under-performance. It is within this context that a research unit was established within the Department of Linguistics at Unisa.

Academic literacy [akә-demik litrә-si] n. 1. The ability to read, write and use language pertaining to or characteristic of a school, university, college or other institution of learning. 2. Literacy pertaining to or based on formal education. (Willena, the c here should be the phonetic schwa, an upside down e)

ALRU’s Mission Statement
To promote interest in, awareness of and insight into academic literacy - especially the attainment of academic literacy in a non-primary language - through study, research, publications, workshops, community programmes and other relevant academic pursuits and activities.

• Conduct research in the field of reading and writing, in both primary and additional languages;
• Promote awareness and understanding of problems in reading and writing;
• Disseminate research findings through seminars, workshops, publications and conferences;
• Build up a data bank pertaining to research into reading and writing in an additional language in southern Africa;
• Promote awareness of the importance of developing adequate reading levels for academic success;
• Design appropriate reading tasks to assess academic literacy;
• Support the University of South Africa’s commitment to the development of quality learning materials  and independent learners

Enquiries about ALRU should be directed to: 
Prof (Lilli) EJ Pretorius
Director: ALRU
Department of Linguistics
PO Box 392, Unisa 0003
Tel: (012) 429 6028
Fax: (012) 429 6622
E-mail: pretoej@unisa.ac.za                                   

2004/03/12: Forming Partnerships
Most of ALRU’s projects focus on developing reading skills and facilitating access to reading material. Practically all the research projects in which ALRU has been or is involved also involve community work, since most of the research is undertaken in socio-economically disadvantaged areas. In the belief that there is greater strength in unity, ALRU is working in partnership with other projects and organisations involved in complementary community projects.

2004/03/05:  Reading workshop at Aids Centre
Lilli Pretorius from ALRU and Myrna Machet from the Children’s Literature Research Unit (in the Department of Information Science, Unisa) arranged for a reading workshop to be held at Mohau Centre, an Aids orphanage attached to Kalafong Hospital, in  April 2003. The centre cares for about 34 children, ranging from newborn babies to school-going children.  The Aids caregivers were encouraged and shown how to read storybooks to the children in their care.

Caregivers at Mohau Centre practicing storybook reading
under the watchful eye of Julia Ludick (far right, seated),
a facilitator from Project Literacy 

The workshop was facilitated by Mrs Julia Ludick of Project Literacy and funded by the Family Literacy Project. In all, 16 caregivers at the centre attended the workshop, where they were encouraged to read children’s storybooks to the children in their care, and shown how to do so. A donation of 20 children’s storybooks in Sepedi and a video in Sepedi on the importance of storybook reading were donated to the school by the Family Literacy Project.

2004/03/05   Partnership in KwaZulu - Natal
Ms Snoeks Desmond started a Family Literacy Project in KwaZulu Natal in 2000. It operates in deeply rural and mountainous areas of south-western KwaZulu Natal.

It has developed an approach to family literacy that integrates formal adult literacy, early literacy development and participatory tools. There are several components to the FLP, for example, it encourages family literacy through teaching literacy to adult groups, it trains and develops literacy facilitators who live in the communities, it promotes literacy through child-to-child groups, it makes books for babies available, and it puts out a community newsletter.

During 2001 - 2002, Snoeks Desmond invited Myrna Machet from CLRU and Lilli Pretorius from ALRU to monitor the literacy skills of the children in the project. The emergent literacy skills of Grade R and Grade 1 children were assessed, as well as the Zulu reading skills of Grade 1 and the Zulu and English reading skills of the Grade 4 children in the various sites. The findings showed that children who were exposed to home based literacy practices and Zulu storybook reading outperformed their peers who were not in such programmes in terms of language and literacy skills.

Snoeks Desmond and the FLP
facilitators Nonzuzo Mbanjwe
and Phumzile

Assessing Grade 1 learners,
The Family Literacy Project, KZN

2004/03/05   A High School Reading Project
Creating a culture of reading at Flavius Mareka High School, Atteridgeville

Yvonne Chaka Chaka opening the library at Flavius Mareka.
Ms Setai, one of the English teachers, is master-of- ceremonies

A reading project was started at Flavius Mareka High School in Atteridgeville (a township west of Pretoria) in 2002. The overall aim of the project was to establish a culture of reading at the school. A three-pronged approach was adopted to achieve this aim:

• To build teacher capacity and to establish a practical and sustainable reading programme at the school.
• To improve the reading skills of the learners.
• To build up the library at the school.

The school has a population of 1 060 learners. It caters to speakers of Sepedi, Venda and Tsonga, and offers home language instruction in these three languages, as well as English and Afrikaans.

For several years the school library had actually been used as a storeroom for textbooks. Learners had not been able to access the books, the books were not catalogued, there was no lending system in place and the library did not function as an integral part of the school.

Mrs Tsakane Nkwe, Dr Rita Ribbens, Ms Hildegard van Zweel and Dr Lilli Pretorius from the Department of Lingusitics, Unisa, were all involved with this project in varying ways. Ms Kanakana Ladzani (from the Department of African Languages, Unisa) also came on board during 2003 to assess the reading skills of the Venda learners at the school.

Reading tests were administered to Grade 8, 9 and 10 learners, and data on the English, Tsonga and Venda reading skills of over 700 learners were collected.

The findings showed that reading levels were low, in both English and the African languages. Many learners read better and faster in English than they did in their home language. The low reading levels of learners coming into high school raise serious questions about the quality of reading instruction in primary schools and the amount of exposure that learners have to books.

Most of our efforts in 2002 went into getting the library up and running. Despite setbacks, by September 2002 most of the books were sorted out according to the Dewey system, catalogued on computer and a computerised lending system set up.

The school was privileged to have the renown singer, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, officially open the library and a morning of language celebration was held, with singing, dancing and poetry readings at the school. Three lecturers from the Department of African Languages, Unisa, were invited to give poetry and prose recitals in the school’s three African languages. Prof Rosemarie Moeketsi, Vice-Dean of the Language Faculty at Unisa was amongst the invited speakers.

Did the reading project make a difference? We answer this by looking at the books borrowed from the school library and the reading skills of the learners.

The school library in 2003
Funds from Unisa made it possible to appoint Ms Magdaline Sehowa as library assistant at the school during 2003. Due to her efforts, all the books in the library were catalogued and library hours and a code of conduct established. The library opened during short and long break every day and for 1½ hours in the afternoons, when learners could use it to do their homework, use reference books or look for information for projects and portfolios.

Ms Sehowa also encouraged learners in different grades to form book clubs. They met on a regular basis to chat about the books they had read and enjoyed.

The library was also used for meetings, and  became a show case for visitors to the school.

The reading skills of the learners
Did the reading skills of the Grade 8 learners who were tested in 2002 improved since the start of the reading project? They were tested again in 2003, at the start of Grade 9. The results showed a 10,7% overall gain in reading skill. The average reading rate also improved from 99 words per minute to 127 words per minute.

Although many of the learners still needed to improve their reading skills, it was heartening to see that improvements did happen. Increased exposure to books seems to have played a very important role in improved reading ability. In Table 1 below we see some of the gains made by eight of these students, together with the number of books they borrowed from the library (only the initials of the students are given).

TABLE 1: Books Borrowed and Reading Gains


No of

Reading %

Reading %










































It seemed that for those learners who regularly took books out of the library, increased exposure to books had a positive effect on their reading abilities. This is not surprising - research worldwide shows that more time spent on reading increases reading ability.

The school also encouraged learners to join one of the community libraries in Atteridgeville (there are two community libraries in the township, both with low membership).

Learners using the library at Flavius Mareka

Librarian Magdaline Sehowa
at her computer in the library

Traditional Tsonga dancers at opening of school library

Outcomes of the Flavius Mareka Reading Project

Conference papers
Two conference papers involving data from the project were presented in 2003 in Kampala, Uganda (Mrs Tsakane Nkwe) and at RAU (Dr Rita Ribbens).

2004/03/05 The Family Literacy Project (2000-2004)

As a result of the high rate of illiteracy and the lack of a reading culture within South Africa, many thousands of children start school with little concept of what reading means and without having developed preliteracy skills that ease their subsequent acquisition of language, literacy and cognitive skills, which form the basis for success in the learning context.

Prof Myrna Machet, from the Children’s Literature Research Unit (Department of Information Science, Unisa) and Dr Lilli Pretorius (ALRU, Department of Linguistics) formed an early literacy partnership, together with Project Literacy (an NGO that operates nationally in the field of adult literacy programmes). The aim of this project was to get parents as well as caregivers and teachers at creches and Grade R classes involved in their children’s education by motivating them to read to their preschool children so as order to provide opportunities for their children to develop language and preliteracy skills. Since children’s books are relatively easy to read, parents with limited literacy skills are able to cope with the reading level with confidence. By reading to their children, they practise their own reading skills as well as help to develop their children’s preliteracy skills.

Reading workshops were held on a regular basis to discuss why storybook reading is important and to demonstrate how best to read storybooks to children. A small library of storybooks was set up in each site, with more books added each year, to provide a range of books which the parents could borrow to read to their children. The project laid a strong emphasis on developing early literacy skills in the children’s home languages, so most of the books were in the African languages. The emergent literacy skills of the children were tested every twice a year to determine gains in literacy and language development. Dr Franco Vaccarino (from ABET, Unisa) joined the research team in 2002 and monitored the sites on a regular basis.

Several family literacy sites were established : 2 sites in Gauteng (at the Sol Plaatjie squatter camp and a female prison), 3 sites in rural Limpopo Province, 2 in the Eastern Cape (KwaNobuhle and Peddie), a farm school in the Free State, and at Topsy Village (an AIDS orphanage).

Outcomes of the Family Literacy Project, Unisa

Conference Papers:
In 2003 two papers relating to the FLP were read at a Family Literacy conference in the USA, and a two-hour workshop on the project was held at the Pan African Conference on Reading for All in Kampala, Uganda. A paper concerning literacy data from the KwaZulu-Natal sites was read at a conference at RAU, while a paper dealing with the Zulu linguistic data was presented at a conference at Stellenbosch (Mrs Danisile Ntuli).
Publications: A booklet on storybook reading by Machet & Pretorius (2003) has also come out, Helping your child become a reader, by New Africa Education.
Videos: A twenty-minute video on the importance of storybook reading has been made. The video is available in five languages - the English, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Sepedi versions were produced in 2002 (Bulie Nandi, Tskakane Nkwe and Hildegard van Zweel from Linguistics played key roles in the Xhosa, Sepedi and Afrikaans videos respectively). The Zulu version was produced in 2003 (with key roles played by Danisile Ntuli and Lindelwa Mahongo from the Department of African languages, Unisa).

2004/03/05 Story Reading Workshop @ Mavula Primary School
Mavula Primary School (Ndebele speaking) in KwaMlanga, north-east of Pretoria, approached ALRU for assistance with regard to improving the reading skills of their learners and establishing good reading practices at their school. Collaboration between the vice-principal, Mr Frans Maila, the Head of the Foundation Phase, Mrs Virginia Ndhlovu, DSG Outreach and Lilli Pretorius from ALRU resulted in a reading workshop being held one Saturday  in June 2003, facilitated by Mrs Julia Ludick of Project Literacy and funded by the Family Literacy Project.

The Foundation Phase teachers, the principal, vice-principal and 43 parents of Grade 1 and 2 learners attended the 3-hour workshop. A 20-minute video in Sepedi on storybook reading to children was first shown, which formed the starting point for a discussion on the importance of reading storybooks to children. There was much discussion and enthusiastic role playing, and everyone concerned felt the workshop had been very informative and empowering. The workshop ended with tea and cake. A donation of 20 children’s storybooks in Ndebele was made to the school by the Family Literacy Project.


2004/03/05 Reading Skills for Mathematics
During 2000 a series of tests was administered to over 400 students registered for the Mathematics Access course. These tests were aimed at assessing various aspects of verbal skill involved in reading Mathematics texts.

During 2002, an intervention programme was implemented with a group of 35 Maths Access students on a voluntary basis. The students attended reading classes for two hours each week over a period of 7 months. The aim of the intervention programme was to improve the reading skills of the students so that they would find it easier to ‘read to learn’ in the university context. The programme emphasised reading for pleasure (as opposed to reading for study purposes), but also explicitly developed reading skills, specifically for the reading of Maths texts. The students were encouraged to do as much pleasure reading as they could (i.e. reading novels, magazines, newspapers, etc). Research has shown that it is largely through pleasure reading that students improve their reading skills, widen their vocabulary and increase their reading speed. During the two hours in class the students were also explicitly taught reading strategies, in each case first working with everyday texts and then moving to the more complex mathematics texts.

The results showed a steady increase in reading ability and reading speed in practically all the students, and several of the students discovered the joy of reading - one student read over 25 books during the year! However, it was found that unless the students could attain, minimally, a 60% reading comprehension level, they were unlikely to pass the maths course. The findings indicate that although reading ability does not guarantee academic success, students who read below a 60% comprehension level are severely handicapped in their academic endeavours.

A small party was held at the end of the year and prizes awarded to those students who had shown the most improvement in various aspects of reading and who had read the most books. Naturally, all the prizes were book or magazine prizes! We had lots of fun during the year and we really enjoyed working with the students and getting to know them.

The Maths Reading team:L to R: Britta Zawada,
Lilli Pretorius,Joy Singleton, Carol Bohlmann.
Absent: Trish Cooper

The prize winning readers in the Mathematics
reading programme

As a result of the two-year interdepartmental reading project, a video and workbook on reading for Maths were produced, under the direction of Carol Bohlmann and sent as support tutorial material to all students enrolled for the Mathematics Access course. The project and its findings were reported in several conference papers and academic articles (the latter published in the South African Journal of Higher Education).

Reclaiming school libraries

2004/03/05: Pilot Research Project
In partnership with ALRU, during 2004 about 200 Grade 8 learners who take Setswana as a subject at two high schools in Atteridgeville were assessed in their reading of both Setswana and English texts by Mr Sekepe Matjila from the Department of African Languages, Unisa.  The results showed that overall, the reading levels were not very strong. Furthermore, the learners were not reading better in Setswana than in English. In fact, many of them read more slowly in Setswana. This is probably due to the fact that they do most of their reading in English.

The preliminary findings indicated that learners were entering high school with inadequate reading skills. These results suggested that not enough was being done to promote healthy reading development in primary schools.

Grade 8 Setswana reading assessment in progress