Writing Instruction Is Important For University Students In South Africa.
There Are A Number Of Key Issues It Needs To Address.
By Des Collier
It is generally accepted internationally that students must negotiate a significant transition in terms of their writing development as they progress from secondary school to higher education. This transition is inextricably linked to their sense of identity and confidence, their choice of career and their future success.
In South Africa, the transition from secondary school to higher education is further complicated by the fact that, since the attempt to introduce Outcomes Based Education in 1998, the national education system itself has been undergoing a turbulent transition.
Prior to 1998, the South African Education System was decentralised geographically, with each province having the autonomy to determine the system and approach that would be used to prepare students to meet the requirements of the Joint Matriculation Board in order to gain access to higher education. However, the system was also fragmented socially and racially with separate education departments for different population groups that determined the nature, quality and level of education to which students from different population groups could gain access.
Typically in South Africa, students were expected to start making subject choices as early as Grade 9 and to have a fairly clear idea of the specialised course they wished to follow before entering university. As a result, the need to develop a student’s general writing ability gave preference to training students to focus only on the types of writing required by their selected disciplines.
The requirement for early specialisation meant that tracking and selecting students for future careers had to begin early in the education process. In South Africa, examinations requiring extended written performance have always been the main form of assessment. The progression of students, therefore, towards their preferred career has been dependent largely on their ability to write the discourse of specific disciplines in order to enter higher education.
However, the orientation towards writing development in South Africa has always tended to be a combination of the study skills and academic socialisation approaches. The study skills approach assumes that writing is a discrete cognitive ability that can be taught separately once and for all and this usually ended up being in the domain of the English Teacher. The academic socialisation approach assumes that writing does not need to be taught explicitly but is learnt implicitly as students carry out the reading and writing assignments required by any particular discipline. As a result, the stakes for specialised writing have always been high while the necessary support and coaching in writing development has been inadequate or neglected.
On entering university, students find themselves not only grappling with personal career choices but also having to develop new identities and authorities as writers. They find themselves having to use the theories and rhetoric of various disciplines in order to enter into debates and dialogues with experts in professions and industry. They have to make the transition from retrieving information from a single-truth source, usually the textbook, to constructing views and standpoints from multiple, often conflicting, sources without succumbing to plagiarism.
Since 1998, after the establishment of a broad-based democracy in South Africa, the education system has been centralised into one national system with a view to ensuring broad access to, and equal opportunity in, education.
The trend in primary and secondary education has been towards wider choice, expanded opportunity and delayed specialisation. Methods of assessment have been brought under scrutiny and are now required to accommodate multiple intelligences. How students are assessed must now be fully aligned to what is being assessed so that the methods are fair, relevant, appropriate and realistic. The new CAPS curriculum for the teaching of language places new emphasis on the exploration of diverse types of texts and the explicit teaching of the processes of different types of writing.
Higher education, however, has been slow to respond to the changes. As Russell and Ford (Rearticulating Articulation) point out, the ongoing desire of specialised fields and professions to select only those students, who, they believe, will make the best contribution to their work is both legitimate and ultimately ethical. Knowledge and work in the 21st Century is becoming increasingly technical and specialised. Specialised work, global economies and sophisticated communications systems depend more and more on specialised writing. So selection in higher education continues to be dependent predominantly on extended writing as the main form of assessment. In South Africa, therefore, there is a disjuncture between what schooling prepares students for and what higher education requires.
Running counter to this is the spread of democratic ideals and ever-increasing pressure on universities to increase their numbers and provide greatly broadened access to higher education. In South Africa this means that education has become increasingly multi-cultural and multi-lingual and the majority of students do not use the prominent language of learning as their mother tongue.
It is for these reasons that writing instruction for university students in South Africa has become so important. It also stands to reason that such instruction should provide key elements that address the particular challenges being faced by students in our universities.
In broad terms, writing instruction should adopt the academic literacies orientation that has developed in the last decade. This approach does not see writing development as a set of generalised skills to be taught in isolation, nor as an unteachable, implicit requirement of entering an academic discipline. It views writing development as a dynamic, ongoing accomplishment that is central to the work of different disciplines. The aim is to raise the awareness of students, academic staff and policy-makers to the essential role that writing plays in learning, teaching, work and citizenship and to find ways of integrating writing development into specialised studies and activities.
To this end, all students should have an understanding of a basic model of communication involving a sender, message and receiver using an appropriate code and medium for any given context. Students should be encouraged to consider the factors that affect successful communication, taking into account their target audience, the purpose of their communication and the desired response. This ultimately leads to an understanding that different types of writing are required for different purposes. Students should then be exposed to the use of all kinds of writing not only for a specific discipline but for the workplace in general.
Secondly, students should be encouraged to practice and implement a reliable writing process to build their confidence and establish their authority in writing. The process should be seen as a means to an end (being effective writing) and not as an end in itself. Such a process essentially encompasses the creative process including:
· Gathering the relevant information
· Working the facts over
· Identifying the central problem or issue
· Brainstorming various responses and possibilities relating to the issue
· Incubating and identifying a Big Idea
· Crafting the Big Idea into something relevant and practicable
· Polishing and preparing the idea for presentation and scrutiny.
Students also need to be equipped with the rhetorical devices needed to be convincing in the discourse of various disciplines including the visual rhetoric of graphic presentations. They need to become adept at manipulating the mechanics of the English Language at sentence and paragraph level in order to achieve desired effects.
Students need to be assisted in developing a working knowledge of English grammar, spelling, punctuation and idiomatic usage with special attention being paid to second and third language users.
Students need practice in managing multiple sources to develop skills of summarising, paraphrasing and synthesising. They need guidance, through the use of templates where possible, in the formatting of various kinds of documents, methods of referencing and citing sources in order to establish accountability and credibility in their writing.
Finally, students need to be aware of the importance of time management. To put it simplistically, there appear to be two kinds of people in the world: in the moment people and out of the moment people. In the moment people tend to become totally and passionately caught up in living the moment and lose track of time. They are more interested in the quality of what they are doing and the savouring of doing it than anything else. They view deadlines as targets to work towards. Out of the moment people tend to be the guardians of the “System/Establishment” and are always conscious of the time. They worship the Deadline. They are willing to compromise content and quality for the sake of “getting done” on time. To miss a deadline is to commit the unforgivable sin. Students need to understand the importance of deadlines and to be equipped to manage and deal with the issues surrounding them.
This brief consideration of the key elements of writing instruction will go some way towards meeting the needs of university students. However, there is a great deal more at stake for individuals and societies. How well students are able to express themselves in writing not only determines who can enter and remain in higher education but also who will move on into positions of responsibility and influence in society. Even in this technological age, whether it is done using pen and paper or a computer keyboard, the ability to write effectively is an essential life skill.
- Russell, D.R. and Foster, D. Rearticulating Articulation. N.D. Web. 16 July 2012
- The Purdue Owl. Purdue U Writing Lab, 2010. Web. 16 July 2012.
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