Africa

Africa: Academic Literacy Is More Than Language, It’s About Critical Thinking and Analysis – Universities Should Do More to Teach These Skills


Making the adjustment from school to university is no easy task. For instance, there’s a big difference between writing a high school essay and crafting an academic paper which meets university standards.

In the decades since formal apartheid ended, South Africa’s universities have become increasingly accessible to students from different socioeconomic, schooling and linguistic backgrounds. But many of these students do not have the language or literacy skills to succeed at university level.

When I talk about “language”, I don’t mean that their level of fluency in English is the problem. In my long experience as a researcher and practitioner in the field of academic literacy, I have seen time and again that not only non-native English speakers struggle to transition from school to university. Many students, no matter what language they speak, lack the skills of critical thinking, analysis and logical reasoning.

Academic literacy is a mode of reasoning that aims to develop university students into deep thinkers, critical readers and writers. Many universities in South Africa offer academic literacy programmes to support struggling undergraduates. On paper, these programmes are an opportunity for students to read and analyse different academic texts. Ideally they should provide students with the academic tools to cope in an ever-changing university landscape and the broader South African economy.

But, as my research and that of other academic literacy practitioners shows, many South African universities’ academic literacy programmes are still promoting what researchers in this field call a “deficit model“. Here, lecturers assume that academic literacy is about teaching generic skills that can be transferred across disciplines. These skills include note-taking, structuring an academic essay and constructing sentences and paragraphs. There’s also a big focus on the rules of English grammar.

While these are all useful skills, academic literacy is about so much more.

This approach does not equip students with skills that can transform their minds: critical and logical reasoning, argumentation, conceptual and analytical thinking, and problem solving.

Without these skills, undergraduate students come to believe, for instance, that disciplinary knowledge is factual and truthful and cannot be challenged. They don’t learn how to critically assess and even challenge knowledge. Or they only see certain forms of knowledge as valid and scientific. In addition, they believe that some (mainly African) languages can never be used for research, teaching and learning. Pragmatically, they also don’t develop the confidence to notice their own errors, attempt to address them or seek help.

I would like to share some suggestions on how to produce university graduates who can think critically.

The deficit model

Why does the deficit model still prevail in South African universities? Research (including mine) offers some clues.

First, academic literacy still suffers from confusion around the definition. Not everyone in higher education agrees on what it is. So, disciplinary experts and some academic literacy practitioners misrepresent it as English language support. They assume that reading and writing in English with grammatical correctness is more important than critical thinking and argumentation.

They assume that a semester or year-long academic literacy course can “fix” students who lack these basic English skills. This approach tends to target and stigmatise people whose home language isn’t English, most often Black South Africans, Afrikaans speakers and students from other parts of Africa.

Another issue is that some academic literacy lecturers are not familiar with or are unconcerned about new research. They don’t follow national or global scholarly debates about the discipline. That means their teaching isn’t grounded in research or in new theoretical shifts.

Moreover, academic literacy practitioners and disciplinary experts do not always work together to develop the courses. This entrenches misleading views about the field, and it means academic literacy lecturers are not always aware of what’s expected in different disciplines.