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Teaching academic reading as a disciplinary knowledge practice in higher education

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Abstract

Many university lecturers expect students to be able to read disciplinary texts at the appropriate levels, and reflect critically and multidimensionally on those texts, yet are often frustrated by many students’ lack of ability to do so satisfactorily. While there is much research to suggest that academic writing needs to be taught within the disciplines as a practice linked to disciplinary knowledge, there is less research to make the same claims about academic reading, which is often referred to, rather, as a ‘skill’. This article argues for an overt focus on critical academic reading as part of disciplinary teaching and learning, and draws on a case study and lecturers' responses to questions on critical reading to show how an academic literacies and knowledge-focused approach can be useful to lecturers trying to help their students read in the disciplines.
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Teaching academic reading as a disciplinary knowledge practice in higher
education
S. Bharuthram*
Department of English Studies
e-mail: sbharuthram@uwc.ac.za
S. Clarence*
The UWC Writing Centre
e-mail: sherranclarence@gmail.com
*University of the Western Cape
Cape Town, South Africa
Abstract
Many university lecturers expect students to be able to read disciplinary texts at the appropriate
levels, and reflect critically and multidimensionally on those texts, yet are often frustrated by
many studentslack of ability to do so satisfactorily. While there is much research to suggest that
academic writing needs to be taught within the disciplines as a practice linked to disciplinary
knowledge, there is less research to make the same claims about academic reading, which is
often referred to, rather, as a skill. This article argues for an overt focus on critical academic
reading as part of disciplinary teaching and learning, and draws on a case study and lecturers'
responses to questions on critical reading to show how an academic literacies and knowledge-
focused approach can be useful to lecturers trying to help their students read in the disciplines.
Keywords: academic development, academic literacies, critical literacy, critical reading,
disciplinary knowledge practices
INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
At university the ability to read relevant texts critically, and analyse, synthesise and evaluate
knowledge is a common requirement at all levels of study (Bharuthram, 2012). University
lecturers expect their students to read at a school-exit level, and to have some of the critical
reading capacity required upon entering university. However, research suggests that many
students entering higher education in South Africa, for example, are not able to read and write
at school-exit level and therefore struggle to cope academically (Nel, Dreyer and Klopper
2004; Ngwenya 2010; Ralfe and Baxen 2012). For these students, reading academic texts
presents a huge challenge and they may not complete prescribed readings despite the explicit
requests from lecturers to read. Students who are unable to fully understand and interpret the
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texts they read are less able to complete tests, assignments and exams successfully, and are
less likely to participate fully in class discussions, which can lead to feelings of alienation
within teaching and learning environments, as well as increased dropout rates (McKenna
2004; Ngwenya 2010).
One response to students’ poor levels of academic reading coupled with the additional
pressure placed on lecturers to show evidence of student success is to provide students with
detailed lecture notes. These notes do not necessarily encourage the reading of extended
academic texts but rather more often encourage students to resort to more familiar practices
such as rote learning and memorisation, which are generally praised in school where
knowledge tends to be hegemonic rather than open to critique and interpretation (Boughey
2005; 2012). This problem is compounded by the fact that academic lecturers are not always
able to explicitly articulate or openly explore the discursive practices of reading and meaning-
making in their particular disciplines, as for many disciplinary experts these practices are
‘commonsense’ (Bharuthram and McKenna 2006) and not necessarily surfaced for reflection
and critique. Hence, many lecturers rely on academic development (AD) type courses to teach
reading, writing and thinking ‘skills’ and the mere existence of such courses tends to
compound a sense that teaching ‘content’ or knowledge is the work of the disciplines, while
teaching ‘skills’ is best left to AD practitioners or similar, thus perpetuating a view of
academic literacies as separable from disciplinary knowledge practices.
In order to reverse the negative pattern around reading that is predominant in many
higher education institutions in South Africa, this article suggests that the teaching of critical
reading be embedded into disciplinary curricula and discourses in overt and practical ways.
The reason is two-fold: first, what counts as ‘critical’ is often shaped by the disciplinary
knowledge that students are reading about and the field they are working within; and second,
students will struggle to integrate what they are reading into their other academic activities if
reading is taught as a discrete ‘skill’, rather than a disciplinary academic practice (see Geisler
2004; Lillis 2001). It is in this context that this article problematises issues related to the
nature of reading at university and examines some of the potential ways to rethink ‘teaching’
reading in the disciplines.
The article begins with a discussion of the role of reading in developing academic
literacies in higher education as well as reading critically in higher education. Then two
connected sets of data are used to explore on the one hand, expectations of disciplinary
lecturers as regards critical reading in the disciplines, and, on the other hand, the challenges
experienced by an AD lecturer and students in making the transition from ‘reading’ to
‘reading critically’ and the need for greater collaboration between AD specialists and
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disciplinary lecturers. The article concludes this discussion by offering tentative starting
points for thinking about teaching reading in different ways.
THE ROLE OF READING IN BECOMING ACADEMICALLY LITERATE AT
UNIVERSITY
There is much research and literature in higher education about academic writing and the
complexities associated with teaching students how to write different academic texts (see
Elton 2010; Ivanič 1998; Ivanič and Clark 1997; Krause 2001; Lillis 2001; Wingate 2012).
While this article notes that academic writing as a process that creates tangible evidence of
student achievement is a worthy focus of research and attention, it also cautions that equal
attention needs to be paid to what students are writing about. In higher education, writing
about something generally stems from reading about something, and the level at which one is
reading determines the relevance and clarity of what one writes. Therefore, as students need
to learn to write effectively, so they need to learn to read critically and comprehend the texts
that they use as models for their own writing, and that serve as evidence and exposition in
their own texts. Although it is often acknowledged that academic writing and reading go hand
in hand, more time practically is spent on teaching writing while less time is devoted to
helping students read, understand and interpret disciplinary texts in their disciplinary contexts.
Academic writing and reading are not generic skills: they are practices that are shaped
and informed by the values and academic conventions of particular disciplines (Lillis 2001;
Street 2004). These practices happen within, rather than outside these disciplines, and reading
and writing serve to link existing knowledge with new knowledge to advance understanding
of the field in which one is working (Boughey 2012). Academic reading, as a particular focus
here, is part of a disciplinary ‘Discourse’ (that is, socially recognised ways of behaving,
interacting, valuing, thinking, speaking, as well as reading and writing) to use Gee’s term
(2008). Through the texts that lecturers prescribe for their students and draw on in designing
curricula and assignments, they are communicating with students some of the central concepts
and ideas that shape the disciplinary field. By reading these texts students are not only
learning these concepts and ideas, they are also entering into a conversation within the
Discourse of the discipline. They are learning, often tacitly, what counts as academic literacy
in the discipline: the ways of thinking, reading, writing, valuing and also ‘being’ that are
recognised and valued (Gee 2008). They are taking on an identity (McKenna 2004), becoming
an historian, for example, or a lawyer. In Bernstein’s (1999) terms, these students are
acquiring a ‘gaze’; a way of looking at knowledge and the world around them with a
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particular focus that will mark them as belonging to a particular Discourse community. As
students read, write, think and debate about not only the knowledge in the disciplines, but also
how the knowledge has been accumulated and produced in the field, they are being
enculturated into this gaze. This gaze can be cultivated or trained through immersion in the
Discourse community; through social and intellectual interaction over time with those who
already possess it (Bernstein 1999).
The difficulty with this process of cultivating a gaze is that it is a largely tacit process
and it takes time (Bernstein 1999). Students need to be part of a Discourse community for an
extended period, and need to be trained in the methods of researching, understanding,
producing and valuing knowledge before they fully acquire an appropriate gaze (Bernstein
1999). For students from home and school backgrounds that are congruent with university
literacies and learning approaches, acquiring this gaze may not be as long and complex a
process as for students whose home and school backgrounds are far less so (McKenna 2004).
In South Africa, where so many students at university come from poorly resourced and less
literate home and school environments, training students more overtly in the ways of being of
disciplinary Discourses takes on even more significance. A closer look at academic reading as
a vital part of acquiring a gaze and becoming a contributing member of a Discourse
community highlights the important role that those who already have acquired this status have
to play in enculturating students into those identities and Discourses.
READING CRITICALLY IN HIGHER EDUCATION
Critical reading requires readers to ask questions and probe texts; to be active in their reading
by making meaning as they read rather than passively absorbing information (Cervetti,
Pardales and Damico 2001). Cervetti et al. (2001) as well as McLaughlin and DeVoogd
(2004) argue that what is necessary in higher education is for students to develop ‘critical
literacy’, which encompasses critical reading, but also requires students to adopt ‘stances’ in
relation to the texts. This means that they need to learn to see the world from multiple
perspectives, create alternative understandings of texts and be aware of multiple viewpoints
surrounding texts as well as the power of images, words and texts (McLaughlin and DeVoogd
2004). This is difficult for many students who have come from schools where reading is
taught quite differently in terms of positioning students in relation to the texts. Geisler (2004),
for example, argues that in schools and even early on in undergraduate education, reading is
focused on making sense of content, rather than on realising that there are certain ‘rhetorical
processes’ inherent in the way the text is structured and needs to be read. In other words, texts
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are doing something; they are persuading, arguing or justifying rather than just telling the
reader about knowledge.
Geisler (2004) argues that if students are to become experts in their disciplines, they
will need to learn not just how to make sense of the content they are reading, but learn in
addition to master these rhetorical processes so that they not only know about knowledge,
they also know how to construct, deconstruct and transform knowledge in their own writing
and thinking. McLaughlin and DeVoogd (2004, 53) echo this argument when they state that
‘[r]eading from a critical stance requires both the ability to think critically about to analyze
and evaluate information sources ...; [to] meaningfully question their origin and purpose;
and take action by representing alternative perspectives’. Further, Lesley (2001) argues that if
we want students to succeed and become critically and relevantly literate, we need to give
them authentic reading and writing opportunities that situate these practices within the
contexts in which they are used and make sense. Critical reading is about recognising the
ability for words to give voice to and to silence; it is about conscientisation rather than
working out vocabulary (Lesley 2001), and thus is it vital for reading to be developed, guided
and encouraged within the disciplines.
These are important understandings of what it means for students to be critically
literate and what is necessary in terms of teaching in order to develop students’ expertise and
mastery over both the knowledge itself and the processes they need to use for them to know,
transform and create new knowledge. However, while we acknowledge in higher education
that these are worthy goals and that we need to help students reach them, we also need to
acknowledge that, increasingly, universities in South Africa as well as those in the US and in
the UK, for example, are admitting students from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds and
from different nationalities who all bring different ‘primary discourses’ (Gee 1998) that is,
ways of doing and being within the family) with them into university. Often, the students’
prior reading and related literacy experiences in these primary discourses are quite different,
or even far removed from the secondary discourses into which they must be inducted at
university (Gee 1998; Geisler 2004). When this is the case, students who need to make quite a
big ‘leap’ from one way of reading and making sense into another, new and more demanding
way, may struggle and may become discouraged. If lecturers are not able to incorporate or
focus on teaching students how to make sense of disciplinary knowledge encountered in
prescribed texts and how to use prior knowledge to create new knowledge, or develop critical
literacies over time, students may struggle further to understand why they are reading certain
texts as well as how to use these texts in their writing and other tasks. They may be learning
the what, or the content of the disciplines, but not necessarily mastering enough of the hows
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or whys of disciplinary learning (see Geisler 2004).
DATA AND METHODOLOGY
The data reflected on in this article comes from two separate but related projects. The first is
from an English for Educational Development (EED) module offered to students in the
Faculty of Community and Health Sciences (CHS) at a historically disadvantaged university
in South Africa. The EED module was used as a case study during the period April 2008 to
April 2012. The purpose of the EED module is to develop students’ disciplinary literacies so
that they can be more successful in their first year courses as well as in their subsequent
studies at the University. In any given semester, a total of about 150 to 300 students register
for the course. More specific data used for this research article focuses on two open-ended
evaluative questions, which were completed by a total of 150 students in the first semester of
2011. The questions, ‘What do you understand by “reading critically”?’ and ‘What are some
of the things a critical reader does while reading a text?’ were given to students prior to their
lessons on critical reading in order to get a sense of their understanding of critical reading.
The second, related set of data is qualitative and provides some insight into what
academic lecturers understand of critical reading, and what they do to help their students read.
During the latter half of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012, a questionnaire consisting of two
sets of questions was sent to 18 lecturers via email. These lecturers worked mostly with first
and second year students and were sampled purposively from a range of disciplines including
law, physics, politics and natural medicine. The first set of questions was: ‘What does critical
reading mean to you in your discipline, and in your teaching? What must students do to be
reading critically?’ The second was: ‘How do you teach or support your students’ reading
practices in your teaching? If you do not, can you say why?’ Of the 18 lecturers, 14 completed
the questionnaire. Their responses were copied and pasted into a separate file, without the
lecturers’ names attached, so they were anonymised in this process.
The data received from the open-ended questions in both sets of data were collated by
compiling an initial list of phrases that described responses. These responses were then
categorised according to the list. This method of analysis is in keeping with the views of
Hickman (1981, 345 in Arzipe 1994) who states that ‘Analysis becomes a search for pattern, a
striving for workable categories from which new perspectives emerge as the interpretation
progresses’. In our analysis, we were looking, specifically, for data related to lecturers’ and
students’ understanding of what critical reading is; connections between reading practices and
ability and disciplinary knowledge; students’ approaches to reading; and lecturers’
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expectations of reading in their disciplines or courses.
The following section, rather than reporting on findings in a stricter sense, uses the
data gathered from these two sources to facilitate a discussion regarding students’ responses
to a course aimed at developing their reading (and writing) ability and the ways in which
lecturers view reading. The aim is to further this article’s argument regarding the need to shift
our understanding of reading from that of it being a more general academic skill that can be
taught and learned outside the disciplines, to seeing reading as a knowledge-related practice
that needs to be taught and learned within disciplines. The ‘aboutness’ of what is being read is
an important consideration wherever students are being assisted with academic reading.
FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION PART ONE: WORKING WITH READING INSIDE
THE DISCIPLINES
To focus on the lecturers first, some interesting insights emerged which are given here as an
illustration of the ways in which reading is viewed and also supported from within the
disciplines.
In response to the first question, a major theme that emerged from the lecturers’
responses was the role of evaluating the author’s argument, and whether or not the evidence is
compelling and reasonable. One lecturer in particular highlighted that ‘students need to learn
to read “between the lines” and “behind the lines”, i.e., what is implied without being said and
what is absent’. This need for students to make their own evaluations of the arguments that
they read is a common one, looking at the lecturers’ responses. Students need to be able to
form their own opinions based on their reading of the prescribed texts, and also use these
readings to substantiate their opinions. Thus, they need to be able to understand ‘the power of
language to both silence and give voice to instances of oppression in issues of socially
determined disparities’ (Lesley 2001, 184).
These ‘socially determined disparities’ or whatever the issues are that students need to
grapple with and form opinions about are going to be different for each discipline, and thus an
approach to teaching reading that places emphasis on skills drilling (Lesley 2001) outside the
contexts in which the knowledge is being used is quite likely to miss the mark in terms of
doing what these lecturers are requiring. In essence, these lecturers are asking students to have
a grasp of the Discourse (Gee 2008), not just the text. In another lecturer’s words, ‘critical
reading means being able to read a text and not merely accepting it on face value but
analyzing the … words and sentences for subtle nuances, possible truths and faslehoods’ (our
emphasis). This notion of subtlety and reading ‘behind’ and ‘between’ the lines is a powerful
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one in the lecturers’ responses, and highlights the role that those with the gaze, for whom the
spaces behind and between the lines are readable and comprehensible, have to play in
‘inviting students into the world of academic reading’ and knowing (Lesley 2001, 184).
For the questions asking how lecturers support their students’ reading, the responses
were more diverse. Most of the lecturers commented that they set tasks that require students
to practise the skills they must master, such as comparing and contrasting different opinions,
arguments and viewpoints in the texts and reaching substantiated conclusions, and evaluating
the relevance and persuasiveness of academic arguments in the texts, using their own
understanding to contribute to class discussion. For example, one lecturer commented that an
iterative approach is used, where ‘we start out with the basics reading and summarizing and
then progressively set tasks which involve critical reading and the evaluation of texts. An
important component of this process is the role of ongoing feedback’. Another commented
that she
usually includes a reading exercise [at first year level] that would involve two readings
representing contrasting theories .... Students are asked questions about the readings,
e.g. which worldviews the authors hold .... Students are asked to contrast the
assumptions that the authors make, etc.
These lecturers are thus trying to make the development of discipline-appropriate academic
literacies part and parcel of their teaching, although neither gave any detail about how the
actual reading of the texts is supported. It seems to be left to the students to read and then
come to class with enough comprehension to then be guided through relevant tasks, like
comparing and contrasting and reading for the subtle nuances and implied meanings.
Another set of comments made in response to this question indicated that lecturers are
skeptical about the ability of students to read critically in first year. One commented that
[i]n the first year ... the students have not generally grasped the skills yet, so they are
seldom asked to critically read anything. In the first year, first semester course, there is
primarily a need to get students to understand what they are reading. The critical bit
comes later on.
Another said that ‘critical thinking for me means that ability to unpack a case study to get to
the root of the issue or to analyse a piece of literature .... I feel that as a student you haven’t
yet fully developed the ability to think critically yet.’ Both these lecturers indicated that they
support their students’ reading by asking them to pre-read for classes, and one also indicated
that she would ask students in her second year classes to read more critically because they
would have learnt how to do that in a skills class that all second year students in her
department have to take. A concern raised by these and similar responses in our data pool, and
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by Lesley (2001), is that if we come from a deficit approach, we are more likely to focus on a
lack of things like the ability to think critically, or understand what is being read, and that this
emphasis belies a focus on critical literacy and constrains approaches to teaching and
learning. A possible response to these kinds of concerns about what students lack is, rather
than ‘drilling them in a series of disconnected sub skills in literacy’, to ‘give them complete,
contextualized reading and writing experiences first and then work on skills through student-
driven assessment and instruction’ (Lesley 2001, 184).
The responses from the lecturers indicate that the demands made of students in terms
of working with disciplinary knowledge and its associated literacy practices are complex, and
also not easily or quickly learnable. Returning to some of the claims made in the initial part of
this article, we must also acknowledge the challenges faced in South African higher
education, considering the poor exposure to reading instruction and practice that many
students have before coming to university, and their struggles with text-based literacies at
both school and university as well as documented differences between school and university
literacy practices. It is as a result of these challenges in fostering disciplinary academic
literacies that many AD-type courses do exist, to try and equip students with some of the
relevant reading and writing abilities they will need to draw on in their disciplinary learning.
The following section considers the insights from the data generated in the EED course.
FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION PART TWO: WORKING WITH READING OUTSIDE
THE DISCIPLINES
The responses from the first question, ‘What do you understand by critical reading?’,
provided interesting insights into students’ understanding of critical reading. The data showed
that the majority of the students (approximately 80%) had a very narrow and limited view or
no understanding at all of what critical reading means with many students equating it to the
pre-reading strategy of ‘scanning’ a text. As an illustration, one student wrote, ‘I think critical
reading is when you scan through the writing piece, noting what are the main ideas and theme
of the text,’ and another wrote, ‘In my opinion, critical reading is being able to read rather
quickly over a piece/scan the piece and being able to identify/pull out and take notes of the
important facts and main points, i.e. get an overview of the entire text.’ There were some who
did have a sense of what was expected: ‘Critical reading is when you read a text and you try
and discover the deeper meaning of what is said behind the text. You will analyse what is
written.’ This response is consistent with the lecturers’ expectations of students being able to
read ‘behind’ and ‘between’ the lines and ‘not merely accept(ing) the text on face value’, but
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have the ability to analyse the deeper meaning of the text. However, the fact that so few
students are able to read at this level is of concern.
Other students stated that critical reading requires paying attention to detail, however,
their understanding of ‘detail’ did not refer to, for example, the context of the article or
background of the author but rather on spelling and grammar as is evident in the following
two student quotes: ‘My understanding of critical reading is that when reading a text one
would pay attention to detail. You would be analyzing tense, language, punctuation, grammar,
etc.,’ and ‘Critical reading is reading in which the reader focusses on every detail in the text
and tries to understand it fully. A critical reader looks at every word, spelling and punctuation
in a specific text. A critical reader can be seen in the same way as an Editor of a magazine or
newspaper.’
Clearly then, by the mere fact of not knowing what it means to read critically, these
students could be seen as being less likely to achieve what the lecturers’ described as a critical
approach to reading, and would perhaps be likely to be working with texts at a more
descriptive or basic level. Such readers tend to view the texts they read as representing a kind
of ‘truth’ and the author as the authority figure, and can therefore be hesitant to present their
views on issues or contradict the author in any way. However, reading at university level
requires students to actively engage with the texts they read and to be critical and questioning.
Although in the lecturer data it was reported that the focus for some lecturers with first year
students is getting them to first ‘understand what they are reading’, it must be noted that most
lecturers, especially in the social sciences and humanities, do expect their students to know
how to read critically in the sense of questioning what they read, or seeing what they read as
one possible ‘truth’ out of a range of truths.
Hence, for these students a course like EED can be extremely beneficial in introducing
them to the concept of critical reading in a more generic sense. However, it has been observed
that while the EED-CHS course, through the use of disciplinary texts and a variety of reading
tasks, does provide students with many of the tools they need to become ‘good’ readers as
well as critical readers and writers, these interventions remain insufficient. Critical reading is
a process that needs to be constantly reinforced over a period of time. Merely being a ‘good’
reader does not automatically make one a critical reader. Furthermore, while the EED course
does begin the process of nudging students towards adopting a critical stance towards the
texts they read, this process has to be sustained by disciplinary lecturers who, from an insider
perspective and knowledge of their disciplines, should be helping students to understand how
and why certain texts, concepts, methods and so on are used to critique and also make
knowledge in their fields. Adopting a critical stance is a mentality, a way of thinking (Cervetti
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et al. 2001) and therefore courses such as EED should not be viewed as an ‘end all’ but as the
start of a process that needs to be fostered within the disciplines.
Lecturers as disciplinary insiders should provide ample opportunities within their
disciplinary subjects for students to practise and sustain their reading development and or
even proceed towards becoming critical readers and thinkers since literacy is attained ‘by
degrees’ (Taylor et al. 1988). Hence, disciplinary lecturers need to begin to assess their own
assumptions about reading in their disciplines and then look at ways in which they can foster
the culture of reading critically among their students, while also assisting students in taking
on the identity of their disciplines. Disciplinary lecturers, with the insider knowledge they
have, are in a better position to help shape their students’ reading practices by engaging them
at a level that supersedes a literal understanding of the text. As Lesley (2001) argues, we need
to avoid ‘drilling’ students on reading as a skill or set of skills, and begin to give students
more holistic introductions to reading in the context of the disciplines, and as a practice that
allows them to join in the disciplinary conversations. Students’ ability with reading can be
honed and developed through assessments and authentic tasks that demand and also support
their literacy development over time.
Students responses to the second question, ‘What are some of the things a critical
reader does while reading a text?’, was determined by their response to the first question. For
example, the students who provided a good explanation of critical reading were also able to
describe what a critical reader does. One student wrote:
Critical readers should examine the text to see if information is presented in a bias
manner and to see if information presented is done in a particular manner for a reason.
Critical readers must read between the lines to determine what the writer is attempting
to convey with the text. A critical reader must critique and analyse the text.
In light of the reference in the lecturer data to the teaching of reading/critical reading being
done in a ‘skills class’, it would seem that many lecturers, while acknowledging that reading
is an important component in their courses, are perhaps reluctant or ill-equipped to take on the
responsibility of making their disciplinary reading practices explicit by embedding critical
reading and critical literacy as an overt part of their disciplinary teaching and learning. If
academic and critical reading is not brought more explicitly into teaching and learning
activities, and connected more obviously to disciplinary learning, whether through
assessment, classroom activities or other means, this may have long-term implications for
some students’ depth of immersion in disciplinary Discourses and for their acquisition of a
disciplinary ‘gaze’.
Since disciplinary literacies are not a set of abstract principles (Gee 2008), every effort
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is made by the EED lecturers to provide students with authentic learning activities, for
example, using discipline-specific assignment topics and related texts to teach students how to
use the texts and write using them as required by their disciplines. However, despite these
attempts, limited transfer of this reading and writing ability seems to take place between EED
and their other degree courses, especially with students whose home literacy practices are
very different from the university literacy practices. In a sense, this ‘lack of transfer’ is
understandable since many students view EED (despite the use of disciplinary materials) as an
ad hoc course and the academic literacy practices that they learn as separable from the
knowledge presented to them by their disciplinary lecturers. It could also be that because of a
lack of collaboration with lecturers in the faculty, what they learn in EED is not reinforced in
recognisable or congruent ways in their other courses, and it may thus seem that what they
learn in EED is not really valuable or relevant in clear ways. Tighter and more equal
collaborative relationships between lecturers and academic development practitioners (see
Jacobs 2007; 2010) can be very useful in both exploring with lecturers their critical reading
and writing needs and expectations, as well as the gaps between these and what students are
able to achieve, and putting in place measures and initiatives to create space in the curriculum
and the classroom for academic literacy teaching and development.
CONCLUSION
In attempting to join a conversation about the role of critical, academic reading in building
academic literacies in the disciplines, this article has argued that reading needs to be
approached as a disciplinary practice linked to knowledge-building rather than as a discrete
skill. An academic literacies approach taken by this article has indicated the ways in which
knowledge in the disciplines shapes the ways in which texts are written, and therefore how
they need to be read. In coming to university and joining a discipline, such as Law for
example, students are not just learning ‘things’; they are joining Discourse communities, and
they are learning to speak, read, write, think and ‘be’ like the members of these communities.
They are, in other words, taking on an identity, and this comes with a ‘gaze’ or a way of
seeing, interpreting and responding to the world. Acquiring this identity and this gaze is vital
to students’ success, not only at university but also in the professional worlds they will enter
after graduation.
That there are often too few conversations by disciplinary lecturers with their students
about what reading in their disciplines entails is a cause for concern. Academic reading is a
complex process and each discipline has its own ‘norms and conventions’ and, as such,
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disciplinary lecturers have their own expectations of reading in their disciplines, which must
be made as explicit and ‘learnable’ as possible. By teaching students to take disciplinary
approaches to the texts they read for example, to understand the contexts in which the
research or knowledge being reported on has been generated and its place in terms of the
topics being studied or the wider debates in the field, as well as the content of the particular
texts being read students can begin to think critically in the ways that they are required to,
and this can also translate into improved academic writing. They can begin to move beyond
seeing texts as just imparting information that needs to be learnt, and can begin to see
different authors and texts as part of wider conversations about knowledge that they are
becoming involved in too. They can be taught to understand the information as well as the
rhetorical processes (Geisler 2004) used to write about it. It is therefore paramount that
disciplinary lecturers begin to reassess their roles in relation to teaching their students how to
read the disciplinary texts.
In addition, there is also a need for a wider institutional approach to student reading.
This article has argued that being proficient and capable readers is a central part of acquiring
disciplinary identities, and becoming comfortable with them as well as able to communicate
effectively in recognisable ways with other members of these communities. It is through
disciplinary texts books, journal articles, papers, conference presentations that knowledge
in different disciplines is created and disseminated, challenged and cumulatively acquired.
These are the conversations that students need to join. While there are challenges to
developing students’ academic reading capacity, particularly in contexts where students from
impoverished home and school environments are entering universities under-prepared for this
level of study in certain ways, this article has argued that being a proficient reader is not only
about being versed in the medium of instruction; it is about being given access to disciplinary
conversations about knowledge, and acquiring tools to join those conversations, as well as
time and support in mastering them over the course of an undergraduate, or postgraduate,
degree programme. Lecturers and academic development practitioners both have valuable
roles to play in creating opportunities for students to acquire and master these critical
literacies, but through working collaboratively rather than in separated spaces.
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Many South African students enter higher education under-prepared for the reading demands that are placed upon them. These students very often become part of the "revolving door syndrome". An analysis of the reading assessment profiles of a group of first-year students at Potchefstroom University indicated that these students experienced problems across all aspects of the reading process (i.e. vocabulary, fluency, reading comprehension, and reading strategy use). The reading assessment profiles of an efficient and an inefficient learner indicated that their profiles were diverse and that any one measure of reading achievement may not be sufficient to identify strengths and needs for instruction. Recommendations are made in terms of the reading support needed by these students. Introduction According to the South African government's White Paper on Higher Education Transformation (Department of Education, 1997), student enrolment should be expanded and access should be broadened to reach a wider distribution of social groups and classes, including adult learners. This key recommendation is central to the framework un-derpinning the transformation of higher education in South Africa (Edrong, 2000). How higher education institutions have responded to these policy pressures varies across sub-sections and from institution to institution. However, there are indications that major improvements have occurred in student enrolment patterns in terms of race, gender and number (Harper & Cross, 1999). For example, Harper and Cross (1999) indicate that African student enrolments increased from 191000 in 1993 to 332 000 in 1999, an increase of 74%. These policies, although proactive, were not accompanied by ade-quate strategies to face the challenges that emanated from their imple-mentation. We no longer have a homogenous group of students, pos-sessing the fundamental skills necessary for higher education (cf. Harper & Cross, 1999; Van Wyk, 2001). Students from different social and cultural backgrounds, with different experiences and varying levels of education bring with them different needs and academic po-tential (cf. Harper & Cross, 1999). A South African newspaper (Sun-day Times, 23 July 2000) reports that at least 100 000 students drop out of tertiary institutions each year, and institutions have poor follow through rates (70% and below) and poor graduation rates (15% or below). One way of addressing this issue is by identifying (i.e. pro-filing) the learner variables that can affect the academic achievement of specifically first-year students in order to prevent them becoming part of the "revolving door syndrome". Research indicates that a key, but often overlooked, skill that is essential to academic and professional success is reading ability (cf. Strydom, 1997; Pretorius, 2001). Reading is the skill upon which suc-cess in every academic area is based. According to Blue (1993), stu-dents at tertiary level are required to understand the overall content, distinguish main points from supporting detail, skim, scan, question, look for assumptions and intentions, analyse, synthesise and evaluate. However, research indicates that a significant number of first-year university students commence their studies with less than adequate reading comprehension abilities and reading strategy use (cf. Perkins, 1991; Strydom, 1997; Dreyer, 1998; Van Wyk, 2001). Many first-year students, therefore, enter tertiary institutions unable to meet the ex-pectations of the academic community (cf. Strydom, 1997; Van Wyk, 2001; Pretorius, 2001). The purpose of this article was to report on the reading assess-ment profiles of a group of first-year students at Potchefstroom Uni-versity in order to a) determine the scope of the reading problem, b) assess the strengths and weaknesses of the reading assessment profiles of one efficient and one inefficient student (i.e. case study), and c) make recommendations in terms of the reading support needed by these students.