Academic literacy: What's in a name?

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Namibian Educational Research Association (NERA)
An alarming number of scholars have discussed Southern African students’ low proficiency in academic literacy on entering tertiary institutions. This article will take an in-depth look into the current interpretation of what constitutes academic literacy. It will, furthermore, look at the relationship between critical thinking and autonomy in learning. The changing profile of Namibian university students, their ethnic, social and academic identities and the marked influence this has on designing courses to integrate them into a predominantly Western academic culture will be discussed. The focus will be on the Namibian students’ need for direction and support in developing proficiency in critical literacy. Suggestions on how English for Intellectual Purposes can support courses in English for Academic Purposes will be given. Further research into the specific needs and strengths of first generation students is, however, necessary. In the course of lecturing university students in Namibia, I have increasingly become aware that no matter what method of instruction is followed, students still seem to be bewildered at the end of a semester course in English for Academic Purposes (hereafter EAP), offered as an introduction to their academic studies. Conversations with lecturers from other faculties also indicate that students do not seem to gain much from EAP courses. Otaala (2005) has found that most of those students who participated in a survey indicated that they did not experience lasting gains in academic proficiency even after attending courses to develop literacy skills. On the other hand, there appears to be constant upgrading and redefining of EAP course material in an attempt to satisfy the students’ academic needs. Artificially loading courses and extending their duration, however, seem to be contra-productive. An innovative approach towards academic literacy is needed if students should derive lasting benefits; however, some of the qualities in the successful student profile, such as the development of critical thinking skills and self-reliance, defy easy reduction to attainable course goals and would be difficult to quantify within an assessed syllabus. This is not to say that such a syllabus cannot be divised, but only that it might not be possible to subject it to the same constraints and objectives (Sowden, 2003) set for existing EAP courses. Language courses which aim to promote learner autonomy need to incorporate means of transferring responsibility for aspects of the language that the learners process (such as setting goals, setting learning strategies and evaluating progress) from the teacher to the learner (Cotterall, 2000). However, before an informed solution to the current dilemma in EAP skills teaching can be suggested, it is necessary to consider the term literacy in depth.
Journal in the Library Call No. SCP 370.96881 NER
Smit, T. C.(2008). Academic literacy: What's in a name?. NERA Journal for the Namibian Educational Research Association.1-16.