By Dr Peet van Aardt (University of the Free State)
Students need to read. And if we want students to engage in reading, they should care about the content.
The Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of the Free State has adopted a student-centered approach to extensive reading in an attempt to equip students with better academic skills and also localize our content offering. The English Academic Literacy modules, hosted in the Unit for Academic Language and Literacy Development, focus on developing students’ academic writing, listening, speaking and reading skills. But reading – especially the extensive kind – is a challenging practice to inspire, especially when one considers that almost three quarters of the country are low potential readers and almost sixty percent of people grow up in a house without books.
Add that to students’ growing feelings of being excluded at tertiary learning institutions (whether it is via on-campus symbols, language or curricula), and we run the danger of totally losing any kind of student academic engagement.
Getting students to read outside the classroom will develop their vocabulary, sharpen critical thinking, open their minds to other experiences and perspectives. It is in this respect that we have been making use of the MReader online graded reader repository. Students read abridged versions of world literature and do online quizzes. The MReader is run by the Extensive Reading Foundation, and offers students hundreds of well-known titles to choose from.
However, African-centric content is very scarce, and so students often don’t have an opportunity to choose locally relevant stories.
Hence the Initiative for Creative African Narratives (iCAN) was born. Students write short stories about their own heritage, experiences or from their own imagination. Some of these tales are published in annual anthologies, others are infused in our English Academic Literacy curriculum, after being evaluated according to extensive reading discipline best practice. Online quizzes are then created to assess vocabulary knowledge, storyline comprehension and other elements.
Creative writing workshops are presented across our three campuses, and during these activities students get the opportunity to share their writing secrets and ideas, discuss problems and work towards their next texts. And by reading their peers’ stories, they also learn about each other.
By including student-generated short stories in our courses we place the student at the center of our curriculum; they move from merely being users to becoming contributors.