Assessing academic literacy in a multilingual society: Transition and transformation has just appeared in print from Multilingual Matters. I was privileged to co-edit this with the highly experienced John Read of the University of Auckland and my former head of department, Theo du Plessis.
As further contributors there were Tobie van Dyk (NWU), Alan Cliff (UCT), Colleen du Plessis (UFS), Avasha Rambiritch (UP), Kabelo Sebolai (SU), Laura Drennan (UFS), Jo-Mari Myburgh-Smit (UFS), Sanet Steyn (UCT), and a number of co-contributors to some chapters, including Linda Alston, Marien Graham (both UP), Piet Murre (Driestar Hogeschool) and Herculene Kotze (NWU). Most of them are steeped professionally in designing academic literacy interventions and assessments.
An environment that is in transition …
In this volume, they attempt to answer the question of how, as designers of language interventions, they respond to the challenges of education in an environment that is in transition, and in many respects unprepared for change. For the long answer, you’ll have to read the book. But there is a short formulation of their response: They do as applied linguists in most environments would: as responsibly as they can, using the professional tools at their disposal.
Enough challenges for a whole lifetime of work …
The last decade of the previous century saw the massification of higher education globally. South Africa’s challenge was different from those thrown up by rapid massification of higher education elsewhere: it was complicated by the difficulties to move from an unjust system to a constitutional democracy. Its past considerably inhibited what needed to be remedied. That was not the only complication in this transition: there was also the constitutionally enshrined multilingual character of the country. A third difficulty lay in the degree of preparedness of new students arriving at university to handle the demands of academic language. How, in such a case, does one first identify, and then provide opportunities for language development to those who need it most? Once again, South Africa is not alone in noting that too low a level of academic literacy may be detrimental for the successful completion of a degree. Enough challenges, one would say, for a whole lifetime of work if you’re an applied linguist.
Noteworthy solutions by South African applied linguists
A quarter of a century on, we have now taken stock of the professional response of applied linguists to South Africa’s transition. Their responses are in certain respects different from those in other environments, so it is a pity that the international applied linguistics community still knows too little about how these challenges have been tackled. Indeed, the format and content of the innovative solutions of South African applied linguists to these large-scale language problems are noteworthy. Fortunately, their professional efforts have been well recorded (see, e.g. the NExLA bibliography) though thus far mostly locally. Assessing academic literacy in a multilingual society: Transition and transformation offers a selection of the most significant innovations in conceptualization and design for the attention of a global readership.
In an effort to identify and tackle the challenges early, the professional attention of language testers also turn in this book to the education sector that feeds into higher education: the school system. Here, too, there are language solutions that will interest a wider audience.
In compiling a volume about language assessment at university level, co-editor John Read was the first international scholar to notice the lack of attention to the designs described in this book, and he was also the first to propose putting all of this together. His diligence and professional approach are evident in the content of the book.
We would welcome enquiries and discussion with colleagues. If you have an observation or an idea to share, please contact the corresponding editor, Albert Weideman, at email@example.com. The book reviews should be of interest too.
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