What is academic literacy?

Academic literacy can be defined as the ability to:

  • Academic_literacy_word_cloud_3understand a range of academic vocabulary in context;
  • interpret and use metaphor and idiom, and perceive connotation, word play and ambiguity;
  • understand relations between different parts of a text;
  • be aware of the logical development of (an academic) text, via introductions to conclusions, and know how to use language that serves to make the different parts of a text hang together;
  • interpret different kinds of text type (genre), and show sensitivity for the meaning that they convey, and the audience that they are aimed at;
  • interpret, use and produce information presented in graphic or visual format;
  • make distinctions between essential and non-essential information, fact and opinion, propositions and arguments; distinguish between cause and effect, classify, categorise and handle data that make comparisons;
  • see sequence and order, do simple numerical estimations and computations that are relevant to academic information, that allow comparisons to be made, and can be applied for the purposes of an argument;
  • know what counts as evidence for an argument, extrapolate from information by making inferences, and apply the information or its implications to other cases than the one at hand;
  • understand the communicative function of various ways of expression in academic language (such as defining, providing examples, arguing); and
  • make meaning (e.g. of an academic text) beyond the level of the sentence.
Weideman, Albert. 2018. Academic literacy: why is it important?  [Introduction]. Academic literacy: Five new tests. Bloemfontein: Geronimo, p. ii-x.

We are always investigating ways of improving on this widely accepted definition, but it provides a good starting point, offering a rationale for what gets tested. For a further refinement of the above definition of academic literacy see:

Patterson, Rebecca & Weideman, Albert. 2013. The typicality of academic discourse and its relevance for constructs of academic literacyJournal for Language Teaching, 47(1): 107-123.

In South Africa and elsewhere, tests of academic and quantitative literacy (AQL) are increasingly used for university admission. It is possible to prepare for such tests! Learn more at: NBT AQL preparation.

3 thoughts on “What is academic literacy?

  1. Sarah Elaine Eaton, Ph.D.

    Thank you for this succinct yet comprehensive definition. I will look up the scholarly articles you noted at the end of your post, too. I am also interested in citing this post in some work of my own. I wonder if you could add a date of publication for blog post so I can add it to my citation? I look forward to reading your other work on this topic.


    1. Strix Texturai Post author

      Dr Eaton, thank you for the kind words. Albert’s definition can also be found in the introduction of the book entitled “Academic literacy: Five new tests” (2018). I would cite this source — its full reference is at the bottom of this blog.



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