Research into literacy

Comparing reading skills across Zulu and English

Sandra Land

Competent readers in all languages read quickly and easily. It is not clear, however, from the apparent similarity in observed reading performance across languages, whether the minute visual and cognitive processes that cohere in effective reading are similar across different languages and orthographies, or whether patterns of reading differ with different orthographies. These minute processes and their implications for learning to read, for teaching reading skills and for ways to measure competence are the subject of ongoing debate.

While studies have been done of differences in observable physical reading patterns between European languages as well as some Asian languages, and of patterns between different orthographies, there is very little information about reading in African languages.

Research done in 2009 and 2010 focused on the question of whether there are differences between measurable processes of competent reading of English text and competent reading of Zulu text. The area is particularly interesting because English and Zulu exemplify different ends of the spectrum of languages according to orthographic consistency: Zulu exemplifies languages which have high orthographic consistency (simply put, where letters always represent the same speech sounds), and English exemplifies languages that have low orthographic consistency (where letters can represent a range of speech sounds, and one speech sound can be represented by different letters). Also, Zulu is an agglutinative language (basically, one in which root words do not stand alone, but combine with various morphemes to form large compound words) and English is not. These particular differences make for intriguing research ground in the largely unexplored terrain of comparisons of reading skills across languages.

A study of pictorial literacy among ABET Level One isiZulu learners

Researcher: Kathy Arbuckle

Educational print materials developed for low-literate audiences in development contexts rely heavily on pictures to convey meaning. This study investigated the extent to which Zulu-speaking adults with low literacy levels understood pictures which portrayed health information.

Results revealed a high rate of misinterpretation of the drawings amongst both urban and rural participants. While education levels did have a positive influence on people’s ability to correctly interpret pictures, the difference was not as significant as expected. The study reinforces that while pictures enhance educational materials in many ways, they have limitations and may not be relied upon to convey important information on their own, especially in the educational context considered by this research. With low-literate audiences, illustrated educational material needs initial mediation. Pre-testing of materials with target audiences remains an essential component of a sound materials development process, in order to maximise the impact of resources.

In the course of the study, patterns of interpretation were observed which suggested different levels or stages of engagement with the illustrations, revealing the thought processes influencing the extent to which participants derived and/or expressed meaning from what they saw. These levels of engagement correlate with the literature on visual thinking and cognition, and a developmental stage theory of aesthetic development. Using these links, the study offers a theoretical foundation for understanding how low-literate adults derive meaning from pictures.