South African Journal of Higher Education

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Entering the academy as "the other" - about writing competence and the bridge to the discourse communit

E Henning, A Mamiane, M Pheme


This article argues for an integrated perspective on academic writing, drawing on one primary and two other inquiries conducted with three cohorts of masters students in Education, and a conceptual framework that includes cultural linguistics, cognitive anthropology, social constructivism and "new literacy" studies. The sample for the main inquiry consisted of seven purposively selected students from historically Black segregated South African universities who had registered at the Rand Afrikaans University for the first time. The unit of analysis is activities and events at the interface of students' discourse competence and academic writing proficiency. The main interrogative is the role of English language proficiency, socialisation for membership of the academy, and the multiple literacies, comprising what can appear to be, simply, "academic writing" competence. The findings resonate with the new literacies movement and with the integrated view of student writing models as conceived by Lea & Street, and also with the views about the development of social science concepts expressed by Lev Vygotsky more than seven decades ago. The conclusion of the inquiry is that students in this sample needed more than the average two years to complete their degrees, not only because they needed to acquire skills in the use of English and in academic writing, but also because they had to appropriate the ways of the academy and the eccentricities of the discourse, which together constitute multiple literacies. The significance of the inquiry is that it illustrates the complexities involved in becoming academically proficient, one of which is to gain earned membership of the discourse community by appropriating its conventions (including that of writing) in a personal way. One of the mechanisms that proved to be effective was the students' use of their primary language and early life experiences as anchor for understanding.

South African Journal of Higher Education Vol.15(1) 2001: 109-128
AJOL African Journals Online