Q&A with Lilli Pretorius

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 4.46.41 PMThe aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the eighteenth interview in the series. Elizabeth (Lilli) Pretorius is a Professor of Linguistics at UNISA.

(1) Why did you decide to go into education? 

Well, I originally come from Linguistics, not Education, I stumbled sideways into education. I majored in English and Italian at university and although in my early twenties I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do with English and Italian besides waft around in Literature, I emphatically didn’t want to go into education! It was while I was doing honours in Italian that I encountered linguistics and fell in love with it. From my early encounter with Chomskian phase structure rules in Italian I moved into phonology and psycholinguistics – specifically first language acquisition and studies on language and the mind. I was hooked. In the meantime, I needed a job, and a post in teaching English to Grade 11 and 12 students in a township school came up. I did that for 4 years – and loved it, so I got hooked a second time. I was then offered a junior position in the Linguistics Department at Unisa so I left classroom teaching for academia. My four years of teaching English as a second language in a township high school stood me in good stead in my university teaching as it gave me insight into the daily struggles of students who do their schooling in a language that is not their home language and who come from high poverty homes with very little exposure to print-based literacy practices. Through Linguistics I became interested in how we construct meaning via language – I first studied constructions and perceptions of causality in discourse at Grade 5 level for my Masters, and then looked in the role of inferencing in the reading of expository texts by university students. After my doctoral research I worked with a colleague from Information Science, Myrna Machet, on a project that over a 3-year period took me into deep rural areas, where we piggy-backed on adult literacy NGOs, looking at the effects of storybook reading by neoliterate adults on children at preschool level. I then spent the following decade looking at various aspects of reading development in high poverty contexts, from preschool to university level. It was never a conscious decision to ‘go into’ education – my research lead me into education.

  (2)   What does your average week look like?

Rather messy – a combination of teaching, admin work, meetings, academic stuff – and trying to do research in between. I teach honours modules in Applied Linguistics (second language teaching and learning) and I have quite a few Masters and doctoral students who take up a lot of time. I am also the departmental co-ordinator for about 70 Masters and doctoral students and that takes up a lot of admin. I do article reviews, examine M and D theses, review ethics applications in our college, occasionally play an advisory role in literacy programs. I have collected a lot of reading data over the years but increasing administrative demands in the work place make it challenging to find time for research. I have come to the realisation that it is difficult to manage one’s time effectively in an environment where waves of work continuously crash over you. I’m trying to develop ‘work wave’ stamina and resilience…

(3)   While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick one or two that have been especially influential for you which one or two would they be and why?

It’s interesting how some articles stand out among the many thousands one reads in the course of one’s academic career. I remember two articles in particular that affected me quite profoundly in my early research career – Keith Stanovich’s article on early reading development (Stanovich, KE. 1986. Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly 21, 360–406) and Meridith Daneman’s article on individual reading differences (Daneman, M. 1991. Individual differences in reading skills. In: Barr, R. et al. (eds) Handbook of Reading Research Volume II. London: Longman). I was impressed by two things: firstly, they asked different questions about reading. Changing the questions changes the way one looks at a phenomenon. Secondly, I was struck by the coherence of their articles – the clarity of their thoughts, the systematic nature of their arguments, and the rigour and compelling force of research evidence. We tend to associate aesthetic responses to texts with literary texts, but well argued and empirically well supported scientific texts have a beauty of their own too.

(4)   Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?

Reading is a complex phenomenon, the domain of reading research is very wide and is informed by a range of disciplines – linguistics, psycholinguistics, cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, social anthropology, semiotics, education and special needs education. Each of these disciplines brings to reading research their own particular interests and agenda, their own research approaches, and their own gurus. Who one considers important depends on which aspects of reading ‘float one’s boat’, so to speak.

There are so many people who’ve done – and continue doing – amazing work in the field of reading research, at both the micro and the macro levels of processing and in terms of teaching reading. Scholars such as Marilyn Adams, Michael Pressley, Catherine Snow immediately come to mind. Keiko Koda and reading researchers in Canada have done important comparative studies on bilingual decoding skills, Paul van den Broek and Charles Perfetti in the USA and Jane Oakhill and Nicola Yuill in the UK have done interesting work over the years on reading comprehension, Stanovich and Cunningham have done fascinating work on the effects of print exposure on reading, vocabulary and knowledge development in general. The affective dimension of reading (e.g. Rosenblatt) and the broader social context in which literacy is used and enacted are also important areas with their own influential thinkers such as Brian Street, Dave Barton and Paul Gee.

Because of my own interest in language and the mind, a lot of the research that I read about comes from the cognitive and neuroscience disciplines. There has been a lot of really interesting reading research coming from neurolinguistics and the brain sciences in the past 20 years. Stanislas Dehaene’s book Reading in the brain and Marianne Wolf’s Proust and the squid convey this complex research domain in an accessible style to the ordinary reading public.

Because so much of what we know about reading in the past 70 odd years comes mainly from North America and Europe, we need to continuously ask ourselves Ok, so how does this relate to reading and education in developing, middle income countries. There’s a lot we still don’t know.

(5)   What do you think is the most under-researched area in South African education?

Approaches to early reading instruction are based mainly on reading in analytic languages. African languages are agglutinating languages with rich and complex morphosyntactic structures. The Nguni languages in particular have very long word units. At the micro level we actually know very little about what really works when learning to read in the African languages, from a decoding point of view, so that is an area that calls for further research.

Another area that merits closer scrutiny is the development of academic language proficiency in bilingual education systems. There are quantitative and qualitative differences in the ways in which we communicate orally in everyday situations and the way we use language in more formal educational contexts. In written language – whether in paper or electronic form, whether in the home language or a first additional language – the locus of meaning shifts to the text itself, and the ability to construct meaning relies largely on the linguistic and textual cues in the written text and in the conventions associated with its use. In effect, since the advent of modern education, when we acquire our home language or learn another language, we learn oral and written ‘dialects’ or registers, and we switch between them, depending on the context in which we use language. Although oral proficiency is what we rely on most throughout our lives on an everyday basis, it is proficiency in using literate or academic forms of language that determine success in the educational context. Many of our children who pass through the education system acquire only rudimentary reading abilities and are exposed to teaching practices where information is parroted in a superficial manner, so they are thus denied opportunities to develop new ways of using and understanding language. Although they are orally very proficient and may even be marvellously multilingual, if they don’t acquire academic registers they will continue to struggle academically. Finding ways to develop and support academic language proficiency is important in our context.

(6)   What is the best academic advice you’ve been given?

Comments from past professors such as “Mmm, interesting ideas, but where’s your evidence?” or “Re-write this, it reads like a first draft” or “Let’s talk about this once you’ve done more reading”, though mortifying to a tender graduate student or junior lecturer at the time, were valuable academic lessons that helped shape the person I am today. I also had an interest in humour and at an early stage of my academic career I considered doing research on the use of language in humour. My husband said I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I analysed Monty Python scripts and suggested I do something more practical – so I continued with my research on causality in texts instead, and that drew me into reading research.

(7) You have been involved in language education and linguistics for a long time – in your experience what are the two or three areas that students struggle with most when they become teachers and start teaching in schools?

Being in Linguistics, I have not been as directly involved with teacher training as my colleagues in education faculties are. However, having worked in high poverty schools over many years, I’ve come to see how demotivating a dysfunctional school environment can be on teachers. Strong leadership and good governance at a school provide an enabling and supportive environment for novice teachers. It’s also important for new teachers to have as a mentor a teacher in whose classroom learning actually happens, not just someone who’s ‘experienced’ and has been teaching for many years. There are many teachers who have been teaching for years but whose kids are not performing. Who novice teachers have as role models is important.

(8) I recently read your excellent 2014 article titled ‘Supporting transitions or playing catch-up in Grade 4? Implications for standards in education and training.’ It was easily the most informative academic article I’ve read this year. If you were put in charge of a national reading campaign with a large annual budget (R200m) and total discretion on how to spend it, what would you spend it on and why?

The bottom line in reading development is fairly simple – reading only develops through reading. Throughout Africa, children are expected to become readers without having proper access to books and they attend schools where books are rare, and rarely used. This is akin to expecting kids to play football without a ball. This would be unthinkable in the football world. Using the same football analogy, it would be unthinkable in football circles to appoint coaches who knew nothing about football, yet we have teachers whose task it is to develop readers but who themselves do very little reading and who know very little about reading. From questionnaires I’ve administered to teachers in township schools over a 10-year period, I’ve found that around 70% of teachers reported that they have 10 or fewer books in their homes, and although they all have positive attitudes to reading, when asked to name a book they’ve recently read, most teachers give the name of a book prescribed in high school. This suggests that they don’t read voluntarily. This is a sensitive area and not much hard core empirical research has been done on this topic. Although many more teachers these days have better formal teaching qualifications than was the case two to three decades ago, there is quite a lot of indirect or anecdotal evidence of teachers’ poor reading abilities. The NEEDU report of 2012 identified poor content knowledge as one the areas in which teachers struggled. If teachers know very little about their content subject, this means they probably do very little reading in their content subject. So, finding ways to raise teachers’ literacy levels is paramount at this point in our education history.

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One of my favourite posters about reading is this one. Reading awakens possibilities, it gives one independent access to knowledge. So, if I were put in charge of a national reading campaign, I would adopt a two pronged approach to the reading campaign, with one strand focussing on making books accessible to school children and the second strand focussing on building teacher capacity with regard to reading.

Less than 10% of our schools have functional libraries, and this in our 21st century world with its knowledge economy, where most of our knowledge is stored, transmitted and updated via written language. Learners who come from poor homes and communities have little access to books and hence to knowledge beyond their immediate world, so schools in these communities should become rich and stimulating sites of literacy. But simply putting books in schools does not necessarily make reading happen. The affective, social aspects of reading should be promoted, learners should be constantly motivated to read, reading should become a high status activity and reading be made a cool thing to do. Learners should also have strong reading role models and reading and books should be visibly valued – which is where the teacher capacity building strand comes in. The DBE has actually done quite a lot about putting books in schools in the past few years, but the next step, that of maintenance and use, is neglected. I’ve been to many schools that have been given lots of books – and they are often stored away and gathering dust in a room somewhere, unopened and inaccessible. This suggests that schools do not know how to manage resources and how to use books effectively in their teaching. So this strand of the campaign would build up individual teachers’ reading levels, and also teach teachers how to explicitly teach reading strategies (and I’m referring to much more than skimming and scanning here), and how to manage, maintain and use book resources in their schools and classrooms.

(9)   If you ended up sitting next to the Minister of Education on a plane and she asked you what you think are the three biggest challenges facing South African education today, what would you say?

First of all, I’d thank her for arranging this sudden upgrade from economy to first class for me, for how else would I sit next to her? I’d also thank her for candidly acknowledging the reading crisis in our schools. I think she has quite a strong finger on the education pulse in that regard. Then, depending on how long the plane trip was, I’d highlight three challenges facing SA today, all of which revolve around literacy:

  1. Attention to changes in classroom literacy practices. After 70 years of reading research we have a pretty good idea of what works in early reading development and why a balanced approach to reading instruction is important. However, telling teachers what to do about reading and giving them resources with which to do it do not necessarily bring about educational reforms. Teachers’ perceptions, normative beliefs and knowledge influence their classroom practice. In order to get teachers to change ineffective classroom practices we need more research into theories of pedagogic change in schools and classrooms and how this can be done via in-service teacher training. We rely a lot on workshops to do this, but teachers often call these ‘hit and run’ affairs (facilitators come in, tell teachers what to do, then leave). How else can we support teachers in becoming more effective? All interventions should thus be informed by theories of change and be carefully monitored and evaluated so that factors that facilitate or hinder changes in teacher practice can be indentified and better understood.
  2. Attention to literacy in maths and science. In the past 20 twenty years millions of rands have been spent in this country on improving maths and science education, with very few dividends so far. The relationship between reading ability and maths and science learning needs to be given explicit attention. As long as we have low literacy levels in general, we will continue to have low maths and science performance. Students need to be explicitly taught how to read maths and science texts so that they can ‘read to learn’ more effectively from their textbooks.
  3. Attention to school libraries and post structures for school librarians. As mentioned above, very few schools in SA have functional school libraries, especially schools that serve poor communities, which is precisely where ready access to information and knowledge is most needed. Furthermore, school libraries need librarians, people who are specially trained to manage libraries and to help build a culture of reading and finding information. Teachers do not have the time or the expertise to run school libraries. This means that post structures for school librarians should also be created. Low quintile schools cannot afford to appoint school librarians because they would have to sacrifice a teaching post to do so. Although the DBE encourages schools to build up school libraries, in effect it does not provide the infrastructures to enable schools to do so. According to Equal Education’s statistics, by 2010 the state had spent a total of R13.6 billion on building ten new sport stadiums in SA. Surely providing easy access to knowledge via school libraries is a worthwhile investment too? It also helps to professionalise schools.

Just before we landed, I’d ask for more funding for raising teachers’ literacy levels in my national reading campaign. In light of the cost of sport stadiums, R200 million for a reading campaign that has the potential to improve teacher literacy seems rather stingy.

(10)   If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?

 Linguistics? Researching language and humour?

(11)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

Well, there are lots of new and wondrous things happening on the technology front every week – but my default position is that of scepticism. I first want to see evidence of their benefits. The assumption that technology automatically confers advantages is rather naive. Young children in particular need social interaction and mediation in language and literacy development – and also for socio-affective development; technology cannot replace that.

(12) If you were given a R15million research grant what would you use it for?

 I’d really like to explore ways of boosting the development of academic language proficiency during the Intermediate Phase. If children don’t learn to engage with texts and read at a deeper level, then they battle to ‘read to learn’ through the rest of their schooling and it’s really difficult for them to become independent learners. So I would use the funding to explore ways to develop such proficiency, using randomised-control studies with different interventions that are carefully monitored and evaluated. For example, something along the lines of a genre approach to expository/information texts similar to what Dave Rose has been doing in Australia and an intervention that focuses on explicit instruction in reading strategies. Pauline Gibbons has also done interesting work in this area. However, interventions are also only as good as the people who implement them, so the first year would be spent training teachers (language and content subject teachers) in these different approaches, building up their own literacy skills, developing their academic vocabulary and content-specific terminology, as well as their content knowledge and pedagogic knowledge and their understanding of the logic behind the specific interventions. Many teachers attend workshops where they are shown specific methods to use in the classroom, but they have very little understanding of why, what the bigger picture is, and their own pedagogic or literacy skills are not necessarily enhanced by implementing the method.

A list of some of Lilli’s articles can be found below:

Some of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Andrew Einhorn, Maurita-Glynn Weissenberg, Shelley O’Carroll, Carole Bloch, Yael Shalem, Jill Adler, Paula Ensor, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

3 responses to “Q&A with Lilli Pretorius

  1. Lillii has it right on all counts. Intermediate phase research is crucial. Her university should give her a full research position.

  2. Great interview, and still relevant now.

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