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Levelling the playing field : an investigation into the translation of academic literacy tests

  • Journal Title: Journal for Language Teaching = Tydskrif vir Taalonderrig
  • Volume: Volume 45
  • Issue:  Issue 1
  • Publication Date: 2011
  • Pages: 153  - 169
  • Authors:  Tobie Van Dyk;  Alta Van Rensburg;  Fiona Marais;
  • ISSN: 02599570
  • Abstract:  It is widely accepted that low levels of proficiency in the languages of learning and teaching (in this article, academic language proficiency refers to academic literacy and the terms will be used interchangeably), affect through-put rates negatively. This unsettling trend is confirmed by local and international literature, and can possibly be attributed to the language curriculum in secondary education that does not prepare students adequately for the higher-order language-thinking skills they need for study at university. By this we refer to Bloom's taxonomy, especially the three higher-order skills of analysing, synthesising and evaluating, and the way language is used for these purposes. In order to address this problem, and as part of language-planning initiatives, some faculties at Stellenbosch University introduced the integration of academic literacy courses into the first-year curriculum. These courses are fully credit-bearing and a system of continuous assessment was adopted. Semester tests form part of this assessment process, and led to the investigation done for this paper. Since both Afrikaans- and English-speaking students register for the same academic literacy module it is imperative that outcomes and assessments should be on the same level. However, the aggregate on the Afrikaans semester tests have continuously been lower than on the English test. The aggregate for the Afrikaans tests was, furthermore, on par with the weighted average for all other first-year courses, which was not always the case with the English tests. After an initial investigation, it was concluded that the English-speaking students were not necessarily academically stronger than their Afrikaans counterparts, but it seemed likely that the problem lay with the tests themselves. A first notion was that academic and spoken English are closer than academic and spoken Afrikaans. It was also possible that the level of difficulty of the English test was substantially lower than that of the Afrikaans test. It should, however, be noted that both the Afrikaans and English tests produced excellent reliability coefficients (alpha above 0.88) and most items discriminated adequately. A possible solution to the benchmarking problem was to translate the Afrikaans test into English. The translation framework, adopted for this study, was Nord's functionalist model. This paper will elaborate on the translation procedure, and the variance in students' performance on the translated version compared to previous administrations. Preliminary conclusions on bias in translated tests and the success and feasibility of such procedures are drawn.
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