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Zambia J 984 5 XII RESEARCH REPORT FIRST YEAR READING LEVELS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ZIMBABWE K McGINLEY Communication Skills Centre University of Zimbabwe IN A FAST CHANGING educational situation as in Zimbabwe in recent years there is much talk of declining standards but little evidence has been adduced in support of such assertions Much the same can be said about reading levels at the University of Zimbabwe a matter of vital concern to the Communication Skills Centre the University s English language study skills unit Much of its effort centres on the comprehension of texts and it is clearly important to know whether or not there is a significant gap between assumed and real reading levels whether it is useful to use university level texts as the basis for teaching approaches to comprehension or whether special materials should be selected or produced In theory all incoming students have an acceptable level of language competence having passed O level English Language a reputable public examination In practice the Communication Skills Centre has to run special courses in English language and language related skills and demand for such courses originated in University departments In addition the Communication Skills Centre runs its own test to identify those in need A recent comparison by this writer McGinley 1985 of the skills tested at O level and those needed at university revealed significant differences In an attempt to elicit further information about reading levels scripts from the Communication Skills Centre s past entry tests were examined These revealed evidence of low reading comprehension of texts well below university level The situation therefore suggested the need to investigate reading levels among firstyear students in a systematic way It was considered important both to get a large sample size and to have optimum testing conditions These were satisfied by administering the special reading level test to all incoming first year students as an addition to the Communication Skills Centre s entry test which students take very seriously as failure to pass this test results in their having to attend a course at the Centre The Communication Skills Centre s test was planned to take about one and a half hours a further half hour was given for the reading test and this was adequate TEXTS CHOSEN Two texts were carefully chosen one from a Cambridge O level English Language past paper They were chosen so as not to advantage or disadvantage any group of students on account of for example specialist content The university level text was from Sociology a subject not commonly taught at secondary level Because the difficulty of texts can vary so much around the levels chosen and because it was considered important to space the texts effectively all possible texts were subjected to a number of text difficulty indices These give an objective measure of difficulty which is usually expressed in reading age an index of 12 for example being a text that an average twelve year old should be able to manage Four indices were used and the results from the chosen texts are 75 76 tabulated in Table 1 The average reading age for the O level text was 17 1 and that for the university text was 19 55 Assuming students write O level at around 16 17 years and enter university at around 18 19 years the lifference in the level of the texts was considered to be about right In fact a university text with an index of 19 55 is relatively easy as the average for such texts is usually higher Table 1 INDEX DIFFICULTY OF CHOSEN TEXTS Readability tests O Level text University text Average FOG Fry Flesch SMOG 18 20 20 16 21 17 30 19 18 17 10 19 55 Text was too short to calculate this index APPROACH Even though the time available for the test was limited to half an hour it was nevertheless necessary to use a test which was both valid and reliable testing what it was supposed to be testing and doing so consistently through time Cloze procedure seemed the most appropriate Oiler 1979 p 357 says It has been demonstrated many times over that cloze scores are extremely sensitive measures of reading ability He also quotes p 63 from research by Swain Lapkin and Barik who conclude that the cloze technique has been shown to be a valid and reliable means of measuring second language proficiency Harrison 1980 pp 106 107 says Cloze procedure correlates highly with formal reading tests In this sense it has a high validity In large scale research cloze results are more reliable than other tests Alderson 1979 p 220 says Since Taylor 1953 the general consensus of studies into and with the procedure has been that it is a reliable and valid measure of readability and reading comprehension for native speakers of English For more on the validity and reliability of cloze procedure see for example Anderson 1971 and Gilliland 1980 The origins of cloze procedure as a testing approach are relatively recent around 1953 It was a technique used in testing comprehension among LI speakers those to whom English is a first language and it is now in common use for testing in L2 contexts where the user s first language is one other than English It may be contrasted with more traditional language testing approaches which often test discrete points of usage cloze procedure tests comprehension of sentences as a whole and in some cases inter sentence and supra sentence elements within paragraphs It works simply by deleting every nth word in a paragraph the reader completes the blanks with appropriate words these need not be the exact ones The rate of deletion is often taken as every fifth word see MacGintie 1961 with 20 deletions in a 100 word passage below that it becomes 77 too difficult to predict above that some research shows that the reader is not necessarily helped see Harrison 1980 and Harris 1976 who also consider the issue of frequency Correlation of results with other forms of testing in LI is high What evidence there is in L2 context suggests that correlation is good see Alderson 1971 who quotes six authors in this connection There is now a vast bibliography on the use of cloze procedure STUDENTS TESTED In order to get as full a picture as possible of changes in reading levels among students coming to the University the testing was extended to some school level groups and to some second year University students Two feeder schools were identified those supplying students to the University and the tests were administered to likely

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