Problematising the construct of 'definitions' within academic literacy: An analysis of students' knowledge of definitions in isiXhosa and English language textbooks at the University of the Western Cape
Instructional verbs (such as analyse, summarise, apply, evaluate) have been referred to as performatives and have become the object of initiatives around developing and assessing students' academic literacy competencies. Although there are extensive studies on developing and evaluating performatives such as analyse, apply, create, there is one instructional verb that has not received much attention. It is the verb 'define'. The neglect of 'defining' as a performative in the relevant research on academic literacies may be explained by the low value attributed to this performative in different taxonomies of educational outcomes where it is placed along with verbs such as 'list', 'identify', 'recall' identified as lower-order thinking skills. As a result of the dearth of studies of definition in academic literacy contexts, there are a number of questions that have not been addressed. We do not know the extent to which definitional knowledge may be central to efforts at developing the overall academic literacy of students. We do not know if the language in which students read academic texts (home language or second/third language) affects their ability to differentiate definitions from non-definitions, or to formulate definitions of concepts. This point is especially important as it is all too often assumed that (even without attention to relevant academic literacy development) the use of the home language of students necessarily enhances academic performance. Also, our knowledge is rather limited with respect to how different definitional structures affect the ability of students to recognize definitions in their study materials. It is also not clear how to intervene in order to make it explicit to students what may be expected of them in terms of defining in their academic work. Given the foregoing, this research analyses the notion of ‘definition’ as an integral component of the academic literacy of university students, with the focus being on determining the knowledge around definitions possessed by students in the Linguistics and Xhosa departments of the University of the Western Cape. Specifically, the study assesses the following: the structure of definitions in selected textbooks; students' awareness of the existence of different definitional structures in their textbooks; their ability to identify the concepts being defined in specific passages; their ability to define concepts; their ability to distinguish definitions from non-definitions; and their awareness of how definitions may be introduced. The study also investigates how the language of the textbook (home language versus second/third language of the students) may impact on the performance of students in assessments of definitional knowledge. In terms of theoretical framing, the study is informed by an approach to definitions taken in the field of terminology and by the academic literacy framework which stipulates that students' academic literacy practices are inextricably shaped by different factors such as basic skills possessed by them, institutional ideologies, contexts and issues of power. The research uses a mixed-method paradigm. A total of 100 definitions excerpted from English and isiXhosa textbooks were analysed qualitatively to describe the structure of definitions (in the textbooks), using as parameters the following: definiendum (item to be defined), definiens (meaning) and definitor (link between definiendum and definiens). Quantitative data on students' knowledge of different aspects of the notion 'definition' were collected by means of questionnaires completed by 50 students from each of the Linguistics and Xhosa departments of the University of the Western Cape. While the former have English as their major language of academic literacy, the latter have isiXhosa. Chi-square tests were administered to examine whether or not there was a significant relationship between the language of the questionnaire and students' performance. Overall, the research findings suggest that definition writing is not an autonomous phenomenon; rather, it is socioculturally (e.g. language, discipline) shaped. In this respect, the way definitions are structured in English (in a linguistics textbook) is in many respects different from the way they are constructed in isiXhosa (in books on cultural studies). With regard to students' performance on a range of definition tasks in the questionnaires administered, the findings reveal that the major language of academic literacy (also home language in the case of Xhosa students) may have a positive impact on how students perform tasks requiring them to, for instance, identify definienda (concepts being defined) and definientia (meanings), and/or to spot a definition within a passage. Unlike with these datasets, other findings show that the main language of academic literacy is not a significant explanation of students' underperformance in tasks requiring them to identify a definition that is wrongly introduced and also to produce definitions of their own. The findings underscore the need for explicit teaching as recommended by the academic literacies model. A pedagogical guide outlining how a course on definition could be structured is proposed.