Underpreparedness in South African higher education: A limited test of the English grammar awareness of first-year students

J. Moyo


This quasi-experimental study, limitedly, explores the level of English grammar awareness as a potential partial indicator of “underpreparedness” in a population of first-year students doing an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) module in a South African university. This is done by comparing the mean test scores and linguistic errors in two slightly different but equivalent parts-of-speech grammar test components in the assignment and supplementary examination scripts of two naturally-occurring subpopulations of the EAP population. Members of the EAP population were in the tests required to correct authentic text parts that had been morphologically and syntactically corrupted for correction. The statistical and linguistic error analyses returned a higher mean test score and a bigger correct-incorrect response ratio for the assignment script sample (the A-Sample) than for the supplementary examination script sample (the SE-Sample). These results suggested, firstly, that extraneous variables were responsible for the variation in the sample test performances, and, secondly, that the grammar instruction, testing and error correction treatments had probably had negligible to no effect at all. The error analysis points to the inadvisability of the inclusion of peripheral grammatical categories such as adverbs in textual modifications for editing as they may not offer optimal opportunities for the exploitation for instructional purposes of the meaning potential of syntactic structures. The grammar instruction observation data showed that a majority of the SE-Sample participated with apparent interest and enthusiasm, thereby suggesting that they viewed the grammar instruction as useful. The observation data also contained a case of resistance to grammar instruction by an older student with a different background to the majority EAP population.


underpreparedness, articulation gap, grammatical awareness, form-focused instruction, pedagogical grammar, pedagogic task, error analysis

Full Text:



Basturkmen, H. 2017. ESP teacher education needs. Plenary speeches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444817000398

Burt, M. K. 1975. Error analysis in the adult EFL classroom. TESL Quarterly 9(1): 5–363. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3586012 (Accessed 6 March 2020).

CHE see Council on Higher Education.

Chele, M. I. 2015. An analysis of subject agreement errors in English: The case of third year students at the National University of Lesotho. Ghana Journal of Linguistics 4(1): 32‒40. https://www.ajol.info/index.php/gjl/article/view/119789/109247 (Accessed 03 August 2020).

Council on Higher Education. 2013. A proposal for undergraduate curriculum reform in South Africa: The case for a flexible curriculum structure. Discussion document. Pretoria: CHE. http://www.che. ac.za/sites/default/files/publications/Full_Report.pdf (Accessed 02 March 2019).

Dudley-Evans, T. and M. J. St. John. 1998. Developments in English for specific purposes: A multi-disciplinary approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, R. 2015. The importance of focus-on-form in communicative language teaching. Eurasian Journal of Applied Linguistics 1(2): 1–12. https://dergipark.org.tr/en/download/article-file/536717 (Accessed 2 March 2019).

Ellis, R. 2016. Focus-on-form: A critical review. Language Teaching Research 20(3): 405–428. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362168816628627

Ellis, R. 2017. Position paper: Moving task-based language teaching forward. Language Teaching 50(4): 507–526. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444817000179.

Hendrickson, J. M. 1976. Error analysis and selective correction in the adult ESL classroom: An experiment. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED135260.pdf (Accessed 26 March 2020).

Krashen, S. D. 1982. Principles and practice in Second Language Acquisition. Internet edition. http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/books/principles_and_practice.pdf (Accessed 3 July 2020).

Lee, S. K. and H. T. Huang. 2008. Visual input enhancement and grammar learning: A meta-analytic review. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 30: 307‒331. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/ S0272263108080479

Long, M. H. 1997. Focus-on-form in task-based language teaching. https://woucentral.weebly.com/ uploads/7/4/6/9/7469707/long_1997_intro_focus_on_form.pdf (Accessed 2 March 2019).

Molin, V. 2020. An error analysis of subject-verb agreement by Swedish learners of English: A corpus-based study of the difficulties surrounding subject-verb agreement for Swedish students. Bachelor’s degree thesis. Faculty of Education and Business Studies. University of Gävle. https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1416130/FULLTEXT01.pdf (Accessed 1 August 2020).

Moyo, J. and C. Mann. 2021. (Upcoming). Transformation and the influence of selected socio-demographic variables on the face validity of an Engineering English for Specific Purposes approach at a South African university. South African Journal of Higher Education 35(1).

Nndwamato, N. M. 2017. An analysis of written concord errors among Grade 12 First Additional Language learners in Vhembe district of Limpopo Province, South Africa. Master of Arts dissertation. The School of Human and Social Sciences. The University of Venda. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/aa3f/620045b474056c54f7c91479f38e8db6fa46.pdf (Accessed 1 August 2020).

O’Neill, R. and A. Russell. 2019. Stop! Grammar time: University students’ perceptions of the automated feedback program Grammarly. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 35(1): 42–56. https://doi.org/10.14742/ajet.3795

Pam, P. and L. Karimi. 2016. The effect of textual enhancement technique on incidental learning of idiomatic expressions of Iranian intermediate students. Theory and Practice in Language Studies 6(5): 1121–1127. http://dx.doi.org/10.17507/tpls.0605.28

Quirk, R., S. Greenbaum, G. Leech and J. Svartvik. 1985. A comprehensive grammar of the English language. Harlow: Longman.

Schug, D. and G. Le Cor. 2017. Towards a dynamic approach to analysing student motivation in ESP courses. In New developments in ESP teaching and learning research, ed. S. Whyte and C. Sarré, 73–92. France. https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01657477/file/NewDevelopmentsESP_CSSW _2017.pdf (Accessed 16 April 2019).

Sharwood Smith, M. A. 1993. Input enhancement in instructed SLA: Theoretical bases. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 15: 165‒179. http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1017/S0272263100011943

Swain, M. and S. Lapkin. 1995. Problems in output and the cognitive processes they generate: A step towards second language learning. Applied Linguistics 16: 371‒391. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ applin/16.3.371

Swain, M. 2007. The output hypothesis: Its history and its future. http://www.celea.org.cn/2007/ keynote/ppt/Merrill%20Swain.pdf (Accessed 2 March 2020).

Touchie, H. Y. 1986. Second language learning errors their types, causes, and treatment. Japan Association of Language Teachers Journal 8(1): 75–80. http://jalt-publications.org/files/ pdf/jalt_journal/jj-8-1.pdf#page=86 (Accessed 6 March 2020).

Weidemann, A. 2019. Definition and design: Aligning language interventions in education. Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics Plus 56: 31–46. doi: 10.5842/56-0-782

Winke, P. M. 2013. The effects of input enhancement on grammar learning and comprehension: A modified replication of Lee (2007) with eye-movement data. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 35(2): 323‒352. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0272263112000903

DOI: https://doi.org/10.20853/34-6-4236


  • There are currently no refbacks.

eISSN: 1753-5913

Copyright © 2016 South African Journal of Higher Education

Hosted by Stellenbosch University Library and Information Service since 2016.

Creative Commons License -CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

This journal is hosted by the SU LIS on request of the journal owner/editor. The SU LIS takes no responsibility for the content published within this journal, and disclaim all liability arising out of the use of or inability to use the information contained herein. We assume no responsibility, and shall not be liable for any breaches of agreement with other publishers/hosts.