Gadra’s ‘secret weapon’: writing skills

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By Alice Draper

Gadra Matric School (GMS) principal Melanie Lancaster hints that there is a “secret weapon” contributing towards the extraordinary success of the school aside from dedicated learners and skilled and devoted teachers.

She believes that a great deal of the learners’ success can be attributed to a writing skills class run by Lauren Hacksley.

GMS is currently the biggest feeder school for Rhodes University in the area and regularly receives a 100% matric pass rate.

The writing skills class was developed in 2011 by a Rhodes University volunteer. Two years later, it was expanded by Lauren Hacksley, a full-time teacher, and became centralised around essay writing skills.

Athenkosi Nzanzeka, a Gadra and Rhodes University graduate, wrote to Hacksley in her first year at Rhodes.

“Ma’am the writing skills course helped me in a way that I can’t explain. My lecturer always comments about how great I am at joining paragraphs in an essay. She says that my essay (2000 words) is quite impressive for a first university essay.”

Nzanzeka was in the first writing skills class run by Hacksley – and her success story was the first of many to enter Hacksley’s inbox.

South African basic education does not provide the necessary foundations for the level of reading, writing and critical engagement demanded by universities. This can make the gap between school and university a minefield.

Lancaster comments on some of the challenges students attending tertiary education can face.

“There is this huge gulf. Whether you’re first or second language, you don’t really have a clue about academic writing. There are all sorts of expectations like learning to link evidence to opinion without plagiarising as well as learning how to structure an essay and reference.”

Navigating the minefield of academic writing is challenging for all students – and certainly more challenging for many of the Gadra students who are second language English speakers. The writing skills class aims to make the demands of academic writing less daunting and more manageable for students who enter tertiary education.

Hacksley, who teaches the class, comments that she primarily focuses on essay structure and engagement with the content. The students write an essay almost every week and receive detailed feedback.

With just under half of South African university students not completing their degrees, Hacksley believes that basic academic writing skills are essential tools in surviving tertiary education.

“There is so much going on in university. There are so many people around you, there are lecturers who feel unapproachable and there’s content that you may not understand. I feel like teaching students the structure of essays is the one thing they can just hold onto.”

Gadra alumnus and fourth year Rhodes University Accounting Student, Vuyelwa Magazi, also wrote to Hacksley to explain how the writing skills class helped her in university.

“A huge thanks to you again for the writing skills classes! They are coming in very handy, especially for management essays. This week we were going through essay writing and I knew all the particulars needed, from the thesis statement to your topic sentence.”

Writing skills enhance life skills, Hacksley says, including effective communication, putting together resumes, writing letters and applying for jobs.

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