Original Research

Barriers to reading in higher education: Rethinking reading support

Kristien Andrianatos
Reading & Writing | Vol 10, No 1 | a241 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/rw.v10i1.241 | © 2019 Kristien Andrianatos | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 15 April 2019 | Published: 30 September 2019

About the author(s)

Kristien Andrianatos, Centre for Academic and Professional Language Practice, School of Languages, Faculty of Humanities, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa


Background: Reading is a functional academic literacy ability needed by students in higher education. In the South African context, inadequate reading ability is one of the reasons for high undergraduate attrition rates. It seems that role players within this sector are of the opinion that students have reading ‘problems’ that need to be ‘fixed’, often by generic reading courses. This article differs from the perception of reading ‘problems’, as reading is viewed from a lifespan developmental perspective. According to this perspective undergraduate students do not have reading ‘problems’ but experience reading barriers hindering their reading development and in effect their academic literacy.

Objectives: This study aimed to uncover some of these barriers by means of an empirical study conducted at the North-West University (NWU).

Method: The setting of this study was the Potchefstroom campus of the NWU. A qualitative methodology was chosen whereby 14 individual interviews and 7 focus group interviews were used. The purpose of these interviews was to better understand lecturers’ and students’ perceptions about the variables of the reading process, namely the reading ability of the reader, the text to be read, the task, and the socio-cultural context.

Results: Lecturers and students perceived a number of reading barriers within each variable, namely students’ non-compliance and lack of abilities, elements of the textbook and availability of lecturer notes, the format of the task, throughput pressures, and lecturers’ assumptions.

Conclusion: Knowledge of these barriers and knowledge of the interconnectedness of the reading process could enable role players to collaboratively rethink undergraduate reading support, in which the lecturer has a crucial role to play.


Academic literacy; higher education; undergraduate students; reading; reading comprehension; reading development; reading barriers; tasks; textbooks; socio-cultural context; lecturers.


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