Put listening to the test: An aid to decision making in language placement

  • Fiona Marais
  • Tobie van Dyk


Universities and other higher education establishments throughout the world, including South Africa, have become concerned about the academic literacy levels of the students they enrol. The problem at most South African tertiary education institutions, which is in line with global trends, is certainly considerable, with almost a third of the students identified as being at risk. A lack of ability in academic discourse is seen as a major cause of students' failure to complete their courses within the given period. In 2006, as part of a nationwide attempt to remedy the academic literacy crisis, Stellenbosch University, along with other academic establishments, officially decided to implement a test of academic literacy in both English and Afrikaans. At Stellenbosch University, the English version of this test is known as TALL (Test of Academic Literacy Levels). It was developed to assess reading and writing abilities in an academic context. The results are used to ‘stream’ students into programmes which assist them in acquiring the various skills deemed necessary for their academic success. Students are sorted according to their TALL results into 'high risk' and 'low to no risk' categories, however, a need has been identified for further screening of the borderline students whose performance in the test falls between these two groups. Administrative and logistical limitations have, thus far, prevented listening skills from being included in the construct of TALL, but there is general consensus that listening is an important skill, particularly at university level. The focus of the research project, reported on in this article, was to design, and put into practice, an academic listening test (ALT) to assist in decision making regarding the placement of first-year students in approved language courses at Stellenbosch University. The qualitative and quantitative results obtained from the various administrations of ALT were analysed to determine the reliability and validity of the test. The final phase of the study involved the correlation of these results with those of TALL to establish whether ALT could assist the TALL administrators in making more informed decisions.

Author Biographies

Fiona Marais
Fiona Marais is with the Unit for Afrikaans and English at Stellenbosch University’s Language Centre. She is currently involved with course design and lecturing in the field of academic literacy. She is particularly interested in language assessment and testing; she developed a computerised academic listening test as part of her Master’s study.  Email address:  fcm@sun.ac.za
Tobie van Dyk
Tobie van Dyk, of Stellenbosch University’s Language Centre, has been working intensively on different kinds of language tests designed for different purposes since 2004.  His expertise, however, lies in the field of academic literacy testing and development.  He currently heads up the Unit for Afrikaans and English in the Language Centre which is, among others, responsible for all language testing, as well as academic literacy development and the acquisition of Afrikaans and English at this university.  In addition, he administers the collaborative effort of four local universities, known as the Inter-institutional Centre for Language Development and Assessment (ICELDA). Email address:  tjvd@sun.ac.za