Research on Eye Movements While Reading isiZulu

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Ms Sandra Land.

Lecturer Ms Sandra Land, is doing research on eye movements in isiZulu reading in an effort to discover strategies developed by highly competent readers of the language.

This was made possible with the aid of a computer programme especially developed for her research by an eye-tracking software company in the United States.

‘A few years ago I invited some Certificate students who were struggling with English to submit assignments in isiZulu. I was confident I read isiZulu well enough to enable me to mark, albeit slowly, four or five assignments. Most of the class took me up on my offer,’ said Land of UKZN’s Centre for Adult Education in the School of Education.

‘Twenty or so assignments later, my Zulu reading skills had been given serious shock treatment and had developed dramatically. From then on, I became increasingly aware that when I read text in isiZulu my brain and eyes do something different from what they do when I read English text,’ explained Land.

Trying to work out what the difference was resulted in Land doing a PhD on the subject.

The idea for her research began when Mr Warrick Hulbert of Moffat Optical in Pietermaritzburg came to demonstrate the Reading Plus programme to reading specialists in the School of Education.

It was instantly clear to Land that the programme could be used not only to improve reading skills, but to record and analyse eye movements for the purpose of reading research as well.

Thus began a protracted e-mailing process with staff of the Reading Plus organisation in Boston in the United States which worked with Land to put together a Zulu package so that readers’ eye movements could be mapped directly onto the texts they read. She believes this was the first package of its kind to be developed for reading in an African language.

Readers, who had responded to Land’s University-wide and public invitation to competent adult Zulu readers to participate in the study, courageously submitted themselves to a screening test of their reading speed and skill. The most skilful of them then patiently read texts while their eye movement was tracked and recorded.  Lands then tried to make sense of them.

Findings from this research indicate that although English and isiZulu both use the Roman alphabet and share literacy conventions such as presenting text in lines that run from left to right to make up paragraphs, there are significant differences in optimal strategies for reading them.

Land noted that at first sight, isiZulu appeared to be easy to read because of its orthographic transparency – almost all the sounds of the spoken language are represented in the written form by particular letters – and its consistency-letters unvaryingly represent particular sound.

‘In comparison, English orthography is opaque so that sounding words out only works for about half of them (try “works” for example,) and inconsistent, where the same letters often represent completely different speech sounds, as in “through”, “thorough”, “trough” and “tough”,’ said Land.

‘However, in spite of the  apparent benefit of transparency, findings that have emerged from this study indicate that: isiZulu text takes twice as long to read as English text; its readers make 20 percent more visual fixations than readers of comparable spans of English text; fixations (points where the eyes stop and focus) on isiZulu text last about 30 percent longer than fixations on English text;  the amount of text decoded in each fixation is about four letters, compared with  eight to 17 letters decoded in each fixations by readers of English text; and readers of isiZulu make on average one regression for every 27 letters – which means that they regress about twice as much as readers of English text.

‘Reasons for these differences resonate with Goswami and Ziegler’s Psycholinguistic Grain Size Theory which suggests that readers of English (and similarly opaque, inconsistent languages, such as French) will tend to look for patterns in spans of text of up to a few syllables in order to decipher text, whereas processing only a few letters at a time is a more effective strategy for reading languages with a transparent orthography such as isiZulu, Italian, and Finnish,’ explained Land.

She concluded that the Roman alphabet was possibly not the best choice of script to represent isiZulu.

‘As suggested by Mark de Vos of Rhodes, a syllabic script similar to that of Japanese might have led to a written form that was easier and swifter to read. However, it’s far too late for that now. The best we can do, especially in this province where most learners must develop reading skills in the two radically different orthographies of isiZulu and English, is to ensure that they are supported and enabled to develop effective reading skills in both languages.’

‘It’s a bit like teaching children (or adults) to play squash and tennis – although they just have to learn how to run about the court and hit the ball, you would never expect them to use the same racquet for both games,’ added Land.