Wannabe@Humanities and UCT English Language Centre

For the past two weeks the UCT English Language Centre (ELC) was involved in a programme called Wannabe@Humanities, assisting learners prepare for the NBTs.

This initiative was launched in 2011 by the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Cape Town. It targets “100 high school learners per annum from historically disadvantaged schools. The objective is to identify, and mentor individuals with academic potential [in Humanities]. This includes bringing them onto UCT campus to spend time with academic staff members and current Humanities students, providing basic computer training, assistance with the NBTs and UCT application processes.”

What is the NBT?

As part of a wider programme of mentorship and support, the Wannabe participants spent 4 intensive days with UCT English Language Centre teachers to prepare them for the National Benchmark Tests (NBTs). The NBT website explains that these tests “assess the ability to combine aspects of prior learning in competency areas – Academic Literacy (AL), Quantitative Literacy (QL) and Mathematics (MAT) – that directly impact on success of first year university students.”

According to Nobs Xeketwana, one of the ELC teachers who taught the course “it’s basically a test to see if students can read, understand and analyse a number of different types of academic texts in English. We have to remember that many of these students do not speak English as their home language. Although they may be able to use conversational English, it does not necessarily mean they are able to cope with the language in an academic context.”

“The NBT is a test taken in English, but South Africa is a country with 11 official languages. Given that at ELC our core function is to teach English, we asked ourselves if we could contribute in a meaningful way by supporting those students who had great academic potential but struggled with English at an academic level. The Faculty of Humanities was kind enough to support us. They provided funding and the initiative developed from there”, said Simon Harrison, Director at UCT English Language Centre.  Very often learners have no access to coaching and preparation in high school for this exam and are often overwhelmed and under prepared for it.

Wannabe@Humanities – Preparation for the NBTs

With this in mind, the UCT English Language Centre designed a specific syllabus to help learners navigate the various sections of the NBT. Given their experience of dealing with non-native speakers and the specific challenges of learning English as a second or other language, ELC teachers were best equipped to teach this kind of programme.

“The difference here”, says Harrison, “is that we usually pre-test students to assess their levels and then put them in an appropriate class. With this programme, we had a goal to reach, a syllabus to get through and learner levels that were spread across a broad spectrum.”

As Nobs acknowledged, “One could clearly see that different schools had placed emphasis on different skills, and the strengths were very evident, as were the gaps. The challenge was in trying to get everyone up to the same level of proficiency across the board in a short space of time. During the lessons, we frequently code-switched between the learner’s home languages and English. This made the learners feel more relaxed and eased some of the pressures of understanding and coming to terms with instructions.”


In summary, we asked Nobs if she felt the initiative was useful. She stated that “the programme is excellent and it genuinely gives high school learners something to want to achieve and makes them aware that they have the opportunity to access university. And not only is this opportunity beneficial for the NBTs, but they will be able to fall back on this knowledge for any further studies, be it college or other long or short courses.”

And, we wondered how the learners felt about this course. Every single feedback form comment was positive, although it has been noted that not all learners like hotdogs! We promise to be more creative with our menu next time, guys J

“I suggest that the course should continue. I really enjoyed my time here. I have learnt so many things. I think this is an amazing programme.”

“Thank you very much. We appreciate you guys. You took out your time to help, assist and contributed a lot in our future. You escorted us to where we will be tomorrow. Thank you.”

“It was the best experience ever. I am so glad to have attended the course. To be honest I had no idea what the whole NBT is about but now I’ve learned I am so grateful for the opportunity.”

“I’m grateful to the organisers and facilitators of this programme. Because of the platform or the basics I have been armed with concerning university life I’m now ready to take over the world and are prepared for anything that comes my way in university.”

“I am very greatful about the opportunity that I was given, it is not everyday that one gets a chance like this and it made me feel very special as there are not so many opportunities out there for black children.”

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