South Africa

Understanding matric results: Part 3

The way children are taught to read hampers their path to success

The way children are taught to read hampers their path to success
Pupils of Rephafogile secondary school on January 17, 2019 in Mamelodi, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Mduduzi Ndzingi)

Decolonising the Literature Curriculum: We need to develop ‘rich literacies’. We need a curriculum that includes the voices of a wide range of writers, to prepare all of our children for a diverse world in which they can find their place as equals.

In this series of articles, we set out to explain the struggles of so many of our children to reach matric and succeed. In Part 1 we argued that we need a radical shift away from the power of English as the only language of learning and assessment from Grade 4, towards policies and practices that affirm and build multilingualism. In Part 2, we explained how the language of content subjects such as science requires focused and inclusive teaching.

In this final part, we shift our focus to the English literature curriculum, to show that what our children are required to read and how they are taught to read place additional obstacles in their path to success. We argue for a change both in the literature that is prescribed for study and in the ways of reading that are taught and assessed in the matric exam.

The overwhelming majority of learners take either English Home Language (HL) or English First Additional Language (FAL) in Grade 12. The Department of Basic Education (DBE) prescribes literature for study, a selection that reveals the kinds of worldviews, sets of values and voices that are privileged in our schools.

The current selection for English (HL and FAL) reveals a shockingly colonial and patriarchal bias: a choice of nine novels and plays is prescribed for study in those subjects in Grade 12, and the authors of those texts are all white men, just two of them South African. Of the 12 poems prescribed for study in English HL, only one is by a (white) woman, which means that in their final year of schooling, English HL students will study just one text written by a woman.

The representation of black writers is not much better: just four of the set poems on the HL list are by black writers, only one of them a South African. While the English FAL poetry and short story lists include greater gender and racial diversity, the colonial bias is evident there too, where colonial poets are included on the list of just 10 poems, and women poets from South Africa and the rest of Africa are completely absent.

This list was selected and prescribed in 2015 by the DBE, from selections submitted to them by commercial publishers. How can it be, that the initial selection of texts for literature study is made by publishers, whose foremost concerns are profits, often for the pockets of international shareholders, and whose companies are largely staffed by people whose life worlds are far removed from those of the majority of our children?

The impact of reading exclusively about worlds and experiences so far from one’s own has been described by the acclaimed writer, Chenjerai Hove. His colonial education in Zimbabwe taught Hove a powerful lesson about whose worlds mattered:

Nothing about my own parents’ farming routines, the birds of my own sky, the smell of my own land, the cries of the children as mothers sang African lullabies to them, and the folktales which sent ghosts reeling in our imagination. Nothing about the stories of witches and medicine men and women as they fought to control both the gods and human beings. All became ‘superstition’ as we succumbed to the new religion, never to return again or maybe to remain in some grey area of confusion.”

The selection of knowledge for schooling is a political act: what is chosen is naturalised, which means we come to see it as representative of the standard. The official selection sends a clear message to our children about whose voices matter, and about which lives are worth documenting and appreciating.

In the case of the literature list, the ways of seeing the world that is privileged in the English canon upon which publishers and the DBE rely so heavily, normalise white, male middle-class ways of being in the world.

The effects of the erasure of difference in this selection are realised in the reading process itself: there are many ways of reading a literature text, for example reading for surface meaning, reading for aesthetic appreciation, or using critical language awareness to read against the text to challenge how the writer has constructed a view of the world.

The official curriculum requires that learners develop critical language awareness by, for example investigating the “relationships between language and power” and the “ socio-political and cultural background of texts”. But national examiners do not test this awareness.

The final exam papers overwhelmingly test superficial content knowledge and an appreciation and evaluation of the aesthetic effects of the texts. Research in schools has shown that the determining power of the matric exam means that teachers do not teach learners how to read critically and against the particular ideological effects of their prescribed texts.

We need a curriculum that includes the voices of a wide range of writers, to prepare all of our children for a diverse world in which they can find their place as equals. We need training for teachers in how to teach critical literacy, so that they can empower their students to challenge the authority of the texts they read and we need our national examiners to encourage those readings for multiple meanings in the kinds of questions they set.

Role players in education must accept the complexity of this literacy work. It is about developing “rich literacies”. We need to deepen our understanding of how to build children’s agency and critical abilities at all levels of schooling. In this way, when our politicians urge young people to work hard to reach their dreams, they will really be creating the conditions to make that possible. DM

Glynis Lloyd and Soraya Abdulatief write on behalf of the bua-lit collective (


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