ISSUES WITH THE NEW CURRICULUM
Some comments on the draft revised curriculum for languages (CAPS)
Head of English, Westering High, Port Elizabeth
And so, yet again, the higher-ups in education have had another look at the curriculum. Of course, and quite rightly so, the political and social imperatives remain the same. We are, after all, engaged in building a generation of young South Africans who need to be equipped to meet the dynamic challenges of our Brave New World. I am excited to be in a position of influence, and see my role in developing a confident, capable generation of young adults as a stimulating challenge.
When I consider the Home Language document, however, if I were to summarise my concerns about the proposals, it would be thus: Although the document outlines the transformational obligations well, it seems that in the execution, the schedule does not fulfil this mandate. My comments are therefore classified under two sections: my perception of where the document does not meet the requirements, and suggestions about changes that could be made in order for it to do so.
Perceived shortfalls, and other relevant comments
1) I am interested that GET phase learners are allocated an hour more in a fortnight than the FET phase. This is good in that there is a huge backlog in knowledge that needs to be caught up in Grade 8 and 9. (I haven’t taught in a primary school, but my understanding is that there are so many assessment tasks that need to be undertaken, that teachers do not have the time to teach basic skills. Perhaps we need to take a step back in this phase, so that children do not arrive in high school unable to read, write, listen, or indeed file their notes, sit still and concentrate!)
2) I remain deeply concerned about the amount of time and the number of marks that are allocated to writing. I do believe that writing is a skill that should be taught and assessed. However:
The ‘frequent writing’ that is envisaged, while noble in intention, is impractical. Although the suggestion is that teachers do not have to assess everything the children write, the reality is that ‘if it’s not for marks’, it is deemed unimportant. So much writing is envisaged that the children are going to be drowning in writing by the end of the year. We need to remember that the home language only one of seven subjects!
I firmly believe that quality remains more important than quantity. I believe that the writing ‘process’ outlined in the document is the route we should be taking. This is only possible where there is less, better writing. Without feedback, there will be no improvement, and writing will be for writing’s sake.
I also remain convinced that an essay “exam” is counter-productive. It may, in the short term, allow the children to improve their marks, especially with the disproportionate mark allocation to the transactional writing, but this does not make them English scholars. Are we churning out exam candidates, or the next generation of teachers, academics, journalists, novelists etc?
N.B: I am not saying that we should not teach and assess writing. I am saying that it needs to be accorded its correct and constructive place in the overall scheme.
3) There is a huge discrepancy about what grammar is purported to do, and how it is dealt with in the proposed schedule. The document states that grammar should be “presented as a set of tools rather than a set of rules”. For Home Language users, language should be taught with a view to communicating with and understanding the real world. There is far too much focus on an outdated ‘technicist’ approach, when we should concentrate on what language is used, and why, and how to decode language that is used by others. With this, I offer a five-year plan which covers this kind of language. It allows for progression and growth of understanding (something that the CAPs indicates should be done), and, above all, it has no repetition, and excludes things that have no place in a high school first-language classroom. (Such as gender. Surely we have moved past such things?!)
In addition: There is almost no allocated time in the schedule for the myriad language aspects that it is suggested should be taught. Almost the only skill to which time has been apportioned is summary, which, it is suggested, is to be ‘taught’ well into Grade 11. This for 10 marks in the final exam! Admittedly, it is an important life skill, but this should be practised in all learning areas – which would then allow it to take its proper place in the Language curriculum. A crucial aspect, that is emotive and manipulative language, is all but overlooked.
4) Several aspects, for instance spelling rules, should be done and dusted in primary school.
5) The ‘language structures and use’ column in the year plan includes a mishmash of quite pedantic language with no sense of progression according to age and intellectual capacity. In several instances there are completely different skills grouped together, for instance pronouns and punctuation in weeks 9 and 10 (Grade 10). This miscellany of language (with no allocated teaching time) implies that language teaching will be ad hoc. This method was tried and rejected, and led to a whole generation (mine!) of learners who lacked basic language skills. Children need formally to be taught rules before they can apply them, and understand how language use reveals attitude and relationships.
6) I notice with some alarm that the literature component will comprise 3, and not 4, genres. The children are already not reading as much as they should/used to, and at least we were able to compensate a little in the English classroom. Mary Johnson of Westville Girls’ High in Durban, a wise woman who was my subject adviser in my early career, suggested that we should be reading more not less. After all, ‘literature is an obvious way to develop general knowledge in an increasingly skills orientated education system. It allows for cultural sharing, and the extension of experience. It enlightens, it provides pleasure, and encourages an active engagement in leisure time. Importantly, it means being alone need not mean being lonely. Through an appreciation of the issues raised in literature, we have the opportunity to become better human beings. Seeing the written word in print will have a positive influence on writing skills’ (This is an extract from my reading policy!) In addition, with only 3 genres, the one that will necessarily be a casualty is film – and this in a world increasingly dominated by electronic and visual media.
7) There is a great deal of oral assessment in an unrealistic time allocation. To hear prepared orals for a class of 30 takes at least 5 hours (more if it is to be a useful session where children can interact and ask questions). In addition, to expect the learners to prepare an oral a month is monumentally unfair! (Remember that English is one of seven subjects.) Unprepared oral ability can be assessed daily when considering how children interact with each other in the classroom. It is an undisputed fact that teenagers can talk! On the other hand, it seems a pity that there are so few marks allocated to this aspect when it is a fundamental life skill, especially considering the number of tasks included in the assessment guidelines.
8) My body shakes and my heart quails when I consider the assessment requirements. I am sure that the designers believe that they have taken cognisance of the previous pleas of language teachers in – on paper at least – reducing the number of tasks to 12. In fact the number in Grades 10 – 11 is closer to 18 – and more if we consider the unrealistic demands of the exams (indicated as ‘two’ tasks)! The following realities need to be considered:
- Each oral ‘task’ is made up of two separate assessments – i.e. 5, not 3 tasks.
- Shorter and longer transactional writing is more than ‘one’ task worth of planning, administering, writing and marking.
- The tests designated for tasks 4 and 10 comprise more than 3 tasks each. A 70-mark language paper (including 30 marks of fairly right or wrong work) took me 10 hours to mark in a recent exam session. An 80-mark lit exam took more like 15 hours. Realistically the proposed test will take at least 13 hours to mark. In addition, a 100 mark test takes 2 ½ hours to write. We do not have this kind of time allocated to the assessment of one subject!
- Between 7 ½ and 8 ½ hours of assessment twice a year during exams is an overkill (perhaps the 8 ½ hours allocated in the middle of Grade 10 is an error?). It needs to be borne in mind that over-testing can be as harmful as under-testing. I would suggest that a mid-year exam for Grade 10 could be made up as follows:
- 20 – 25 marks of comprehension (tests reading and understanding; understanding of tone and intention; various levels of question and answer).
- 10 – 15 marks of advertising (tests reading of graphics and text; manipulative language; layout and design)
- 10 – 15 marks of stylistic devices and errors based on cartoons (tests language of the world; political and social realities; humour)
- 10 – 15 marks of unseen poetry (tests acquisition of poetry appreciation, rather than ability to learn and spew out what the teacher has said about set poetry)
- 25 marks of lit essay or contextual, (with the other option being included in the second exam, as well as being taught and tested when appropriate during the year). It is unnecessary to test 2 texts – the skills are merely duplicated then. It still means that each text will be tested at least twice. That’s enough!
This combination of between 75 and 95 marks (to be written in 2 – 2 ½ hours) more than tests whether the children have learnt and can apply appropriate English skills. It also means that there is no testing for its own sake, and that teachers and learners are not put under undue pressure.
The combination of questions can become more complex through Grade 10 and 11 until the end of Grade 11 when full-scale exams could be considered in order to begin to prepare the learners for the rigours of the final matric exams.
I have used this kind of combined exam at various times over my 28 years of teaching, and I am confident that my learners become capable, sensitive young people, equipped to meet the demands of the real world. I have had letters from Rhodes University and NMMU complimenting me and my department on the quality of the student that we send them.
The writing paper makes me despondent! Among other reasons included elsewhere, it appears to me that it is an entirely artificial exercise, not related to any writing exercise carried out in the real world. It seems that its main reason for inclusion is to boost the final marks. I don’t think that we are doing anybody any favours! I truly believe that we need to reconsider the internal assessment of writing. 10 marks for a 300-word poetry essay is too little (compare 25 marks for a 450 word literature essay!). The question should be limited to a single thematic aspect, which could be answered in 120 – 150 words.
The suggested time allocation does not take into account the realities of the school year. I am concerned about the idea that we can complete assessment, marking, recording and reporting in 2 weeks!
I would love to hear if I am alone in these concerns!
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