• SCHOOLING 2025 & English: Towards textbook selection in South Africa


    SCHOOLING 2025 & English:

    Towards textbook selection in South Africa

    Corwin Luthuli Mhahlo

    ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’

    Nelson R Mandela (quoted in Botman ‘A Gift of Education for Mandela’, Sunday Times 18/07/2010,p6)

    ‘It is not for nothing that academic subjects are known as disciplines and accept the limitations placed on them. Failure to do so guarantees failure.’ (Rice 6)


    The recent proposed change in South Africa, from Outcomes Based Education (OBE) to a Schooling 2025 education system is geared towards the provision of quality education for South African learners. Based mainly on participant observations, this paper argues that an abundance of English Language textbooks has ironically compromised the teaching-learning of English Language in the country. It therefore posits that, if quality is to be achieved in the teaching-learning of English Language, then the compilation/selection of a limited number of appropriate textbooks as national set-books, a factor which until now has apparently been undermined and therefore overlooked, has to be seriously considered. The paper concludes by giving some guidelines as well as recommendations regarding English Language textbooks in the South African school system.


    The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, amongst other things, seek to achieve quality universal primary education by 2015. Despite this, however, less than four years before this target year, South Africa has changed from OBE to a new national curriculum Schooling 2025. Commenting on the new national curriculum, Minister Motshekga said, ‘….We expect better outcomes from the system…. Things will from now on sail smoothly’.  Although she does not elaborate, how can this transition be a successful one for the South African education system in generally and specifically for English Language teaching-learning, given the centrality of a sound knowledge of English Language for success in other  subjects? This paper explores how the compilation or selection and prescription of specific textbooks in the teaching-learning of English can help achieve this vision under the new national curriculum.

    Quality and the textbooks factor

    Various scholars have at different times suggested a myriad of factors as to what influences and constitutes quality education. According to Zvobgo ‘… quality education is possible when all is in order and functions properly and effectively….’ (40) Thus for him, quality education dictates that all necessities pertaining to teaching-learning and which are likely to influence learners’ performance be available and functioning effectively. For Michael Rice, ‘‘[i]n any education context, the most important variable is the teacher’ (6) For others, like Postlethwaite and Hussen, such factors as the learners’ backgrounds, their parents’ involvement and support of both the school and the learners, are most likely to determine academic quality and achievement.

    There is no disputing that when teachers are ill-disciplined and untrained, resources limited or constrained, infrastructure dilapidated and parents unconcerned about their children’s education, teaching-learning and the quality of education will be adversely affected. In an environment where teaching-learning resources are in adequate quantities, such a well-resourced environment is more likely to motivate effective teaching than not. Consequently, the task of all concerned is made easier as normally adequate resources motivate and deepen learners’ interest and thus translate into positive output. It is therefore without question that educational resources have remarkable influence on the learning environment.

    On the other hand, however, in my opinion, an abundantly well-resourced learning environment for the teaching-learning of a subject such as English can have an adverse effect. This is especially because, in my opinion, quality education begins with the effective preparation of teaching-learning aids/resources/media (primarily the textbook) that one is going to use present one’s lesson. In the teaching of English language, more often than not, textbooks provide teachers with content and suggest teaching methods that may enhance pupil comprehension of concepts to be taught.  While teachers can teach and try to explain concepts based on their own knowledge of the concepts, an appropriate, authoritative and well-written-textbook used as reference is always helpful. In addition to which, in the absence of equally competent textbooks for learners to refer to, the teacher’s efforts and effectiveness will largely be curtailed. Such textbooks therefore help consolidate what has been learnt and particularly contribute to academic achievement in that they provide sources of information, knowledge, ideas and means of interaction for both teachers and learners as classroom talk can be directed by ideas found in textbooks. Good textbooks therefore enable teachers to be interested facilitators of learners’ learning and not authoritarian knowledge-givers. In ‘this respect, appropriate, authoritative and well written textbooks are vital to both learners and teachers’ effectiveness.

    However, much as this is so, the prioritization of the compilation or identification and prescription of such textbooks for teaching English Language has largely and specifically been overlooked in South Africa. In an online article by SAPA, the Minister highlights that ‘[s]ome of the changes in the system [will] include the reduction of the number of projects for pupils with every subject in each grade having its own concise curriculum, mapping out what teachers must teach and assess’ (np); however, no specific mention is made about textbooks.

    It is encouraging, therefore, when the Director General for Basic Education, Bobby Soobrayan mentions in the same article that ‘workbooks will be an important addition to the new curriculum as they would provide support to 6.5 million pupils from Grades 1 to 6 and to 180 000 teachers in nearly 20 000 schools.’[my emphasis](np).More so when the Western Cape education minister Donald Grant adds: ‘We are also especially pleased that the changes will bring back a far greater focus on the use of textbooks and on content knowledge – two aspects we are already focusing on strongly in the Western Cape.’ However, while one is optimistic at this apparent realization of the importance of textbooks, one wonders whether this importance heralds textbook compilation or identification/selection and prescription based on set criteria of appropriacy, accessibility, coherence, etc, or  as with OBE the importance of textbooks once again pertains to variety and abundance.

    Over the years, with the introduction of the erstwhile OBE, many books boldly stamped: ‘NATIONAL CURRICULUM’ or ‘OBE’ were churned out both locally and abroad to cater for South Africa’s OBE curriculum. The result, in my opinion, was the flooding of South African schools with numerous books all purporting to be the most suitable for the new OBE curriculum.

    However, given the importance of textbooks to teaching-learning, perceptions about textbooks in the national curriculum have to go beyond mere variety, availability and sufficiency to a set of fewer, authoritative, well-written, appropriately relevant, coherent and prescribed textbooks that will enable schools to achieve set objectives. Only then can such textbooks be meaningfully and intelligently used by both the teachers and learners. From my observation and experience over the last few years of OBE, this has not been the case. This is because all manner of English Language textbook have been put on the market for use by South African schools. The result for most English teachers has been utter confusion as in addition to the administrative requirements OBE required, they were now  in a quandary not only as to what to teach, but also which textbooks to best teach from. Consequently, what has prevailed over the last few years is a scenario I would best describe as the ‘chocolate factory syndrome’.

    The chocolate factory syndrome

    South Africa’s former economic boom positively influenced the education sector and specifically the publishing industry. As such, the July 2010 announcement by the Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga that her ministry would be replacing Outcomes Based Education (OBE) for Schooling 2025 undoubtedly had some educationists and publishers rubbing their hands in glee at this sudden and now recurring windfall. This is as the announcement meant new textbooks to write, publish and make small fortunes from. And yet, as I have already indicated, the availability of English textbooks is, and has never been, the problem in the South African education system. Rather, it is has been abundant variety of English Language textbooks that has ironically been the Achilles’ heel of the South African education system.

    Thus far, the stability of the South African economy has equally meant that schools have more than adequate textbook resources for the teaching of English language and other subjects. This, coupled with the variety of English Language textbooks that have been made available on the market; I surmise that the textbook-learner ratio is generally quite high quantitatively in favour of learners, but low qualitatively. As a result, in some urban areas – in Johannesburg, for instance – while there is an abundant variety of English language textbooks in both the schools and on the market, this has in some cases ironically impacted negatively on the teaching of English, which in turn has affected the quality of teaching-learning and results produced in some schools.

    What has been problematic, therefore, is that, given the wide range of textbooks to choose from, more time has been spent by classroom practitioners trying to source suitable material and becoming frustrated by their efforts. As a small, informal survey revealed, this is because, though some English language textbooks indicated they were for a particular grade, the content was cognitively too steep or too simple for the learners in question and therefore inappropriate. For example, in some urban –  and I am sure other contexts – both trained and untrained teachers have failed to conceptually rise above the textbook. In such cases, experience has also shown that learners tend to resent textbooks if a teacher is failing to interpret the textbook’s concepts intelligibly. In others, teachers have become conditioned to dogmatically adhering to the work set in textbooks to the extent that textbooks have become, by default, ‘auto-teachers’ which, in the absence of teachers imparting knowledgeable direction as well as vital additional information to learners, has made learning both lonely and nightmarish.

    For other teachers, some textbooks’ content has proved too shallow, not adequately covering the topic to be taught, or not directly relating to the previous topic, or too incomprehensively structured for coherent lesson presentation. Thus making teaching English language a challenging and daunting task for some teachers as they are forced to become more researchers than teachers.

    Compounding this is the country’s diverse and dynamic cultural environment. The majority of textbooks currently on the market other than targeting the OBE curriculum are exotic in their origins and content. As such, the majority of learners cannot relate to certain texts. On the other hand, despite the abundant variety of textbooks on the market, this has ironically also limited learners’ access to textbooks as teachers are none the wiser when it comes to making recommendations to parents as to which textbooks to purchase for their children’s homework and personal study purposes. In view of this, what then are the English Language textbook implications with the introduction of Schooling 2025?

    SCHOOLING 2025: Textbook implications

    Quality education can only be brought about when available resources are economically and sensibly deployed. It is therefore this paper’s submission that the centralization of textbook selection to be used in schools will facilitate this, motivate teachers and cultivate learners’ desire to learn English as a second language. While the availability and adequacy of a variety of textbooks during teaching-learning can enhance learners’ understanding, it can equally demotivate and hinder learning. In this respect, the availability of too wide a variety of textbooks can be counterproductive and breed resentment towards the learning of the subject.

    In addition, it should be noted that, with the introduction of Schooling 2025, some books which had been tailored towards OBE will become outdated and irrelevant or need to be modified to Schooling 2025 Curriculum demands. The above calls for the selection of specific textbooks that are explicitly relevant to the national curriculum in terms of correct interpretation, adequate coverage of concepts and logical sequencing of topics, amongst others.

    While variety in textbooks is desirable, it can at times be overwhelmingly problematic. In the teaching of English language under the new national curriculum, therefore, there should be specified prescribed textbooks that provide the core of what is to be taught and learnt in the teaching of English. Such textbooks should be chosen on the criteria of: adherence to the new curriculum and its assessment objectives; the needs and abilities of the learners; the linguistic and stylistic level of the text; and the amount of local background material that has been included. This will undoubtedly save time and money for schools as well as minimize stress and anxiety for both teachers and students. As noted by Rice writing in a different context: ‘It is not for nothing that academic subjects are known as disciplines and accept the limitations placed on them. Failure to do so guarantees failure.’ (6) Similarly, it is by setting textbook limitations that Schooling 2025 can be better than its predecessor, OBE.

    In this regard, while I am all for academic freedom, I propose that government, through the Department of Education, intervene by ensuring that all manner of schools throughout the country use only nationally prescribed textbooks. I further propose that such set-books be kept to a maximum of two textbooks, each catering for the teaching-learning of first and second language learners. Other texts where necessary can be recommended to reinforce the prescribed texts but not necessarily prioritized. After two years, recommended texts, if useful, can either be upgraded or if only a chapter is useful, then that chapter could be compiled into the new editions of prescribed set-books.

    Textbooks’ adequacy in this new context will therefore depend on their appropriacy, availability and sufficiency towards the achievement set objectives. This is because there is a definite relationship between appropriate textbook availability and learner achievement. No meaningful learning can take place if appropriate textbooks are not selected and made available. As we move towards Schooling 2025, therefore, should this textbook selection factor remain unheeded, the apathetic and mediocre teaching-learning and general performance experienced in English during OBE, will most likely continue.

    Concluding Recommendations

    In light of the above observations, the paper is making the following recommendations:

    • The government through the Ministry of Basic Education should commit itself to providing the South African school system with a guided and comprehensive English curriculum.
    • The Ministry of Basic Education should, with the help of such bodies as National Research Fund (NRF) Specialist Panel for Language and Literature, the National Language Body for English and, if existent, the South African English Teachers’ Association, set up a task force/unit that will be responsible for the compilation or selection and prescription of a few key textbooks that focus on the knowledge of English rather than skill and attitude. Such textbooks to be used nationally should be appropriately relevant to the new national/ Schooling 2025 curriculum.
    • The prices of prescribed books should be subsidized and/or controlled by government to ensure availability for all.
    • Schools should purchase such relevant texts to the national syllabus, teach from and set school exams from them.
    • Similarly, school libraries should be equipped with both such textbooks and those recommended by the task force/unit.

    In the words of Grant speaking in a similar but different context: ‘[Such] changes [should] go a long way to restoring a reasonable balance in the delivery of the curriculum’ [my emphasis] (SAPA np) and fulfill the desire of the leader of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, Esrah Ramasehla, of a ‘coherent long-term plan for improving education in the country…a period of stability and greater confidence in the curriculum.’ In my view, both ‘reasonable balance’ and ‘coherence’ in the teaching-learning of English Language can partly be achieved in the new curriculum if time is taken to properly compile, select and prescribe appropriate textbooks to be used in the teaching-learning of the subject in South Africa.

    In the light of this, the implementation of Schooling 2025 in 2011, the preparatory challenges that lie ahead are not only curriculum development and teacher training, but also that of textbook selection for use in the teaching-learning process. It is therefore hoped that this article will somewhat assist in this regard by reminding Schooling 2025 Curriculum planners and educators to select and prescribe a limited number of key textbooks that are not only in tandem with the new curriculum, but also most appropriate for both teachers and their innocent learners. Only then, will teaching-learning, monitoring and assessment of syllabus coverage be comprehensive and teaching relatively uniform across the country.


    The Department of Basic Education is planning to do national selection and to limit the number of approved textbooks to a maximum of eight for the new curriculum.


    Works Cited

    Botman, (July 18, 2010) ‘Review: A Gift of Education for Mandela’, Sunday Times, 6

    Postlethwaite  R. and Hussen T:The International Encyclopedia of  Education, Volume 3. London: Pergamon, 1994.

    Rice, Michael. (July 18, 2010) ‘Review’ Sunday Times, 6

    News24.com.SAPA.2010. 6 July 2010.  20 July 2010. <http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/Politics/New-curriculum-new-language-options-20100706>

    Zvobgo, Rungano J. Colonialism and Education in Zimbabwe. Harare: SAPES, 1997.

    Corwin Luthuli Mhlahlo is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of the Witwatersrand and a part-time English teacher-cum-tutor. He has also been an Applied English lecturer and high school teacher at both secondary and tertiary levels for a combined fifteen years. In addition to Applied English Education issues, his other research interests include: Creative Writings; Identity Studies (Language, Literature & Society); Black Studies; Theories of literature; World Literatures & Religions (African, African-American, American, English, Caribbean); Contemporary issues.

    Categories: Issue II