The use of South African works of fiction as class readers in

    Grades 7-9

    Jenny Hatton and Thomas van der Walt

    This paper explains how class readers fit into the English curriculum being implemented in South African schools and it examines how works of fiction are selected across provinces for grades 7-9. It proposes that some South African works of fiction should be used as class readers and suggests a few worthwhile titles.

    Learners in grades 7-9 are generally between 12 and16 years old and their reading needs are particularly difficult to meet. Philip de Vos (1993:54) points out that in grade 9 ‘the girls suddenly become juvenile delinquents and the boys belong in a reformatory, and no pimply, self-respecting boy wants to be seen dead reading, “I wandered lonely as a cloud” …’ (de Vos 1993, 54).

    Joan Aitken, a successful children’s book writer, therefore suggests that the criteria for young adult fiction include:

    ‘No more careful, elaborate plots with well-organised, happy, or at least optimistic, endings. Teenagers are natural pessimists (and who should blame them?). During this period of their development they are in the process of breaking away from all the rules that have hitherto constrained them. They are not interested in plots; what they are interested in is emotion. The teenage novel has a duty to portray the successive tidal waves of feeling that wash over adolescents as they struggle through changing relationships with parents; agonies at school; growing awareness of sex; the search for identity; adjustment to society (or cleavage from it). The teenage novel is a novel of character; in this respect much closer to the adult novel than to novels of the preceding age group’ (van der Merwe quoting Joan Aitken1993, 85).

    Thus contemporary young adult books generally deal with current issues and with the world in which children live. With a few exceptions, the South African world only began to be depicted in English young adult literature in the second half of the twentieth century. This was mainly as a result of the wealth of British and American titles available in South Africa.

    Prior to 1994, teaching in South Africa was guided by different syllabi for different departments of education as they existed before the change of government. Some of these syllabi were selected as interim syllabi for all provinces while the new curriculum was being phased in. Among these interim syllabi was the Instructional Programme for English Second Language, Standard 5-8 which gave the following guidance:

    ‘… reading, and the study of literature especially, should not be seen as discrete activities in themselves. Rather, the act of reading should contribute to pupils’ overall communicative ability (listening, speaking, reading and writing). As such, pupils should be exposed to a variety of texts, e.g. letters, short stories, poems, advertisements, newspaper articles, reports, minutes, notices etc.

    The works of literature chosen must be appropriate and relevant to the age, background and interests of the pupils. These works, chosen over the three years of Phase 31, should allow pupils to see literature in English in the context of both South Africa and the wider world’ (Instructional Programme for English Second Language 19.., 5).

    Therefore, prior to 1994, learners had to study a variety of genres and these had to be relevant to their lives as South Africans as well as citizens of the world.

    The Instructional Programme then says that reading activities should enable the pupils at least to:

    ‘… 4.3.12   read intensively and in-depth at least two, but preferably more, suitable texts each year’ (Instructional Programme for English Second Language, 8).

    While the number of books for study was stipulated by the old syllabi, the new South African curriculum is not as precise.

    After 1994 when the African National Congress was elected into government, the entire school curriculum was rewritten and restructured into outcomes. Initially this curriculum was referred to as Curriculum 2005 because it was meant to be implemented into grades 1-9 in schools by 2005. However, there were a number of problems with its design and it was revised and redistributed to schools in 2002 as the Revised National Curriculum Statement.

    The Revised National Curriculum Statement gives the learning outcomes for language while the Teacher’s Guide for the Development of Learning Programmes advises teachers regarding implementation of the curriculum. This latter document states that:

    ‘Reading will then become a means of developing language and of experiencing a wider world than that in which the learners find themselves. Important social issues are encountered and explored from early on in the learning process. … Texts vary from short pieces to full-length literary works. All literary genres (novels, poems, plays, folklore, etc.) are relevant along with features such as character, plot, style, language etc. In the Intermediate Phase2, shorter texts (not excluding shorter novels and plays) will be chosen for both Home and Additional Languages, while in the Senior Phase, longer works will be used’ (Teacher’s Guide 2003, 24).

    The implication is that the reading and analysis of novels is included in senior phase language teaching. The Teacher’s Guide goes on to advise educators to take a text-based approach to the teaching of languages:

    A text-based approach explores how texts work. It involves reading, viewing and analysing texts to understand how they are produced and what their effects are. … The purpose of a text-based approach is to enable learners to become competent, confident and critical readers, researchers, viewers and designers of texts’ (Teacher’s Guide 2003:26).

    The Revised National Curriculum Statement for Languages – English First Additional Language advises that in ‘grades 7, 8 and 9, learners will start reading setworks’ (Languages – English First Additional Language, 83). However, it does not stipulate the number of setworks nor does it suggest how these should be selected. It does, however, list the genres to be studied. These written genres include books (fiction and non-fiction), newspapers, magazines, poems, play-scripts, diaries, postcards, letters, procedural texts, factual descriptions, reports etc. Fiction, therefore, features as just one of the genres to be studied.

    The National Department of Education (DoE) sets ‘uniform norms and standards for the education of learners at schools and the organisation, governance and funding of schools throughout the Republic of South Africa’ (South African Schools Act 1996, 1) and thus develops policy. The provincial departments of education, although able to enact legislation in accordance with the constitution (South African Schools Act 1996, 2) are expected to implement national policy. Therefore, the DoE does not compile or distribute subject specific guidelines. Instead it leaves this task to provinces.

    Despite this, the nationalization of some school leaving examinations means that the DoE has begun to prescribe setworks for national grade 12 examinations. However, it is important to note that there is no national prescription of class readers in lower grades. This competency rests with the provincial departments of education.

    The Western Cape Education Department (WCED) prescribes specific genres as well as the number of titles to be studied in the senior phase. For example, grade 7,8 and 9 Home Language learners must study texts from at least three genres which include poetry, plays, short stories and novels.

    The WCED also distributes lists of recommended reading for phases besides the senior secondary. While it is prescriptive with regard to genre, it is more flexible with its titles. In its guidelines for grades 7–9, it states that ‘although books have been arranged according to the GRADES for which they have been prescribed, schools may select books from any grade in the General Education and Training (GET) lists to suit their needs’.

    The WCED further includes ‘titles that are considered to be particularly suitable for 1st or 2nd Language pupils, but may also be chosen for Home Language pupils according to individual school situations’ and that ‘a school that would like to use a book not on this list must discuss the possible use of that book with the English Curriculum Adviser servicing that particular school’ (Final lists of Literature Study for Grades 7,8,9,10,11 and 12 for 2008, 3).

    The data obtained from the lists of books prescribed by the WCED consists of fiction from different countries, as follows:

    Table 1: Analysis of fiction recommended by the WCED

    Gr 7 titles 46 %
    South African 18 39.1
    British 14 30.4
    American 8 17.4
    Other 6 13.0
    Gr 8 titles 39
    South African 16 41.0
    British 15 38.5
    American 5 12.8
    Other 3 7.7
    Gr 9 titles 38
    South African 11 28.9
    British 17 44.7
    American 3 7.9
    Other 7 18.4
    (Western Cape Final Lists … 2008, 7-14)

    Although South African texts are well represented, British and American texts considered separately are equally well represented and when put against the South African texts, outweigh these, as shown in the graph:

    Another provincial department of education, namely Kwa Zulu Natal, recommends fiction as part of reading schemes. It explains that Head Office prepares and distributes a catalogue from which Section 20 schools may order (A guide to Norms and Standards … 20.., 51).

    The following table indicates the readers for grade 7. No distinction is made between Home and Additional English for readers. Similar recommendations are made for grades 8 and 9.

    Table 2: Grade 7 readers recommended by KZN Department of Education

    Series Number of readers Publisher
    Living Earth 7 Clever Books
    Living Health 4 Clever Books
    Junior African Writers Series (JAWS) 9 Heinemann
    New Windmills Series, Pack A 9 Heinemann
    New Windmills Series, Pack B 8 Heinemann
    Red ribbon 5 Heinemann
    Reading Worlds 5 Macmillan
    MacTracks, Set B 7 Macmillan
    MacTracks, Set C 8 Macmillan
    Teaching Young Lives 7 Macmillan
    Young Africa Series Gr 7 readers Set 1 4 Maskew Miller Longman
    Young Africa Series Gr 7 readers Set 2 4 Maskew Miller Longman
    Today’s children 4 Nasou Via Afrika
    Siyagruva, Pack 1 6 New Africa
    Siyagruva, Pack 2 6 New Africa
    Oxford Reading Tree Classics Pack A Stage 16 6 Oxford
    Oxford Reading Tree Classics Pack B Stage 16 6 Oxford
    Oxford Reading Tree: Treetops Readers: Stge 16 Pack E6 6 Oxford
    Oxford Reading Tree: Treetops Readers: True Story Pack 3 Stage 15-16 6 Oxford
    Read Afrika Tales 13 Reading Matters
    Open Eye Series 6 Solo Collection

    (KZN Learning Teaching Support Material … 2008, 284-286)

    Many of the series listed above are also prescribed for grade 8 learners. South African books are overwhelmingly represented. Some of the readers can be classified as non-fiction books. The fiction titles include abridged classics while others are written specifically for additional language learners. Another interesting observation is that most of these books are written specifically for the educational, not the trade market and thus many of them never appear in book shops.

    There may be several consequences of the ‘reader approach’ as opposed to ‘title approach’. Learners may not read South African young adult fiction unless the school selects a South African series. Books written as readers may emphasise language development over plot. Abridged books may be weaker versions of the original stories. The series may not comprise a wide variety of genre and story.

    It must be noted that KZN Section 21 schools3 receive the departmental allocation directly and may purchase their own textbooks or may use the departmental catalogues (A guide to Norms and Standards … 20.., 53). These schools may therefore possibly choose more challenging and interesting works of fiction for their classrooms than the Section 20 schools.

    The other provincial departments of education do not prescribe class readers for the senior phase. The Gauteng and Northern Cape departments of education include some reading material in their catalogues but do not give specific recommendations. No information was obtained regarding Limpopo, Eastern Cape, Free State, Mpumalanga and North West education departments.

    Across the country in self-governing schools, a governing body may apply to the state ‘to purchase textbooks, educational materials or equipment for the school’ (South African Schools Act, 1996,  10). Thus in Section 21 schools, the educators themselves are responsible for the selection of class readers. In practice, the function of selecting class readers has been passed on to educators in public schools as well because they select from catalogues.

    Delegation of the selection of class readers to educators may have several consequences which could include inadequate reading of texts, prolonged use of texts that were prescribed in the past, over-use of the classics, over-emphasis of British and American texts and under-use of contemporary South African works of fiction. Admittedly, this may not be the case in all schools. There certainly are some educators who adopt innovative approaches to the teaching of literature, who continually read new books and who challenge their classes in their choice of class readers.

    The Manifesto on Values, Education and Democracy (2001, 7-56) identifies sixteen strategies for familiarising young South Africans with the values of the Constitution (Manifesto 2001, 7-56). These strategies are expressed in the Revised National Curriculum Statement and include:

    ‘Nurturing a culture of communication and participation in school.

    Ensuring that every South African is able to read, write, count and think.

    Infusing the classroom with a culture of human rights.

    Learning about the rich diversity of cultures, beliefs and world views within which the unity of South Africa is manifested.

    Making multilingualism happen.

    Promoting anti-racism in schools.

    Freeing the potential of girls as well as boys.

    Dealing with HIV/AIDS and nurturing a culture of sexual and social responsibility.

    Promoting ethics and the environment.

    Nurturing the new patriotism, or affirming a common citizenship.’ Policy Handbook for Educators … 2003,  473).

    The above strategies could be realised partly through the inclusion of South African works of fiction as class readers.

    It is therefore proposed that through including South African fiction as class readers, learners can:

    1. Develop understanding of various cultures.

    2. Become more socially aware of South African issues.

    3. Develop understanding of South Africans as individuals.

    4. Learn about South Africa’s past.

    5. Relate to South African settings.

    6. Identify with South African characters.

    7. Find out about conserving the South African environment.

    8. Explore genre in a South African context.

    9. Explore Africa.

    10. Read accessible texts (written for additional language learners).

    12. Enjoy reading

    In present day South Africa with its racial and religious divisions, it is essential for learners to develop understanding of different cultures. Brown emphasises this and says that ‘Literature provides a powerful means by which we can ‘walk in another’s shoes’ and begin to understand what another experiences. For this reason, we feel that the study of literature for young adults enhances the discovery not only of the self but also discovery of the social context’ (Brown 1995, 5).

    Young adult books that could develop understanding of the various cultures of South Africa include Belinder Hollyer’s Long walk to Lavender Street (2002) which tells the story of children from a mixed marriage and Lesley Beake’s A cageful of butterflies (1989) which explores an interracial friendship. Michael Williams’ The eighth man (2002), although mainly about solving a crime, touches on the cultural practice of initiation in modern South Africa.

    Literature helps learners to become socially aware. The Revised National Curriculum Statement attempts to be sensitive to issues of poverty, inequality, race, gender, age, disability, and such challenges as HIV and AIDS (Policy Handbook for Educators … 2003, 474).

    A number of books have been written by South Africans about how young people are being affected by HIV and AIDS, for example Jenny Robson’s Praise song (2006), Lutz van Dijk’s Stronger than the storm (2000) and Crossing the line (2006) as well as Onne Vegter’s Whitney’s kiss (2004).

    There are some examples of South African works of fiction in which characters have social conflicts such as the hero’s conflict with a local gang in Peter Slingsby’s Jedro’s bane (2002). Other books deal with current problems faced by today’s teenagers, such as Emily’s eating disorder in Shelley Davidow’s Spirit of the mountain (1996) and Beatrice’s relationship with food in Edyth Bulbring’s The summer of Toffie and Grummer (2008).

    Young Adult books reflect the complex time of adolescence as the body changes, relationships develop and horizons expand. Some of the changes in our society affecting adolescents include:

    • variations in the family structure
    • changes in gender roles
    • ethnic and cultural diversity
    • educational opportunities
    • increased consumerism
    • access to alcohol and drugs
    • changing sexual practices and dangers from sexually transmitted diseases (Brown 1995, 48).

    The sound of new wings (1998) by Robin Malan deals with the sensitive issue of gay relationships while Patricia Schonstein’s Skyline (2000) is about refugees from the rest of Africa flooding South Africa.

    Books help learners to develop understanding of others as individuals. They can help children to understand that not everyone is the same and thus challenge stereotyping. The hero of Sarah Britten’s Welcome to the Martin Tudhope show (2002) features a non typical white boy from a poor family who gets a bursary to attend a posh private school where he becomes friends with a wealthy black girl. Jenny Robson’s Because pula means rain (2000) may help learners to understand the pain of an albino boy who faces discrimination.

    Many books provide opportunities for learning about South Africa’s past. Kagiso Malope’s Dancing in the dust (2002) is about growing up in a South African township, David Donald’s Call on the Wind (2007) tells the story of a Griqua fishing community on the Tsitsikamma coast in the first half of the twentieth century. Dianne Hofmeyr’s books, Fish notes and star songs (2005) and The Waterbearer (2001), explore the effect of the past on our lives today. Reviva Schermbrucker’s Lucky Fish (2003) describes how a boy grows up as the child of anti-apartheid workers and Guy Butler’s Rackety Colt (1989) explores the challenges of settler life in the Eastern Cape. There are also several significant books about the Bushman, for example The joining (1996) by Peter Slingsby.

    Learners should be able to relate to the settings of at least some of the books that they read. Marguerite Poland explains, ‘When I was small I longed for books that spoke about my world, the plants and animals and people that I knew. I found very few and when I did they were extremely precious. Since I have begun publishing books I have realised that I am not the only one who feels that way’ (Poland 1993, 18).

    Who killed Jimmy Valentine?(1998) features detectives working in a South African setting while another of Michael Williams’ books, Hijack City (1999) deals with people taking the law into their own hands.

    South African books enable learners to easily identify with the characters. Prof. Tötemeyer cites Madison who reports that educators engaged in multi-racial education find that positive literary images concerning blacks provide identification, inspiration and self-confidence for black children, and also promotes understanding and appreciation amongst white children for black children (Tötemeyer, 1988, 188).

    In Zakes Mda’s Melville 67 (1997), the hero works as a gardener for a suburban family while attending a previously Model-C school and in Mending season (2005) by Kagiso Malope a black female learner deals with discrimination in a private school.

    Books can also teach learners about conserving the South African environment. For Example, Peter Slingsby’s Leopard Boy (1989) describes  ‘a boy who escapes the social ills of the modern world by putting on a leopard skin and going into the mountains to lead a feral existence’  (Jenkins).

    There are enough South African texts available to provide the opportunity for learners to explore different genres. While many people might be aware of the realistic and historical fiction, they may not know about Jenny Robson’s science fiction titles, Savannah (2004) and The denials of KOW-TEN (1998) or about the Robin Saunders’ Sons of Anubus (1998) which is set in an imaginary future world. Novels such as Homeward Bound by Lawrence Bransby, The worst day of my life – so far (2000) by Sarah Britten and The diary that got me in trouble (1996) by Julie Frederikse are written in diary format whereas Sound of wings (1998) by Robin Malan is told through letters, discussions, pieces of school work as well as narration.

    It is important for learners to explore Africa besides Europe and other parts of the First World in their reading. Beverley Naidoo’s The other side of truth (2000) tells the story of twelve-year-old Sade and her ten-year-old brother, Femi, who are sent out of Nigeria after their mother is shot and their journalist father’s life is in danger. Burn my heart (2007) is set in Kenya and sheds light on the Mau Mau uprising and the reaction of white settlers.

    The South African context requires that some books are needed in additional language classrooms and series such as the Siyagroova novels with their meaningful content and easy language do this. Other works of fiction such as Lesley Beake’s Jakey (1997) are written so simply and clearly that they are particularly suitable for additional language learners.

    More important than all the above benefits of South African books, is that they should promote the enjoyment of reading. While learners need to be able to analyse literature in higher classes, this aspect of literature study is less important in the intermediate and senior phases. As suggested by Lemmer (1988, 281), literature in these years should not be an object of textual study but should provide private satisfaction to the reader.

    Welcome to the Martin Tudhope Show (2002) by Sarah Britten and Babyshoes (2003) by Dawn Garisch are examples of realistic works that include humour. Besides humorous books, young adults enjoy many different kinds of books covering a range of subjects and these should form part of their reading programmes.

    Radebe (1995, 198) makes the point that what appeals to children of all social classes is what is funny and well-written. She emphasises that good books are those which centre around fantasies and situations that have universal relevance to every child (Radebe 1995, 163).

    This paper has suggested that there are a number of South African works of fiction that could be used in grade 7-9 classrooms. However, it also recognises that there are many books which will appeal to learners because of their universal themes. It therefore proposes a balance between national and international literature.

    It would not be a good idea to only study South African books. Not all the class readers for a grade should be set in South Africa because as Thuli Radebe says

    ‘ … if we subscribe to the principle of familiarity we are depriving black children of the opportunity to have their imagination stimulated and nourished.’ She also advocates that many South African children who are exposed to violence and many other forms of abuse should be given the opportunity to escape and enjoy, even if only in fantasy, a world they dream of attaining one day (Radebe 1996, 193).

    While there are a number of worthwhile and challenging South African books that could be used as class readers for grades 7-9, it is worrying that the provincial departments of education do not specifically advise schools regarding these or in fact any books to be read in the senior phase. This lack of guidance may impact on education in ways yet to be measured.


    1. Grade 7-9

    2. Grades 4-6

    3. Self-managing or self-reliant schools

    Works cited

    Brown, J.E. 1995. Teaching young adult literature: sharing the connection. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

    Department of Education. 19.. The Instructional Programme for English Second Language, Standard 5-8, English 2nd Language, 120582005. Pretoria: DoE.

    Department of Education. 2001. Manifesto on Values, Education and Democracy. Pretoria: DoE.

    Department of Education, 2003. Teacher’s Guide for the Development of Learning Programmes: Languages. Pretoria: DoE.

    Department of Education. 2002. Revised National Curriculum Statement Grade R-9 Schools. Languages. English – First Additional Language. Pretoria: DoE.

    de Vos, P. 1993. ‘Humour is no laughing matter,’ in Towards More Understanding: The Making and Sharing of Children’s Literature in Southern Africa. Kenwyn: Juta & Co.

    Jenkins, E. 2006. National Character in South African English Children’s Fiction. New York: Routledge. (We apologise for the omission of this reference in the first publication of this article on this site. Ed.)

    Jermieson, A. 1993. ‘On trying to write for young adults; also featuring publishers, reviewers, booksellers, covers and storybuses,’ in Towards More Understanding: The Making and Sharing of Children’s Literature in Southern Africa. Kenwyn: Juta & Co.

    Kwa Zulu Natal Department of Education. 2008. Learning and Teaching Support Material – Catalogue for 2008 Academic Year. Pietermaritzberg. KZN DoE.

    Kwa Zulu Natal Department of Education. 20… A guide to Norms and Standards for School Funding: Procedures and records. KZN DoE.

    Lemmer, André N. 1988. ‘Children’s responses to literature,’ in Towards understanding: children’s literature for Southern Africa, edited by Isabel Cilliers. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman.

    Poland, M. 1993. ‘Making stars sing,’ in Towards More Understanding: The Making and Sharing of Children’s Literature in Southern Africa. Kenwyn: Juta & Co.

    Radebe, T. 1995. ‘Reading interests of Zulu-speaking Standard Two children in Pietermaritzburg.’ South African Journal of Library and Information Science, 63(4):161-182.

    South Africa President’s Office. No. 1867. 15 November 1996: No. 84 of 1996: South African Schools Act, 1996. Pretoria. Government of South Africa.

    van der Merwe, A. 1993. ‘Twelve golden rules regarding “The way to write for children”,’ in Towards More Understanding: The Making and Sharing of Children’s Literature in Southern Africa. Kenwyn: Juta & Co.










    Categories: Issue II