Deep Concerns about English CAPS

    (Dr) Syd Gosher

    English textbook author, Umalusi External Moderator for Nated 500 and part-time employee of Umalusi  in the Quality Assurance division which deals with independent schools.

    I have grave concerns about certain aspects of the final draft of the FET CAPS for English Home Language.

    I have perused the above document with care and wish to express severe reservations about the approach adopted to language structures and conventions.

    1.         On page 8 the following, under Rationale for Teaching the Language Skills, is stated:

    Language structures and conventions play an important role in understanding and producing oral and written texts and should therefore be integrated into the above-mentioned language skills.

    Language teaching is thus to be integrated with the teaching of literature and writing. While this is an admirable approach, in theory it is very difficult to obtain. Only the very best teachers can teach in this fashion. Expertise and outstanding competence are required, and sadly most teachers are not at this level. This approach has been tried and proved only to work sporadically and imperfectly. Moreover language teaching has been downgraded to an approach which proclaims that it will only take place in an integrated manner, i.e. when the teacher determines that this should happen.

    2.         On page 10, under Time Allocation, the following statement appears:

    Language structures and use are integrated with the time allocation of the above skills.

    No time is therefore allocated to language. Its place in the curriculum is clearly detailed – it does not count.

    3.         On page 18, under Vocabulary development and language use, a further restriction is placed on the educator:

    Knowledge of vocabulary items and language should be introduced to the learners only as they appear in real text, both prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction.

    In other words educators have no choice at all. The place of language teaching is quite pertinently restricted to incidental and integrated teaching. No other approach is permissible. The choice of the adverb, ‘only’, indicates that language teaching, per se, is confined to ‘real’ text. What this means is left to the interpretation of the educator.

    4.         On page 31 the following statement is made about the content matter of language structures:

    While this list of grammar items is provided teachers do not have to teach all or any of it. It is a reference list only and the needs of the class must dictate what is to be taught.

    This is an educationally indefensible statement. It is clearly stated that educators now need not teach language structures at all. They have been provided with national permission to go ahead and ignore an enormously important area of language. The further categorisation of grammar as a reference list only serves further to bolster the position that language teaching should not take place at all, even though it was stated earlier that it should occur in an integrated mode.

    Thus punctuation, parts of speech, clauses and sentences, spelling, correct sentence structure, etc are now consigned to the scrap heap! Teachers may consciously choose to opt out of language teaching.

    I need hardly add that a mere three-quarters of a page is utilised to describe the teaching of language structures. Moreover, the list of grammar items is contained in an appendix which features at the back of the CAPS document – another indication of this area’s relegation to unimportance, and a clear message from the compilers of the document.

    5.         Great emphasis has been given to writing, but this presupposes that learners have the language competence and range of vocabulary that will enable them to complete the various writing tasks set for them.  Under the current document, this will not be the case.  How will learners be able to edit their own work if they have no idea of the constitution of a grammatically correct sentence?  And how will they argue a point if they lack a sophisticated vocabulary? Moreover, what metalanguage will teachers and learners use in a discussion of the errors and problems in a passage of writing? Thus the link between grammar and writing is removed and learners will  have no framework  with which to improve their ability to write.

    6.1       Page 64 outlines the format of Examination Papers 1 and 2. Language has now been excluded as an examination. What little remains is included under Paper 1: Reading and Viewing. This is a huge change and its consequences are incalculable. The conclusion to be drawn is that a huge group of learners will exit at Grade 12 level without a knowledge of how the language they have studied functions. The question must be asked: has the curriculum been dumbed down in order to ensure that a difficult section of the curriculum has been eliminated? It is debatable whether or not this question has substance, but it has certainly been raised in my presence.

    6.2       The October version of the CAPS document retained the language examination, yet the February document contains the changes discussed above. Moreover, I have been told by the publishers that the document is now final and will be published on the DoE’s website in March. Thus, this vast change, which impacts dramatically upon the English HL teaching landscape, will not be submitted to public scrutiny, and the principles of transparency and honesty have been discarded. I would hate to think that this change has been sneaked in, in the hope that no-one will notice.

    6.3       An analysis of the examination papers reveals the following:

    6.3.1    40 marks have been allocated to Comprehension and Language use in Section A of paper 1. However, educators could well have chosen – see point 4 above – not to teach language. How then can learners be examined on something not taught?

    6.3.2    A reasonable assumption to make is that the 40 marks will have 20 marks allocated to Comprehension, thus leaving 20 marks available to the examiner(s) to cover the whole of the grammar syllabus (which might or might not be taught, depending on the judgement of the teacher). How will he or she prioritise what to examine?

    Moreover, the attention of the examiner(s) and educator(s) is drawn to the third bullet (techniques such as the use of font types and sizes, headings and captions, etc). This section is interesting but inconsequential and insignificant. However, it has been prioritised above every other aspect of grammar teaching to the extent that its inclusion is guaranteed. How is this justifiable?

    A calculation shows that approximately 15 marks remain, i.e. after font sizes and types have been examined. Thus 5% (15 out of 300 marks) will be devoted to language teaching.

    6.3.3    Clearly this is an untenable situation and is deleterious in the extreme. The wash back situation in teaching is a well-documented phenomenon. If language is not examined, then it will not be taught. Even those conscientious educators who will teach language, despite DoE proscriptions, will be affected. In essence language teaching will disappear in HL high schools, but not in schools where FAL is taught.

    May I please urge you to reconsider these far-reaching changes? There is sufficient time to do so and I believe you will circumvent an enormous range of criticism on a number of grounds:

    • The changes are quite simply pedagogically and educationally unsound. To discard the teaching of language structures and conventions is to do harm to learners. Learners will be disadvantaged and will emerge from the system with an impaired knowledge of English Home Language.
    • I have consulted a number of English educators. To a person they are horrified.
    • The accusation might well be levied that the DBE has acted in an underhand and non-transparent manner. I do not believe this is the case but nevertheless cognisance ought to be taken of this possibility. Public comment was based on the 2010 CAPS document which included Language as an examination paper. The 2011 document now contains this drastic change – surely the DBE has placed itself in a vulnerable and indefensible position?
    • English FAL includes the teaching of language and also retains the Language examination. Thus learners in FAL schools will have knowledge of language structures while their counterparts in HL schools will not. The discrepancy, irony  and disjuncture are quite apparent.
    • The statements on page page 31 (While this list of grammar items is provided teachers do not have to teach all or any of it. It is a reference list only and the needs of the class must dictate what is to be taught) are naïve and totally invalid, and will be held up as an example of woolly, imprecise and dangerous thinking. May I please request that it be removed and that language teaching and testing  be restored – in an integrated and contextual manner – to its rightful place.

    I have been an English teacher all my life and I sincerely believe that the contemplated changes are wrong. May I urgently request that you give careful and serious attention to the matters I have raised.

    Categories: Issue I