Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

It’s best to teach pupils by the book

South Africa’s education system is widely accepted to be in crisis. An alarming number of its children are functionally illiterate and innumerate. Many schools do not have adequate equipment, infrastructure or even basic necessities such as furniture.

In this context, could improving access to textbooks make any

real difference?

The answer is yes. Textbooks matter. That’s why their absence from one South African province’s classrooms made headlines in 2012. The department of basic education failed to deliver textbooks to pupils in Limpopo province that year.

This led to a court battle between Section27, a public-interest law centre that focuses on health and education rights, and the government.

The court found in Section27’s favour, with the judge ordering that the department urgently deliver

textbooks to Limpopo’s schools.

That wasn’t the end of the matter.

In 2014 Section27 launched a new application on behalf of an organisation called Basic Education for

All and a number of Limpopo

schools because not all the province’s schools had received the

textbooks they needed that year.

In May 2014, Judge Neil Tuchten of the high court in Pretoria ruled that the department had violated children’s rights to a basic education.

Tuchten ordered the department to provide a textbook to every pupil for every subject by the start of every school year. The department appealed this ruling, a matter

now due before the Supreme Court

of Appeal.

Tuchten in his judgment said: “Textbooks have been part of the stock in trade of the educator for centuries. There is something special about a book. It has a very long life, far longer than that of the individual reader. It is a low-tech device. It is accessible to anyone who can read the language in which it has been written. During the hours of daylight it can be read without any other supporting technology at all. It needs no maintenance except the occasional strip of adhesive tape.”

Some of South Africa’s foremost education researchers agree. They have found a positive correlation between access to textbooks and pupils’ results. Here’s why, in a country as unequal as South Africa, textbooks matter so much.

Education researchers are reluctant to pinpoint a single cause for a child’s poor performance at school. But many agree that having access to textbooks is an important contributor to improved performance.

A transnational study involving 15 countries in Africa – among them South Africa, Kenya, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Malawi and Uganda – assigned maths and

reading tests to Grade 6 pupils (who are on average 12 years old) and to their teachers.

In an analysis of the results, Stellenbosch University economist Nic Spaull found that 27% of South Africa’s Grade 6 pupils were functionally illiterate and 40% functionally innumerate.

Figures differed substantially across South Africa’s nine provinces.

Limpopo, centre of the textbook crisis and court cases, recorded the lowest reading test results: 49% of the province’s Grade??6 pupils were deemed to be functionally illiterate.

Spaull’s research also measured the effect of access to textbooks on educational performance. He found that pupils with their own reading textbooks, or who share with not more than one other pupil, “perform significantly better” than those who have to share textbooks with more than one other classmate.

In the Limpopo textbook case, the department of basic education argued that teachers can fulfil the function of textbooks.

But research suggests otherwise. In many cases, teachers had limited content knowledge in the subjects they teach.

Data from the pan-African study shows that only 32% of South African teachers had the required levels of content knowledge.

The function of a textbook is

essentially to guide the teaching

and learning of the curriculum in a particular subject.

Against the backdrop of poor teacher context know-ledge, textbooks play a fundamental role in supplementing teachers’ knowledge deficits.

Education researchers have also explored the importance of what’s called “cultural capital”.

This relates to family literacy and practices in homes and communities that can help children prepare for school. It includes exposure and access to books and other printed materials.

But South Africa is not a reading society: the country’s deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has said that only 14% of South Africans are active book readers and a mere 5% of parents read to their children.

Where pupils do not have access to books in their own homes textbooks can potentially remedy this deficit.

There is no single magic bullet that will solve South Africa’s educational problems. But there is clear evidence that access to textbooks is an important part of the solution. –

Faranaaz Veriava is a PhD candidate at the University of Pretoria and works for Section27

The Conversation

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and receive a 40% discount on our annual rate.

Faranaaz Veriava
human rights advocate @ SECTION27, mother & partner. Tweet in my own capacity. Faranaaz Veriava has over 386 followers on Twitter.

Related stories


Subscribers only

Seven years’ radio silence for taxpayer-funded Rhythm FM

Almost R50-million of taxpayers’ money has been invested but the station is yet to broadcast a single show

Q&A Sessions: Zanele Mbuyisa — For the love of people-centred...

She’s worked on one of the biggest class-action cases in South Africa and she’s taken on Uber: Zanele Mbuyisa speaks to Athandiwe Saba about advocating for the underrepresented, getting ‘old’ and transformation in the law fraternity

More top stories

Limpopo teachers put fingers in primary schoolchildren’s underwear, SAHRC hears

The Human Rights Commission in Limpopo is hosting hearings into bullying, corporal punishment and the sexual abuse of learners by teachers in the province

‘We must not allow scavengers to eat the energy sector’

Mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe said the transition to renewable energy cannot be an overnight accomplishment.

Finding an HIV vaccine: Five lessons from the search for...

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that vaccine development and testing timelines can be shrunk from decades to months, but not without shortcomings

Pandemic leaves 1.4 billion learners worldwide behind on education

Human Rights Watch warns that learners may take years to recover from the damage caused by school closures

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…