Improving student achievement by increasing access to textbooks

School textbooks have been found to play a 'critical role' in improving education outcomes in developing countries, but limited access to these learning materials is hampering student progress.

A policy paper released by UNESCO's Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report this month says providing textbooks to all students could increase literacy scores by between five and 20 per cent.

'Textbooks are especially relevant to improving learning outcomes in low income countries with large class sizes, a high proportion of unqualified teachers and a shortage of instructional time,' the GEM report says. 'Next to an engaged and prepared teacher, well-designed textbooks in sufficient quantities are the most effective way to improve instruction and learning.'

However, it adds a lack of government investment in some countries means parents often have to foot the bill for these resources - creating an additional barrier to learning for the poorest students. 'Without textbooks, children can spend many of their school hours copying content from the blackboard, which severely reduces time for engaged learning.'

Data show learning materials account for more than one third of total household spending on education in 12 countries and more than half of spending on education in the poorest households.

The policy paper - Every Child Should Have a Textbook - points to a shortage in developing countries, with maths textbooks in particularly short supply. In Cameroon, according to latest figures (2012), there was only one reading textbook for every 12 students and only one maths textbook for every 14 students in Grade 2. At the same year level in Togo, there were three students for every reading textbook compared with eight students for every maths textbook.

Image © UNESCO

'The provision of books for the early grades should be the highest priority; this is when well-designed teaching materials have a large impact on learning,' the report states.

For secondary education, analysis of the situation in 19 sub-Saharan African countries found only one (Botswana) was found to have adequate provision.

And, while an increase in school enrolments should be celebrated, an unwelcome side effect has been an inability to keep pace with textbook demand amidst such rapid growth in student numbers.

Even when textbooks do make it into schools, they might not make it into student hands. 'Textbooks may be kept in storage units for fear of damage or loss if they are given to students.' There have also been reports of hoarding in Sierra Leone, where concerns over future supply has led to available resources not being used.

The policy paper draws attention to 'a growing body of evidence confirming the critical role of textbooks in improving student achievement'. For example, a 2004 report for the World Bank found textbooks in appropriate languages are a relatively low-cost investment in developing countries that yield high returns on student achievement. And a recent South African study from 2014 found 'students, especially girls, do better on reading tests when they have their own copies of textbooks'. It adds that good quality textbooks are also a valuable tool in helping guide teachers in their work.

Reflecting on the research and challenges, the policy paper proposes a new business model to help triple the number of textbooks available for children across the globe. Its seven recommendations include increased domestic funding for textbooks, better reporting by governments and donors, a centralised purchasing system and matched private-donor funding similar to the approach being used by the GAVI Alliance to fighting disease.

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Image © UNESCO/Poulomi Basu


UNESCO (2016). Every Child Should Have a Textbook. Policy Paper 23. Global Education Monitoring Report. Paris, France.

To download the full report visit the GEM Policy Papers web page.