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Independent Formative Evaluation of Workbooks & Textbooks

Textbooks and workbooks have long been considered a critical challenge within the South African education system. The Textbook Development Institute notes that:


Concern about the quality and effectiveness of the textbooks used by educational institutions is the most neglected and underrated factor impacting on the quality of education in South Africa. Teachers are often blamed for the poor standard of education in the country. Little attention is however given to the poor standard or quality of the resources, particularly textbooks, which teachers are required to work with.


These issues have been identified as a major concern by the Presidency, and the Department of Basic Education was required by a Presidential injunction to develop and provide resources, specifically workbooks, that would assist learners to improve performance in the critical areas of Literacy and Numeracy.


The importance of learning and support materials including workbooks and textbooks has become one of the DBE’s priority areas and continues to be an important input into improving the quality of teaching and learning. The Action Plan to 2014; Towards Schooling 2025 captures issues of LTSM’s from Goal 19 to 20 with Goal 9 focusing specifically on workbooks “Ensure that every learner has access to the minimum set of textbooks and workbooks required according to national policy”.

In response to concerns about the quality and effectiveness of textbooks and poor learner performance throughout the system, the DBE developed and delivered the first set of workbooks for Grade 1 to 9 in 2011 and Siyavula textbooks for Grade 10 to 12 in Mathematics and Physical Science. These were intended to assist teachers and learners directly in the classroom through the provision of worksheets; activities to reinforce Language and Literacy, Mathematics and Numeracy and Physical Science skills; provide teachers with a framework to monitor learner performance; provide lesson plans ;and pace curriculum coverage appropriately.


Although the development and delivery of workbooks was only initiated in 2011 and substantial progress has been made in the quality of workbooks & improving learner access to these materials, the DBE determined that it was important to evaluate the quality and usage of the Language and Mathematics workbooks, to provide feedback to the system, and guide adjustments to future editions. This would also contribute towards the improvement of both the effectiveness, including quality, and utilisation of workbooks and textbooks in schools across the country. This led to the commissioning of an independent formative evaluation of DBE approved workbooks and Siyavula textbooks completed in February 2013. The evaluation was commissioned to the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) with support from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The evaluation comprised of the following workbooks and textbooks:

·      Grade 3 Mathematics workbooks, terms 1 and 2

·      Grade 3 English First Additional Language workbooks, terms 1 and 2

·      Grade 3 Home Language workbooks, term 3 and 4

·      Grade 6 Mathematic, term 1 and 2

·      Grade 6 English First Additional Language workbooks, term 1 and 2

·      Grade 6 Home Language, term 1 and 2

·      Grade 9 Mathematics, term 1 and 2


In order to address the research questions, the study was separated into three parts; (a) a large-scale study drawing on a nationally representative sample of schools consisting of 327 schools,200 teachers per province, 455 learners and 269 Heads of Departments (b) three school case studies through focus group discussions and in-depth interviews to gather data to provide insights into the perceptions held by stakeholders in schools about the workbooks and textbooks, as well as to refine the understanding of the performance and utilisation of workbooks, and (c) a desk review of the quality of the selected DBE approved workbooks and Siyavula textbooks.


The study addressed three fundamental questions, namely; How are the DBE approved workbooks & Siyavula textbooks being utilised? What is happening in schools where DBE approved workbooks & Siyavula textbooks are not being utilised? Do the workbooks and textbooks have the characteristics of internationally accepted quality workbooks and textbooks? Numerous observation and survey tools, focus sessions, interviews and a desk-based review against international quality benchmarks were used to answer the research questions. An observation tool was used to observe and report on utilisation aspects including presence, storage and use of DBE workbooks, Siyavula books as well as other books. The tool also collected subject specific data regarding the curriculum coverage of the workbooks under observations. Grade and Subject specific data related to the depth and volume of curriculum coverage was collected and reported on. In order to cover the full range of learner abilities, observations of the workbooks of of the best learner and the learner needing more support were undertaken. Teachers were asked to report on changes in learner progress since the introduction of workbooks.


Some of the key findings from the independent formative evaluation include; typically, topics are being covered in sequence for better learners, poorer learners and classes as a whole; four standard exercises are being covered per week by classes; and teachers are assessing and correcting the work of both the better and the poorer learners in classrooms.


Around 80 per cent of school teachers were using the DBE workbooks and generally, at all three case study schools, teachers and school management saw the workbooks as an effective tool in teaching and learning. They further reported that the workbooks are easy to use and make preparation easier and quicker, enable learners to be hands  on’, allow  for  interactive  class  sessions,  are  excellent  resources  for  additional practice and encourage critical thinking. Within a number of provinces the sharing of workbooks was reported more frequently; however this did not appear to impact on utilisation.


Parents reflected a positive attitude to workbooks in focus group discussions. Parents discussed the differences between the DBE approved workbooks and their childrens other school books (textbooks) and commented that they find the DBE approved workbooks interesting, informative and easy to understand. Parents felt that the DBE approved workbooks stimulate interest in learning and school work and that they had noticed an improvement in their childs understanding of subject matter, especially Mathematics. Parents also spoke of changes in their childs attitude and behaviours towards homework and found children to be more confident, motivated and focused. Parents reported that their children are proud of their DBE approved workbooks and the work they do in the workbooks. Parents also discussed the DBE approved workbooks as tools that enable their children to get access to a better education and quality of life, a privilege which many parents felt they were denied.


Learners discussed being more interested in subjects that have DBE approved workbooks, which are perceived the workbooks as fun and reported looking forward to using the workbooks at school and also discussed working together with friends to help each other. Some learners experienced difficulty relating to  the  stories  in  the  workbooks  due  to  differing cultural  and  socio-economic  backgrounds. However, the evaluation report noted that exposing children to multiple life-worlds within the curriculum and utilising diverse lived experiences in pedagogy is advocated by many education experts focusing on social justice within the classroom. On the whole learners reported that the work covered in class is  easier  to  understand  with  the  help  of  the  DBE approved workbooks.  


The DBE approved workbooks and the Siyavula textbooks were assessed to have substantial characteristics of quality workbooks. However, the values of South Africa were assessed to be observable to a greater extent in the DBE workbooks than in the Siyavula textbooks.


The formative study made a number of recommendations including providing more formal training through manuals and DVDs for teachers showcasing the ways in which the workbooks can be used creatively within classrooms. This recommendation was supported by qualitative suggestions that some teachers may be using  the DBE workbooks to supplement the curriculum and that the workbooks may be perceived as an ‘add on’ to the textbooks that were being used prior to the introduction of the workbooks, The report also recommended the development of a communication strategy to inform School Management, teachers, parents and learners about the workbook project, including the aims of the project, creative use of workbooks and the intention of the introduction of workbooks. The DBE is currently engaging with the report and recommendations in order to improve all relevant aspects highlighted.

The number of schools not using the DBE approved workbooks and Siyavula textbooks was made up of such a small proportion of the sample, that representative findings regarding what is happening in schools not using the resources could not be reported on.

Statistics from Stats SA indicated that in 2005 approximately 16% of parents indicated that their children did not have access to learning materials including textbooks, this figure was reduced to 11% in 2008 and has continued to decrease as workbooks & textbook have become a primary resource approved for delivery to all schools. The findings from the ACER independent formative evaluation indicate substantial progress from the situation projected by independent studies in 2009. Results in 2009 indicated that on average only 24% topics covered in Grades 4 and 5; 88% teachers covered no more than 40% of 89 topics in Grade 5 curriculum; 58% had covered no more than 20 topics in Grade 4 making only 22% of the curriculum. The system has therefore largely improved in overall curriculum coverage, marking, involvement of parents and enhancing the learning environment and resources. The importance of DBE approved workbooks and textbooks and teacher confidence in the workbook is indicative of interventions that have already begun to gain a substantive footing in the system since their introduction in 2011. The largely positive findings highlight the progress the education system is making and is encouraging for the sector as a whole.

The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) is a non-profit organisation, independent of government with the head office located in Melbourne Australia & other offices in the rest of Australia, Dubai & New Delhi, India. ACER’s mission is to create and promote research based knowledge, products and services to improve learning across the life span. ACER’s focus is to assist educational decision makers at all levels in their collection, analysis, interpretation and use of reliable data and to assist in the development of clearer pictures and understandings of educational challenges, opportunities and progress over time. This is intended to assist in the identification and implementation of evidence-based policies and practices to promote better outcomes for all learners through the use of approaches that have been demonstrated to be effective in practice.


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