International Research on the Importance of Books to a Culture of Literacy

BFA follows up directly with its book recipients to learn more about the impact the books have on them. Since 2016, we have received direct feedback from 289 recipients in 36 different countries, comprehensively indicating that BFA books are of high quality and useful to recipients. Survey respondents overwhelmingly stated that the books will have a positive impact on their learning community. You can download a copy of the latest results of this research, which we update every year.

A 2024 article in The Conversation revealed that 9 out of 10 children in west and central Africa were not developmentally on track for literacy and numeracy. Opportunities to interact with books is a key factor in literacy development, and early childhood literacy is a major factor in later academic success.

A recent article by Lucia Ndabula, the national education manager at Oxford University Press, discussed the importance of literacy skills in South African education, mentioning that 81% of ten-year-olds in South Africa don't understand what they read, and that books, readers and dictionaries play a core role in students developing these skills.

Feedback BFA received from Kariba Schools in Zimbabwe  in 2019 highlights the disparity in examination results between schools with a library and those without.

Research and Markets issued a 2019 report on "Publishing of Books and Other Publications in South Africa," describing a lack of reading culture in South Africa and the current state of the publication industry. According to the article, "South Africa’s weak reading culture is attributed to poverty, illiteracy, inadequate library services, inadequate distribution of books in rural and township areas and the paucity of titles in indigenous languages" (Research and Markets; 2019). This research highlights the need for books and reading materials, especially in remote parts of the country, as a key component of building reading culture and contributing to overall education.

BFA works with such partners as USAID to improve literacy, since its own research indicates that "children and youth who learn to read are healthier, more self-sufficient, can earn a better living and have more opportunities to become productive members of their societies" (USAID; 2017).

A recent World Bank report (Fredricksen, Brar, Trucano; 2015) emphasizes the urgent need to get textbooks into the hands of every student in sub-Saharan Africa. This report is part of a growing body of evidence reinforcing the efficiency and efficacy of putting the right books in the hands of African learners. The report states that "South African students engage with new donated learning materials No other input is likely to be more cost effective than making high-quality learning materials available to all students…"

Books For Africa is encouraged by the findings of the 2015 World Bank report.  The importance of putting high-quality books into the hands of African students has never been more pressing.  At BFA's 2013 Knowledge is Power luncheon, South African Ambassador to the U.S. Ebrahim Rasool told the assembled crowd that half the world population under 18 will be in Africa by the end of the 21st century, a figure confirmed by the UNICEF Generation 2030:Africa study (UNICEF; 2014).  In an increasingly global world, it is essential that the current generation of African children receive a world-class education, and delivering books to students is a tried and true method to move this vision towards a reality. 

According to a 2014 UNESCO report, "The connection between libraries and a literate environment, particularly in regions where individual subscription to print or electronic media and individual ownership of books or journals are both difficult and rare, appears quite evident.... Unfortunately, such libraries have not been very densely distributed in sub-Saharan Africa" (Easton, 2014) Books For Africa understands this need and the importance of providing substantial, high-quality materials in building a literate environment and, indeed, contributing to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

Another UNESCO report (Ball, 2011) highlights the unique importance of mother tongue instruction in early childhood, making it clear that a child who reads in his or her mother tongue is more likely to enroll in school and succeed at school. BFA has also taken steps to meet that need with its BFA Publishing initiative, capable of translating and printing content of the recipient's choice in any language. 

A Books For Africa study of the impact of books in central Tanzania (Plonski, Joerger; 2007) found a significant increase in student comprehension and fluency due to donated books.

Fehrler, Michaelowa, and Weber (2009) confirmed these findings in a different study of 22 Sub-Saharan African countries. This analysis concluded that textbooks, teacher guides and wall charts were relatively low-cost inputs with relatively high returns in terms of student achievement. Fehrler, Michaelowa and Wechtler found that by providing one textbook to every student in a classroom, literacy scores increased by 5-20 percent. It was also found that due to the “peer effect,” providing books to the peers of Donated textbooks await shipment at the BFA Atlanta warehousestudents increased the educational skills of the students themselves, even without books.

The World Bank undertook two other large-scale studies (1987, 2002) in addition to the study discussed above, involving over 89 education projects across Africa. The findings confirmed the cost-effectiveness and importance of books, with the 2002 report indicating that in Africa, next to a good teacher, “a good textbook is the most effective medium of instruction.”