Children given books from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library read more often and perform better in school – new research

Children who receive books from the Imagination Library, established by icon Dolly Parton, read more often and perform better on reading and developmental assessments than their peers, new research from Swansea University has found.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is a book gift program that aims to inspire a love of reading. Registered children from birth to the age of five receive a high-quality, age-appropriate book free of charge in the mail every month.

To date, the library has given over 185 million books to children in five countries, including the UK. Books include traditional stories and rhymes, books by popular authors and illustrators, non-fiction, and newly published titles.

The Swansea research, funded jointly by The Dollywood Foundation UK and Swansea University, aimed to understand the impact of the programme.

Specifically, the research examined the impact on parents’ practices and beliefs regarding co-reading and the effects of co-reading on children. It was the largest academic study of the Imagination Library’s effectiveness ever conducted anywhere in the world.

dr Caroline Zwierzchowska-Dod from the Department of Education and Childhood Research at Swansea University conducted research for her PhD under the supervision of Professor Janet Goodall.

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She conducted the UK’s largest ever survey of parental views on reading among 0-5 year olds. It drew on the results of this, as well as school achievement data, interviews and a local parent survey from an area – North Lincolnshire – where the Imagination Library (IL) has been successfully implemented for over five years.

The research showed:

  • Parents who received IL books were 30% more likely to read daily with their child than parents outside of the program
  • Children who were in IL for more than one year had a 40% increased chance of achieving the Good Achievement Standard and a 54% increased chance of meeting the Early Learning Goal for Reading compared to children with similar features that did not in the IL program
  • This resulted in increases of 5.7% and 6.7% respectively in the number of children attaining these levels of education in North Lincolnshire
  • 88% of families surveyed felt they read more because they participated in the IL program
  • 82% of respondents said they had more books than they would otherwise have bought; this was true for all parents, but parents with fewer resources felt the difference the most
  • Parents appreciated the increased access to books, the diversity of authors, and the support they received from reading frequently with their child
  • Bonding with their child was the main benefit of book sharing identified by parents
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One parent said in the survey:

“My son runs to check the mail and when a book arrives he’s like, ‘Is this for me by Dolly Parton?’

dr Caroline Zwierzchowska-Dod of Swansea University, who conducted the research, said:

“The research has shown that the system offers different types of benefits for both children and parents.

Children who received books from the Imagination Library had a significantly higher chance of reaching important academic milestones than their peers. They also read more often with their parents. This strengthened parent-child bonds, which parents identified as a major benefit and helped them learn more about their child.

The curated book selection also brought new authors to the home, which was greatly appreciated by the parents.”

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Marion Gillooly, Chief Executive of the Dollywood Foundation UK said:

“We are very excited about this research. We regularly receive feedback from families that children love having a book delivered to them each month and that there is great joy at the arrival of each book.

It’s fantastic that we now have this robust evidence from the UK showing that families involved in the Imagination Library are more likely to read with their children, are much more likely to read daily, and their children are more likely to hit important learning milestones reach. Perhaps more significant is the evidence from parents and caregivers that bonding with their child was a key benefit of the Imagination Library.

Dolly Parton often says that you can never get enough books into the hands of enough kids, and I totally agree.”

dr Zwierzchowska-Dod is currently creating an animation to share the benefits of investing in the IL program along with materials for children, parents, educators and other academics.

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