Dolly Parton with children and books; the Imagination Library has given more than 185 million books to children, and the Swansea research is the largest survey of its effectiveness ever carried out.  Credit: Dollywood Foundation UK

Dolly Parton with children and books; the Imagination Library has given more than 185 million books to children, and the Swansea research is the largest survey of its effectiveness ever carried out.  Picture credit: Dollywood Foundation UK

Children receiving books from the Imagination Library, set up by icon Dolly Parton, read more frequently and perform better at reading and development assessments than their peers, new Swansea University research has revealed.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is a book gifting programme devoted to inspiring a love of reading. Each month, enrolled children from birth to age five receive a high quality, age-appropriate book in the post, free of charge.

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

The Swansea research, funded jointly by The Dollywood Foundation UK and Swansea University, was aimed at understanding what impact the scheme was having.

Specifically, the research looked at its effect on parents’ practices and beliefs about shared reading, and the impact of shared reading on the children. It was the largest academic inquiry into the efficacy of the Imagination Library ever carried out anywhere in the world.

Dr Caroline Zwierzchowska-Dod of the department of education and childhood studies at Swansea University carried out the research for her PhD, under the direction of Professor Janet Goodall.

She undertook the largest survey of parents’ views on reading with 0-5 year-olds ever conducted in the UK. She drew on the results on this, along with school attainment data, interviews and a local parent survey from an area – North Lincolnshire - where the Imagination Library (IL) has been implemented successfully for over five years.

The research showed:

  • Parents receiving IL books were 30% more likely to read daily with their child than parents outside the programme
  • Children in the IL for more than a year had a 40% increased chance of achieving the “Good Level of Development” standard, and a 54% increased chance of achieving the Early Learning Goal for reading, compared to children with similar characteristics who were not in the IL programme
  • This resulted in increases of 5.7% and 6.7% respectively in the number of children reaching these levels of attainment in north Lincolnshire
  • 88% of families surveyed felt that they read more due to being in the IL programme
  • 82% of respondents felt they had more books than they would have otherwise bought; this was true for all parents, but parents with fewer resources felt the difference most
  • Parents valued the increased access to books, the diversity of authors and the support it gave them to read frequently with their child
  • Bonding with their child was the key benefit of book sharing identified by parents

One parent said in the survey:

“My son runs to check the post and when a book arrives he asks ‘Is this for me from Dolly Parton?”

Dr Caroline Zwierzchowska-Dod of Swansea University, who carried out the research, said:

“The research showed that the scheme was delivering different types of benefits, for children and parents alike.

Children receiving Imagination Library books had a significantly higher chance of achieving important academic milestones than their peers. They were also more likely to be reading more frequently with their parents. This strengthened parent-child bonds, which parents identified as a major benefit, helping them to learn more about their child.

The curated book selection also introduced new authors into the home, which was highly valued by parents.”

Marion Gillooly, Executive Director of The Dollywood Foundation UK, said:

“We are very excited about this research. We receive regular feedback from families that children love having a book delivered to them every month, and that there is great excitement around the arrival of each book.

It's fantastic that we now have this robust evidence from the UK to demonstrate that families involved in the Imagination Library do read more often with their children, are much more likely to read daily, and that their children are more likely to achieve key learning milestones. Perhaps even more significant is the evidence from parents and carers 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 children, and I couldn't agree more.”

Dr Zwierzchowska-Dod is currently creating an animation to share the benefits of investment in the IL programme alongside materials for children, parents, educators and other academics.

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