Dolly Parton’s Impact on Early Reading

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Who doesn’t know Dolly Parton? Islands in the Stream, Jolene, I Will Always Love You, 9 to 5 (both the song and the film with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin), and of course her duets with Kenny Rogers. But, and you might not know this (we didn’t!), Dolly’s making an actual impact on reading and literacy. Here’s how.

A while ago, whilst driving, Paul was listening to Dolly Parton’s America, a 9-part podcast hosted by Jad Abumrad who also hosts Radiolab. One of the episodes discusses Dolly’s Imagination Library, which is a book gifting program that mails free, high-quality books to children from birth until they begin school. The program is available for all children.

The program kicked off in 1995 and grew exponentially in no time. First, books were only distributed to children living in Sevier County, Tennessee where Dolly grew up. However, it was super successful and in 2000, it grew from a local to a national (U.S.) initiative. By 2003, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library had mailed out one million books. Now, many millions of books (the counter was up to a hundred million in 2018!) have been sent to children around the world (now including Australia, Ireland, UK, Canada).

This is how it works (The following infographic shows an example from Ireland. Note that the mailing costs aren’t paid by the family; the small fee is paid by the local program):

Of course, in itself this is nothing but a great initiative! Imagine the delight receiving a ‘surprise book’ each month as a young child. It’s also a great way to explore different types of books for parents and children alike. It’s simply a big 5-year book adventure.

However, Paul – the incorrigible empirical scientist that he is – was curious if the program also had a ‘measurable’ positive impact, especially because PISA-2018 has been showing worrying results on reading skills of 14-15-year olds. Was there any scientific research on Dolly’s Imagination Library? And if there was, did it make a positive difference? The answer is yes on both accounts. There was plenty of research, and almost all showed positive results!. In this blog, we discuss just three of the studies.

Research done by Chad Waldron (2018) showed that children who received the books had better early literacy skills and strategies (i.e., letter identification, text and illustration orientation, word and letter orientation) upon their entry into kindergarten as compared to children who didn’t participate in the program. Note here that characteristics as participant gender and preschool/PreK experiences were known and controlled for in all of the analyses.

Letter identification task- DPIL (Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library) and Non-DPIL.

(Note: Range is from 0 to 54).

CAP (Concepts about Print)[1] task cluster: text and illustration orientation, questions #7 & 10- DPIL and Non-DPIL. (Note: CAP range for this variable is 0–2)

CAP task cluster: word and letter concepts within texts, questions #21-24- DPIL and non-DPIL. (Note: CAP range for this variable is 0 to 4)

A second study by Frank Ridzi, Monica Sylvia and Sunita Singh (2014) showed that the longer and more often the books were read to the children and discussed with them, this worked as a catalyst / flywheel for the development of early reading skills/readiness. This was independent of the child’s age and gender, family income, attended education, birth country of the parents, or even the main language spoken at home.

Last but not least, research by Shahin Samiei, Andrew Bush and Doug Imig (2016) revealed that participation in the program is significantly positively associated with higher early language and arithmetic’s scores, even after controlling for a list of other factors that could correlate with early school readiness such as the influence of demographic and socio-economic factors, family reading practices, and children’s pre-kindergarten educational experiences.

Overall, the results support the deployment of policy interventions like Dolly’s Imagination Library; programs designed to promote primary school reading readiness through increasing access to early literacy resources for young children and their families.

These results align well with a meta-analysis of the impact of reading interventions for children in the early years of primary education. Russell Gersten and colleagues (2020) performed a meta-analysis of the effectiveness of reading interventions on children at risk of reading difficulties in grades 1-3 in the U.S. (5 to 8 years old).

Based on the results of 33 rigorous experimental and quasi-experimental studies conducted between 2002 and 2017, the researchers conclude that early reading interventions have a significant positive effect on reading outcomes of children who are at risk of having later reading difficulties in school, for example children who scored in the lowest 40% on a standardized reading test. Gersten and colleagues looked at various outcome measures, such as reading comprehension, reading speed (reading fluency) and the extent to which children were able to read actual words and nonsense words.

What they found was that the interventions, regardless of whether they were for an individual child or for the whole class, had significant effects on all outcome measures when children practised the intervention a number of hours per week. On the interventions, the authors write: “Every intervention addressed multiple aspects of foundational reading—phonological awareness, decoding, passage reading fluency, encoding (spelling) and, on occasion, writing. Nearly all interventions addressed comprehension in some fashion, although few provided much in the way of detail. Vocabulary and comprehension instruction were rarely emphasized. Virtually all interventions included systematic, explicit instruction.”(p. 418).

In Dutch we say “Jong geleerd is oud gedaan” (Literal Translation: “Learned when young is done when old”; meaning: “Something learned at an early age will be easy when one is old(er)”). This is definitely the case for reading and reading intervention such as Dolly’s Imagination Library.

Dolly is a real rock star in many areas . We can all be like Dolly. When we use the power of imagination, we can achieve a lot!

References

Gersten, R., Haymond, K., Newman-Gonchar, R., Dimino, J. & Jayanthi, M. (2020). Meta-analysis of the impact of reading interventions for students in the primary grades. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 13, 401-427.

Ridzi, F., Sylvia, M. R., & Singh, S. (2014). The Imagination Library Program: Increasing parental reading through book distribution. Reading Psychology, 35, 548-576.

Samiei, S., Bush, A. J., Sell, M., & Imig, D. (2016). Examining the association between the Imagination Library Early Childhood Literacy Program and kindergarten readiness. Reading Psychology, 37, 601-626.

Waldron, C. H. (2018). “Dream more, learn more, care more, and be more”: The Imagination Library influencing storybook reading and early literacy, Reading Psychology, 39, 711-728.


[1] Concepts about Print (CAP) are the beginning literacy skills that children acquire through book exposure and reading. These skills include such important behaviors as learning left to right (directionality in text), reading text from the top of the page to the bottom of the page, and noticing punctuation marks. These beginning literacy skills are essential for children to develop by late kindergarten or early first grade to have longitudinal success in reading (Clay, 2013 as stated in Waldron, 2018, p. 713).

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