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Imagination Library Research Released

Thursday Oct 28th, 2021

United Way of Erie County partnered with Penn State Behrend Core and Dr. Chad Waldron, University of Michigan Flint to conduct ongoing research on the impact of United Way of Erie County’s Imagination Library in Erie County.   Excerpts from the Executive Summary show that IL provides a pivotal community asset in early literacy development and in supporting long-term literacy success. 

Executive Summary Highlights 

This evaluation project followed a mixed-methods design, utilizing quantitative and qualitative methodologies. This study examined early literacy skills and strategies possessed by young children upon their entry to school-- kindergarten. “Early literacy skills and strategies” are defined in this study as the developmental precursors to reading and writing, the socializations to literacy (reading and writing), and the environmental supports (e.g., parental interactions with children around books) that lead to children’s development in literacy (Sylva et al., 2011; Whitehurst et al., 1999; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 2003; Evangelou, Sylva, Kyriacou, Wild, & Glenny, 2009). 

The following preliminary findings are from the first focus group conducted at Iroquois Elementary School to gain feedback about the United Way Imagination Library program. Major themes from the first focus group were:  

  • Families took full advantage and collected up to 50 or 60 books from the program. 
  • Children get excited when the books arrive. 
  • Some families had multiple kids go through the program. Families would pass on the books to families not in program or sign them up if they weren’t in the program. 
  • Families were referred by various therapists and social programs such as WIC.
  • All families had some type of routine for spending time reading or playing word games.
  • Extended family members were active in the child’s reading (i.e., Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles). 
  • The books were viewed as being diverse and done in a way to keep the child’s attention (text to picture ratio).
  • Families believed that the program should be extended to past the age of five. Possibly, deliver books quarterly or go digital. 
  • The children show interest in learning and are able to connect what they learned in school with what they see outside of the classroom. Although there are times of frustration with reading, the children keep trying. 

An additional two focus groups were held to examine the experiences families have had with The United Way of Erie County’s Imagination Library Program. Participants were recruited through their child’s elementary school. All participants were mothers of first-grade children who had received IL books. Major themes from these next two focus groups were: 

  • Families really enjoyed receiving the books and were grateful for the opportunity to participate in the program. 
  • Children relished getting their own package in the mail each month. 
  • Parents believed the books were high-quality. 
  • Many parents attributed their child’s love of reading to being a part of the Imagination Library program. 
  • The books exposed the families to more diversity by introducing them to stories and characters of different ethnicities, cultures, and lifestyles that they may not have experienced otherwise.

In general, the children loved reading, and parents said that this program helped to foster that enjoyment.  Most parents indicated that this love of reading extended into their children being excited about and engaged in school. Children were exposed to a variety of topics that they would not have read if not for the UW Imagination Library. They were happy with the equality and diversity books and stated that the books introduced their families to diverse stories, characters and authors.   

Erie County’s Imagination Library, seeing its first cohort of children who received books from birth through their fifth birthday, continues to show successful outcomes- both in entrance to kindergarten literacy assessments and within the feedback provided by the community (the families). From the statistical significant findings to the positive responses in focus groups, it is clear that this program is benefiting children and families within the community.  

It is important to note that this study yielded similar positive results to the previous study conducted in 2015- 2016 for the United Way of Erie County. This shows stability and effectiveness in the programming offered by these books entering county-wide homes and with the extended touchpoints (i.e., programming; newsletters) around the Imagination Library offered by United Way. This study contributes additional research data around the families’ experiences within focus group settings. It is clear that families and their children are passionate about the Imagination Library. They are reading more to their children and engaging in early literacy experiences, shown to put children and communities on a positive trajectory for literacy growth and development.