Anyone interested in the study of literacy knows that early access means a lifelong boost to children’s reading abilities, including fluency and comprehension. Decades of studies support this. But perhaps for the first time, a study has been done into the means of that access: Simply put, do free book programs benefit literacy rates?

A team of three researchers—Ingrid Willenberg from Australia, and Adriana Bus and Merel de Bondt from the Netherlands—examined 44 studies about book giveaway programs and analyzed the aggregate of their results. The results may seem obvious, but the research is clear: they found that free book programs are always helpful.

The studies, all of which were selected for their academic rigor, looked at one of three book giveaway programs: Bookstart, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, and Reach Out and Read.

  • Bookstart is a UK program which gives one to three free books to children between 0 and 5 years old, another at the start of school, and an activity pack to foster reading engagement in older students.
  • Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is a Tennessee-based program which gives one book per month free to children between 0 and 5 years old.
  • Reach Out and Read is a cooperative program which sends books to pediatric and family care centers, to be given to children to keep at doctor visits, along with education for parents about the importance of reading in cognitive and behavioral development.

What the studies found was that all three free book programs had positive effects on literacy rates. Reach Out and Read was found to be the most effective, despite the fact that it only provides between one and 10 books per child. What it offers that is even more important is pushing for more parental engagement.

“Books are not a causal mechanism,” said reading specialist and Harvard education professor James Kim about these results. “Reading books and shared reading is the mechanism that leads to better skills. Books are just the resource that facilitates these literacy processes.”

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