Between the Lines

Reading is crucial for children — but why?

Jan. 17, 2018

In a middle-income neighborhood, there are 3,900 books for every 300 children.

In a low-income area, there’s just one.

It’s a jarring fact, especially in Tennessee where less than half of third graders read proficiently. The science is indisputable: a mastery of reading is one of the most important factors in predicting success later in life, and starting early matters.

By age 3:

  • A child’s brain is 80% of its full size
  • Their vocabulary can predict how much they will achieve by third grade
  • Children from low-income families may hear 30 million fewer words than their affluent peers , and
  • Children with less than 25 books at home complete two fewer years of school than those with 25-plus books.

Put simply, the earlier we put a book in a child’s hands — and help that child learn how to use that book — the more successful they’re likely to be. That’s why in Tennessee two programs partner to offer every registered child between birth and age five one book monthly, mailed to the home, at no cost:

Book and mailing costs are shared equally, and each of Tennessee’s 95 Imagination Library county affiliates raises half the cost of the books locally.

Since 2004, 31 million books have been delivered to more than 1 million Tennessee kids.

Reading matters, in ways that go beyond academics. We spoke to two educators who have seen firsthand how children who grow up with books learn and develop social skills.

Cory Hardwick is a first grade teacher in Middle Tennessee. She interned at Imagination Library in college.

Misty Moody is the Director of School-based Support Services for the Tennessee Department of Education. Moody was previously a first grade teacher and worked for 10 years for the Martha O’Bryan Center, an anti-poverty Nashville nonprofit. She used Imagination Library with her clients during her nonprofit career and with her five nieces and nephew, whom she signed up for the program.

They shared their personal and classroom observations about the impact of reading on growing children.


Moody: For my nieces and nephew, there was something magical about getting mail with their name on it.

For whatever reason, getting a book in the mail made it come more alive.

Hardwick: The children I nannied for loved the fact that the books they got were addressed to them, that they knew from the moment they opened the mailbox that these were their own personal books. They took ownership of them, setting up little libraries in their bedrooms and taking pride in getting out a book that was theirs to read.

Why it matters: By age 3, children understand and place importance on owning objects. They learn they can do things with objects that belong to them that they can’t do with objects that belong to others. They tend to prefer objects they own over even identical objects that are owned by someone else. Asserting and understanding the concept of ownership builds confidence and independence and helps children develop a sense of boundaries and discipline.

Family bonding

Moody: We all lead busy, hectic lives, and sometimes we just don’t sit down and take the time with each other, even though we know we should. This program creates the opportunity. When a child comes up to you, book in hand, you’re not going to tell them no. It becomes part of the family ritual when a book arrives on your doorstep, especially for inner city families.

These parents know the value of education — especially the parents who were not educated themselves.

They want better for their children, but because of circumstances, they didn’t have that opportunity. By participating in this program, it breaks that barrier. Spending time with your child on their education becomes automatic.

Why it matters: Parental engagement is crucial for healthy childhood development. Having a long-term relationship with even one caring adult can build a child’s resilience against many adversities, and education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty.

Misty Moody reads to her nephew.

Concentration & comprehension

Hardwick: Things on a screen are gone in an instant. Sitting with an adult and listening to a story on a daily basis builds a child’s attention span.

The longer they talk about one topic and concentrate on one thing, the better they’ll become at doing that in life.

It also helps them build a schema, or a way to incorporate new information into the network of things they already know.

Rereading is also important for building fluency and stamina. When we introduce new books, we read them, have the children repeat our words and then let them read it on their own the next time. And then another time. Removing the novelty of the story means they don’t have to sit and labor over the next word, which helps them gain comprehension. They can focus on the other things the story may be teaching: thinking about the characters, looking at how the pictures match the words, learning cause and effect. They recognize sight words and understand text structure. Then they take those skills to the next book they read.

Moody: There is so much technology time, I’m grateful Imagination Library puts actual books in a child’s hands. One of my favorite things is getting lost in a book — starting to read and looking up only to find hours have passed. In our world today, it’s easy for kids to get distracted. Learning to slow down and concentrate on what you’re reading is the only way to build knowledge and comprehension.

Why it matters: While the long-term effect of electronic device use is still unknown, experts agree that watching a screen is reactive while reading with a parent is interactive. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under age 2, yet 20% of U.S. children use a handheld device every day by 18 months. Reading also helps with schema building, which helps children make connections to previously learned material and determine how to apply prior knowledge to new situations.

Imagination & curiosity

Moody: Before a child even understands the words on the page, reading evokes imagination. They realize very young, ‘I can’t read those words on the page, but I can talk about those pictures while my mom or teacher or aunt reads the words.’ And then ‘Oh, wait a minute, those words go with those pictures!’”

Little brains are like sponges, soaking up everything in front of them.

lfleing and engaging with text causes them to be curious and makes them eager to explore.

Hardwick: One thing I was always excited about as a nanny was when the Imagination Library book was something the child wouldn’t have picked out on their own. Children find books that cater to the interests they already have (which they’re really good at, by the way) but it’s exciting to see them reading about something new, and finding a new set of facts, a new story to tell. It stretches their mind.  

Why it matters: Imagination is used at home and at work and school, but it also helps a child build a worldview that includes thoughtfulness and empathy. When a child uses their imagination, they build awareness that their thoughts may differ from other people’s, and that there are a variety of perspectives we’re all capable of. Imagination and curiosity also build cognitive flexibility and creativity.

Self expression, confidence & socialization

Hardwick: When you give a child a book, the first thing they do is sit and look at the pictures, the colors. They want to touch it. Giving them time to sit and ask questions about pictures makes it interactive, and that leads to a discussion of what the child knows about the world. Learning how to relate to what’s in front of you — being able to comprehend and then express yourself about what you’ve seen — is an invaluable skill in all facets of life. And strong oral language skills are basics for being a strong reader.

Plus, once children find new interests through a new book, they want to share those interests.

They find other kids who are excited about the same things, or they bring a new book to a set of friends, which builds connections and friendships.

It’s also important to remember that children are modeling what they see parents doing. Reading to toddlers has to be interactive — I read expressively and then I have a child take the book and try to read it the same way. Even if they can’t read the exact words, they can tell the story.

Moody: Reading is a precursor to everything else, so if the skills are learned early, we’re building confident children out of the gate. I was in Malawi in Africa recently training teachers, and I handed books to four children. They didn’t know what to do with them. I had to open the books and show them how to hold them. It was a true reality check about how any child must feel who comes into a classroom and isn’t familiar with reading. Put a child who’s never held a book next to a child who’s never put one down, and of course some children start out from a place of feeling behind.

Why it matters: When children are read to or encouraged to read aloud, it builds vocabulary, knowledge and confidence. Reading aloud is widely recognized as the single most important activity leading to literacy acquisition.

Photos by Patrick Sheehan

Early Literacy Matters pilot

To increase the rate of early childhood literacy, Tennessee’s Department of Education and Human Services, in partnership with GBBF, is piloting an online literacy training program for non-public schools and child care centers in 2017-18. The focus is integrating literacy-based practices into birth-to-five classrooms.

Participants who complete six learning modules will receive learning guides and free Imagination Library books for classrooms, some of which can be taken home for families to read together. GBBF donated 25,000 books to support this project.

The pilot program includes:

  • 186 schools and daycare centers
  • 700+ classrooms
  • 1,700 teachers and assistants
  • 11,000 children

Birthing hospital partnerships

Since 2014, GBBF has partnered with hospitals to enroll children in the Imagination Library. Hospitals provide half of the funding for the first book, “The Little Engine That Could”, and GBBF funds the other half.

The book is presented to parents of newborns who enroll their child prior to discharge from the hospital. So far more than 13,000 children have been enrolled in the program through 13 hospitals statewide.