Column – Preschoolers and books: a predictor of success

Published 5:05 pm Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Many farm children, including us, didn’t attend kindergarten. There were a few privately operated options, but farm life often didn’t lend itself to sending preschoolers off to class. 

We were expected to hit the ground running in the first grade, under the strict tutelage of gifted teachers like Evelyn Saunders, who, without aides, taught more than 30 first graders apiece.

That’s not to say we were without resources. We had books when we were children. Some were quite costly for modest family resources, but our mother made sure we were exposed to a variety of reading material. And we were read to regularly before we could read to ourselves.

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That tradition continued. I married a voracious reader, and Anne made sure that our children had books from the time they were born, and that the children were read to daily. 

Thus, over the years, I have understood the value of having “reading parents” and the disparity in reading opportunity that exists for children who do not. I know the importance of closing the literacy gap that exists between the so-called “middle class” and the poor.

Yet, while understanding all of that, I don’t think I ever fully grasped the gravity of the disparity and its impact, not just on individual children but on society as a whole. 

My understanding reached a new level several weeks ago when an enthusiastic and talented volunteer with the Christian Outreach Program spoke to COP’s Board of Directors about the program she founded and continues to guide for the organization. 

Beth Butner is an Isle of Wight County native and career reading specialist. She’s a full-time Chesterfield County resident but spends time each month at a second home she and her husband enjoy here in her ancestral county. She began volunteering as a receptionist at COP in 2016 and soon suggested that the organization collect “gently used” books and give them to families with young children who came to COP for various types of assistance.

The idea took root and quickly mushroomed. Today, Food for Thought maintains 11 “Little Lending Libraries,” made of converted newspaper racks, in communities throughout northern Isle of Wight, and is now exploring ways to serve the southern end of the county. The organization works with Isle of Wight Social Services, providing books to be taken by its staff directly into homes as well as guidance on the importance of reading to their children. 

During the seven years since its rather modest beginning, the Food for Thought program has given away in excess of 28,000 books, most of them to preschoolers.

FFT isn’t the only local effort aimed at improving children’s reading experiences and abilities. Smithfield Foods has signed on as the local sponsor of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library Program, which provides participating families with free books monthly.

Another important project is a reading tutor program initiated by the Smithfield Kiwanis Club. Club member and Smithfield Blackwater Librarian Terry Andrews spearheads the club’s “IsleRead” program, which trains volunteer reading tutors who go into county schools to work as one-on-one tutors in kindergarten reading classes. Partners in that program include the Luter Family YMCA, county public schools, the Woman’s Club of Smithfield and COP.

It’s an impressive array of volunteer work, but why is it so important? That’s where Mrs. Butner’s talk became downright jarring, for she came armed with statistics as well as enthusiasm.

Only one-third of Virginia students are proficient in reading by the fourth grade, she said, quoting a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch story. And that’s important because nationally it’s estimated that two thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare.

There’s more. According to the National Commission on Reading, the single most significant factor influencing a child’s early educational success is an introduction to books and being read to at home prior to beginning school. 

And yet, a horrifying number of children have neither the books nor the experience of being read to. In middle-income neighborhoods, the average child has 13 age-appropriate books available. In low-income neighborhoods, the ratio is depressingly different. It’s one age-appropriate book for every 300 children — that according to the Handbook on Early Literacy Research. That’s the number that most shocked me, and the statistic that, more forcefully than any other, brought home the importance of what these volunteer programs are attempting.

Reading initiatives are reaching out to help what will be the next generation of county residents. We all should hope that the FFT program, IsleRead Program, the Dolly Parton project, the libraries, Social Services and the county school system can collectively succeed in closing the reading gap so that our current set of preschoolers can break the cycle that holds so many children back.

(Note: John Edwards is a member of the COP Board.)


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is