Early Learning

Building Lifelong Learners in Tennessee: How Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation Partners to Strengthen Early Literacy Statewide

 //  Aug 17, 2020

Building Lifelong Learners in Tennessee: How Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation Partners to Strengthen Early Literacy Statewide

James Pond is the president of Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation (GELF) in Nashville, Tennessee. In this post, he shares the organization’s journey to strengthen early literacy in Tennessee through engagement and access to books.

My grandson, Strider, turns two this year. Watching him experience life and learn new words through books is a remarkable and entertaining gift. If you asked Strider what he wants to be when he grows up, he’d probably say Buzz Lightyear, but regardless of their aspirations, he and every child deserve the opportunity for a bright future, from cradle to career.

According to the Tennessee Department of Education, fewer than half of Tennessee’s third graders read proficiently, which is comparable to the national average. This is the critical benchmark where children transition from “learning to read'' to “reading to learn.” Research shows that high school drop-out rates, incarceration rates, and poverty correlate to whether students achieve reading proficiency by third grade. This is alarming and overwhelming, right?

That’s why our mission is to strengthen early literacy in Tennessee by building lifelong learners. We don't do it alone. We partner with a network of volunteers, local and state governments, donors, and organizations to sustain early literacy programs for children statewide. We serve as a thought leader, advisor and catalyst, and it takes partnerships of all kinds and all levels to help fulfill our mission.

We began in 2004 as a statewide, public-private partnership to foster a love of reading in Tennessee. We give every child from birth to age five a book each month at no cost, delivered right to their mailbox through Dolly Parton's Imagination Library program. Since 2004, we have delivered more than 40 million books and are currently serving 70% of the state’s age-eligible population, with research supporting a positive impact on vocabulary development, school readiness, and reading skills into third grade. With an emphasis on shared responsibility among communities, state government, and the private sector, this public-private partnership has become a model for other states.

We have grown from being a book-gifting program to an organization driven by early literacy. While providing books in the homes of Tennessee families, we began to ask ourselves—what’s next? What more can we do to serve children and move the needle on early literacy in our state? How can we further engage families around utilizing books and resources to provide children with literacy-rich experiences?

We partnered with other early literacy efforts across the state. For instance, our Storybook Trail program, in partnership with state and local parks, creates enriching, outdoor reading experiences for families, and our Book Bus program supports school districts in creating mobile libraries that travel during the summer, bringing literacy resources directly to families.

In 2020, we launched two new pilot programs—a Caregiver Engagement program and a Kindergarten to third grade Summer Reading program. In response to the unexpected COVID-19 school closures, our Caregiver Engagement program provided resources for families to read and learn together. This summer, we also launched our K–third grade Summer Reading pilot providing rising first through third graders in participating school districts with Scholastic books and resources over the summer.

Wise words that we can all agree on from our founder, former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, “I’ve got a very simple view of life. The job of grown-ups is to make the world a better place for their children, the next generation.

But schools and caregivers don’t have to do it alone. Do we have all of the answers? No, but organizations like ours can bring community partners of all sizes together to identify needs, address challenges, and create the connections and solutions that align with our shared vision. Together, we can help ensure a prosperous future by providing children with the resources to develop skills in becoming lifelong learners.

Literacy is a human right and the foundation to lifelong learning. The entire community has a role in protecting this right and providing it to our children.

We encourage you to connect with early literacy efforts in your community and be a part of this chapter of our future generation’s story. Ask your community—what’s next? What more can we do to serve children?


The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters A KIDS COUNT Special Report on the Importance of Reading by 3rd Grade. Baltimore: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010. July 15, 2020. https://www.aecf.org/resources/early-warning-why-reading-by-the-end-of-third-grade-matters/.

Image and video courtesy of Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation