Guest Column: Early literacy promotes lifelong success

Published 8:00 pm Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Guest Column by Tim Penny

Tim Penny


Summer is here, which means families are finally able to enjoy the outdoors after a long winter. As campfires burn out and kids get ready for bed, many parents will pull out a book and read a bedtime story. This is important because studies consistently show that reading at a young age drastically improves a child’s educational trajectory. According to Minnesota Compass, the ability to read by the end of third grade often predicts future academic and life success. Fifty-seven percent of third-graders in Minnesota are proficient in reading, and our 20-county region is only a fraction above the statewide average. At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, we know it is important to invest in early literacy efforts as a long-term strategy to support our communities and future workforce.

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One way we support this effort is through our Literacy Grant Program. We recently distributed more than 18,000 books — English, Spanish and bilingual — to 41 organizations in our region through this grant. These organizations — libraries, schools, public health organizations, reading centers and more — work with children birth to age 5. The beauty of this program is that these organizations will distribute the books to children who will be able to take them home, hopefully encouraging a lifelong love of reading. Minnesota-based publishing companies, ABDO Publishing and Capstone, generously donate the majority of the books for this program. Over the years of partnering with these companies, we have been able to distribute more than 100,000 books throughout the region.

Our AmeriCorps LEAP Initiative is another way we facilitate early literacy. LEAP stands for Learning Early Achieves Potential, which is the mantra that guides this program. Each year, between 10 to 20 AmeriCorps members are placed throughout the region at preschools and nonprofit organizations. Our members work on social and emotional development with children who are at risk of falling behind. Reading exercises are a major part of the program.

I have always appreciated how our AmeriCorps members take reading a step further by applying the book’s storyline to other teachable activities, also known as “expanded learning.” One member who served in St. Peter read a book called “Big and Small” to the classroom. After the reading, she sent the children in pairs to look for pictures of big bugs and small bugs around the room. During the reading the children were learning how to sit still and listen. During the search for bugs, the children were practicing skills of cooperating, taking turns and taking pride in how many they found together. These are lessons that will serve these children throughout their lives.

Additionally, our Parenting Matters program brings early literacy education to parents in the workplace. A series of parenting sessions are provided over the lunch hour, allowing for easy and free access to working parents. During the literacy session, parents are given ideas on what types of books are best for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. The connection between literacy skills and early writing skills is made, and parents are given books to encourage the development of those skills early on at home. The other classes include identifying and managing emotions, teaching children self-control and problem-solving strategies, and reducing stress at home. Over the years companies like Jostens in Owatonna, Profinium in Fairmont, Mankato and Owatonna, and Roundbank in Waseca have taken advantage of this program. We are currently facilitating a program at the Southeast Service Cooperative in Rochester.

As we continue to invest in early literacy efforts, we hope to see the reading proficiencies rise in our region. Our partner organizations and grant recipients are doing wonderful work ensuring that our future adults will be prepared for success in life. We are proud to be a partner in these efforts.

We are currently seeking AmeriCorps members for our 2018-19 term. Contact Barbara Gunderson at or 507-456-0353 to learn more. As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at or 507-455-3215.

Tim Penny is the president and CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.