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How Physical Books are Increasing Reading Comprehension Inside and Outside Prisons

One thing I’ve learned about prison ministry is that you’re going to meet a whole cast of characters. One of those characters is a man I’ve known since I was little - Burl Cain. His name perfectly encapsulates his stature and character. Burl is to no surprise - a burly man, white-haired and jovial with a Southern accent thick as molasses. He possesses the sort of wisdom they don’t teach in school, the kind only bestowed on those who grew up listening to their elders talk on the porch. Burl is always firing off these little quips – my mom, Andrea, calls them “Burlisms” - that make you nod your head and mutter to yourself, “Yup, he’s right”. One of my favorite sayings of Burl’s is “It’s like eating oatmeal, it’s just the right thing to do.” He’s a man of common sense and in today’s world, common sense is worth its weight in gold. Burl is now the Commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, a job that puts him in charge of the welfare and rehabilitation of tens of thousands of men and women. Burl understands that those closest to the problem are also those closest to the solution; when he was warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, he hired a former inmate at Angola to oversee the prison’s programs. Tell me, who could better understand what inmates need to be better individuals than a former inmate? It’s simple, and like oatmeal, just the right thing to do.

 

When I first began working at HeartBound, I went through our onboarding training and kept noting processes that we could optimize, digitize, and expedite. I was finishing up graduate school and all around me, students and professors were “hacking” their way to better efficiency. HeartBound writes personalized thank you letters to donors, I noted that we could save time by having them automated by an email service. To me, a mid-20-something born and raised in the internet era, our operations were outdated and less than efficient. I asked the outgoing program director why we physically mailed books to children that participated in our Little Readers program. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know, because we always have.” Behold! I’d found another process that we could make more efficient – we could send digital copies instead, saving on postage and the time spent for books to ship. I’m sure my business professors would have been delighted that I was using my education to increase our organizational productivity.

 

I shared my strategies with Andrea…and she unapologetically declined them. I was incredulous. Surely she was saying no because she was “old-fashioned”. When and if I ever became the boss, I thought, I would set things on a more efficient path.

 

Well, I was wrong (and yes, Andrea smiled when she read this confession). As Burl Cain says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And not only were HeartBound’s processes not broken, but turns out, they had tremendous benefits for the people we serve. Take for example the practice of physically mailing books to children in the Little Readers program. A new meta-study with over 470,000 participants shows that “the number of books in a child’s household is positively correlated with reading test scores.”[1] To many of you, that might seem like common sense. I know that given my familial background and my family’s resources, I was surrounded by books as a child and I’ve always been a confident reader. However, the most fascinating part of this meta-study is that in households with physical copies of books – not kindles or tablets or other forms of digital reading – traditional print reading leads to “medium to strong gains in reading comprehension.”

 

Why? Digital print media typically contains shorter length, faster-paced stimuli; many digital print materials are also of “lower linguistic quality” according to the researchers. For primary and middle school students, researchers found a “significant negative relationship between leisure digital reading and reading comprehension.” Negative!

 

Today, less than half of Americans adults read at least one book a year for pleasure, whether in print or digitally. From 2012 to 2022, only 37.8% of American adults read a short story or novel at least once a year, a decline of 17%. After reading this study, I’m struck by the thought that reading in America is broken, but our Little Readers program sure isn’t. We’re still putting physical books in the hands of children across Georgia, Tennessee, and beyond. In fact, last year, we sent out over 1,500 books, 1,500 video recordings, and 1,500 children’s Bibles to kids so that they could read and bond with their incarcerated loved one. Not only are we increasing book access in homes impacted by incarceration and addiction, but we are giving children access to God’s story through Bibles and correspondence Bible study courses.

 

We have a goal this year to expand our Little Readers program to another surrounding state, be it Florida, Alabama, or South Carolina. Our feedback suggests that this program works – children read their Little Readers books nearly ten times a week on average. Another goal is to send out 2,000 Little Readers packets this year – that’s 2,000 books and 2,000 children’s Bibles. To accomplish these ambitious goals, we need your help. Each book costs $3-$5 on average and each Little Readers packet costs us $15.31. If you’d like to make a gift to support the Little Readers program, please visit www.givebutter.com/HeartBound. If you or your church/organization would like to organize a children’s book drive with new or gently worn books, we can donate them to Little Readers carts in prison visitation rooms across Georgia and Mississippi. Every book in a child’s hands is a step in the right direction towards increasing reading comprehension and breaking generational cycles of low literacy, crime, and incarceration.

 

Reading might be broken, but we can fix it. Like Burl says, “It’s like eating oatmeal, it’s just the right thing to do.”


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