By Kristen Kucharczuk
Today in America, there are more than 11 million children age 5 and younger who are living in poverty. Millions of these children will arrive on the first day of kindergarten well behind their peers, unprepared to read and learn.
Despite the billions of dollars Americans have invested in reading recovery programs, those children are likely to never catch up, placing them at increased risk for absenteeism, dropping out, juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, and teenage pregnancy. If we want to break the cycle of poverty and help children realize their potential, we must target children before they enter school, making it a priority to help them develop the basic skills that will enable them to excel.
That's why I became one of the 25,000 doctors and nurse practitioners nationwide who incorporate school readiness into the standard care we provide for young children through the Reach Out and Read Program. Beginning at 6 months of age, Reach Out and Read's evidence-based model includes giving each child a new, age-appropriate book at every checkup, and speaking with parents about the importance of reading aloud every day.
Reach Out and Read was founded in 1989 by pediatricians and early childhood educators, and it's been proven to work by 13 published research studies. Thanks to the program, the 36,000 children served in the Philadelphia region are read aloud to more often. They enter kindergarten with larger vocabularies and stronger language skills, and are better prepared to succeed.
The deceptively simple program achieves such extraordinary results by directly addressing many of the obstacles that low-income children and families face and by engaging parents in the process.
Reading aloud to young children is one of the best activities to stimulate language and cognitive skills, yet more than 40 percent of parents in Pennsylvania don't read to their children every day. Families living in poverty often lack access to libraries and children's bookstores - in fact, 61 percent of low-income families have no children's books in their homes. That's part of the reason why low-income children will hear up to 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers before the age of 4 and, on average, will be able to recognize only nine letters of the alphabet at the age of 5.
Reach Out and Read capitalizes on the relationship between parents and pediatric health-care providers, recognizing that parents are far more likely to take advice to heart when it comes from a trusted caregiver. And Reach Out and Read provides the tools that parents need to act upon that advice - brand-new children's books.
So allow me to join your pediatrician in encouraging you to make it your New Year's resolution this year to read to your children every day. Together, we can break the cycle of poverty by ensuring that every child arrives at school ready to read, and ready to learn.