Giving Our Kids an Early Start to Success
It is our favorite time of the day, right after the nightly bubble bath, just before bedtime—snuggled up in our rocking chair with a pile of story books. As far as my 20-month-old son knows, this time is all about cuddling, telling stories, singing songs, and having fun. But I know better. The truth is, I am giving him an invaluable gift—a head start towards success in kindergarten, grade school, high school, then college and a career.
Despite our busy schedules, my wife and I have read to our son nearly every night of his young life. We do this because we have read the parenting books and research that say it is what we are supposed to do. But we also do it because we both have parents who instilled in us the value of education, starting by reading with us when we were very young.
Why is reading to young children so important? Put simply, the number of words a preschooler knows is among the most accurate predictors of success in school, and reading aloud to our little ones is the best way to build their vocabulary. Statistically, my son is likely to hear as many as 30 million more words by age four than his peers from low-income households. Furthermore, more than 60 percent of low-income families don't have a single age-appropriate children's book in the home. So, it is no wonder that, when children from low-income families arrive for their first day of kindergarten, they are already as many as 18 months behind.
In the early grades, a strong vocabulary helps children learn new concepts and become successful independent readers. By the time children begin the 4th grade, independent reading is their most important learning tool. Struggling 4th grade readers are likely to lag behind in science, math, and other subject areas for the rest of their academic careers. What's more, a lack of reading skills is one of the most commonly cited reasons for dropping out of school. While America's dropout crisis is sad and shameful, it is hardly unpredictable. Too many children enter school already behind, struggle, fall further behind, struggle some more, get frustrated, and ultimately quit.
At Save the Children, our philosophy is simple: start reading early and often. Our continuum of early language and literacy services dramatically increases the quantity and quality of reading practice for children from birth to age 12. We partner with schools in 17 states to provide supplemental support to at-risk children and families, increase access to books, and strengthen local knowledge and capacity to support reading. As a result, children in our early learning programs are coming to school with the skills they need to succeed and those in our school-aged programs are making reading gains equivalent to attending an additional five months of school. There is still much more to be done, but these gains represent real progress.
Save the Children works with thousands of families all across the country, from the mountains of Appalachia to the canyons of the Southwest. As I sit down to read with my son each night, I think about the parents in these places who are also taking part in this important ritual. Most of the parents we work with come from very different backgrounds than my own. But they all have something in common with me and my wife: we all want the very best for our children. By working with schools to increase access to books, strengthen community capacity, and remove barriers to early literacy, Save the Children is helping to ensure that all of our children get off to a great start toward success in school and in life.
Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2011). 2011 kids count data book—America's children, America's challenge: Promoting opportunity for the next generation. Retrieved from http://datacenter.kidscount.org/databook/2011/OnlineBooks/2011KCDB_FINAL.pdf
Hart, B., & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.
Hernandez, D. (2011). Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation. Retrieved from http://www.aecf.org/~/media/Pubs/Topics/Education/Other/DoubleJeopardyHowThirdGradeReadingSkillsandPovery/DoubleJeopardyReport040511FINAL.pdf
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (1996). Reading literacy in the United States: Findings from the IEA Reading Literacy Study. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs/96258.pdf
John Farden has been with whole child partner Save the Children U.S. Programs since 2006 and currently serves as national director of programs and partnerships. Save the Children is the leading independent organization creating real and lasting change for children in the United States and around the world. Its U.S. programs strive to ensure the most underserved children in the country are ready to succeed by the time they begin school, enjoy academic and personal success, are healthy and active in learning and life, and are safe and protected when disaster strikes. Farden lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife Lee and son Jacoby.