A critical boost to early reading

Jo Kirchner is president and CEO of the Acworth-based Primrose Schools, a national accredited early education and care provider with 280 schools. She’s on the board of Reach Out and Read, AdvancED and ReadyNation.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ partnership with Reach Out and Read and Scholastic Inc. and the bipartisan Too Small to Fail Initiative is a critical booster shot to reverse the trend of kindergartners falling behind before they even start school.

Requiring pediatricians to talk to new parents about the importance of reading to children before they can talk — and providing books and tools to help them — elevates an issue that’s been troubling educators and business leaders.

Research shows the human brain develops at a much faster rate between birth and 5 years of age than it ever does again in life. With 700 new neural connections forming every second, a baby’s brain can process information with astounding speed. Reading to young children helps them make sense of the world, stimulates their vocabulary and helps with socialization skills. It’s as vital for healthy brain development as proper nutrition and exercise are for physical growth.

A confluence of trends makes this effort timely. More mothers are either single, working outside the home or both. The digital revolution, with its many positives, favors visuals over words and encourages passive electronic learning instead of critical human interactions that nurture a child’s verbal IQ. And the inconsistency of quality pre-school makes it difficult for all children to arrive at first grade on an equal footing.

More than 16 million U.S. children live in poverty. On average, children from families on welfare receive half as much vocabulary experience as children from working-class families, and less than a third of the experience given to children from high-income families. This translates into large numbers of at-risk children who need remediation just to stay at grade level. Downstream, this means growing numbers of high school dropouts and lost potential for the American workforce.

The collective action of AAP, Reach Out and Read, Scholastic and Too Small to Fail is a movement that should stimulate all of us to support early literacy. If you are a parent or caregiver of babies, make time to read to them every day. Volunteer at a local shelter or pre-school where you can be a guest reader.

Stimulate back-and-forth interactions by asking questions as you read, using the “serve and return” philosophy. As we “serve” words, babies “return” sounds that form the beginning of language and reinforce comprehension. Engage toddlers in conversations about the story and pictures so they can build language skills. Play word games, letter puzzles and rhyming games — phonological stepping stones for decoding words later on.

If you are a business leader, lobby elected officials for quality early education for all of America’s children. Put politics aside to invest in tomorrow’s workforce — our most precious national asset. As Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said, “Our children are our message to a time we’ll never see.”

Our educational crisis is a national security issue. I urge you to take a stand.