March is Read Aloud Month, when libraries and schools around the country hold up parents, family members, and caregivers who read to their kids, because it gives them a big advantage in school and in life.
According to a famous 1995 study, by the time a child born into poverty reaches age three, she has heard 30 million fewer words than her peers. This is often called the “word gap.”
Why does that matter? Because we know that verbal skills, like other skills, develop only if they are used. So a lot of kids — who already have the challenge of growing up in poverty — have this additional disadvantage of failing to develop the verbal skills that they will need in school and in life. That makes it harder for them to get good grades, develop other skills, get a good job, and live out their dreams.
A 2003 study on the word gap found that by age three — before even reaching school age — children’s “trends in the amount of talk, vocabulary growth, and style of interaction were well established and clearly suggest widening gaps to come.”
Having poor reading skills makes it harder to earn a living and makes life more difficult in so many small ways. Just imagine if you couldn’t read an instruction manual, a list of ingredients, or this newspaper.
Millions of our friends and neighbors are struggling with these consequences every day. According to the Department of Education, about 32 million adults in the United States can’t read. That’s a group nearly three times the size of Ohio.
One out of every five American adults reads below a fifth-grade level, and nearly the same percentage of high school graduates can’t read. Too many of these folks started off life with the disadvantage of this word gap, a disadvantage that could largely have been prevented.
That’s why Read Aloud Month is so critical. Parents and other caretakers need to know that they can steer their children in a better direction, develop vocabulary skills and end the word gap, just by reading out loud to them.
According to experts, reading to kids is so important that it even affects the biology of the brain. Dr. Tzipi Horowitz-Kraus of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital says that “the more you read to your child, the more you help the neurons in the brain to grow and connect.” Think about that. Just by reading to a child, you can change her brain.
As a Dad of three amazing kids, I know that parenting is hard work. Parents are incredibly busy. Sometimes when I talk about this issue, people say to me, Rob, I just don’t have time. Or, Rob, I can’t afford to buy a lot of books.
But that’s okay. All you need is 15 minutes a day to close the word gap. You don’t need to go out and buy a lot of new books. All you need is a library card.
We’ve got some incredible libraries in Ohio. The public library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County helped my wife Jane and me to read to our kids when they were little. And I’m really proud that Ohio has led the way on ending the word gap.
In fact, the Read Aloud campaign began in the greater Cincinnati area in 2008, and now it is becoming a national movement as more and more people learn about the word gap and the consequences it has on our children.
This isn’t a partisan issue or even a political issue. Washington, D.C. won’t be the one to fix this problem. Ultimately it will have to be solved by families with the help of community leaders, librarians, and educators.
Every time you read to your child you are making it easier for them to learn in school and you could even instill in them a love of learning that will last a lifetime.
Simply put, reading to your child every day is one of the most important things you can do to help them fulfill their God-given potential.
Rob Portman (R-Ohio) represents Ohio in the US Senate.