Thirty-two million adults in the United States cannot read. That’s 14 percent of the U.S. population. Another 21 percent of adults read below a fifth-grade level. These numbers are staggering and have not improved in 10 years, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.
In South Carolina, where our leaders have excelled in attracting and recruiting businesses, this is exceptionally troubling. Businesses can only compete if we have a ready and able workforce, and with the third-highest illiteracy rate in the nation, we are not positioning ourselves for long-term success.
At Reach Out and Read Carolinas, we are committed to identifying and diagnosing the root cause of adult illiteracy so South Carolina can continue to thrive. Our research shows that the problem rests with a lack of access to effective early childhood education.
What does that mean?
A common misconception is that early childhood education starts with kindergarten, but in reality, it must start long before then. It is vital to start exposing children to language, including books and stories, as early as possible.
Reach Out and Read’s unique approach is to find and meet new families where they are: in their doctor’s office. On average, a child sees a medical provider at least 10 times in the first five years of life, and often more, so we enlist these trusted messengers to our cause. We partner with medical professionals and clinicians to educate parents of children ranging from six months up to 5 years about the importance of reading to their children.
This model focuses on teaching parents about the importance of reading at every check-up for their child, offering support to parents, providing new books for families to take home and bringing literary-rich environments, such as reading rooms, to medical offices.
Parents are their child’s first teachers, and health and education are deeply linked, especially in the first five years of life. Reach Out and Read is committed to healthy brains and bodies. By partnering with the medical community to “prescribe” daily reading, we are treating early childhood education just as rigorously as traditional medical issues.
In 16 peer-reviewed research studies, pre-school children involved in Reach Out and Read tested three to six months ahead of their peers on vocabulary tests, putting these children on a path to success upon entering school. In South Carolina, more than 150,000 children and their families are served each year by Reach Out and Read through their medical homes, and are forging a life-long foundation for reading.
Our efforts are only possible because corporate leaders such as Boeing are committed to South Carolina and understand that strong early reading skills provide a foundation for the globally competitive 21st century skills that are vital to making sure every student is ready to participate in the economy of tomorrow.
This year our Legislature is focused on improving the literacy rate in South Carolina, which is critical. But let’s make sure we are focused on addressing the problem with remedies based in fact. And the fact is, beginning at birth, early childhood education must be part of any serious prescription for our lagging literacy rates. The work begins with the very first check-up.
Ms. Boulware is executive director of Reach Out and Read Carolinas; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.