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The Early Literacy Crisis: A Mom Congress Special Report

The Vanda Early Learning Center in Lubbock, TX, sits between two cotton fields, with a bright-blue sign out front and a globe painted on the sidewalk. It's a cheery spot for the children who come here, nearly all of whom qualify for the federal free-lunch program. With its state-endorsed kindergarten-readiness program, it also represents a critical opportunity for them to avoid ending up like the 22 percent of adults over age 25 in Lubbock who don't have a high school diploma.

Zadrian Rodriguez was at high risk of becoming one of those statistics because his mother, Amelia, was struggling to raise three young kids on her own. "I was working long hours and I didn't have time to sit down with them or read to them," she says. Like more than half of the families whose children attend Vanda, Rodriguez also didn't have any books at home. And those are huge problems.

Research has repeatedly shown that access to books and one-on-one reading time is an important predictor of future literacy skills. Reading to your baby from infancy on exposes her to the alphabet, to the sounds that words make, and to the idea that print letters translate into spoken words. Talking to your child about a story boosts understanding and vocabulary. In contrast, not having this language and literacy exposure can quickly set kids like Zadrian and his siblings up for failure. Many children who enter kindergarten without pre-reading skills in place never catch up, according to "America's Early Childhood Literacy Gap," a 2009 report from Jumpstart, a national early education organization dedicated to advancing school readiness in low-income communities. "By second grade, we can predict with reasonable accuracy who will go on to higher education and who will not, based on their literacy skills," says Jumpstart board member Laura Berk, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Illinois State University.

A parade of experts echo this sentiment: If a child isn't caught up by third grade, "it requires intense intervention to close this gap," says Janice Im, senior program manager at Zero to Three, a nonprofit that promotes healthy development in babies and toddlers.

"We have faith in education and how it works, but the truth is that these kids don't catch up no matter how good their schools are," agrees Adam Ray of the Pearson Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the media giant, which helps fund Jumpstart's work.

Having reading difficulties also increases the odds that a child will drop out of school and have a criminal record. States like California and Indiana have even factored in the number of third-graders who are not reading at grade level when planning future jail construction. But the news isn't all bad: There's a growing understanding of the urgent need to help young kids develop literacy skills, and organizations like Jumpstart are stepping in to help.