Educators, activists and politicians have recently intensified their calls to expand access to quality early childhood education. But opening the doors to young children is only part of the solution, experts say, as economic and social factors have caused literacy gaps among low-income children to increase.
Ann O'Leary, vice president and director of the children and families program at Next Generation, estimates that by the time low-income children reach 3 years of age, they have amassed a vocabulary of about 500 words. But by the same age, children from more affluent families have vocabularies more than twice as large, with about 1,100 words.
This phenomenon, known as the "word gap," is one of many factors that hold lower-income children back from becoming proficient in reading and writing, says O'Leary, who helps lead the Too Small to Fail campaign. The initiative, a collaboration between the Clinton Foundation and Next Generation, focuses on providing parents with information to improve the health and well-being of children between birth and age 5.
"The fact of the matter is that there really aren't enough people paying attention to what's happening with some of these big changes for kids in America," O'Leary says.
On Nov. 13, a bipartisan group of legislators – Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y. – introduced legislation to improve access and affordability to early learning programs over the next 10 years by funding preschool for 4-year-old children from families earning below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, among other provisions.
"Education is often cited as the 'great equalizer' of opportunity leading to greater employment opportunities and economic prosperity," Miller said in a statement. "The fact is, quality early childhood education works. The problem is, most kids don't have access to it. The Strong Start for America's Children Act will help close the achievement gap, job gap and wage gap between rich and poor."
While that's an important part of improving early childhood literacy, O'Leary says what happens – or doesn't happen – at home has even more of an effect on children.
"We have a very different racial and ethnic composition now than we did even 10 years ago, and we also have children who now are experiencing more and more chronic health problems – everything from asthma to mental health to disabilities," O'Leary says. "A lot of the issues we're working on are not necessarily new issues, but what is new is how much we know."
Despite the fact that the stresses and health consequences associated with poverty can have an adverse effect on children's brain development, O'Leary says many low-income, less-educated parents also don't have the time to spend interacting with their children – reading to them, talking to them and helping them expand their vocabularies. And according to federal data, children of less-educated parents are being read to with less frequency today than in 1993. Although children whose parents have a bachelor's degree or higher are read to much more frequently than others, the numbers have remained relatively stable over time for all education levels.
But why has the message of the importance of brain development during a child's early years broken through more to wealthier families? Investigating that information barrier, O'Leary says, is key to solving the problem.
"They kind of wildly underestimate that that matters, in terms of their child's future ability to succeed in school," O'Leary says. "We really have to do a much better job of providing parents with the information they need to understand these early years are so critical and that it will really pay off."
Often, children from more disadvantaged backgrounds are already behind by the time they reach kindergarten. And that gap only grows as the kids get older, research shows. Those children who have lower vocabulary and math skills in kindergarten tend to be the same ones with weak skills in seventh grade, and through high school.