Access to Preschool Won't End the Literacy Problem in America, Experts Say

By age 3, low-income children have vocabularies about half the size of children from wealthier families.

John Veihmeyer, chief executive officer of KPMG, and his wife Beth read to children during a Family for Literacy program. Some say expanding access to preschool is only part of eradicating illiteracy in America.
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O'Leary says in order to help close this literacy gap, companies from the private sector can use their size and influence to spread the word and break down that information barrier. In the retail community, for example, O'Leary says companies can provide information to parents when they're purchasing diapers, baby wipes, or food, about what they should be doing during those early years.

Additionally, O'Leary says the private sector can help support working and lower-income parents by providing more workplace flexibility and support for quality, affordable child care, as well as access to learning materials.

John Veihmeyer, chief executive officer of KPMG, says the auditing company began a program about five years ago to do just that. Through its Family for Literacy program, KPMG employees, retirees and their family members go to schools with large populations of low-income children, donate books, and more importantly, take the time to sit down and read to them.

One of those schools is Don Pedro Albizu Campos, a public school in New York City with a large percentage of low-income, minority and English Language Learner students.

[RELATED: Funding Quality Public Preschool Is an Investment in the Future, Report Says]

"For the kids to see people who are actually totally different from them and care about them enough to come to the school and spend some time reading with them, talking to them, creates a really nice dynamic," says Peter Kornicker, the school's dean of development.

Hesays the book donations don't just benefit the students in the school, but also their siblings and even parents.

"One of the big issues we have is a lot of the parents come from rural farm areas of the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico, and they're illiterate," Kornicker says. "So even though we want them involved and working with their kids, they have a difficult time because they don't feel they have enough knowledge to do it."

But when the students are able to bring books home to share with their families, "it sort of brings them together," Kornicker says.

Veihmeyer says it's important to address the issue at a young age because many times, children with weak literacy and numeracy skills end up dropping out of school altogether.

"When you look at the impact in lost earnings, lost revenue, social service expenses that dropouts create, it's hundreds of billions of dollars that this costs society," Veihmeyer says. "It's ignoring the opportunity cost of what those students could be contributing if in fact they made it through high school and could be successful."

[SEE ALSO: Racial Achievement Gaps Remain Largely Unchanged, Despite Higher Test Scores]

The ratio of the number of books-to-child in middle-income neighborhoods, Veihmeyer says, is about 13 books for every child. But in low-income neighborhoods, that ratio is much different, with about one age-appropriate book available for every 300 children. Just by helping contribute materials to students who don't have access to them, Veihmeyer says, could help to start solve the problem.

"There's no silver bullet and there's no one solution," Veihmeyer says. "But I think we're trying to attack this at the source of access to materials that are going to help children become proficient at age-appropriate levels."

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