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For poor kids, recommendation to read aloud is even more critical

The newest medicine prescribed by pediatricians is reading aloud to your child. For children from disadvantaged families, it could make the difference between graduating from high school or falling behind before they even step inside a classroom.

On Tuesday, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued its first official recommendation on early literacy development, advising parents to read aloud regularly to their children. But for time-strapped parents who work multiple jobs and can't afford to buy books or travel to local libraries, or who are not literate themselves, the seemingly simple recommendation poses a real challenge.

"We take the books in our homes and our local libraries for granted,"  said Wendy Christian, a spokesperson for the international charity Save the Children. But for families in impoverished and remote areas of the country, who may lack those resources or have no reading tradition, the failure to read to children could hamper early development of crucial language and literacy skills.

Encouraging parents to read aloud to the 16 million children below the poverty line from an early age could help close the achievement gap between them and more affluent youngsters. Disadvantaged children who don’t participate in high quality early education programs are 60 percent more likely not to attend college,  70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime and 40 percent more likely to become a teen parent than those who do, according to Save the Children.

“The book is a device by which you can, in front of your eyes, see how a child is doing,” said Pamela High, a pediatrician and lead author of the AAP's new policy. “A child’s early literacy development is one of the best ways to predict how well a child will do from kindergarten to high school graduation.”

The 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health found that only 34 percent of children younger than 5 years old in families below the poverty threshold were read to on a daily basis, compared with 60 percent of children from affluent families.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, the average cognitive scores of preschool-age children in the highest socioeconomic group are 60 percent above the average scores of children in the lowest. Before they even start school, the vocabulary development of children who live below the poverty line is 18 months behind that of their peers, and the gap persists at age 10.

A landmark study found two decades ago that by the age of three, children of wealthier professionals have an advantage in school because of their exposure to millions more words than the children of parents with less education. New research published by Stanford University psychologists has found that at 2 years of age, children of lower-income families may already be six months behind in developing literacy. By age 3, children from wealthier households heard 30 million more words than children from less advantaged homes.

Save the Children is running an Early Steps to School Success program in parts of Tennessee, the Mississippi Delta, Navajo territories and California's central valley where there are large populations of migrant farm workers. The program provides home visits, book exchanges and parenting groups to vulnerable families, preparing mothers from the beginning of pregnancy to read to their children and help develop strong literacy skills.

“These parents didn't grow up with the tradition of reading or learn the parenting skills. They don’t have books in their home,” Christian said. "The children don’t even get the feel for a book, how to hold a book, the chance to watch how their parent’s eyes scan across the words. When they arrive at kindergarten, this puts these children at such a disadvantage.”