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Improving Third Grade Reading Scores: Start at Birth or "Game Over??"

Posted: 03/10/2014

The following article written by David T. Tayloe MD was in the Goldsboro New Argus on March 3, 2014

Improving Third Grade Reading Scores:  Start at Birth or "Game Over??"

State leaders are showing public concern about the dismal third and fourth grade reading scores of public school students in our state.  Our leaders seem to understand that children who are not reading well by fourth grade are high-risk to drop out of school and to not be contributing members of our workforce and communities. These leaders seem focused on the efforts of the public schools.  The public schools are "too little too late" for most of the children who are not reading proficiently in the third and fourth grades.  To improve our third/fourth grade reading scores, we must start at birth.

We met with the administration of our public schools to discuss ways to improve the reading proficiency of our third and fourth graders.  The data presented indicate that about the same number of children enter kindergarten without the skills necessary to learn to read as are discovered to be unable to read proficiently in the third grade.  And, approximately this same number of children are dropping out of school prior to high school graduation.  Our school officials pointed out to us that the schools have been working hard to address the K-3 reading problems of at-risk children for many years, causing us to conclude that if the public schools could fix these children, they would have fixed them a long time ago.  The public school administration encouraged us, the pediatricians, to try to empower parents to improve the school readiness of at-risk preschool children.  In other words, something good/better needs to happen for these children long before they enter kindergarten.

Our practice has been engaged in a program called Reach Out and Read for the last 10 years.  Through this program, our providers give age- and culturally-appropriate books to babies and preschool children at all 10 well-child check-ups between 6 months and 5 years of age.  The vast majority of the children who enter the Wayne County Public Schools are patients in our practice.  Therefore, our practice needs to enhance its Reach Out and Read efforts to better empower parents to improve the school readiness of preschool children. 

Reach Out and Read has an evidence base consisting of 15 peer-reviewed research studies going back to the early '90's.  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has resources for pediatricians who are trying to improve the early brain and language development of preschool children.  In studying evidence provided by Reach Out and Read and the AAP, we discovered the following facts:

The language skills of kindergarten children are directly proportional to the number of words the children hear their mothers say in the first 2 years of life.

The language skills of kindergarten children determine the reading ability of children when they reach third grade.

Some children, especially those living in poverty, hear ten times fewer words than other children who grow up in more advantaged households.

When the television is on in the home, adult conversation drops way off.

There has been a proliferation of media technology (smart phones, iPads, laptops, video game boxes, HD televisions) during the past decade.

Our practice is currently engaged in a campaign to improve the school readiness of at-risk children in our community.  All of our providers are being encouraged to do more to empower parents to spend as many waking minutes as possible engaged in face-to-face talking with their babies and young children, and to turn off their televisions and other media technology whenever their young children are awake.  We are recruiting other organizations in the community to help us support parents in improving the school readiness of these at-risk preschool children.  We will partner with the public schools for ongoing measurement of the school readiness of Pre-K to third grade children.

Our state government leaders need to make sure that funding is available so that all primary care providers of health services for young children are implementing Reach Out and Read in their practices.  Reach Out and Read needs to start at birth, so that parents are encouraged to spend as much time as possible talking face-to-face with their babies and preschool children.  Parents need to be advised to limit their, and their preschool children's use of media technology.  Funding should be available so that all at-risk preschool children can have high quality childcare and preschool experiences.

We must begin much earlier than kindergarten if we expect to improve the third/fourth grade reading proficiency of at-risk children, and to make sure those children graduate from high school and become responsible participants in our workforce and communities.   We must start at birth, or "game over!"

David T. Tayloe, Jr., MD, FAAP

Goldsboro Pediatrics, PA

February 11, 2014



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