09/16/2013 10:03 am ET

Closing the Childhood Literacy Gap

September is National Literacy Month and a reminder that as kids across the U.S. settle in for another school year, many are at a critical disadvantage due to low literacy skills or outright illiteracy.

Without intervention, these students face a challenging future. Literacy has lifelong impacts on educational achievement, employment and earning power, health, and other areas. Third grade is an especially critical year. Research shows that a third-grade student's ability to read at grade level is a critical indicator of whether that child will graduate from high school and attend college. And regrettably, we know that too many children across our country are not fully proficient readers by the end of their third grade year.

For those with poor reading skills, the outlook is bleak: many will not earn a high school diploma, they will have earnings near the poverty level, and are more likely to commit a crime. Also, as noted by First Book, over the course of their lifetimes, these individuals will cost the United States more than a quarter of a million dollars each.

Addressing this issue requires creative and innovative solutions, including private-public partnerships and collaborative efforts with non-profit organizations. I know such collaboration works - I've seen it firsthand. Five years ago, we launched KPMG's Family for Literacy (KFFL) program. Today our people take books to classrooms, read to and tutor children, and give books for children to take home.

KFFL is one of many programs actively serving communities across the country, helping them improve literacy rates among their most under-resourced, at-risk youth. Another example is a recent collaboration of San Francisco RBI, Coaching for Literacy, and Angel Food, along with the University of San Francisco (USF), the San Francisco Giants, Sports Basement, and Major League Baseball. Recently, these organizations collaborated to provide 150 under-resourced Bay Area elementary school children with an experience of a lifetime. USF student athletes and a surprise guest, San Francisco Giants' pitcher Matt Cain, talked to the children about the importance of reading. On the bus ride back to their schools, one little girl couldn't wait to pull out a book from her book bag to read on the way home. The joy of reading is a powerful thing to witness.

Thanks to so many passionate and dedicated individuals, including my KPMG colleagues, much has been done. But we can't rest. This is a persistent challenge that requires an insistent focus. As corporate citizens and members of our own local communities, we can all make a difference.

There's no better time than the present to take action in support of literacy. It can truly provide a child, business, and society with a lifetime payoff.