10/11/2013 11:09 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

America's Word Gap Threatens Our Children's Likelihood for Success


Communication -- written and verbal -- serves as the foundation of any successful society. This is indisputable. What is also indisputable is that too many American children lack the type of parental communication and literacy-rich environments needed to put them on a path of academic and professional success. As a result, our children find themselves struggling to compete in a more literate global marketplace.

According to the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), students in nearly 40 percent of countries scored higher than their U.S. counterparts in reading. This is staggering given how fundamental reading is to all other facets of education. Not to mention that according to PISA research, literacy is a useful predictor of future economic success.

But why does the U.S. continue to trail other nations? We are lacking emphasis on early childhood literacy -- which we'll define as a young child's learning and development around listening, speaking, reading, and writing. There are certainly programs doing great work in this area. In June, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a campaign called "Too Small to Fail" that, among other things, aims to enrich early childhood literacy. Yet even with these programs, we continue to lack consistency in early childhood literacy programming and implementation.

Considering that roughly one in three children arrives at kindergarten lacking the skills necessary for lifetime learning, we would be hard pressed to find anyone who insists that early childhood literacy is not a major issue.

If we are to solve this literacy issue, we must take a closer look at the problem. Studies have shown that there are inconsistencies in how parents in different socioeconomic classes prepare their children to learn to read.

In one piece of research, often referred to as the "Word Gap Study," Betty Hart and Todd Risley famously found that from birth to age 4, children in low-income homes are exposed to 35 million fewer words than those in the homes of "professionals." Let that sink in: 35 million words!

This Word Gap exists for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to, the many stressors on underprivileged households. As such, children in lower-income homes are typically less exposed to language-rich conversations and higher levels of direction-based dialogue ("Go here." "Do this." "Sit down."). Further, in our technology and media-rich society, young children in all socioeconomic classes are exposed to fewer books and family/parental "discussions." All parents are missing an important opportunity to communicate with their children. This must change.

Schools, libraries and community organizations across the country need access to resources that help increase family engagement in critical areas of a child's learning and development. Turn-key materials that are both rich in modeling and simple in delivery are critical, especially for young children in low-income and English language learning homes where they are less likely to have opportunities to engage in these everyday parent-child interactions.

This is why Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street, and the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation (IICF) have partnered to launch "Every Day is a Reading and Writing Day," a new digital resource that provides tips, games and activities that parents, caregivers and volunteers can use to engage children to improve literacy through enhancing foundational skills like reading and writing. The program is a free, bi-lingual resource designed for Americans of all economic means.

The insurance industry, alongside Sesame, sees the importance of America's literacy problem and the impact it's having on our competitiveness around the world. As an industry focused quite literally on investing in the future, it should serve as no surprise that we have become so invested in the literacy future of our children.

Regardless of industry, it is our hope that today marks the start of a renewed focus by the business community as a whole to draw attention to an issue that is plaguing our country. As professionals, parents and most importantly, citizens, we have a responsibility to support and develop our youth. Just as the IICF and Sesame have invested in this program, we all must invest in our children and in early childhood education. It is the only way we can help America's children reach their full potential and help our country maintain its competitive edge in a global marketplace.

It is not an understatement to reiterate that each of us has the power to make a difference in the life of a child. Let us pledge to spend a few extra minutes each day speaking and reading with our children because, together, we can make every day a reading and writing day.

H. Melvin Ming is president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street. Bill Ross is the CEO of the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit organization funded by the insurance industry and focused on community development.