As teachers, we know how vital it is to read aloud to children from a very young age. In fact, research in child development has long supported what we see in our daily professional lives: The earlier kids are read to, the better chance they have of success.

Unfortunately, many of us also are witness the ever-widening achievement gaps — as early as Pre-K and kindergarten — between kids who are read to and kids who are not, leaving us wondering how to get the message across to more parents.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), an organization representing more than 62,000 pediatricians nationwide, last week announced a new policy recommending parents read aloud to their children from birth.

“It’s great news,” says Brian Smith, a kindergarten teacher at a Title I school in Conover, North Carolina. “Teachers need other people to support the message of how important it is to read to your children. Parent-teacher conferences can’t be the first time that parents are hearing about this!”

No Substitute for Reading

The AAP’s announcement comes on the heels of a recent study from Stanford University that found language gaps exist in children as young as 18 months old. The study bolstered earlier research that found that children in affluent households heard 30 million more words by age three than children from low-income homes. Smith has seen this phenomenon in his kindergarten class; the discrepancy in students’ vocabulary from the first day of school “can be striking,” says Smith.

More and more, parents are turning to digital devices to keep children occupied, but time spent with a tablet or smart phone is no substitute for reading a book, explains Vanessa McMahon, a kindergarten teacher at Burr Elementary School in Newton, Massachusetts.

“I understand that parents are so busy, but moving a finger on a screen is simply not the same thing as turning a page in a book,” she says. “I have students who don’t even understand the concept of sitting and listening to a story. And now, with the Common Core in place, kindergarten has become the new first grade. This means that kids who lack these basic skills are coming into school already 50 steps behind.”

McMahon says that, even in kindergarten, the achievement gap between students is often extensive, ranging from children who are reading at a second grade level by the end of the year, to kids who can’t yet read by June.

“I’m lucky that in my district, we have early intervention services for kids who are behind,” she says. “But for many parents, these kinds of services are simply unavailable, or too expensive. The bottom line is, we need to get the message out to parents that reading out loud to kids, even teaching the basic mannerisms associated with the act of sitting down to read, can mean so much to a child’s development.”

Getting Books to Families

In order to help jumpstart the AAP’s initiative, and surround more kids with the books they need to develop a love for reading, Scholastic has donated 500,000 new, age-appropriate children’s books for distribution through Reach Out and Read, a non-profit organization that works with 20,000 medical providers nationwide to promote early reading by giving books to families at pediatric visits.

Both McMahon and Smith think this is a fantastic idea. “One of the most important things I can get across to parents is to get their children to fall in love with books,” Smith says. “For a lot of kids, this connection happens at school, but we need for this to happen at home. It’s great that pediatricians are devoted to helping us to ensure this happens.”