Of the nearly 8 million children entering kindergarten and first grade this school year, up to one-third will arrive with little or no familiarity with the written word. For these kids, even learning the alphabet is a daunting task.
But that's where educational television has stepped in.
For example, this scene from Sesame Street with Ernie and Cookie Monster:
"Ernie presents the letter A," the announcer says.
"One word that begins with A is 'apple,' and this is an apple," Ernie says.
"And this is Cookie Monster," interjects Cookie Monster.
We know exactly what happens to that apple once Cookie Monster gets a hold of it. But what happens when you sit children in front of the TV to watch?
For one thing, it exposes kids to books and the importance of reading.
"But setting the table is different than the actual act of learning how to read," says Richard Long, head of the International Reading Association. The group represents reading teachers and researchers.
He's a fan of children's programs that promote reading but says TV is not a tool to teach explicit reading skills. That's a job for schools — with parents doing their part, too. If they're not, Long says, children's programs are better than nothing.
"Parents who are using television shows are using them because they have to," Long says. "If a parent is working two or three jobs, and they have a choice between putting a kid in front of a show that will help with vocabulary, that's a plus because the alternative is zero."
Is that enough? No. The information is clear. Most low-income children don't know very many words when they start school, so they struggle to catch up to read at grade level.
Children's educational programs never set out to solve this problem on their own.
And, as Long points out, there's only so much children's television can do for kids who don't attend good schools, seldom get a good reading teacher and have no one at home to read to them.