Pediatricians Are Playing a Crucial Role in Early Literacy
At a time when we are especially grateful to health care providers, it is worth remembering that one of the many ways they contribute to our community’s wellbeing is by promoting early literacy.
Reading together is especially important at a young age – by the age of 5, 90% of a child’s brain is already developed. And yet, only 37.5% of families in Michigan say they read aloud with their children every day.
Unfortunately, these missed opportunities are aggravated by poverty. In middle-income neighborhoods, the ratio of books per child is 13 to 1. In low-income neighborhoods, the ratio is 1 age-appropriate book for every 300 children, with 61% of low-income families having no books at all in their homes for their children.
These statistics and many others point to the need for early intervention. They also emphasize that early literacy strategies should not be limited to the classroom. Strategies should target the years leading up to preschool, understanding that the highest rate of return in early childhood development comes from investing as early as possible. Starting at age 3 or 4 is too little too late, as it fails to recognize that skills beget skills in a complementary and dynamic way (Heckman).
A promising strategy
Reach out and Read is a national program that supports pediatric clinicians to provide families with the tools they need to make reading and storytelling part of their daily routines. The program trains medical providers to supply children with a new developmentally appropriate book at each well-child visit from birth to age 5.
During each visit, pediatricians and nurse practitioners:
- Talk with parents about how important it is to read aloud and engage with their young children.
- Model how best to look at books and talk about the stories with their infants, toddlers and preschoolers
- Encourage them to cuddle up and read together at home and build routines around books
- And give a new book to the child to take home and keep.
At the end of the program, every child has a home library of books, each given with the advice that parents and other caregivers are their child’s first and most important teachers.
The books children receive are culturally, linguistically and developmentally appropriate. They come in 26 languages reflecting multicultural settings and different abilities. The program helps equip providers with books that reflect the demographics of the patients and families they serve.
Currently there are 93,000 children in the Talent 2025 region, only 17,000 of these children are currently receiving the Reach Out and Read intervention across 31 clinical sites. Most of these children are in Ottawa County. This is due to the efforts led by Ready for School. As the Reach Out and Read West Michigan Affiliate, Ready for School is leading the effort to increase early literacy skills by modeling and prescribing reading with young children. Ready for school is also expanding the program into Kent through the Ready by 5 millage.
- 93% of children under age 5 in Michigan see their doctors at least once a year for their well child visits.
- Pediatricians have early access to families and are a trusted source for information.
- By embedding the model into an existing healthcare system, the model is cost effective and scalable.
- The pediatrician is easily able to integrate the model into their everyday practice using the book as a developmental screening tool.
Connecting health care to education
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that pediatric providers promote early literacy development for children beginning in infancy and continuing at least until the age of kindergarten entry. The AAP states that kindergarten readiness is an essential part of pediatric practice and clinicians need evidence-based strategies, like Reach Out and Read, to support their work. However, this is not the only engagement of providers in education.
In Muskegon, providers are integrated into the Read Early, Read Often countywide campaign by the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District. The campaign’s goal is for adults to read to the children in their care every day, helping them to expand their vocabulary and word bank before they reach kindergarten. When providers reach the parents in a different setting, this allows for a continued echo of the countywide campaign by a trusted source outside of the K-12 classroom.
In Kent County, medical providers are integrated into the countywide one county, one book campaign focusing on promoting literacy through the reading of the book “The Gruffalo.” Providers, Department of Health and Human Services, home visiting staff, K-12 education, libraries, child care providers and others become connected.
Learning begins at an early age. Health care providers are playing a crucial role in our community wide efforts to improve literacy.