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Literacy crisis: Pediatricians enlist to prod parents to read to kids

The Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail is joining forces with pediatricians and others in a literacy push aimed at low-income families: prescribed reading.

Many parents may know it’s good to read to their babies and young children, but far too few do it regularly, say early-childhood development activists.

A new collaboration between several groups – including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which on Tuesday released its first-ever policy paper on early literacy – is trying to disseminate more information about the importance of reading out loud, as well as about the tools to do so.

“Only about half of parents of young children are actually reading to their children from the earliest days of their children’s lives,” says Ann O’Leary, director of Too Small to Fail, an early-childhood initiative of the Clinton Foundation and Next Generation. “It would be shocking if you said only half of parents are feeding their children, or putting them to sleep, but we know that [reading and singing to children] are just as important. They’re critical to brain development and language development and have a lifelong impact on health.”

On Tuesday morning, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is set to announce the new collaboration – between Too Small to Fail, the AAP, Scholastic Inc., and Reach Out and Read – at the Clinton Global Initiative America meeting in Denver.

The initiative is aimed particularly at low-income families, who are the least likely to read regularly to children or to have access to books, and seeks to reach families largely through pediatricians.

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Scholastic is donating 500,000 age-appropriate books in English and Spanish, to be distributed through Reach Out and Read, an organization that works with thousands of medical providers nationwide. The books will be given to families at regular pediatric visits.

Meanwhile, Too Small to Fail and the AAP plan to share messages to families and doctors about the importance of reading, talking, and singing to children from birth, and have developed a toolkit for pediatricians to work in information about those activities with patients.

“Reading regularly with young children stimulates optimal patterns of brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships at a critical time in child development, which, in turn, builds language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that last a lifetime,” reads the AAP’s new policy paper, which also recommends that doctors counsel parents about the importance of reading aloud to enhance parent-child relationships and to build early literacy skills and provide books to low-income, high-risk young children.

The paper cites the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health, which found that 34 percent of American children from families whose incomes were below 100 percent of the poverty threshold were read to daily, compared with 60 percent of children from families with incomes 400 percent of the poverty level – better, though still not sufficient, according to the AAP.

Advocates hope that giving these recommendations through a pediatrician – among the most respected information sources for parents – will make a difference.

“If we can reach them through this system, it’s one of the most universal ways to reach parents,” says Ms. O’Leary.

“People know it’s good to read to children, but having it come from the AAP, in a health-related context, is an important point to make,” adds Elaine Donoghue, a pediatrician and co-chair of the AAP’s Council on Early Childhood.

Getting information to parents is key, but so is giving them the books, says Greg Worrell, president of Scholastic’s Classroom and Community Group, noting that 60 percent of low-income families have no books in their homes.

“We believe deeply that reading is the birthright of every child,” Mr. Worrell says.

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Dr. Donoghue says she regularly hands out books to her patients, and loves the reaction she gets every time.

“Their faces light up,” she says. “You think, gosh, kids have so many toys, but it’s absolute delight on their faces.”