June 27, 2013

Pediatricians prescribe books to kids in a new literacy program


When parents take their children to the doctor, they expect to hear the usual things: how the little tyke is progressing in terms of national percentiles for height, weight, shin-kicking, lollipop-sucking, and jacks-playing prowess, and so on. But some pediatricians these days are also sending parents home with something unusual: prescriptions for books.

It’s the result of an initiative called Reach Out and Read which aims to give children regular exposure to books and reading from the very start. Participating pediatricians make literacy promotion a part of every check-up with the child, from the ages of 6 months to 5 years, by advising parents about the importance of reading to children, giving developmentally appropriate books to families, and monitoring how children are engaging with books on all levels, from their fine motor skills (page-turning! it takes a while to figure it out) to social, emotional, and linguistic skills.

Some of the doctors do, in fact, write prescriptions for books. For instance, Esther Cepeda interviewed Dr. Dipesh Navsaria for NBC Latino and found that

Navsaria, a pediatrician and children’s librarian, as well as the director of Reach Out and Read Wisconsin, literally writes out prescriptions to his patients calling for doses that range in minutes per day to “every night at bedtime.” Refills are to be requested at the public library. “It’s cute and gimmicky but families are surprised by it,” Navsaria told me.

While others simply use books as an efficient means of tracking, and encouraging, lots of forms of development. In an article for the New York Times about the program, Times reporter Lynda Richardson spoke with Dr. Perri Klass, a pediatrician at Bellevue Hospital Center.

Dr. Klass ticked off a child’s development steps and how a board book could be used to keep track of such things as gross motor skills and fine motor coordination: a 6-month-old puts books in the mouth, a 12-month-old points with a finger, an 18-month-old can turn the pages, a 2-year-old may not sit still or listen to a reading.

“The book isn’t going to be a separate category,” Dr. Klass said. “It’s going to be used for everything you’re talking about in a well visit.”

In part, the program is intended to address problems that are themselves the result of class, like the “word gap,” where lower-income children appear to be exposed to a lesser number and variety of words during crucial learning years, which may have effects later in life. And most of the 6.5 million books Reach Out and Read hands out annually do go to low-income families.

But, as the interview with Dr. Klass suggests, the benefits of book-handling in whatever manner can apply to all children. The intellectual and emotional skills fostered by reading, not to mention the lifelong pleasure to be gained from it, has been repeatedly attested to by a number of studies, some of which were summarized in the Times last year in a piece by Annie Murphy Paul. The core of the argument behind many of these studies is that reading teaches the readers what it’s like to be another person— they teach empathy, the sense of another person’s distinct existence. This sense is one that small children have to learn, somewhat laboriously, and books are one very good way to do so.

One vital question remains, though, on which the program may ultimately rise (we hope) or fall, and that is: if a doctor prescribes it to you, do you automatically hate it?



Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.