Reading Program Connects Caregivers and Kids in the Name of Literacy
Masya Miller has been fussing while her mom holds her, but her angelic, 1-year-old face becomes transfixed once Bill Dillard starts reading from the book about animal sounds.
Her lips curl into a smile and her body relaxes as Dillard, a certified physician assistant with Wake Forest Baptist Health-Winston East Pediatrics, goes from animal to animal in the children's book, gently making the sounds of the pig, the cow, the kitty cat.
Giving new books to children during well-baby visits is the central theme of Reach Out and Read, a national program in which children from 6 months to age 5 are encouraged to read, both with their parents and on their own.
The link between early introduction of reading to children and better literacy and achievement has been clear for years. Winston East and Wake Forest Baptist's Downtown Health Plaza are the only two Winston-Salem sites among 153 Reach Out and Read clinics in North Carolina, though two other sites are expected to open by late summer or fall.
"They really become engaged, even the little ones,'' Dillard says, noting the books are used as a tool by PAs such as himself and pediatricians during office visits to help assess a child's comprehension and cognitive skills.
Anna Miller-Fitzwater, MD, who coordinates Reach Out and Read for the Downtown Health Plaza, says children can interact with books just a few months after birth.
"A 6-month-old is going to want to eat the book, putting it in their mouth and looking at the pictures; as they get older, they point to pictures, name objects, turn pages, and complete familiar sentences and phrases," Miller-Fitzwater says. "We use part of the visit to talk about reading. I talk about it with the parent, try to get them to incorporate reading into their bedtime routine.''
Building Early Reading Skills
Reach Out and Read began in Boston in 1989 as a way to build upon the relationship between parents and medical providers to encourage early reading skills. It has grown to nearly 5,000 sites nationally in all 50 states, distributing 6.5 million books a year.
The program is dependent upon sponsors to support it, with the principal cost being books that meet developmental guidelines.
At Downtown Health Plaza and Winston East, most of the books are purchased through Scholastic, the children's book publishing company. The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust is providing the key sponsorship grant for the current fiscal year, while various individuals and companies donate or hold fundraisers for money, books or both.
Because Reach Out and Read is so popular, the clinics also make use of children's book donations, used or new, to be available for siblings and for the waiting room. Miller-Fitzwater says the waiting room book rack needs constant refilling.
Working With Parents
At Downtown Health Plaza, Reach Out and Read has been around for about a decade. The program was nurtured by Lenore Parks, MD, a pediatrician who died unexpectedly in the summer of 2012 at age 48. Miller-Fitzwater says she is honored to follow Parks; Dillard also cites Parks' enthusiasm as an influence at Winston East, which just started Reach Out and Read in May.
The two clinics cater to largely minority populations, with Winston East serving a predominantly African-American clientele and the Downtown Health Plaza serving a children's population that is nearly 65 percent Hispanic.
Dillard says the need to reach children in minority communities is especially important, to improve the chances of more students achieving and going on to college. When he sees children beyond the age of the Reach Out and Read program, he says, he constantly promotes reading, especially when school is out.
"If I can get them to at least read three books for the summer, I think it's important.''
Maria Stockton is a child development specialist with IMPRINTS, a nonprofit that, among other clients, works with families with young children at Winston East and the Downtown Health Plaza. She is site coordinator for Reach Out and Read at Winston East.
Stockton says the program is crucial because many of the children in it "have very little access to books in general."
Many times, she says, "parents don't realize they can start as early as pregnancy to read aloud to their children because even just hearing words builds vocabulary. That will make them more likely to begin to read at the right time. This is huge.
"By doing this, we're encouraging literacy much earlier,'' Stockton says. "What a difference it makes for parents to read to children; they're modeling the importance of reading and preparing them for their school years.''
People who would like to learn more or donate to the local Reach Out and Read clinics may write to: Downtown Health Plaza/Winston East Pediatrics, 1200 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Winston-Salem, NC 27101, or call office coordinator Cathy Kilby at 336-713-9616.