Children taking a dose of books

Medicine: The `Reach Out and Read' program puts pediatricians at the forefront of the battle for children's literacy

January 31, 1999|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN STAFF

"What a pediatrician says to a mom will be taken to heart," Dr. Pasquale Bernardi observes. And what he has been saying to them lately is: "Read books."

In fact, he has been giving them away at the East Baltimore Medical Center -- a book for each young patient from low-income households brought in for a "well child" checkup, along with a prescription for parents and children to read together.

It is the formula of a national early-literacy program, Reach Out and Read, begun in Boston a decade ago that has spread to 425 primary care sites in 47 states. The program has reached nearly a million children, with much of the funding coming from the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The literacy program sounds very simple: Pediatricians send babies, toddlers and young children up to age 5 home with a book -- the seed to start a little library before they start school. It is the first book for many in the needy community served by the medical center, which sees about 400 children a week.

"They don't have any books at home," says Bernardi. "And it makes them want to read."

Dr. C. Patrick Chaulk of the Annie E. Casey Foundation says the $450,000 it has committed to the reading program since 1994 is "certainly a rewarding investment."

Bernardi, 33, saw the national Reach Out and Read program described in a medical journal and decided to bring it to his pediatric clinic in the medical center at Ensor and Eager streets to encourage parents to read to their young children.

"The whole idea is to turn [reading] into a positive interaction," Bernardi says. "Babies love the sound of the human voice. And it's OK if they chew, just have fun with the book."

The clinic is one of a dozen medical-care sites in Baltimore with Reach Out and Read programs.

The impact, according to a Boston study, can be profound: Parents on welfare who have participated in the program are eight times more likely to read to their children.

"My goal is to make giving out books as routine as giving out immunizations," says the program's founder, Dr. Barry Zuckerman, chief of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center.

"This brings an important constituency to the literacy table: pediatricians."

He says that the approach springs from a new idea of changing pediatrics to help the whole child and heal communities.

The East Baltimore program, in its first year of operation, is recruiting volunteers to staff an important component: storytellers reading aloud in the waiting room.

Northwood resident Minnie Reddy, 60, worked on recruiting storytellers last year as a government-paid Volunteer Maryland coordinator.

When that term finished, she continued to work for free on the reading project -- "to see it through," she says.

The audience the trained reader-storytellers are meant to reach is not only the children, but parents -- who may have missed that pleasure when they were young.

The whole program, in fact, is aimed at changing child-rearing techniques and skills when it comes to books. Targeted at low-income populations, the idea is to educate adults about "the joy of reading to a child," says Shannon Wright, a nurse at the East Baltimore center.

"For many parents, it's an eye-opener," says Dr. Perri Klass, medical director of the national program who visits hospitals and clinics around the country to explain this simple magic. "You can be stunned by the intensity of a 2-year-old's attachment to a favorite book."

Zuckerman says books go way beyond the words and pictures on the page for youngsters.

"It's not about the alphabet," he says. "It's social, cognitive, memory, language and attention learning."

And it's about 4-year-olds like Breana Yancey, who tucked a copy of "Peek-a-Boo at the Zoo" under her arm to take to her East Baltimore home after her doctor's appointment on a recent winter afternoon.

For information on volunteering in the East Baltimore Medical Center program, call 410-522-9800. For information on the national program, call the Boston headquarters at 617-414-5701.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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