Photo courtesy of Reach Out and Read

The more we learn about the development of the young child’s brain, the more we understand the importance of reading aloud to children, from infancy, and engaging them in playful conversation. It builds oral language and lays the groundwork for future literacy.  At a recent conference in Worcester, Dr. Perri Klass, a pediatrician, said reading aloud to children is good for parents, too. Even – and maybe particularly – for parents who are under stress. Reading aloud to children, she said, promotes parental resilience. It is an expression of love.

Klass, national medical director for Reach Out and Read, made her remarks at the gathering co-sponsored by Reach Out and Read and the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care that I mentioned yesterday.

Books “offer happier routines. They offer happier, easier ways to get through the day. The more you’re reading together the more face time you’re getting,” Klass said. “They offer emotional respite and renewal.”

Families that make a habit of reading aloud create a habit of slowing down and lovingly interacting that is as good for parents as it is for children. “They both come over and climb on me because I’m reading,” Klass quoted a parent. “Sometimes that’s the only time I sit down all day.”

This kind of positive routine is particularly helpful in times of transition or crisis. “In times of crisis,” Klass said, “parents can use books and reading aloud to maintain routines and reassure children.”

Pediatricians participating in Reach Out and Read give books to children, age 6 months to 5 years, at each visit and talk to parents about the importance of reading aloud. Founded in Boston in 1989, Reach Out and Read now has 27,000 medical providers in 50 states participating in the program and gives out almost 7 million books a year.

“’By melding reading into the practice of pediatric medicine, Reach Out and Read aims to bring about a new understanding of what the pediatrician’s role should be,’ said Earl M. Phalen, the organization’s chief executive, who was visiting the Bellevue pediatric clinic from the program’s Boston headquarters on a recent morning,” the New York Times recently reported (“Rx: Read to Your Baby”). ‘We’re absolutely trying to change the way doctors are trained,’ he said, ‘because we know and pediatricians know that one of the most important things they can do to impact the long-term health of their patients is to make sure their patients are literate.’”

Dr. Marilyn Augustyn, medical director of Massachusetts Reach Out and Read, delivered a similar message at the Worcester conference. “We’re the professionals who reach most parents and children, and we reach them early,” she said. “We have repeated contact…. We’re very important sources of information.”

She gives simple advice to parents who lack confidence in reading. “What it is is hearing your voice and hearing the story,” she said. “What matters is your voice and the story.”

Fewer than half of children in this country are read to every day, Augustyn noted. “We can’t say mission accomplished.”