Viewpoint: Give the gift of a lifetime--Reach Out and Read

June 1, 2009

Editorial discusses the success of the Reach Out and Read program that is found in many pediatricians' offices.

It's likely that reading has also brought you joy, satisfaction, sadness, and pleasure. For most of us, our first experiences with printed words were through hearing them pronounced by a parent or grandparent, accom-panied by sound effects, open-eyed expressions, and questions about the pictures that went with the words.

Even if we don't remember our own first experiences with books, we remember the wonder and curiosity on the faces of children-our own or someone else's-as we introduced them to the association between the pictures on the page, the letters that accompany those pictures, and the words that describe them. We don't usually think of that bedtime reading ritual of early childhood as a gift, but it is, in fact, a gift that enriches the learning experiences of children throughout their lives.

The program has been bolstered by now-robust research demonstrating enhanced language development and school readiness, improved vocabulary, and increases in IQ scores for the children participating. These positive effects have been shown to persist into the elementary school years.

Perhaps equally important as the intellectual gains achieved, parents whose children receive a book at their clinic visit are more likely than control parents to report that reading aloud to their child is a favorite activity. In fact, one study demonstrated an eight-fold increase in the number of parents who enjoyed reading to their children.

The careful research undertaken in Boston and at other sites has been convincing enough to public and private funders that $22 million each year is now provided by federal and state governments, as well as by foundations and corporations.

Through this program, approximately 3.5 million children in all 50 states received a total of 5.7 million books in 2008. That's a lot of bedtime reading pleasure!

For those of us who treasure memories of snuggling in bed with a young child and reading favorite books over and over until the child has memorized the words, it's difficult to imagine that only about 40% of children are read to regularly by their parents. This fraction is even smaller in lower-income families. Through ROR, $40 per child buys a head start on the skills needed to learn and succeed. It also buys a lifetime of memories for both the parent and the child.

Dr. McMillan, editor-in-chief of Contemporary Pediatrics, is professor of pediatrics, vice chair for pediatric education, and director of the pediatric residency training program, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore.