By KAREN MacPHERSON
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU
WASHINGTON - Fifteen years ago, two Boston pediatricians added something new to their physical checkups, handing each of their youngest patients a book to take home.
Today, their idea has blossomed into one of the nation's largest early literacy programs. Called "Reach Out and Read," the program distributes books to 2 million children through 2,000 pediatricians' offices in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam.
The program, created by pediatricians Barry Zuckerman and Robert Needlman, is based on two simple premises: Pediatricians regularly see young children for checkups, and most parents rely on pediatricians for parenting advice.
Doctors in the nonprofit Reach Out and Read program thus can promote early literacy in a natural way by giving children a new, age-appropriate book at each "well-child" checkup and then by talking with parents about the importance and the fun of reading together.
"The overall message is that this is something good and something important that you can do to help your child," said Perri Klass, medical director for the national Reach Out and Read program in Boston.
Aimed at children ages 6 months to 5 years, the program ensures that each young patient will have a home library of about 10 books by the time they start school. For many children, those are the only books in their homes, Dr. Klass said.
The Reach Out and Read program is designed to counter statistics that show 16 percent of parents of children ages 3 years and under do not read to their children, and 23 percent do so only once or twice each week. The percentages are even lower among low-income families, whose children have the highest risk of literacy problems, Reach Out and Read officials say.
A dozen research studies show that the Reach Out and Read program increases the number of parents who read aloud to their children, Dr. Klass said. In addition, studies have shown measurable improvements in the language scores of children from about 18 months of age as a result, she added.
Rosha McCoy, a pediatrician at the Richard Ruppert Health Center at MCO, said the program there began in 1998, and now coordinates all of the Reach Out and Read programs in Northwest Ohio.
"It's a pleasure to give a book to a child and to help parents see how important reading is," Dr. McCoy said. "We're hoping to give out 15,000 books by the end of this year."
Reach Out and Read is so successful that Dr. McCoy's office collects "gently used" books to give to older siblings and children who have grown out of the program's age range, she said.
Pediatricians who want to start a Reach Out and Read program in their offices are given a small amount of seed money to make the initial purchases of new books. Books can be purchased cheaply through the Reach Out and Read national office, which has connections with 22 publishers. The national office also publishes a list of suggested books for each age on its Web site.
Pediatricians' offices then must find other funding sources for their programs, including grants and donations. Funding for the national program comes from donations and other sources, including the Department of Education, which aims money specifically at pediatricians who treat large numbers of "at risk'' children, Dr. Klass said.
The program requires a cadre of volunteer readers.
Volunteers are trained to "model" reading techniques. For example, volunteers in the waiting room show how to catch a child's interest by asking questions about the pictures in a book or relating something in the book to the child's daily life.
When the child and parent are in the examining room, the pediatrician gives the child a book. As the child looks at it, the pediatrician will ask about the pictures or point to illustrations, thus showing parents how to involve children in reading.
The pediatrician will see how the child connects with the book to gauge appropriate development. For example, a 1-year-old child should be able to turn the pages of a board book; a 2-year-old should be able to turn the pages of a picture book.
During the checkup, pediatricians talk to parents, some even giving parents a "prescription" for daily reading.
Because pediatricians have a long list of developmental milestones to check at each "well-child" visit, some worry about adding more. But by giving each child a book and observing them, doctors may be able to gain more data about a child's development, Dr. Klass said.
In addition, giving children a book is a "great icebreaker," associating the doctor's office with books and not just shots, she added.
"Beyond that, what's really wonderful is to think of the millions of children's books that are now in kids' homes" because of the program, said Dr. Klass, a pediatrician, a mother of three, and an author of articles and books.
"As someone who loves kids and who loves books, that's a wonderful thing to me."
Contact Karen MacPherson at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-662-7075.