Early Childhood

Medical Providers Tie Early Literacy to Health Outcomes

By Christina A. Samuels — October 12, 2014 3 min read
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The American Academy of Pediatrics released a toolkit for doctors and other health-care providers that will help them talk to parents about early literacy.

The toolkit, called Books Build Connections, was released Oct. 12 at the annual convention of the pediatrician’s group in San Diego. It is a followup to an AAP policy statement released in June that urged doctors to encourage parents to read, talk, and sing to their children beginning at birth. That policy statement marked the first time that the organization said that promotiong early literacy should be an essential part of well-child visits.

Too Small to Fail, which is a partnership of the Clinton Foundation and Next Generation, helped create the toolkit. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promoted the cause of early literacy during a speech at the convention.

[Update: (7 p.m.): Clinton spoke to conference attendees of the “word gap” that separates poor children from their more affluent peers. “Coming to school without words is like coming to school without breakfast and books,” she said.]

Another partner in the effort is Reach Out and Read, a national nonprofit organization that gives new books to family health providers to distribute to parents and children.

The toolkit will be pushed out to the organization’s 62,000 members, and offers handouts that doctors can give to parents. The toolkit also offers suggestions for how to work with parents who may not be confident readers—for example, those parents can have conversations with their children about the pictures in a book.

Why is early literacy a cause for physicians? One factor is a simple matter of logistics; family health-care providers offer a nearly universal way to reach children who are not yet school-age. In 2012, about 90 percent of the nation’s children under age six were taken to at least one well-child visit in the previous year, according to statistics from Child Trends, a Bethesda, Md.-based research group.

And health-care providers are trusted, said Ann O’Leary, the director of the children and families program for Next Generation. “When you ask parents of young children who would you go to as a trusted source of information, you hear repeatedly that the number one person they would go to is their pediatrician.”

But the most important issue, O’Leary said, is what the activity means for the children. She said that research is showing that talking, singing, and reading to a child are essential for early brain development, which is connected to later health outcomes.

“It’s becoming so clear that these are not optional activities,” O’Leary said.

Resources for Parents

The AAP toolkit has resources for parents, but is primarily intended for health-care providers. But in a separate initiative, the Nemours Children’s Health System, which operates pediatric hospitals and specialty offices in Delaware, Florida, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, has developed ReadingBrightStart!, a website aimed at parents.

The site, optimized for smartphones, was launched Oct. 7 for parents who may not have access to a computer. Parents can click on the fact sheet for their child’s age range, and get a list of age-related milestones, potential warning signs, and suggestions for age-appropriate activities. The fact sheets cover birth to age 5.

“Reading is a major public health issue,” said Laura Bailet, who oversees the BrightStart initiative for Nemours. Studies have shown a connection between low literacy and poor health, and children who struggle to read in school often manifest physical and emotional problems, she said.

Bailet also noted that doctors and nurses are among the most trusted professionals that parents see. “We’re very hopeful that people from very many different walks of life will find some great information here,” she said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.