Early Childhood

Q & A With Earl Martin Phalen: How to Offer Families a Reading Rx

By Maureen Kelleher — April 29, 2011 4 min read
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Yesterday, I mentioned the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national effort to raise awareness of the importance of ensuring all children can read well by 3rd grade. To learn more about how the Campaign partners with agencies to reach parents, I interviewed Earl Martin Phalen, executive director of Reach Out and Read, a well-regarded nonprofit that gets books into the hands of poor families with young children, and a founding partner in the Campaign. Here’s an edited transcript of our email exchange.

Q. What is Reach Out and Read and what does it do?

A. Reach Out and Read is a nonprofit organization that promotes early literacy and school readiness in pediatric exam rooms nationwide by giving new books to children and advice to parents about the importance of reading aloud.

We encourage parents to start reading to their children at birth to develop critical language, vocabulary, and early reading skills. Reading aloud to young children is the single most effective thing parents can do to help prepare their children to succeed in school. Reach Out and Read delivers that message to parents through their relationships with trusted pediatricians.

Reach Out and Read serves 3.9 million children annually, including 34 percent of all U.S. children growing up in poverty. We have committed to expand our program in the coming years to serve 10 million children—nearly every American child living in poverty.

Q. How do you engage pediatricians in promoting early literacy? What’s in it for them?

A. Many children grow up in fear of the doctor’s office, associating their pediatrician with shots. But children served by Reach Out and Read actually get excited about their annual checkup, since they’ve learned that it means they’ll be getting a brand-new book. Our pediatricians have countless stories of how the simple act of handing a book to a child will calm crying, enabling the doctor to talk to the child and conduct the exam.

Reach Out and Read not only strengthens pediatricians’ relationships with their patients and families; it also serves as an invaluable developmental surveillance tool.

Within seconds of handing a 1-year-old a book, a doctor can tell whether the toddler has developed a pincer grasp, whether she has the finger dexterity to turn pages, and whether she can initiate “joint attention” by pointing something out on the page to her mother. These are all critical milestones that pediatricians must assess as part of a routine checkup, and the book is making their job significantly easier. (See this recent New York Times story for more. )

In addition, more and more pediatricians nationwide are taking a holistic approach to medicine, recognizing that a child’s brain and emotional development are just as important as her physical development and growth. A Reach Out and Read pediatrician from Washington State says, “Books are now as important a tool for me as my stethoscope, my otoscope, and my reflex hammer.”

Q. Why is the doctor’s office an effective site through which to engage parents on the importance of reading aloud to their children?

A. It all comes down to trust and access. Parents trust their child’s pediatrician and respect the advice that’s dispensed in the doctor’s office. If a pediatrician suggests reading—as they would suggest seatbelts—parents are apt to listen.

Pediatricians also have unrivaled access to young children in the first, most critical years of life. We know that 96 percent of children ages 5 and under visit their doctors at least once a year (National Survey of Children’s Health, 2007). Comparatively, less than one-third of children in this age range are enrolled in child care or Head Start.

Q. What research supports your model?

A. What distinguishes Reach Out and Read from other interventions is that it is evidence-based. Since 1991, the Reach Out and Read model has been studied by academic investigators in a variety of settings, providing a growing body of peer-reviewed research on the effects of the program.
The body of published research supporting the efficacy of the Reach Out and Read model is more extensive than for any other psychosocial intervention in general pediatrics.

We know that the 3.9 million families served annually by Reach Out and Read read together more often, and their children enter kindergarten better prepared to succeed, with larger vocabularies, stronger language skills, and a six-month developmental edge over their peers.

However, we haven’t yet had the financial resources to conduct randomized, longitudinal studies of children served by Reach Out and Read. While we don’t have a longitudinal study, we do have hundreds of longitudinal stories from doctors nationwide who have stayed in touch with the children they served—and have watched them thrive in school and grow up into successful young adults.

Q. What are the goals of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and how are you involved?

A. The “Campaign for Grade-Level Reading"—spearheaded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation—has three main goals: Quality teaching for every child in every setting every day; community solutions for improving school readiness, attendance, and summer learning; and an outcomes-accountable system of care, services, and family supports for children, from birth through 3rd grade.

Drawing on our experience, we will be sharing the most effective practices we’ve developed to engage parents and improve student achievement. We will help to drive policy changes and educate our networks about the initiative to gain broader support. It’s exciting to watch this movement unfold, which builds on the growing body of evidence that shows how important it is to invest in children in the critical years between birth and the 3rd grade.

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