Early literacy program reaches out to parents first

Research shows that nationwide, children from low-income families hear 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers by the time they are 3 years old.

Research also shows that Connecticut continues to have the highest achievement gap in the country, and as a result these children are entering kindergarten already behind in reading skills and at the highest risk for reading failure.

The good news is that evidence-based programs like Reach Out and Read make a real difference in promoting early literacy.

The nonprofit program builds on the relationship between parents and medical providers to develop early reading skills, beginning at 6 months, so that children are better prepared to succeed with larger vocabularies and stronger language skills when they enter kindergarten.

Reach Out and Read launched in 1989 in Boston. It came to Connecticut in 1995; annually, 20,000 medical providers serve 4.2 million children at 5,000 pediatric practices, health centers and hospitals in all 50 states.

Here in southeastern Connecticut, the program is offered at Community Health Services, Inc. in New London and at Lawrence + Memorial Medical Group in New London and Niantic.

Christine Garber, Reach Out and Read Connecticut executive director, says Reach Out and Read is a very unique program.

"There are many early literacy book giveaway programs that get books into the hands of low-income children," she says. "What makes us different is we work through medical providers - pediatricians and family practice physicians - giving both books and guidance to the parents right in the examining room about why it's so important to read to your children from birth.

"The doctors are our partners. We train them and they do this as volunteers," she explains.

This relationship between Reach Out and Read, doctor, parent and child doesn't end after one visit.

"We have repeated access to the children because we see them at 10 or more well visits from 6 months to 5 years old," Garber says. "So of course, the books, which are developmentally appropriate, will change as the kids grow older."

Garber says that parents are advised about what is normal and what to expect until they return for their next visit.

"A mom may say, for example, 'I tried to read to my 2-year-old but he wouldn't sit still and listen.' The parent might think, 'My child's not interested, I'm not going to do this anymore.' So the doctor would tell her this is (age appropriate behavior) and instead of giving up, suggest trying to read to the child three times a day in five-minute increments instead of for 15 minutes at a time."

Research studies published in medical journals that show the program works are another thing that sets Reach Out and Read apart, Garber says.

"The two main things they show is that during the preschool years, children served by us score three to six months ahead of their non-Reach Out and Read peers on vocabulary tests," she says, "and that parents in the program are more likely to read to their children three or more times a week than their non-Reach Out and Read peers."

Garber also notes that non-English-speaking parents in the program are 10 times more likely to read to their children three or more times a week than their peers who are not in the program.

"That's really huge," she says.

"Reading aloud is the single most important activity that a parent or caregiver can do to promote and develop those pre-literacy skills so the kids are ready to read when they enter kindergarten," Garber stresses.

At the fourth annual Clinton Global Initiative that met in Denver at the end of June, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a new collaborative effort of Too Small to Fail, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Scholastic Inc. and Reach Out and Read to raise awareness among parents about early language development, which Garber says affirms the importance of Reach Out and Read.

"The AAP released a new policy statement called Literacy Promotion - an essential component of primary care pediatric practice. It's saying we would like pediatricians to give kids books and teach about literacy," she says.

Reach Out and Read Connecticut has only three employees: one full-time (Garber) and two part-time. A volunteer advisory board helps promote the program's work and is charged with fundraising.

"Our long-term goal is to get into more towns in Connecticut," Garber says. "Our short-term goal is to financially support existing programs and staffing. We hope to raise additional funds so we can continually expand.

"There's a huge need for us in the New London area, and we don't have enough programs there," she adds.

LOCAL AUTHOR ON BOARD

Best-selling children's book author Tish Rabe of Mystic recently joined the advisory board of Reach Out and Read. She also wrote a book specifically for the program, published this past June, titled "Love You, Hug You, Read to You!"

The colorfully illustrated, simple rhyming book is printed in both English and Spanish. It includes interactive questions at the bottom of each page for the parent or caregiver to ask the child, which Rabe points out, "further engages them in the story and thus builds pre-reading skills faster than if they just sit and listen."

Rabe explains why she became involved with Reach Out and Read.

"As an author with over 30 years experience in writing for children, I have become a passionate advocate for the importance of early childhood literacy. When I discovered Reach Out and Read gives free books to children in low income families and encourages caregivers to read to their children, I knew I had to help their mission in any way I can."

Rabe does author visits at local schools and is often a guest speaker at parent events.

"During my presentations, I introduce my audiences to the mission of Reach Out and Read and let them know what we are doing for underserved families in our local area," she says.

Rabe was dismayed when Garber told her about illiteracy rates in Connecticut and the gap that still exists between low-income children and their more affluent peers.

"I have been inspired by the passion of the pediatricians who work with Reach Out and Read because they have shown me that giving a book to a needy child is as important as good food and vaccinations," she says. "I couldn't agree more."

BIG BOOK CLUB REACHES OUT

The Big Book Club will host an author event to benefit Reach Out and Read Connecticut on Saturday, Sept. 27, at 7 p.m. at The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook.

A panel discussion will feature bestselling mystery and suspense authors John Searles, author of "Boy Still Missing, "Strange But True" and "Help For The Haunted"; Tess Gerritsen, author and creator of the "Rizzoli & Isles" a series on TNT; Alafair Burke, author of two series of crime novels featuring NYPD detective Ellie Hatcher and prosecutor Samantha Kincaid; Lisa Unger, whose novels include "Beautiful Lies" and "In The Blood"; and Old Lyme's David Handler, author of the "Hoagy & Lulu and "Mitch & Desiree" mysteries.

Hank Phillippi Ryan, Emmy award-winning investigative reporter for Boston's NBC affiliate, will moderate the event. Ryan is a crime fiction writer whose books include "The Other Woman" and "The Wrong Girl."

Tickets are $45 and include a signature martini courtesy of 44 North Vodka and an hors d'oeuvres station by the Bee and Thistle Inn of Old Lyme and The Cheese Shop of Centerbrook. A cash bar will be open. Authors will be sign books, for sale, by Bank Square Books of Mystic.

By using the code READ at registration, $10 from each ticket sale will be donated to Reach Out and Read Connecticut.

For more information or to register, visit www.thebigbookclub.org. Learn more about Reach Out and Read at www.reachoutandread.org/connecticut.

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