Local pediatricians aim to boost child literacy

aspecht@newsobserver.comJune 6, 2014 

Noah Sevier reads to his son Xander at the Rex Pediatrics office in Cary on June 4.

PAUL A. SPECHT — aspecht@newsobserver.com

— Pediatricians typically have a lot of ground to cover in the 20 minutes or so they spend with patients. A child’s safety, eating habits and physical development often dominate doctor-patient discussions.

But these days, Dr. Thomas Flaherty is ending many of his appointments with a focus on healthy social development, and a surprise: a free children’s book.

In February, the Rex Pediatrics offices in Cary and Holly Springs joined a nationwide nonprofit program that seeks to emphasize the importance of early childhood literacy.

The program, Reach Out and Read, provides its partners with information about childhood literacy and a list of developmentally appropriate books for children ages 6 months to 5 years.

The Cary and Holly Springs offices have given away a total of up to 300 books so far.

The Rex Healthcare Foundation pays for the books, which pediatricians hand out to their patients at each well-visit.

Flaherty likes to hide each book under his chart until the end of the appointment.

“It’s often the most colorful thing in the room,” he said. “The kids usually grab it and start turning pages ... or biting it.”

That’s OK too, he said with a laugh. Many of the books have strong, boarded pages that are safe for infants.

Early childhood literacy, while important, doesn’t always come up in conversations with parents, Flaherty said.

But perhaps it should, he said. The more a child can read, the more he’ll be able comprehend. The more he can comprehend, the more he can learn.

It might seem natural for parents to read to their children. But some might not be sure where to start.

Elisa Sevier was reading “The Grapes of Wrath” before she gave birth to her first child, Xander, about 20 months ago.

“We’re avid readers,” the 33-year-old said of her and her husband. “But we didn’t know what was too much or too little to read to (Xander).”

Flaherty introduced Sevier to the program during her first visit after Xander’s birth. He recommended starting off with a book that has simple pictures and about one sentence per page.

Sevier picked “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” as Xander’s first book and was surprised at how quickly he picked up on letters and objects.

“Sometimes it seems like his memory is better than ours,” said Noah Sevier, Xander’s dad.

Xander’s new favorite book is “Where the Wild Things Are.” By the time he reaches kindergarten, Rex will have given him about 10 free books.

Flaherty noted that simply taking the books home for a child to read is not enough to put them on the path toward literacy and social health. Children progress more when parents read to them from a book – not a mobile device or computer – at least once a day, he said.

“There’s something about the parent interaction that can’t be translated across an electronic format,” he said.

Readers must also engage children with enthusiastic reading and pose open-ended questions to them to spark their interest and comprehension, according to the American Psychological Association.

“It stimulates their vocabulary and language acquisition,” Flaherty said.

The program puts a special emphasis on helping children in low-income families, who are more at risk of reading failure.

Twenty percent of 4-year-olds from impoverished families can recognize all 26 letters of the alphabet, according to the National Center for Education Statistics data.

Parents served by the Reach Out and Read program are four times more likely to read to their children, according to the organization.

On vocabulary tests, preschool-age children aided by the program score three to six months ahead of children who weren’t part of the program, Reach Out and Read claims.

Rex plans to measure the program’s effectiveness through surveys it will give to parents over the next few months and years.

Specht: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @AndySpecht

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