For eight-month old Shane, a book is something to explore with his mouth as much as his eyes.
While at the doctor’s office for his regular check-up, Shane gums on a copy of a new board book. His mom, Judith Flett, chats with a pediatric resident about early childhood literacy. Ms. Flett already reads to Shane, but the information – and coming from a medical professional – reinforces the importance of her decision.
After the check-up, she’ll take home Shane’s new book, along with a wealth of information about reading and a voucher she can take to any Winnipeg Public Library branch to receive a second free book. And, every time she brings Shane for an appointment, she’ll be able to take home another new book for her child.
The free books and one-on-one literacy guidance from physicians are part of the READ (REsidents for ReADing) program at Health Science Centre, in partnership with Winnipeg Public Library. The program is based in Children’s Hospital’s ambulatory clinic, which provides healthcare services to families in the Point Douglas area.
The goal of READ is to improve early literacy and boost school readiness in the neighbourhood, says Dr. Celia Rodd, who started the program in February.
“The Canadian Paediatric Society has been long advocating for this,” says Dr. Rodd, who was familiar with the model from her work at Montreal Children’s Hospital.
“We didn’t have anything [in Winnipeg] and this is such a community of need. We have scored recently, in our standardized grade eight tests in Manitoba, at the bottom of the pile of all the provinces. And where does literacy start? With early childhood promotion.”
So, just as pediatricians promote vaccines and wearing bike helmets, now they’re also talking to parents about the importance of story time to a kid’s overall health and well-being. Reading to children from a young age has been linked to significant language and cognitive development – building blocks that set the stage for a lifetime of learning.
“Now it’s even recommended at birth that you start talking to babies and reading to them on a regular basis,” says Dr. Rodd, who points out there are other benefits too.
“It’s just wonderful to turn off all the noisy appliances – the TVs and electronics – and just sit and have great quiet time as a family. It’s wonderful for self-esteem for the child and bonding with their parents and family members.”
Already, nearly 1,500 books have been distributed through READ and Dr. Rodd expects to reach about 5,000 families a year.
Residents at the clinic receive specific training from Children’s Hospital’s library coordinator, Emma Robin, who shares reading tips and strategies they can pass along to their patients.
For example, in addition to reading the words on the page, parents can ask questions about the book and its illustrations, creating discussion. Or, for parents with low literacy skills, making up a story or talking about the images can have powerful impact too.
Getting physicians on board as literacy advocates has been easy, says Dr. Rodd.
“Even though it adds extra time to the clinics and we’re always behind, it’s been unanimously embraced by all of the pediatricians,” she says.
Second-year resident Maria-Elena Lautatzis is enthusiastic about READ and says she’s seeing impact among her patients.
“I think it’s definitely increasing awareness, especially families who thought their kids might be too young to appreciate looking at books or reading books. And educating them about the importance of starting early, just even playing with the books, not necessarily understanding what’s being read,” says Ms. Lautatzis.
Residents also encourage families to visit their local libraries and provide a voucher for a free book as incentive.
The partnership was a natural for Winnipeg Public Library, says Karin Borland, Administrative Coordinator of Youth Services.
“It’s the idea of reinforcing each other – the healthcare professional and the library,” she says. “It’s such a ripe opportunity with parents of young children being so motivated to do the best for their children, and having a lot of faith in their pediatrician.”
She hopes that introducing families to the library, will help create a lifelong love of reading.
“It’s such a critical time for children. Parents are busy, but if they can make use of the library and read as a regular habit, they can really prepare their children for school and it will make a huge difference,” says Ms. Borland.
Earlier this year, the Literacy for Life Fund supported the READ (REsidents for ReADing) program. Literacy for Life makes grants to intergenerational literacy programs in libraries and community organizations throughout the province. The Fund is supported by donors from all walks of life.