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Commentary: Reading books to kids from birth on benefits the entire community

What a welcome breakthrough! Physicians have validated what non-medical professionals have been prescribing—reading to kids—but for a different reason. Yesterday, the Council on Early Childhood of the American Academy of Pediatrics made a national statement of policy: that reading to kids from birth until kindergarten “stimulates optimal patterns of brain development.”

The Council reached out to pediatricians to work with already-existing groups that promote childhood literacy. In Buffalo, “Read to Succeed” is one of the successful local agencies, like Head Start and Literacy Volunteers, active in finding and promoting additional literacy benchmarks and events.

Literacy Volunteers, for instance, has organized a free summer event starting July 14th at Canalside, Mondays from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. until August 18. It includes programming about the Erie Canal and the Buffalo Harbor—from Buffalo’s first settlement in the 1790’s to the present-- for kids from third grade through twelfth grade. A major convenience of this program: kids can participate every week or when they can.

The program is particularly apt because the “Read to Succeed” website reports that the Annie E. Casey Foundation found third grade is a year of transition. By the end of third grade, kids should have made the change from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Consequently, kids who make that change successfully are more likely to stay in school through high school graduation and beyond.

The thing is, according to “Read to Succeed” statistics, 74 percent of kids who haven’t achieved third-grade expectations by the end of third grade will never catch up. Instead, they experience what is called “first grade fade-out,” with 72 percent of kindergarteners reading better than the expected level and only 40 percent doing so by the time they enter third grade.

While it is true that Buffalo has what “Read to Succeed” calls an acute literacy problem—30 percent of adults here read at or under fifth grade expectations—it is not impossible to address literacy early here. While getting kids ready to read has long been considered a task for preschool programs and kindergarten, pediatricians will now recommend reading from earliest infancy, adding both legitimacy and an additional avenue for recruiting parents.

And other benefits may accrue. In 1999, the journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development published an article by Judy Smith, Stuart W. Twenlow, and Daniel W. Hoover that has been cited as a source in scholarly books since then. Titled “Bullies, Victims, and Bystanders: A Method of In-School Intervention and Possible Parental Contributions,” this research even found that the school suspension rate and violence decreased when kids were read to not only at school, but at home.

It isn’t just Head Start and other literacy organizations that are needed. What's needed is a head start from the start. Brain development isn’t something to sneeze at. Kudos to the American Academy of Pediatrics for reminding us.

For more about human development, reading, and their effect on communities, try these:

West Side tool library brings a holistic concept home

At 15 months, babies demonstrate altruism

Commentary: A global approach to problem-solving needed

Linda Chalmer Zemel teaches in the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State College and also writes the Buffalo Alternative Medicine column. She served on the Public Affairs Committee of Literacy Volunteers of Buffalo in 2003.