By ESTHER J. CEPEDA
A few weeks ago, I approached an apocalyptic-sounding essay in The New York Times titled “The Country That Stopped Reading.” Finally, I thought, another pessimist to join me in bemoaning the awful state of reading in America.
The author, David Toscana, was actually writing about Mexico. But he paralleled what I see here in this country. When he lamented that, in Mexico, baseline literacy is up but “the practice of reading an actual book is not,” the observation rang true stateside.
Admittedly, it’s not all that bad. According to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 83 percent of Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 had read a book in the past year and more of them did so for pleasure than for work or school.
But if you spend enough time in low-income communities and schools, the world looks a lot different than what the national statistics imply.
Toscana recalled asking an auditorium filled with 300 or so 14- and 15-year-olds the question “Who likes to read?” He was shocked to see but one shy hand. I’ve had similar experiences in my local schools.
He’s also spent time among teachers, never seeing them crack open a book. I’ve witnessed instructors scoff at the very suggestion that they read a novel over the summer in order to participate in a back-to-school book discussion.
The underlying problem isn’t simply about literacy. The reality is that while many people are taught to read, not enough grow up with a love of reading as young children. One group has honed in on this sad state of affairs and is doing something meaningful to change it.
Reach Out and Read is a national nonprofit organization of pediatricians and medical providers that prescribes books as part of well-child health visits. The organization helps young families learn how to read together and impresses upon parents that they are their child’s most important teacher.
“The founders said ‘We talk about nutrition, sugar, seat belts, car seats, exercise and such, why not start incorporating the message of the importance of reading?’” said Judith Forman, the Boston-based organization’s public awareness manager. “Eventually, the program grew national. We now serve 4 million children and families a year via 5,000 health centers in all 50 states.”
Doctors’ offices volunteer to join the program, train in specific literacy tactics and fund the purchase of enough age-appropriate books to furnish each one of their young patients with 10 books over the span of a few years. Each child between the ages of 6 months and 5 years who comes in gets a book, and their parents are given a mini-lesson on what age-appropriate literacy activities should take place at home.
One thing that really stuck out to me as I spoke with Forman is that although the physician groups participating in the program are heavily concentrated in low-income communities — arguably, where they’re most needed — once a practice signs on, all families are exposed to the benefits of reading.
“The medical provider tailors the program to each family,” Forman said. “Particularly now, in the age of technology, some families are time-poor as opposed to economically poor and fall into the trap of replacing reading with screen time. In other families where parents might have low literacy, or a second language, we show parents how to sit with a child and flip through books, look at pictures and ask questions. The reading, talking, singing, and rhyming together are all the things that set the skills for children to be ready to read, learn and succeed. And it’s a special bonding moment when kids are on a parent’s lap.”
Dipesh Navsaria, a pediatrician and children’s librarian, as well as the director of Reach Out and Read Wisconsin, literally writes out prescriptions to his patients calling for doses that range in minutes per day to “every night at bedtime.” Refills are to be requested at the public library.
“It’s cute and gimmicky but families are surprised by it,” Navsaria told me. “It helps them understand that I really mean this. It is as important as bike helmets, ‘back-to-sleep’ and immunizations. It is as important a prescription as one for [the antibiotic] amoxicillin.”
Prescribing a love of reading to young families — what a brilliant idea. Sadly, it’s one that needs to be more seriously considered for widespread adoption as book reading remains nonexistent in some families and gives way to our society’s endless electronic entertainments in others.
Cepeda is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.