What does a national commitment to child literacy look like?

A national initiative to make a difference in child literacy launched last year to considerable fanfare. I was fortunate to be in the audience on the day Hillary Clinton announced the new initiative ─Too Small To Fail─at the Clinton Global Initiative. The aim would be to help parents, caregivers, communities, and businesses take meaningful actions to improve the health and well-being of children, ages zero to five. Though there were not many details yet to share, the initiative would work on three fronts: 1) promote research about brain development and the importance of nutrition in early childhood health and development; 2) launch campaigns to encourage parents and caregivers to take steps that improve learning and health and that urge the private sector to improve conditions for families and their children; and 3) convene stakeholders in national discussion to advance the science of early childhood development.

A year later I again was fortunate to attend the Clinton Global Initiative for my work in philanthropy─and hear Hillary Clinton provide an update on Too Small To Fail. There was much more to report─key among them two new national commitments to action.

Closing the Word Gap: One Text & One Doctor at a Time will be using the power and reach of mobile technology and research-based content to help parents boost their children’s early brain and language development. A partnership of four organizations (Too Small To Fail, Text4baby, Kaiser Permanente, Sesame Workshop), this effort will expand the current messages going to 700,000 Text4baby subscribers[1] ─ pregnant women and new mothers ─ to include a new series of tips on early language development. Sesame Workshop will provide research-based tips for talking, reading, and singing with children in everyday moments and routines. The partners will also implement a local text and community outreach program in two cities ─ Oakland and Tulsa. Support from America’s wireless carriers will continue to enable Text4baby’s subscribers to receive messages free of charge. Kaiser Permanente will be training its Oakland Medical Center’s 165 pediatricians to distribute Too Small To Fail literacy resources, including a Sesame Street “Talk, Read, and Sing Parent Toolkit,” and information on how to sign up for Text4baby to parents of newborns and 18-month-olds. By summer 2015, Kaiser Permanente will distribute the toolkit and information on how to sign up for Text4baby to 4,000 families. These resources will also be distributed to families of another 3,000 children at their 18 month well-child visit in Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland’s pediatric clinics. Based on outcomes of the Oakland implementation of Too Small to Fail, Kaiser Permanente will consider expansion of the program throughout their regions and hospitals, where 100,000 children are born each year.

Pediatricians Promote Reading to Children from Day One is a new commitment to action among four organizations: the American Academy of Pediatrics, Scholastic, Reach out and Read, and Too Small To Fail. In summer 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published its first clinical policy statement highlighting early literacy promotion as an essential component of children’s primary care visits to pediatricians. This statement is the AAP’s first official recommendation for pediatricians to promote the importance of reading to children ─starting in infancy. It also encourages the distribution of developmentally, culturally, and linguistically appropriate books for all high-risk, low-income children through pediatricians’ offices. The new commitment to action will create a pediatric toolkit, which includes information that AAP’s 62,000 pediatricians nationwide can share with parents to promote the importance of talking, reading, and singing to children, ages zero to five. Since books are key to strong early literacy development, Scholastic[2] will be donating 500,000 books to Reach Out and Read, a program that promotes literacy to families through pediatricians and other medical professionals.[3] Reach Out and Read will deliver books to 2,000 pediatricians and promote the pediatric toolkit across the country. Each partner will also be using Facebook and Twitter to get important literacy information to parents and caretakers.

Why are these two new national commitments to action so vital?  The Too Small to Fail website (www.toosmall.org) reminds us that “reading aloud to children in infancy and the preschool years is one of the most effective ways to enrich early language and literacy skills that are essential for school readiness. Yet, the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health found that only one third (34%) of young children living in poverty were read to daily compared to more than half (60%) of children from middle and upper income families. While research confirms that access to books is critical to a child’s future success, children from low-income families have significantly fewer books than their more affluent peers. In middle-income communities, a child has access to an average of 13 books. In low-income areas, there is, on average, only one book for every 300 children. In addition, researchers have found that children in poverty hear 30 million fewer words than their higher-income peers, and acquire hundreds of words less by the age of three. These dramatic gaps result in significant learning disadvantages that persist into adulthood. Low reading skills in adults are associated with poor economic potential and with the perpetuation of poverty and poor health.”

This is the sad evidence for the critical call for renewed attention to child literacy. What better place then to start ─ with the pediatricians who are there at the birth of our children. Too Small To Fail has the data to show that an investment in pediatricians promoting early literacy to parents pays off:  “Families who have been reached through their pediatrician read together more frequently than families who have not; their children also enter kindergarten with larger vocabularies and stronger language skills. It is clear that pediatricians are essential in equipping parents with knowledge and tools to support their children’s literacy and language development. Pediatricians’ influential and unique role can and should be leveraged from the earliest days of a child’s life.” (www.toosmall.org)

These new national commitments ─ enlisting pediatricians to get the word out to parents about the importance of child literacy and using phone texting to get literacy messages to new parents and pregnant women ─ are just two of the growing number of significant efforts to support child literacy.  As I wrote in my June 20, 2013 blog — “The launch of Too Small to Fail IS big news for child literacy.”  In 2014, it’s even bigger news because Too Small To Fail is past launch – the child literacy ship IS sailing!

[1] Text4baby is the first mobile information service designed to promote maternal and child health through text messaging. Text4baby has 700,000 pregnant women and new mothers currently subscribed to receive tips related to early health, safety, and development. Text4baby is a free service of the nonprofit National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition, created in collaboration with Founding Sponsor Johnson & Johnson, and founding partners Voxiva, The Wireless Foundation, and Grey Healthcare Group. Women who text BABY (or BEBE for Spanish) to 511411 receive three free text messages a week, timed to their due date or their baby’s birth date, through pregnancy and up until the baby’s first birthday. The messages address topics such as labor signs and symptoms, prenatal care, urgent alerts, developmental milestones, immunizations, nutrition, birth defect prevention, safe sleep, safety, and more.

[2] Scholastic is the largest publisher and distributor of children’s books in the world.

[3] Founded in 1989, Reach Out and Read is a nonprofit organization of medical providers who promote early literacy and school readiness in pediatric exam rooms nationwide by giving new books to children and advice to parents about the importance of reading aloud. Today, Reach Out and Read partners with nearly 5,000 program sites and distributes 6.5 million books per year, serving more than 4 million children and their families annually.

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