patient engagement

How to Raise a Reading Family: Tips for Pediatricians

Early literacy is a learning experience with enormous benefits for children and families. Reading aloud solidifies the bond between caregivers and children, exposes young children to an expanded vocabulary, engages the language centers in their growing brains, and can even help children ease anxiety. All families are busy, but when families have few resources to buy children’s books, have difficulty reading themselves, or are unaware of the value of early literacy, kids are more likely to miss out, especially during the valuable period of brain development before age 5. Luckily, with the materials available from the AAP and from national nonprofits, pediatricians can ensure that all children, regardless of their resources, have access to the benefits of a good book.

With the physician’s knowledge of health and the parent’s knowledge of their child, the child has the best chance at finding not just one way to use language, but their way.

Families with English Language Learners (ELLs)

Families in which English is a second language can find it difficult to read to their children, especially if caregivers are less fluent than their children are in English. Parents may also find it difficult to find age-appropriate books that speak to the unique stories of their culture or history. 

Programs such as Colorín Colorado are multilingual databases where bilingual or ELL families can access diverse and bilingual books. The site also hosts information for educators and for families raising bilingual children. The program’s aim is to help families access the education and books that help reassure children from diverse backgrounds that their experience is both normal, as well as culturally important.

Underserved Communities

You may already have heard of Reach Out and Read, the only national pediatric literacy model endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The nonprofit organization donates age-appropriate books to pediatricians to be given at well-child visits, and trains clinicians to champion the positive effects of reading daily and engaging in other language-rich activities with young children. Physicians learn how to model, observe and coach parents and families to make reading together an enjoyable, intimate, and meaningful experience.

There are many programs and institutions dedicated to helping children get access to books and to caregivers to educational tools, including Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, the American Library Association, and the U.S. Department of Education.

Pediatricians in underserved communities can reach out to local libraries, schools, and public programs to engage with early literacy efforts. The AAP also offers resources to refer to other pediatricians in your area who are interested in early literacy by contacting the Community Access To Child Health program (CATCH) at catch@aap.org. You can find a list of CATCH facilitators for each U.S. state and Puerto Rico here.

Parents with Low Literacy Levels

Parents who are self-conscious about reading to their children because of their own low literacy can still engage with their children over books. Pediatricians can guide them to understand that the bonding experience of engaging together over a book, having a conversation about pictures, telling made-up stories, and singing songs together can help in the same ways that reading can.

Parents with low literacy can point out pictures, talk about characters’ emotions, ask their child questions, and make up their own stories. Reading together is also a bonding experience which can help set successful bedtime routines, and offer precious on-one-on time that makes the child feel important.

family reading together

For more tips, see the AAP’s well child visit handouts (written at a fourth or fifth grade reading level) on reading for parents of children at various ages. Remember, literacy-building should be fun for everyone to encourage regular engagement. If reading is stressful for parents, children can also learn literacy by other means of conversation and play, such as touching their child’s nose and a picture of a nose while saying the word “nose”. Even pointing out items in the home or objects while traveling and shopping can build literacy.

Children with Disabilities

Parents of children with disabilities have a significant opportunity to use pediatric expertise and advice to help their children engage with literacy, even if their disability makes the approach nontraditional. With the physician’s knowledge of health and the parent’s knowledge of their child, the child has the best chance at finding not just one way to use language, but their way.

You can see methods on how to engage children with disabilities from the PACER Center. Strategies include using multiple sensory tools such as handling objects and drawing pictures as well as reading and listening. One mother used these methods not only to help her child learn to read, but also to use her new literacy to express how she was feeling and what she needed, which is the true reward of literacy for children.

Starting a Literacy Program at Your Practice

If you recognize a need for early literacy in your community, there are many ways to fulfill those needs. Some are specific to your role as a pediatrician and others will connect you to communities’ existing efforts to spread literacy.

Community Resources

Fortunately there are many national and local programs, courses, activities, and resources to encourage early literacy. Before attempting a new program at your practice, research whether programs like Reach Out and Read or Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library are active in your community. If they are, you may only need to guide families to accessing the books and resources already available. You can find your local Reach Out and Read program here, and local Imagination Library program here.

Don’t forget to start conversations with local schools and libraries, who are likely to know of great literacy programs if they haven’t started them already. If there are no active literacy programs in your area, you can collaborate to begin one. As a pediatrician, you can also apply to start a chapter of a physician-based program such as Reach Out and Read.

Literacy at Your Practice

Beyond following Bright Futures guidelines, here are some ways to promote reading and literacy at your practice:

  • Accessible reading materials and reading space in reception area
  • Hold talks or classes in early literacy
  • Promote staff picks for favorite children’s literature on socials
  • Engage with patients by asking questions about their favorite books
  • Organize fundraising or connect with local programs to provide patients at your practice new books at well visits or for their birthdays
  • Using Reach Out and Read protocols, counsel parents on reading aloud
  • Encourage reading together via social media, sharing tips or success stories

Want to do more? Consider giving a talk or reading stories at schools or libraries, reaching out to parenting groups or even holding a course at your practice after hours, to give parents the tools necessary to read and engage in literacy-building with their children.

Early literacy teaches children more than colors, numbers, history, and social skills. Books give them a sense of ownership, of self-worth when learning to read, and grow their imaginations and worldview. Reading together with caregivers helps them feel safe, loved, and important.

If you need more than that, there’s one more bonus perk of promoting literacy at your practice: kids will love reading with or getting books from their pediatrician, making a trip to the doctor’s all the more rewarding. 

Don’t forget — pediatricians should do their reading too! Check out PCC’s Chip Hart in his webinar:

Pediatric Business Mistake #2: You’re Not Doing Your Homework

Allie Squires

Allie Squires is PCC's Marketing Content Writer and a transplant from upstate New York. She holds a master's in Professional Writing from NYU.