Just what the doctor ordered: Encouragement for parents to read to young children

Reach Out and Read allows doctors to check health and promote literacy

Dr. Rachel Banks talks about program that integrates health visits with reading advocacy for children. David T. Foster III - The Charlotte Observer
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Dr. Rachel Banks talks about program that integrates health visits with reading advocacy for children. David T. Foster III - The Charlotte Observer

Stephon Grace, 5, sits in a medical exam room with a book on his lap and reads out loud. Standing next to him, Dr. Rachel Banks points to the book and asks him questions about what he sees.

“It’s a dog,” Stephon answers.

For the Grace family, reading is a part of their normal check-ups.

Through a partnership between two nonprofits – Reach Out and Read Carolinas, and Read Charlotte – more children could be reading books at the doctor’s office soon.

“A lot of parents don’t know to read early,” said Callee Boulware, Reach Out and Read Carolinas executive director. Reach Out and Read is a national program with branches in every state, helping 4.5 million children each year.

Boulware said the goal is for this intervention to help every child within the first five years of their lives. Reach Out and Read currently works with 13 clinics in Charlotte, helping between 21,000 and 22,000 children.

With Read Charlotte, a community initiative to improve literacy among kindergarten through third-graders, their goal is to expand the locations to 35, helping an additional 15,000 children.

Banks said she has been a part of the Reach Out and Read Carolinas program for more than 10 years, using its practices to improve literacy at Carolinas Medical Center NorthPark Family Medicine Office on Eastway Drive. She said from when children are 6 months old until 5 years old, each 20-minute appointment includes interacting with books, whether it is naming pictures or reading out loud.

“I just go through the book and ask them do they see things that are a certain color or point out things to me. Do they see a mouth? Do they have a mouth?” Banks said.

She said she tries to think of the practice as a book prescription, where each appointment involves reading and each child gets to take a new book home.

“I think that literacy is a fundamental path to wherever you want to go, and your parents are such a big influence on what you do. When you see what they are doing, it makes it seem like out of all the things they have to do today, they are taking the time to do this so it just shows that it is important,” Banks said.

She said the appointments are meant to encourage children to put down devices and pick up a book instead. Parents can benefit, too, by learning how to engage with their children through books and take the practice home with them.

Munro Richardson, Read Charlotte’s executive director, said the organization started to plan workshops to teach about systemic issues in 2015. This year is about putting their plans into action. He said they strategically target zip codes with elementary school students who are not reaching reading goals.

“It doesn’t really matter what income bracket you are in, no one receives a handbook when their children are born,” Richardson said.

Richardson said this program makes it easier to reach families because 90 percent of children see a doctor regularly and parents can be hard to reach.

“The great thing about the program is you don’t sign up for it,” Richardson said.

Boulware said there is a waiting list of medical providers who want to be a part of Reach Out and Read Carolinas’ program, but they also recruit in areas where there is an unmet need.

“We are really working to change the system,” Boulware said.

Jamie Gwaltney: 704-358-5612, @jamielgwaltney