With its first policy statement addressing early-childhood literacy, the American Academy of Pediatrics now endorses reading to children beginning in infancy and recommends that pediatric care providers help parents acquire the tools to establish a strong literacy environment at home.
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Policy recommendations of the AAP, which represents over 62,000 pediatric care providers across the United States, form the basis of pediatric preventive health care nationwide.
The AAP's Official Recommendation for Reading
The organization has issued recommendations about breast-feeding, television viewing, immunizations and numerous other topics, but its new statement in the August issue of the journal Pediatrics is the first time it has addressed literacy in early childhood.
The AAP recommends that literacy promotion be incorporated into children’s pediatric visits. Specifically, pediatricians should inform parents about how reading aloud and talking about pictures and words in age-appropriate books can strengthen language skills, literacy and parent-child relationships.
Doctors could also provide tips on the most effective reading strategies. For example, they could ensure that parents understand that reading should be a shared activity. Research shows that interactive reading is more beneficial than simply reading the text aloud.
Effective reading encourages children’s engagement and active participation. Parents can use attention-getting strategies such as focusing on a particular word or making the noise of an animal pictured in the book. As children gain more reading knowledge, parents are encouraged to ask open-ended questions and to relate the story to the child’s own experiences.
Research Supports Early Exposure to Books
The AAP statement draws on an extensive body of research demonstrating the importance of the home literacy environment to later academic success. For example, shared reading builds a larger and more complex vocabulary that is associated with stronger language skills at school entry.
Even in infancy, shared reading can make meaningful and lasting contributions to children’s development. It can strengthen attention-related skills, expose children to language that is more complex than everyday speech and establish future reading habits.
Although they recommend that shared reading should begin in infancy, the authors of the policy statement emphasize that parents should remember children’s limits of attention and comprehension. Above all, they should make sure that reading together is an enjoyable experience.
The report acknowledges that children in poor and low-income families are at higher risk of missing out on the benefits of a language-rich environment. Many low-income mothers of newborn babies report that they do not plan to read to their infant and do not have appropriate books in the home. Accordingly, the AAP expresses support for programs that provide free books to families in need.
All Children Benefit from Exposure to Books
However, the AAP’s new policy is directed at all families. Although literacy research has tended to focus on low-income children, it has also found that many kids in higher-income homes are not being read to regularly.
All families face barriers to creating a strong language environment. These can include time constraints, limited understanding of the importance of reading aloud, and especially competition from other sources of entertainment.
Unlike shared reading, television, video games and Internet use are passive and solitary. Too often, these activities win out over reading even though they lack its proven benefits for literacy, social-emotional development, and parent-child bonding. Even for very young children, screen time can reduce the amount and quality of family interactions and language exposure.
The AAP has previously recommended that parents shield children younger than 2 years from electronic media and limit older children’s exposure to two hours or less per day. The organization hopes that raising awareness of the importance of reading with children will help families make reading a fun, rewarding and enriching alternative.
The AAP has reason to be optimistic: Research has shown that pediatric-based reading interventions can be effective in promoting family reading routines and children’s literacy.
In the AAP’s view, the costs of books, additional training for providers and other new strategies represent an investment in young children’s language, literacy and social-emotional development.
This article was originally published by The Commercial Appeal.