From the moment they’re born until 3 years old, children’s brains grow rapidly, producing 700 new neural connections every second. This a crucial time for parents and caregivers to provide powerful communication with their babies and stimulate brain centers involved with language development and other skills.
Insufficient parent-child verbal interaction is the most likely cause for language delays, which occur in approximately 13 percent of children under the age of 3 according to a recent estimate, especially those living in low-income areas. Looking to decrease these delays, a research team at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is conducting a new study that will test the effects of initiating a literacy program called Reach Out and Read (ROR) in the newborn period, six months sooner than it is standardly begun.
“With all of the new knowledge on neuroscience and brain connections particularly in the newborn period, we’re looking at whether we can further improve language development by starting book reading in the newborn period,” said James Guevara, MD, MPH, pediatrician at CHOP and leader of the study. “We’re using book reading as a tool to help promote parent-infant bonding and communication, which is what we think is really helpful for children’s language development.”
Building Literacy Success
ROR was developed in 1989 and has shown successful results in terms of improving children’s language development over time. The program consists of the provision of age-appropriate books at each well child visit, as well as parent-pediatrician discussion about reading, talking, and singing activities.
The study, currently in the first year of a three-year award from the William Penn Foundation, will use a randomized controlled trial design to examine the effects of standard literacy promotion compared to early literacy promotion. One group of parents and babies will receive the standard ROR program beginning at 6 months of age, and the other group will start the ROR program beginning as early as days after the babies are born. Daily reading and activities will be supplemented with a weekly text message reminder for parents in the early promotion group.
With the goal of bonding in mind, physicians will encourage parents to get creative with the reading and make it an interactive experience with their children. Instead of reading the books literally, parents can sing the words or post questions, for example: “What’s behind the red dress?” or “See the red dress here?” The research team has specially selected the books for early literacy promotion based on elements that they think will be beneficial for the babies, such as large pictures and vibrant colors.
When the babies participating in the study are 6 months old, both groups will receive standard literacy promotion compliant with the ROR program and will attend study visits every six months until age 2. During this time, the team will measure the reading activities and language development in both groups so that they can assess the outcomes for differences in these areas.
Looking Ahead to Future Literacy Advocacy Changes
The results of this study pose enormous potential for advancement in literacy promotion among underprivileged children. If the findings suggest that early literacy promotion is beneficial in language development, this could encourage parents to start reading to their infants earlier, and it could even lead to national changes.
“This study has been vetted a great deal through the national Reach Out and Read Program, so there is potential for a lot national attention focusing on it,” said Dr. Guevara, who also is a founding member of PolicyLab at CHOP and an associate professor of Pediatrics and Epidemiology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “Most hospitals have served underserved children, and there’s a number across the U.S. that have a Reach Out and Read Program, so I think people are very interested in trying to understand to what extent this is helpful.”
In addition to the national ROR program, the findings could help shape other organizations’ initiatives such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Read! By 4th in Philadelphia and other community Grade-Level Reading Campaigns, the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail campaign, and Great Start Collaborative’s Early Literacy Initiative.