In July 1997 the first Reach Out and Read (ROR) Wisconsin program and the 50th in the nation, was started at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center (now Gundersen Health System) in La Crosse. Nine months prior I had attended a workshop at the American Academy of Pediatrics meeting in Boston and learned how to establish a ROR program. Dr. Perri Klass, the national medical director of ROR, showed us how to encourage literacy during well-child visits. She encouraged providers that a new, developmentally-appropriate book could be given to children along with anticipatory guidance to their parents at well child visits from 6 months through 5 years. I remember sitting in the workshop thinking, “what a terrific idea, program, mission, dream, reason to raise money, way to spend money and way to teach families the importance of books, reading and literacy.”
Fast forward 20 years and there are nearly 20 ROR sites in the La Crosse region, 200 in the state and 6,000 in the country. There are 100,000 additional books in the homes of thousands of children in the Coulee Region.
What do I like most about ROR? There are too many things to list but here are a few of my favorites: ROR has three main components, all of which take place in medical offices where children have well-child visits:
1. A literacy-rich waiting area without a TV; promotion of the public library and applications for library cards in the waiting area; and a supply of slightly used books which can be taken home
2. Developmental advice and counseling by doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants during the well-child visit
3. The gift of a new, developmentally-appropriate book to the child at well-child visits from 6 months to 5 years of age. ROR providers give up to 10 books to add or build a child’s home library. It is sad knowing those 10 books may be the only books in some households but at the same time, it can be wonderful, because 10 books are better than none, or one, or nine.
I love when a child arrives at the clinic remembering having received a customized book at their last visit (with their name and signed by their doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant) and eager for a new book.
The prescription to read 20 minutes a day has no ill effects. How many other prescriptions come without potentially bad side effects?
Early childhood brain research shows nearly 80 percent of a child’s brain infrastructure is formed during the first 36 months of life. ROR-trained doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants discuss with parents the importance of talking, singing and reading aloud with young children. The first five years of a child’s life offer a critical window for brain development, and ROR seizes that opportunity in order to promote kindergarten readiness and future academic success.
Clinics with ROR programs now touch the lives of one in five Wisconsin children younger than 6 years of age in 54 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Parents involved with ROR are 2.5 times more likely to read to their children. Children’s language development is improved by three to six months in ROR families compared to their peers who have not been involved in ROR programs, and language ability increases with exposure to ROR. What is more rewarding than that?
In summary, ROR Wisconsin gives young children and their parents a foundation for success by incorporating books into pediatric care and encouraging families to read aloud together.