Open a child’s mind with an open book

Friday, March 11, 2011 10:27 PM

What is early literacy? My favorite examples might surprise you: a baby chewing on a board book, a toddler asking to have a favorite book read over and over again, or a preschooler “reading” a favorite story to you from memory. Early literacy can be defined as everything children know about reading and writing before they can actually read and write.

A child’s early experience with books and language lays the foundation for success in learning to read. The most important thing you can do to foster early literacy is provide an environment that’s fun, verbal and stimulating, not school-like. Early literacy is not about formally teaching a child to read. That will happen in school. Instead, the focus should be on the fun you’re having together. Offer plenty of opportunities to talk and be listened to, to read and be read to, and to sing and be sung to — no rote memorization, no flashcards, no workbooks and no drills! Children who are exposed to interactive literacy-rich environments, filled with fun opportunities to learn language, will develop those critical early literacy skills. They include recognizing the letters of the alphabet, understanding that books are read from left to right, and being able to understand and tell stories.

Statistics are alarming. More than one-third of American children enter kindergarten without the basic language skills they will need to learn to read. Experts now know that the development of language and literacy skills begins at birth. Children develop much of their capacity for learning in the first three years of life, when their brains grow to 90 percent of their eventual adult weight. It’s never too early to read to a child.

Parents are the key to a child’s success in learning to read. When they read, talk or play with their child, they’re stimulating the growth of the child’s brain and building the connections that will become the building blocks for reading. Brain development research shows that reading aloud to a child every day increases the brain’s capacity for language and literacy skills and is the essential foundation for learning to read.

In the Four Corners, there are a growing number of pediatric clinics, doctor’s offices, and health departments participating in an early literacy program that begins at the six-month checkup and continues through age 5. This program is sponsored by the national nonprofit organization “Reach Out and Read.” It is supported locally through a partnership with Montelores Early Childhood Council and the Colorado State Coalition.

Reach Out and Read promotes early literacy by training doctors, nurse practitioners, and other medical professionals to prescribe books and encourage families to read together. These health care professionals incorporate the evidence-based model provided by Reach Out and Read into regular pediatric checkups. They give a developmentally appropriate book to each child and advise parents about the importance of reading aloud. Every child in the program enters kindergarten with a home library of at least 10 books.

In the Montelores area the Montezuma County Health Department, which includes the Nurse Family Partnership Program in Cortez, the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc, the Dolores County Community Health Clinic in Dove Creek and the Mancos Valley Health Clinic in Mancos, all participate in the “Reach Out and Read” program. For reading tips, doctor recommended book lists or information on starting a program go to and find out how you can help promote early literacy.

Mary Vozar is the Southwest Regional Coordinator for Reach Out and Read Colorado, a member of MECC and a former children’s librarian and art teacher. She can be reached through the