March 23, 2019
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Children benefit greatly when parents read to them

A mother reads to her son after United Way’s Book It for Reading event in Presque Isle, Oct. 21, 2016.

Our demographics suggest that Maine shouldn’t be a place where kids get read to a lot. That’s because the research shows that a child born into poverty hears 30 million fewer words by age 3 than an affluent child, and Maine tends to rank in the bottom half of states on most poverty measures.

And yet, a recent survey of 14,000 parents by the National Survey of Children’s Health showed that Maine ranked the highest in the nation, at 78 percent, for the percentage of children who are read to four to seven days per week.

That’s great news for our state, and we are confident the trend is owed in no small part to Maine’s unique Raising Readers program. With generous and longstanding funding from the Libra Foundation, Raising Readers provides free, high-quality books to all Maine children, from birth through age 5, regardless of geography or socioeconomic status at 350 health care provider sites across the state.

Since its founding nearly two decades ago, the program has distributed 2.8 million books to 270,000 Maine children, and the effort appears to have put Maine in the forefront of a critical component of childhood development.

Maine’s rate of 78 percent of children who are read to four to seven days per week is well above the national average of 58 percent. Only 22 percent of Maine children were read to three or fewer days per week, a rate nearly half that of the national average. Perhaps even more noteworthy is that 45 percent of low-income Maine families report reading to their children daily, compared with 30 percent nationally.

Why does this matter? Because early-childhood reading is a crucial factor in children’s healthy development and their future success in school and adulthood.

An amazing 85 percent of a child’s brain is developed in the first three years of life. At birth, all their neurons are already formed. But it’s the synapses, or connections, between these neurons that make all the difference. Neuroplasticity is complicated, but, simply put, more connections make the brain more flexible and able to learn. So, the more a child is read to, spoken to and sung to, the more “hardwired” his or her language skills become.

Reading aloud also teaches children how to use books, recognize letters and link text with spoken language. Reading aloud develops vocabulary and listening comprehension and increases the likelihood of children growing to love reading.

Research shows that reading also supports a child’s emotional development. A recent article, “Reading Aloud, Play, and Social-Emotional Development,” said parents’ consistent reading and playing with their young children shapes their development beyond language and early literacy skills. That “parent-child-book moment” positively affects social-emotional behaviors.

We’ve known for a long time that early literacy is important, but we’ve struggled as a nation to address the problem equally across social demographics. Roughly 35 percent of low-income American children lack the basic language skills needed to learn to read by kindergarten. When a child lacks foundational skills, they may be too far behind to catch up by third grade, a critical point in transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn.

In Maine, we’ve made great progress in addressing the issue of childhood literacy, and we are a beacon to those working to improve the rates of early childhood reading in their own communities.

We know the childhood literacy rates in Maine are an “it takes a village” triumph. Providers — hospitals, midwives, health centers, nurses — are just part of the state’s success. It is the parents of newborns who read books to their babies when they are almost too exhausted to make out the words. It is the grandparents of toddlers who fold reading into their daily routine, even when nothing else has gone according to plan. It is the families who read to children who are not their own.

While proud of what Raising Readers, along with partners, providers and parents across the state of Maine, have accomplished, we recognize that there is still much to be done. We’ve already shown that we can move the needle. Now, we’ve got to do even more — for everyone’s benefit.

Dr. Gabe Civiello is a pediatrician who practices in Farmington with Franklin Health Pediatrics, a part of Franklin Community Health Network, a MaineHealth member organization. Dr. Colette Sabbagh is a pediatrician who practices in Bangor at EMMC Pediatric Primary Care, a part of Eastern Maine Medical Center, an EMHS member organization. Both are clinical advisers to Raising Readers.

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