Reading the Signs: The Importance of Early Childhood Literacy in Closing Equity Gaps

In the first year of life, a baby’s brain will double in size.  

Information and experiences absorbed in those first days – years before even stepping inside a classroom – are already shaping a child’s trajectory as a learner, potentially setting the stage for educational inequities that will affect school outcomes, economic stability, and more. 

Luckily, parents and caregivers already have a partner in molding that path: their pediatrician. 

“We don’t think about the health care setting as a place where early literacy happens because we think of that as something that happens when a child is ready for preschool or kindergarten. But ... we now know through the science, through the research that we need to start from the very beginning,” consultant Donna Cohen Ross said in a virtual webinar held during National Literacy Month. 

The webinar, held September 28, was hosted by United Hospital Fund’s Pediatrics for an Equitable Developmental Start (PEDS) Learning Network to emphasize the unique position pediatricians hold in helping families develop proficient literacy skills for their child, a practice The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends beginning as soon as possible after birth. 

Titled “Beyond Books: Early Childhood Literacy Is Public Health,” it was led by PEDS Network leader and UHF senior program manager Susan Olivera and attended by more than 60 pediatricians, community partners, and other stakeholders. 

Attendees heard from leaders of Children of Bellevue’s Reach Out and Read program, the first ROR program in New York City, how creating “literacy-rich environments” in health care facilities can spur healthy reading habits at home. ROR director Claudia Aristy and senior children’s counselor Yanilda Gomez shared successful strategies like setting up reading areas at the clinic with used books families can take home, sharing information about library hours, and holding story times or book sales. 

“One of the things we say to the families, is that talking [and] reading to your children is an act of love – you do it every day and the book is just a tool,” Gomez said. “It is breaking that myth that books belong in schools. Books belong at home with … that quality time you spend with your child.” 

Ross, a consultant who specializes in policies that make public programs work better for children and families, highlighted how these important practices fit into the context of public health. 

According to Ross, providers are becoming more likely to recognize early literacy as a social driver of health, and thus a factor in the overall quality of care. She stressed an important opportunity for implementing early literacy practices can be found in well-child visits covered under Medicaid, which funds pediatric primary care for about half of the children in the United States. 

The webinar is the latest effort by UHF surrounding this urgent issue. Earlier this year, UHF’s Clinical-Community Partnerships launched a program, supported by the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation, to advance intentional policies and practices that support the integration of literacy in primary care settings. The program includes partnering with four pediatric primary care practices serving neighborhoods with high rates of families experiencing homelessness, medically underserved immigrant families, and low or inadequate literacy rates. 

Watch a video of the full webinar here: