Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Reach Out and Read at New York Presbyterian Columbia University Medical Centre

Staying with our transatlantic theme after our feature on San Francisco’s Reading Partners, this week finds Books and Adventures in New York to find out more about the Reach Out and Read (ROR) programme at the New York Presbyterian Columbia University Medical Centre.

ROR is a national literacy and healthcare programme which operates across the USA. Under the scheme, volunteers read stories to children in clinic waiting rooms, paediatricians advise carers on the importance of reading aloud, and children visiting their doctor from the ages of six months to five years receive a new book to take home at every check-up.

Paediatricians and educators working together founded the programme in Boston in 1989; in 1997, Reach Out and Read came to New York Presbyterian Columbia Medical Centre, serving families in largely Spanish-speaking areas of Northern Manhattan.

Over 13 years the programme has grown from a single site in Washington Heights to cover five clinics, serving more than 10,000 children and distributing nearly 20,000 books per year.

Volunteers commit at least six months a year to engaging children in literacy activities and demonstrating to carers that sharing books with a child helps them to bond and communicate with adults. Volunteers’ interactions in the waiting room can inspire parents and carers to support their children’s literacy at home.

Paediatricians and hospital administrators have shown equal dedication to the programme, reflecting their belief that exposing young children to high quality, age-appropriate literature will not only encourage a passion for books, but also have a positive impact on growth and development.

‘Paediatricians do not merely give books to their patients as lollypops at the end of a well-child visit,’ says Emelin Martinez, Literacy Co-ordinator at New York Presbyterian. ‘They provide parents with advice and strategies they can use to enhance their child’s social, cognitive and motor skills development in using books that are developmentally appropriate.’

ROR as a programme takes a long-term view of literacy support: as part of care visits throughout early childhood, doctors see the same children two to four times a year.

‘Advice from each encounter builds on the last encounter and at the end of the five years, each child has a library of 12-14 high-quality, culturally, developmentally and linguistically appropriate books,’ explains Dr. Mary McCord, medical director of the programme. Many volunteers establish a bond with patients who attend multiple well-child visits. As the average wait in a clinic runs to two hours, volunteers have plenty of time to engage children with pleasurable and constructive reading sessions on each visit!

What really marks ROR out from other literacy programmes we’ve discussed on Books and Adventures is its pre-emptive approach. Where many schemes operate with a remedial focus, ROR aims to prevent literacy problems before they start. There is a focus on delivering anticipatory guidance to the carers of young children, promoting literacy and healthy development from as young as six months.

Emelin Martinez explains how this attention to literacy benefits a community’s health and well-being: ‘From a population perspective, poverty is the single most important determinant of health. Education has proven to be the only strategy to successfully move people out of poverty. Promoting literacy is one of the most important tasks that a paediatrician has with their patients early in life, to ensure that children can become healthy and successful adults.’

The ROR team at Presbyterian are proud of the positive impact their programme has had on families in Northern Manhattan. Caregivers have reported that watching their children’s interaction with volunteers has inspired them to implement the strategies seen in the clinic when they get home.

Emelin Martinez says, ‘On many occasions, I’ve witnessed parents reading to their children in the waiting rooms of our clinics, which demonstrates that parents’ behaviour regarding early literacy is changing. For some families, ROR books are the first books they have in the home. For others, parental illiteracy emerges as a problem when giving out these books and encourages caregivers to attend literacy programmes themselves. For paediatricians, it is touching to see how children ask for the books as soon as they come in, changing a long standing tradition of having stickers or candy be the reward for a medical visit.’

Huge thanks to Emelin Martinez and Dr. Mary McCord for joining Books and Adventures to discuss a programme which reflects such a positive and progressive approach to literacy and well-being. You can find out more at

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