Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1998-1999 index

Distributed May 3, 1999
Contact: Scott Turner

Doctor-prescribed reading is good Rx for low-income families, studies say

It's a simple prescription: take home a book, read to your children, enjoy. Reading books to children is powerful medicine for low-income families, say three new Brown studies.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Reading occurs more often and becomes an activity of greater importance when low-income families receive children's books and reading guidance from pediatricians, say two new studies. A third study indicates these families are in dire need of the books and of the message that reading to children is important. The studies suggest that an intervention in which doctors provide both children's books and information that encourages parents to read to their children can greatly increase the number of low-income families who enjoy reading together.

In one study, pediatricians dispensed bilingual board books and handouts and explained the benefits of reading to 65 low-income Hispanic families visiting for regular infant or toddler checkups. A year later, the odds of parents reading to their children at least three days per week were 10 times greater in those families compared to 70 similar families who received no literacy promotion from clinic physicians.

Further, families who received the intervention were more likely to report book sharing as one of their three favorite things to do together, compared to the control group. The odds of parents reporting enjoyment of sharing books with their children were also six times greater. Both the number of children's books and total books in the homes of intervention families increased significantly compared to controls.

"Pediatricians are in a unique position to capture kids at such a young age, when you want parents to start reading books with their children," said study leader Natalie Golova, M.D. The findings appear in the May issue of the journal Pediatrics. Golova is a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics in the Brown University School of Medicine.

In a second study, low-income families who received board books and reading guidance during well-child clinic visits for an infant or toddler were much more likely one year later to report book sharing as one of the child's three favorite activities and as one of their three favorite things to do together, compared to counterparts who received no reading support from clinic pediatricians.

In addition, the study suggested that the intervention improved child language skills. Toddlers, ages 18 to 25 months whose families received the books and support, spoke and understood significantly more words than children who did not receive the intervention. The study involved 153 families split almost evenly between intervention and control groups. The findings were presented May 2 at the annual meeting of the Ambulatory Pediatric Association in San Francisco.

"This simple, culturally appropriate intervention is similar to ones being adopted in clinic sites nationwide," said lead author Pamela High, M.D. "It is inexpensive if you think about the cost to society to prevent future educational difficulty." Literacy-promoting projects, many sponsored by the program Reach Out and Read, have been started in at least 400 pediatric practices attending to underserved populations across the country.

A third study underscores the dire need for low-income families to receive books and reading guidance. The study of 199 mostly low-income parents and their children, ages 1 to 5, enrolled in regular pediatric care, found that half of the parents rarely read books or newspapers. Sixty percent of the children had fewer than 10 children's books at home. A quarter of the homes contained fewer than 10 books total. For these families, language was a significant issue, as 55 percent of those surveyed were immigrant parents. High led the study, which appeared in the April issue of Pediatrics.

"The studies make the strongest statement to date for supporting the provision of children's books and literacy-promoting guidance as part of pediatric well-child care," said High, clinical associate professor of pediatrics in Brown's School of Medicine.

The message that it is important to own books and read together with young children may seem self-evident to many middle-class families, but low-income families, especially immigrant families and single-parent families, may not have heard the message yet, the researchers said. Possible obstructions to a child-centered literacy orientation in the homes of low-income families may include the language in printed books, parental literacy levels and money in the household budget for books as non-essential items, they said.