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I remember being really surprised when the pediatrician gave me a children’s story at my daughter’s appointment a few months ago.  Since then, every time we’ve gone back for check-ups, the doctor has given us a new story, and we’ve talked about the importance of reading and how to promote interest in books in a child who’s barely six months old. But why the emphasis on reading at such an early age?

I later learned that there are many arguments in favor of reading as a family. Our pediatrician is part of a very interesting initiative called Reach Out and Read, promoted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which seeks to partner with medical professionals to encourage families to read together, beginning early on in the child’s life.

The habit of reading with a child creates an environment where parents and children engage in quality interactions and they establish the foundations of a good relationship. Reading promotes the development of receptive and expressive language, which is key in early childhood and an important predictor of future academic success.

In this vein, a recent article on research into levels of vocabulary development during early childhood in five Latin American countries (Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Peru) reveals three important findings:

  • First, big differences are found in the vocabulary levels of children within the same country and between countries. For example, Chilean children in urban and rural areas have a higher vocabulary level than children in the other countries. At the same time, there’s a significant disparity among the vocabulary level of children in urban and rural areas in Colombia and Peru.
  • Second, there are gaps related to socioeconomic status. To illustrate this point, the figures show that a child in the poorest quartile of Ecuador, Nicaragua or Peru at age 6 has the vocabulary level of a 4-year-old. In other words, the poorest children are significantly worse off than those with greater economic resources, and they start school at a significant disadvantage.
  • Third, longitudinal data exists in three of the countries studied (Ecuador, Nicaragua and Peru), which allows us to track these children over time, and unfortunately, it confirms that these differences remain when children start school. In other words, the school system does not help to close gaps in vocabulary.

To create a more level playing field, public libraries in the United States, for example, offer activities such as group story time for toddlers and preschoolers. These activities are open to the entire community at set times and, in some places, even in different languages.

In turn, universities also provide interesting resources to promote children’s reading. The University of Maryland’s Children’s Digital Library, for example, provides access to a collection of books in 73 languages, including Spanish, to anyone with an Internet connection. A few years ago, I was fortunate to visit with the creators of this library, and I loved listening to them talk about how they designed the website. They based the design on the results of research into how children choose books to read, and they created a search engine that caters to the preferences of children. The result is a highly original search that’s not possible to conduct even on Google or Amazon!  You can, for example, choose a short book with a red cover that features animals as the characters.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, early childhood development programs still do not offer enough resources to guide families on the topic of reading.  There are some exceptions, however, which I think are worth noting:

  1. The program Chile Crece Contigo lets you download children’s stories online.
  2. Colombia’s De Cero a Siempre strategy is promoting an early childhood reading project. Through public libraries, the program sets out to tailor services, materials and spaces in order to promote reading in younger children and to make parents aware of the importance of reading as a family.

Surely there are other wonderful government and civil society initiatives that we’re not aware of, and we’d love for you, our readers, to share them with us.

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