By Cecilia Martinez Gomez. 

Pilar is one and a half. She doesn’t know the names of certain objects and pictures, she struggles to follow basic directions, and she appears curious but unable to make out what’s being asked of her. Would you believe me if I told you that a book can help improve her skills? 

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A few months ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics began recommending that parents read aloud to their children from birth. Some pediatricians have been doing this for years; however, a new Academy guideline in place since June now urges all of its 62,000 member pediatricians to talk to the parents of young children about the importance of reading every time they visit the office and to recommend reading as a daily family activity.

The case of Pilar reflects the main reason why professionals have taken on this initiative. She has grown up in an environment where her parents haven’t spent time talking to her, and they haven’t been educated about children’s need to hear new words repeatedly throughout the first 18 months of life.

A study performed 20 years ago found that by 3 years of age, children from more educated, wealthier families had heard a disproportionately higher number of words as compared to the children of parents with lower educational attainment. Today, however, it is known that a language gap can begin to develop as early as 18 months.

What can parents, such as Pilar’s, do to help their children? 

The simplest answer is that parents should talk to their kids to help them develop their language skills. It’s that straightforward. Reading stories to children not only helps them improve their vocabulary, but it also helps them to recognize objects through illustrations, to develop their comprehension skills, and to stimulate their interest in books. All of this will influence their futures, improving their analytical skills and their academic performance.

What’s more, storybooks offer the structure upon which to create a dialogue, capturing the child’s attention and facilitating conversation. Many parents don’t know what to talk about with their young children, so books make things easier in that regard.

It’s important to emphasize that the idea isn’t to teach a two-year-old how to read. The intention is to stimulate children with colorful books, rhythmic reading, songs and conversation. To that effect, the Fairfax County Library in Virginia recommends six pre-reading skills your baby can develop from birth:

1.       Learn new words

2.       Love of books

3.       Use books

4.       Tell a story

5.       Hear and make sounds

6.       See and know letters

What is the status of reading in Latin America and the Caribbean?

While there are 40 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean [link in Spanish] who claim they cannot read or write, the countries most affected—Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras—have seen their illiteracy rates drop rapidly thanks to literacy programs in both Spanish and other national languages [link in Spanish]. This means that more and more parents have the opportunity to read to their children from a young age. It’s worth noting, however, that the fact that a parent knows how to read does not guarantee that he enjoys doing it or practicing it with his children; it simply means that he is capable of understanding that which is symbolized by letters.

It has been proven that if one doesn’t get in the habit of reading as a child, it will be difficult to learn to love it as an adult. Even less likely is that one will understand the importance of reading to a child from early on. An article discussing reading [link in Spanish] states that parents can’t pass on the reading bug if they don’t have it themselves. While in our region there’s generally little in the way of resources for families or emphasis on the importance of reading to children from an early age, a few countries, such as Chile and Colombia [links in Spanish], do offer guidelines.

Another issue worth touching upon is the high cost of books in Latin American countries [link in Spanish]. It’s important to mention not just the cost of buying books—many of them imported—but also the expense of editing and publishing them in small countries whose people are unaccustomed to reading for pleasure.

Does your country place an emphasis on reading during the preschool years as recommended by U.S. pediatricians? Now that you’re aware of the importance, please share this article so that more people will read to their babies. This habit not only benefits children in their early years, but it will also help them to become informed adults capable of critical thinking.

Cecilia Martinez is a communications consultant for the IDB’s Division of Social Protection and Health and the founder of Proyecto: Bibliotecas. Follow her on Twitter @cecibmg.

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