Some months ago, the Wall Street Journal featured an op-ed piece by Steve Cohen, discussing a preschool program much different from those that are best known, such as the Head Start Program.  The approach of this program is atypical in several ways, and, depending on how one interprets the studies, superior and more cost effective.  But we’ll leave out the politics here.

The program is called, “Reach Out and Read,” and was started almost 25 years ago by two physicians at Boston City Hospital.  It now provides for over four million low-income children–at a cost of about $10 per youngster.  The concept has a beautiful simplicity:  when children come in for routine checkups, the staff provides a “prescription” of sorts:  the strong recommendation that the parent(s) read to their kids and the gift of age-appropriate books. Volunteer doctors and nurses show the parents how to do this and emphasize why this is so important, introducing a skill and habit not always previously appreciated by the families.

The article sites various studies supporting very significant and lasting benefits, as reading aloud to babies and toddlers “helps their brain development and dramatically increases their receptive and expressive language abilities, skills “sessential for developing pre-reading skills” and later academic success.  A 2001 study in the AAP journal, Pediatrics showing preschoolers in Reach Out and Learn were “three to six months ahead of their peers in vocabulary, language development and pre-reading skills.”  Another 2005 study in  Ambulatory Pediatrics showed parents in the program much more likely to value reading and keep and read books to their kids.  Mr. Cohen noted highly beneficial results in 15 studies, with more than 28,000 physician participants at 5000 sites in the country–with all costs covered by volunteer contributions.  This program runs about $10 per student, while Head Start is (according to the author) about $10,000.

Now, although this particular program is aimed at low-income families, the benefits of reading aloud to children from a very early age applies, of course, to all families, most of whom can afford their own books.  The “lessons” the author offered from the success of Reach Out and Read apply to all children.  One was that parents must take responsibility, and success derives from the investment of parents in their children’s accomplishment.  There is no substitute for this involvement.  Two, that preparation for preschool can take place out of a school environment, or (my addition) that what takes place in the home can substantially reinforcement the early classroom education.  And three, that this attention should start with the youngest children, with the comment from a Nobel prize winning economist that investing early to prevent achievement gaps in kids of different socioeconomic strata is far more cost effective than trying to remediate later disparities.

A prescription for books and dedicated, loving family members to read them is a prescription that has no adverse side effects, and it should be appreciated by all parents.  One more personal addition:  as we see children become attached to tablets, phones and all the other alternatives, the importance of this most basic, simple, and valuable teaching modality cannot be overemphasized.

And what is part two? Some neuroscientific evidence of the importance of reading to prevent one of the biggest obstacles in educational success.  I hope to get to that post soon.