Sometimes Dr. David Tayloe’s patients are less than thrilled to see him. Take two-year-old Kenai. When Tayloe walks into the room and says hello, the toddler whimpers.
“Some of them, every time they come in, they are not big fans of you,” Tayloe said. “Until somewhere between three and four, it’ll usually kind of mellow out, and they’ll start liking us again.”
For those less-enthusiastic patients, it helps that the New Bern pediatrician walks in with a gift.
“Te gustan los libros?” Tayloe says to Kenai, which translates in Spanish to, “Do you like books?”
Tayloe hands him a small board book, which momentarily distracts the toddler. Kenai holds the book and looks at the cover closely.
Tayloe said this small interaction can help him see where a child is, developmentally.
“We do all board books for six-month-olds because they try to eat them,” Tayloe said. “I mean, that’s the natural thing for the six-month-old. But once they get a little older, they start to look at the pages, so you can kind of see if they’re interested in books, or if they know books.”
That’s just a side effect of Reach Out And Read. Pediatricians working with the early literacy program give books to kids at each of their regular checkups, from the time they are six months to five years of age.
The organization, which operates in three-quarters of North Carolina counties, is directed at closing the so-called 'word gap'. On average, poor children hear 30 million words less than their wealthier peers by the time they turn three – in the conversations their parents and other adults have with or around them, and in stories read aloud to them.
But doctors working with the program don’t just hand out free books. They talk to families about the benefits of reading together.
“We can’t assume that all parents have that experience, nor can we assume that parents who have had that experience know exactly how to do that,” said Callee Boulware, executive director of Reach Out And Read Carolinas.
The program works with nearly 1,500 doctors across North and South Carolina.
“Our providers are really spending time talking with parents at every well visit about why books matter for their child’s life, what it’s doing for their brain, for their bonding, for their motor skills, how to make that a part of a daily routine for their child and why,” Boulware said.
Finding time to read together can be tough, especially for families with two working parents or a single working parent. But Tayloe says just 20 minutes of reading before bed can make a difference.
“So many children enter kindergarten and are so behind on the language that it is very difficult for them to catch up,” he said. “And they’re not necessarily getting the reading, the talking, the playing.”
The pediatrician estimates about thirty or forty percent of his patients are on Medicaid. And research from the Brookings Institute shows less than half of poor children are ready for kindergarten, compared to three quarters of their wealthier peers. This means they are less likely to recognize letters and numbers, or follow directions and pay attention to their teachers.
Tayloe said it makes sense to chip away at the word gap through the doctor’s office.
“One of the things about young children, especially babies, infants and toddlers, is only a relatively small percentage of them are enrolled in child care or preschool,” he said. “But almost all of them come and see their doctor regularly.”
Four-year-old Henry is one of Tayloe’s patients, but on a recent Monday he tagged along for his baby sister Eleanor’s check up. She clutched onto her new book while Dr. Tayloe pressed a stethoscope to her back.
“Eleanore’s a little too little to understand it, but Henry loves when he gets a book,” said their mom, Samantha Cunningham. “It’s like the highlight of the visit. And you know, it’s not always fun to come to the doctor, so the book really makes it great. And then it’s a big deal to go home and read it that day.”
Reach Out and Read Carolinas serves more than 300,000 children a year. And research published in the journal Pediatrics show it’s having an impact: parents who participate are more likely to read to their kids, and their kids score better on language tests.
South Carolina now provides $1 million dollars in state funding a year for the program. Boulware hopes North Carolina legislators might consider doing the same.