Last month the American Academy of Pediatrics issued its first-ever policy on the importance of reading to children. The group, representing over 60,000 physicians nationwide, recommends parents read aloud to children daily, starting in infancy. We talk to the lead author of the policy about the practical hurdles some families face in meeting that goal and the long-term benefits early exposure to complex language can bring.


  • Pamela High, MD Director of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, Hasbro Children's/Rhode Island Hospital


  • 13:06:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Parents of infants, whether still small or now grown, are familiar with well baby visits, trips to the doctor where little ones are weighed and measured, perhaps given some shots and have their overall health assessed. Late last month another agenda item for the appointments was added to that list when the American Academy of Pediatrics issued its first ever policy on the importance of reading aloud to children starting in infancy.

  • 13:07:21

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to tell us just how crucial it is is the author of the new policy. Pamela High is a medical doctor. She is the director of developmental behavioral pediatrics at Hasbro Children's Hospital and a professor at Brown University. She joins us by phone from Providence, R.I. Dr. High, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:07:41

    DR. PAMELA HIGHWell, thank you so much for having me, Kojo. I'm very excited to be here.

  • 13:07:45

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number if you have questions or comments for Pamela High. Do you have an infant at home? How often do you read to him or her and what do you read, 800-433-8850? You can send email to or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Dr. High, reading is, as they say, fundamental. What do we know about just how important reading aloud to children starting at the earliest stages is?

  • 13:08:12

    HIGHWell, I think what we've learned is when parents read with their children, really when they talk and sing and have those important early conversations with their babies and toddlers, it creates optimal connections or synapses in their developing brains. And these connections build language and literacy and also social emotional skills at a really critical time in a young child's development. So they help also secure the bond between parents and children. So for all of these reasons we think it's really important activity to be thinking about.

  • 13:08:48

    NNAMDIWell, we used to often be thinking in terms of the age three. Apparently new research is showing that the gaps between the infants of parents who read to them and those who don't, those gaps emerge as early as 18 months?

  • 13:09:07

    HIGHWell, I can tell you that we have done studies looking at exactly the intervention that we're talking about in the policy statement, which is pediatricians providing this information about the importance of reading and talking to children, and also providing the tools to low income families who may not have them. So by actually providing the books, that when pediatricians do this, parents listen. They take the books home. They read with their children. And we can actually see differences in their language development beginning in the toddler years.

  • 13:09:43

    NNAMDIIn some families reading is very much part of the average day and books fill the house. In others it may be rare, resources scarce. How important are these guidelines for households in the latter category?

  • 13:09:57

    HIGHThe latter being those with very -- with fewer resources?

  • 13:10:01


  • 13:10:03

    HIGHI would say often those are the homes that have a lot of fewer resources. So it's not just the books but they -- you know, there can be food insecurity and other difficulties in those families as well. And, you know, if your resources are short and you have to make a choice, am I going to buy some milk or am I going to buy a book, I think families will choose the basic needs before they get onto this one.

  • 13:10:34

    HIGHSo that's the reason in our statement we're suggesting that pediatricians, when they see these families at greatest risk, also be able to provide them with the tools to be able to share this really wonderful opportunity with their child early on.

  • 13:10:50

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, our guest is Pamela High. She's a medical doctor, director of developmental behavioral pediatrics at Hasbro Children's Hospital and a professor at Brown University. We're discussing the infant reading guidelines being proffered by the Academy of -- the American Academy of Pediatrics and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Were you read to often as a child? How do you think it shaped your interests and intellect, 800-433-8850? Pamela High, what steps is the American Academy of Pediatrics taking beyond just giving this advice in terms of getting books into kids' hands?

  • 13:11:31

    HIGHWell, there was a meeting last week when the policy statement came out between a number of folks, scholastics, the book publishing company Reach Out and Read, which is a not-for-profit organization, that actually has been supporting and promoting this particular intervention for more than 20 years now, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. And together they've raised money for half a million books to put into the hands of low-income children.

  • 13:12:00

    HIGHBut the statement talks about partnering. First of all, getting a public service message out there because we know that even in advantaged families there are lots of folks that are not taking advantage of this opportunity. They may not know that it is a real gift that they can give to their child. And we know that even fewer families in the disadvantaged group are reading to their young children on a really regular basis.

  • 13:12:25

    HIGHSo the public service message is one thing. The intervention is another. And then partnering with, you know, people like you, librarians, museums, teachers and others to help really spread the information out to families. So we really thank you for this opportunity.

  • 13:12:45

    NNAMDIWe hear a lot about how pressed for time doctors are. And this adds one more thing to a visit. This is also the first time the academy has weighed in on literacy. Why take the step and why now?

  • 13:12:59

    HIGHWell, actually the American Academy of Pediatrics, in conjunction with other people including in the government and family medicine doctors, have created a guideline for well child visits or health care intervention called Bright Futures. And that guideline, for quite a time, has said it's important to -- this is one of the things you should talk about. But I think what's really happened is the science has just become stronger and stronger. And so pediatricians have felt that they really need to pick this one piece out and make a stronger emphasis for families on it.

  • 13:13:35

    HIGHSo I don't think it's entirely new. In fact, I know it's not new. It is something that many, many pediatricians already do. But I think we've tried to put it in a public spotlight this time.

  • 13:13:46

    NNAMDIWhat exactly is the advice new parents will be getting from doctors on this front? What can a new parent expect to hear from his or her pediatrician or infant's pediatrician during a visit?

  • 13:14:00

    HIGHYou know, I don't think that this is the very first thing that a pediatrician and a new parent are going to be talking about. Certainly there are some very important basics around growth and nutrition and potentially breastfeeding that really have to be handled first.

  • 13:14:17

    HIGHBut as things calm down and parents and children are hitting a groove then, you know, infants -- very young infants, even a few weeks old, are uniquely prepared to recognize and prefer their parent's voice, their parent's face. And while they may not appreciate the words that are in the book or the point of the story, they'll respond to the emotion in their parent's voice or the look on their face when they read with them. They're able to start these back-and-forth conversations that we think are so important very early on.

  • 13:14:48

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Nichole in Kensington, Md. Nichole, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:14:55

    NICHOLEHi. . Good afternoon. Thank you so much for taking my call. I just wanted to say that everything that your guest is saying is resonating with me. I am a new first-time mom. I have a now nine-month-old wonderful son. And I believe I started reading with him when he was I think two weeks old. And really for me it was a lot more -- a lot less of me thinking about the literacy of my -- the future literacy of my son, but it was just a way for me to connect with him.

  • 13:15:23

    NICHOLEBecause a stay-at-home mom, at least, you know, at the beginning during maternity leave, my mind was turning to mush. And it was great to be able to read with my son and interact with him. And I do absolutely agree with what you're saying, that a lot of this is because of what my parents did with me. I started reading "Aunt Amelia" with him because it was my favorite book when I was growing up. And now that he's nine months old, it's really -- I can see it's becoming his favorite book.

  • 13:15:48

    NICHOLEYou know, he crawls over to it before he goes to other books. So I think there's a huge generational component to it. And I just -- it's been such a great way for my son and I to connect. It's wonderful. I agree with everything you're saying.

  • 13:16:02

    NNAMDIAnd I actually think that Dr. High had an experience with her own son about his exposure to reading aloud at an early age.

  • 13:16:13

    HIGHYou know, I really did. I think I learned about the importance of reading early on, actually not from my pediatrician or even my training but from my nanny who was helping me when I returned to work when my son was young. And she was always reading to him whenever I would come home. And from a very young age, if he was ever acting out, all you'd have to do is say, Anthony, do you want to read a book? And it would totally get his attention. He would grab his favorite book, come over and jump in your lap. And something that might not be going the way I wanted all of a sudden was a joyous experience.

  • 13:16:49

    HIGHSo, yes, I think Nichole, you're really very, very wise. And I think the reason that these shared experiences have such a powerful influence on a child's development is really because they're mediated between that so important relationship between parent and caregiver, which is just the most important relationship in the world for that child.

  • 13:17:11

    NNAMDINichole was able to -- is able to offer that experience to her child. Nichole, thank you very much for your call. Steven can talk about his own experience as a child. Steven, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:17:23

    STEVENHi, Kojo. Yeah, my parents both thought it was very important to be read to as a child. And even from a very young age my father would, like, read me to sleep with (unintelligible) something like that just out of his own interest in classics. And, I mean, from that point on it was a really huge part of my growing up until I started really doing a lot of my own reading when I got to be, like, 12.

  • 13:17:48

    STEVENBut, you know, it really was instrumental in building my vocabulary and all my English skills. I'm a journalist major right now at the University of Maryland and I could say that, you know, having this sort of literary upbringing has helped me tremendously with that. And also, you know, it was a really special moment -- through a special thing I had with both my parents. It sort of brought us closer together as well, like, getting together at the end of every day and having them read me, you know, their favorite books and stuff.

  • 13:18:21

    NNAMDIOkay, Steven. I think, Dr. High, that's the whole point of the exercise, right?

  • 13:18:26

    HIGHThat's exactly it. I think Steven and Nichole could be on this show rather than me. They have a lot of wisdom. I mean, Steven's brought up another really important part, which is that reading happens more often when it's part of a regular routine. And the time that it often fits into many busy families' lives is at bedtime as part of a calming time. And many of us talk about it as the best 20 minutes of the day, you know, when we really -- when the child and the parent have each other's undivided attention and they really have a time to connect and build those wonderful relationships that he's talking about.

  • 13:19:02

    HIGHAnd, you know, reading, although it comes easily to some people, it doesn't come easily to everyone. And I think these kind of early shared experiences also help motivate the child for whom it may not be so easy. But they know how wonderful it can be when they make it to the end of that line.

  • 13:19:21

    NNAMDIAnd there may be an important distinction to be made here. Allow me to go to Sean in Suitland, Md. Sean, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:19:30

    SEANHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me on your show. I appreciate it. So my question actually revolves around the communicative aspect of reading. I'm wondering -- I mean, we're talking a lot about reading to children. Is it -- what we're talking about the effects are in the end the language, the ability to speak, carrying the high level of language. Wondering if it's not the reading as much as it's simply the discourse, the variety of vocabulary and wondering if you can't have the same effects simply by talking, talking with your spouse, talking to your child. Is it really the reading or is it the high level of vocabulary? Is it the exchange of information?

  • 13:20:05

    NNAMDIPamela High.

  • 13:20:07

    HIGHI think this is a really good question, Sean. And I can tell you that it's very hard to tease that out in research. In sort of preschool age children there is good data however that it's not so much the reading that increases the child's vocabulary but those conversations that happen around the book. So we are -- you know, having a book will enrich what you're talking about. How many elephants are in your house but it's very likely that you're going to open up a children's book and find something like that there.

  • 13:20:43

    HIGHSo -- but the kind of reading that involves the child, so it's maybe you read the first line, it's a favorite book and they fill in the last word. Or maybe you ask them to guess what's going to happen on the next page. Or maybe you ask them to point out things in the book. So the book becomes a way of interacting with the child. And it's fun.

  • 13:21:08

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Sean. Finally here's Beverly in Prince Frederick, Md. Beverly, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:21:15

    BEVERLYHi. I wanted to thank the Academy of Pediatricians on highlighting this important message. And as a librarian I just wanted to add that of course your library also has a vast amount of resources for parents to use when interacting with their child. And it is the parent-child interactions that we notice that are such an important piece of what's happening in that's child's learning. Parents are...

  • 13:21:40

    NNAMDISo for parents without resources. there is your public library.

  • 13:21:45

    BEVERLYAbsolutely. And we do story time for children from birth to five years old in most of the systems around this area. So we're there for you.

  • 13:21:53

    NNAMDIThank you very -- care to comment on that, Pamela High?

  • 13:21:56

    HIGHThank you, Beverly. I totally 100 percent agree with you. In Rhode Island, we have programs called Cradles to Crayons that also start very early and they're -- where children tell stories. And maybe they're also drawing some of the pictures that are in the book. So it becomes even more interactive. But libraries are a wonderful resource.

  • 13:22:16

    HIGHAnd I think sometimes parents, in particular immigrant parents, are not aware of this resource. And they're also worried that the child might harm the book. So for very young children I think the kind of book that you offer them needs to be one that's durable. And luckily there are many of those that are very interactive and very fun to use that are produced.

  • 13:22:41

    NNAMDIBeverly, thank you for your call. Pamela High is a medical doctor. She's the director of developmental behavioral pediatrics at Hasbro Children's Hospital and a professor at Brown University. Dr. High, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:22:53

    HIGHKojo, thank you so much for this opportunity and thanks to everyone who called in. I really appreciate everyone's thoughts.

  • 13:23:00

    NNAMDIYou're welcome. We're going to take a short break. And when we come back, it is our kids and young adults summer reading suggestions. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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