Learning to read can take place in the clinic, too

Children get exam and a book

Children between the ages of six months and five years receive an age-appropriate book when they come for their physical exam at the Infant Welfare Society of Chicago, a nonprofit, community-based health center. In addition, the health care provider prescribes 20 minutes of reading a day to each family. If the parents can’t read, they are told to sit with their children and look at the pictures and talk about the book.

The purpose of the program, developed over six years ago, is to teach parents the importance of early language development. "We began to see the clinic as a place where we could really impact people’s lives in more than just the provision of medical services. We could enhance a lot of their skills in terms of prevention, nutrition, and all kinds of things by providing a larger scope of education," says Gail Mitchell, MPA, director of clinic services.

The reading program was prompted by studies that show low-income families seldom have books because they are a luxury item. In addition, clinic staff noted that longtime patients have developed a trusting relationship with the providers and were compliant, wanting the best for their family. "When we began to address the issue of reading in our regular pediatric visit, we really had a great response because families want their kids to be successful," says Mitchell.

Books available in different languages

The book collection kept on hand at the clinic is a mixture of Spanish, English, and bilingual materials because about 85% of the clinic’s patient base is Hispanic. The books are ordered from catalogs. The clinic became part of the national Reach Out and Read program about four years ago to gain funding for the purchase of books and to connect with other medical facilities conducting similar programs in order to share experiences and expertise.

A number of grants fund the book collection including one from Reach Out and Read and various corporate foundations. (For more information on Reach Out and Read, see the source box above.)

Once children reach the age of five, they are encouraged to participate in the Bobby the Book-worm reading club. The pediatric clinic provides a form on which someone writes the title and author of each book the child reads. Once they read 10 books, the child returns the completed form to the clinic for a free book to add to his or her library.

Frequently during clinic operation hours, the coordinator of Ryan’s Room — a play and learning center in the waiting area — will read a book to the children waiting for their appointment. Reading times are scheduled for children who are part of the Family Literacy Program funded by a state of Illinois family literacy grant. The grant requires structured times for PACT (parent and child together) activities. Therefore, families participate in reading days, which also include an activity. Last year, parents and their children made storybooks of their family life.

The program includes English as a second language classes, and has a library component where families receive a library card and are taught how to use the library. Once a month, the group carpools to the library. At the library, the children have story time and the parents complete an assignment from their English teacher, which is usually to find a book to read and check it out so they will become familiar with the library system.

Parents learn to read as well

The program was scheduled this year for two and a half hours, three days a week during the school year, from September to June. The participants usually are mothers accompanied by children who are not old enough to attend school. Most fathers are at work during the day. The program changed slightly this school year because there are two levels of participants — those who were enrolled in the English class last year, and those taking the class for the first time — and the groups are taught separately.

"The English class is focused on skill building, so we practice things the family needs, such as asking the schoolteacher how your child is doing in class," says Mitchell. Those enrolled in the program also study parenting, nutrition, accessing medical services, going to the store, and taking public transportation. One mother was able to take her child to a specialist at a nearby hospital by herself because she was able to communicate effectively in English, something she could not have done before participating in the program.

The parents who completed the Family Literacy Program, along with the children in the Bobby the Bookworm reading club, were honored at the annual Reading Fiesta hosted by the clinic in June. During this street fair held outside the clinic, tables of donated books are set up and everyone is invited to fill a bag with books to read during the summer. There is food and entertainment, and the City of Chicago Bookmobile comes to help people learn more about neighborhood libraries.

The Infant Welfare Society of Chicago does not rely on its staff or clinic budget to conduct those programs. Instead, it forms partnerships with groups in the community that can provide funding or expertise. For example, the Family Literacy grant is a partnership between the clinic, an adult literacy provider, Literacy Chicago, and the West Town Public Library Branch of the City of Chicago.

"It is important for organizations to look around and find partners to impact literacy in families in all kinds of settings. I think you need to get away from the idea that literacy takes place in schools, and think of it in nontraditional settings," says Mitchell. n

For more information on incorporating reading programs into health care education, contact:

Gail Mitchell, MPA, Director of Clinic Services, The Infant Welfare Society of Chicago, 1931 N. Halsted St., Chicago, IL 60614. Telephone: (312) 751-2800. Fax: (312) 751-8804. E-mail: info@infantwelfare.org.

Reach Out and Read National Center, Matthew Veno, 2 Charlesgate West, Boston, MA 02215. Telephone: (617) 638-3425 Fax: (617) 638-3335. E-mail: Matt.Veno@BMC.Org. Web site: www.reachoutandread.org.