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Program stresses importance of reading to kids at bedtime

Each night, 13 million children go to sleep without hearing or reading a bedtime story, according to a study commissioned by Reach Out and Read.

“Reading aloud is the single most important activity you can do with your child to help them develop language and literacy skills,” said Emily Bartels, program specialist for Reach Out and Read in the Carolinas, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children develop reading skills through pediatric care.

“We know that books build better brains,” she said. “We know that 80 percent of brain development happens in children before the age of 3 years old, and 66 percent of children growing up in low-income families are not read to daily.”

Reach Out and Read was established 20 years ago and now works with 14 medical providers within Greenville County to make sure that children from birth to the age of 5 receive reading material. These books are age and culturally appropriate, she said. Pediatricians stress to parents the importance of reading as part of each well-child consultation.

“We’re an evidence-based intervention program,” Bartels said. “We make early literacy a standard part of primary care with a special emphasis on children who are in low-income communities.”

Dr. Liz Chea is a pediatrician at Children’s Medical Center in Greenville, one of the providers of the Reach Out and Read program. She said she has seen firsthand how effective the program is at helping children develop language skills.

“We’ve had the Reach Out and Read program at the Children’s Medical Center for about the last two to three years,” she said. “They’ve provided us with an area in our waiting room that has bookshelves and tables and chairs where kids can sit down and read. Then when they come back to the patient room, we have reading nooks in the corner of each room. Before they leave, we give them a book they can take home and enjoy.”

Children in the program will have at least 10 books in their collection before they start kindergarten, she said.

“Reading helps them develop verbal skills, it helps with bonding time, and it even helps with setting a bedtime routine,” she said.

Chea said the earlier kids are taught reading, the easier it is for them to develop the habit.

“It helps them with school and beyond with literacy, so they become successful students,” she said. ”When they get older, we also watch their fine motor skills — how they use their hands — to see if they’re holding books and flipping pages.”

She said a recent visit with an 18-month-old child illustrated how much the program works.

“The family was concerned that the child wasn’t developing many words yet at 18 months, so I showed them how the child was interested in a book we’d just given them,” she said. “I saw them back for their visit, and the child is already starting to develop words. They’ve been using the picture book to read to the child and now they’re seeing results.”

Reach Out and Read costs $15 a year for each child that goes through the program, but participating families don’t pay anything. There are 176 medical providers in South Carolina who participate in the program, Bartels said, and not every child enrolled is on Medicaid.

She said the organization continues to expand, thanks to donations, which can be made at

“The more education we can give these children, the better chance they have at success,” she said. “We’re not a book distribution program. We know that 90 percent of children see a pediatrician each year. At every well-child check from birth until 5 years of age, our providers talk to the family about the importance of books and reading together. That parent is a child’s first and most important teacher, so we simply make sure that parent has the tools to make a difference.”

Want to make a difference?

Donations to the Reach Out and Read program in the Carolinas can be made at