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Social Capitalists: Reach Out and Read

43 entrepreneurs who are changing the world
Social Capitalist 2008 Winner

Reach Out and Read

Martha Gershun, executive director
Boston, Massachusetts
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Reach Out and Read (ROR) is a national organization developed by pediatricians and early childhood educators to help children start school ready to learn, with a special focus on children growing up in poverty. By training doctors and nurses to provide literacy advice and give free, culturally and developmentally appropriate books at each well-child visit between the ages of 6 months and 5 years, ROR leverages the existing structure of pediatric primary care to provide a proven, cost-effective literacy intervention in the earliest years of a child's life, when it matters most.

Founded as a single program in 1989 at Boston City Hospital, ROR now serves more than 2.8 million children and their families annually in 3,289 clinics, health centers, hospitals, and pediatric practices in all 50 states, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. ROR has trained more than 46,000 doctors and nurses to provide literacy guidance to parents. Last year these medical providers distributed over 4.6 million books through ROR, and the program is on track to "prescribe" our 20 millionth book in the year ahead.

Reach Out and Read has one of the strongest records of research support of any primary care intervention. Peer-reviewed studies indicate that parents who get books and literacy counseling from their doctors and nurses are more likely to read to their young children, read to them more often, and provide more books in the home. Children growing up in low-income households who are exposed to the program have shown improvements in language development, a critical component of school readiness.

Every year 35% of children in this country start kindergarten without the language skills they need to learn to read. Children who are not able to read on grade level are at risk for school failure in later years, when schoolwork becomes increasingly dependent on reading ability. Reading failure has been linked to numerous negative outcomes, including school failure and dropping out, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, and delinquency and criminal activity.

Encouraging low-income parents to read aloud to their young children is one of the most effective ways to expose them to language at an early age and shape their brains for vocabulary acquisition and later reading skills. When parents read aloud, they instill a positive attitude towards books and reading and begin teaching children that books are a source of both information and entertainment. They also help their children develop curiosity, memory, and motivation -- all vital attributes for later success in school.

ROR leverages the unique relationship between parents and their child's medical provider to address these obstacles to early literacy support in the home environment. Children visit their primary care provider 10 times between the ages of 6 months and 5 years for routine, well-child visits. For many families living in poverty, these check-ups are the earliest regular contact with any child development professional. By training doctors and nurses in strategies to promote early literacy, ROR takes advantage of the strong relationships between parents and their children's doctors and the frequency of health supervision visits in the first five years of life.

Reach Out and Read is an example of a successful public-private partnership which receives federal support as well as funding from individuals, corporations and foundations. In addition, ROR programs in ten states receive state funding. As confirmation of the organization's fiscal responsibility, ROR has been awarded four stars by Charity Navigator for the third consecutive year, its highest rating and a distinction earned by only 8% of the non-profits evaluated.