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In addition to flu shots and vitamins, family doctors at St. Michael’s Hospital are now prescribing books to their youngest patients.

The hospital’s Department of Family and Community Medicine and the Toronto Public Library have launched one of the first Reach Out and Read programs in Canada, and the first connected with a Canadian hospital.

Reach Out and Read is a three-part literacy promotion program developed by pediatricians and early childhood learners in Boston, with a special emphasis on low-income families.

During regular well-child checkups for children ages 6 months to 5 years, Reach Out and Read physicians and nurse practitioners talk to parents about the importance of reading aloud to their children. They give each child a developmentally appropriate book and they maintain a well-stocked library in their waiting rooms. By the time a child in the Reach Out and Read program at St. Michael’s Hospital enters kindergarten, he or she should have a home library of at least five books.

In addition, at their first visit, families will be given a Ready for Reading kit from the Toronto Public Library so that they can bring early literacy tools and resources into their homes to create a literacy-rich environment.  The Ready for Reading kit includes the library’s award-winning resource guide, “Let’s Get Ready for Reading: A fun and easy guide to help kids become readers,” filled with research-based tips, activities and recommended reading, developed by expert children’s librarians.

The program builds on the unique relationship between families and their health-care teams at one of the most critical developmental periods in a child’s life.

“Ninety per cent of brain development occurs in the first five years of life, making this a critical time for learning,” said Dr. Laurie Green, a family physician who spearheaded the project with Dr. Kathryn Dorman, a resident in family medicine.

“Many children, especially those from low-income families, experience barriers to reading at home and miss the opportunity to acquire fundamental reading and language skills. This has a negative impact on their language development and can lead to challenges throughout their educational years and beyond,” said Dr. Green.

The Public Health Agency of Canada lists education as one of the social determinants of health, the social and economic factors that influence people’s health.

“Toronto Public Library is so excited to be partnering with St. Michael’s on such an important and innovative literacy initiative,” said Cheryl Skovronek, Ready for Reading Manager at Toronto Public Library. “We know that literacy – especially early literacy – is the foundation of learning and life success. By pairing programs like Reach Out and Read and Ready for Reading, together we expand our reach and provide easy access for parents and caregivers to tools, resources and simple, everyday activities that help them build early literacy skills in their children.”

Independent research has found that children who participate in Reach Out and Read in their preschool years score three to six months ahead of non-ROAR children on vocabulary tests, and that kids who start school on track are more likely to reach their full educational and social potential.

The new literacy program was funded by the St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation, which contributed $14,000 to buy books for the pilot project, to run from January to June 2015. First Book Canada helped obtain books at a reduced cost. St. Michael’s family physicians are also providing funds for the project and the Children’s Book bank in Regent Park is donating gently used books and literacy information for waiting rooms.

The library is providing 4,000 kits for distribution, each one including a Ready for Reading bag, a brochure that encourages library card registration and a copy of the Let’s Get Ready for Reading resource guide . Funding for the children’s kits has been provided by the Toronto Public Library Foundation. Also added to each waiting room library is a set of Toronto Public Library’s First and Best books, an annual list of the top ten Canadian books to help kids birth to five get ready for reading, donated by the publishers.   

The Reach Out and Read program is one of many that St. Michael’s Department of Family and Community Medicine has undertaken in an effort to influence the social determinants of health.