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Program opens page for learning

Through Baby Steps, low-income parents are encouraged to read to their children from the womb until at least 3.

[Times photo: Pam Royal]
Every day, Towanda Johnson reads with her girls, from left, Shakira, 3, Tia, 11 months, and Jessica, 2.

By JOUNICE L. NEALY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Over and over, Neva McGill has told her 6-year-old great-grandson not to beg because it's impolite.

But Derek Harley can't help himself when he goes to the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center on 22nd Avenue S to see his pediatrician.

"Every time he'd go, he'd ask for a book," McGill said. That's because every time he had an appointment with Dr. Kim Brownell, she would give him a book along with a prescription to read daily.

"I know he loves it now," McGill said.

He agreed, saying he likes "every kind of book." But Derek clearly has a favorite.

In fact, Derek cried furiously once when he realized he left his "shark book" at the center one time. "We had to come back up on the elevator because he left his book. He was not going to leave there until he got that book."

Derek's devotion has been sparked partly by a national initiative of the American Library Association program that has been implemented locally to encourage low-income parents to read to their children from the womb until the child is at least 3 years old. Experts say that reading stimulates language development in those critical years.

Elaine L. Birkinshaw, manager of St. Petersburg's main library, heads the Baby Steps program, which began in 1998. For the current year, the local program is operating because of an $84,000 state grant. The money buys books, baby bags, bibs and toddler shirts.

The Baby Steps program gives parents detailed suggestions about reading activities based on the child's age. For example, for 6- to 12-month-olds, the program suggests allowing the child to hold a stuffed toy while you read, pointing to the pictures, reading familiar stories before starting new ones and reading at bedtime.

The library has partnerships with the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center, All Children's Hospital and the school district's Teen Parent Program to distribute the books, gifts and information about "growing readers one step at a time." Birkinshaw also encourages reading to older siblings.

"We are here to support their role as their child's first teacher," said Birkinshaw, who wants to expand the program into north Pinellas County next year. "What encourages the appropriate development of the brain is language and being exposed to colors and stimuli. Reading is a very important way to do that."

In addition to receiving free books, Baby Steps participants receive a library card. Birkinshaw said they have issued more than 800 library cards since the program began and estimated that about 10 percent of them have used the cards.

"This is one way of letting them know they don't have to spend their own money for books," Birkinshaw said.

It's an advantage that Towanda Johnson has seized. "Every time we pass by the library, they say, "Mama, we want to go to the library,' " said Mrs. Johnson, 25. She and her husband have three daughters: 3-year-old Shakira, 2-year-old Jessica and 11-month-old Tia.

"They're only in love with one book," Mrs. Johnson said. There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. Although she bought them a copy for home, they prefer to read the one at the library.

The Baby Steps program pushes the use of the library because it's a resource that many parents with small children don't think about, Birkinshaw said. She wants to change the perception that libraries are no place for small children.

"Libraries have changed their collection to include board books. We have a lot of wonderful parenting materials, all free at your public library," she said. Even if parents weren't bookworms as children, Birkinshaw said the program is valuable.

"We don't care what kind of student you were in high school. We just want to make sure your baby is given every opportunity to learn to read and be successful."

Baby Steps is an attempt to attack illiteracy and low-literacy levels earlier. Some experts say that adult illiteracy is a pediatric epidemic.

"Pediatricians have always been big emphasizers of preventive measures," Dr. Brownell said. "This is all very natural." Giving out books has become as routine as giving out shots, she said.

It's a routine that Dr. Brownell began in 1997, when she became a Reach Out and Read site. It, too, is a national program that began in 1989 at Boston City Hospital to encourage pediatric literacy by pushing for volunteer readers in doctors' waiting rooms. Like Baby Steps, the Reach Out and Read program calls on doctors to prescribe reading at least 20 minutes a day and give out books.

Although Dr. Brownell lost volunteers, her office still is a Reach Out and Read site. Plus, she's a partner in the Baby Steps program, which differs in that it also stresses reading prenatally. Health care officials give information to expectant parents about pregnancy, childbirth and child development.

"Eventually, your bunny will read to you," said Birkinshaw, pointing to a book, Read to Your Bunny, that stresses reading 20 minutes a day.

Ideas to help children read

Here are some tips for growing readers and examples of books to use:

Birth to 6 months:

Begin with poems, rhymes and soothing songs

Use sturdy "board" books or ones with textures

Find stories with big and colorful pictures of faces

While your baby is feeding, recite a rhyme or read to an older sibling

To try: The Molly series by Levert

* * *

6 months to 1 year:

Let your child hold a stuffed toy while you read

Point at things in pictures as you name them

Read and sing songs with sounds that are repeated

Read at bedtime

To try: Good Morning, Baby by Hudson

* * *

1 year to 18 months:

Start a routine of reading the same story or singing the same song with the same activity every day

Point out and read signs and labels at home and in stores

Talk about the pictures instead of just reading

Take a book any place where you may have to wait (restaurant, doctor's office)

To try: Snappy sound series: Whoosh, Ring, Tick Tock by Edwards

* * *

18 months to 2 years:

Read books that repeat many words

Show your child the words; run your finger along them when you read

Let your child turn the pages or point to objects on the page

Let your child choose some stories to read with the ones you choose

To try: Toilet Tales by von Konigslow

* * *

2 to 3 years:

Leave out the last word of a favorite rhyme for your child to recite

Play "find the object" on pages as you read

Let your child pick out books and times to read

Practice saying the alphabet and writing letters with your child

To try: Love You Forever by Munsch

-- Source: St. Petersburg Public Library

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