Tired of mom, dad reading aloud? How about a doc?

Montefiore pediatricians promote early literacy with help from the Zoom app

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Many parents know reading to their children is important. But ask Dr. Allison Taylor: The practice is right up there with eating dinner and brushing your teeth twice a day.

The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore wants to instill the important practice of reading into the lives of children. They do it through a program called Reach Out and Read, where children get a book to take home after every check-up. 

But the coronavirus pandemic has impacted those in-person check-ups, and even reading, for younger children. And while parents might still read to or read with their children at home, they might not be getting that extra practice at school.

That’s where several Montefiore pediatricians stepped in. During the recent winter school break, some hosted live “read-alongs” over the Zoom online videoconferencing app,  targeting children in kindergarten through fifth grade. It all followed a “healthy, happy hearts” theme in honor of American Heart Month.

This isn’t the first time the doctors have done a program like this. They took to Zoom to read books over the holiday break back in December as well. And they hope to do another in April, this time honoring Autism Awareness Month.

For Dr. Faye Kokotos, reading is essential to a child’s language development skills. And she had experience of that firsthand. Her first exposure to a doctor’s office wasn’t only as a patient — she was a child of Greek immigrants, and would translate not only for her parents’ doctor visits, but for her extended family as well. 

These visits were some of the first times Kokotos saw what pediatricians did — and sparked her desire to become one herself.

“I admired how the pediatrician worked with the children (and) how compassionate he was,” she said. “There was no one in my family who was a doctor. It was just that early exposure (of) going to the pediatrician’s office, serving as a translator actually, and working with my younger cousins.”

When it comes to events like the read-alongs, Kokotos tries to cater the books she reads to her audience. And while she has a few favorites — like “We’re Alike” and “Green Eggs and Ham” — she makes sure the stories she reads are age- and development-appropriate for the children she’s reading to that day.

In addition to the read-alongs, Kokotos runs the Reach Out and Read program at her site. Early childhood literacy is very important to her, even outside of a public health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic. And that has only exacerbated the need for children to be read to or read with their loved ones — whether it’s a parent, grandparent, or even a Montefiore pediatrician.

“There’s a lot of extra screen time that the children participate in” during the pandemic, Kokotos said. “What we’re telling families is this is something they could do easily. It doesn’t need to be an hour. It’s like five, 10, 15 minutes in their day, where they can sit with their young child and read aloud to them. It takes away from screen time, and it bonds the family even closer.”

Similarly, Taylor ensures literacy is a part of her young patients’ lives at every check-up. In fact, she considers it an essential part of her job.

“When I see kids and their families at check-ups, I often ask what they are reading — for the older kids,” Taylor said. For younger patients, “I oftentimes will … hand (out) a book for those younger kids at the beginning of the visit, and I may start reading the book out loud there.”

Some children might like reading more than others, and that’s OK. But Taylor wants to ensure her patients’ parents know just how vital it is to their development. And when those patients get older, it can become very clear who was read to at a younger age.

“A lot of families don’t quite appreciate how much is gained and how much they can set their kid up for the future by developing a reader,” Taylor said. “Kids who are read to on a regular basis, their vocabularies are exponentially better when they get to kindergarten. They love books and stories. They look forward to them, and they are eager to learn how to read themselves.”

Reading aloud to children doesn’t need to begin and end with parents — or even Montefiore’s read-along program. Some doctors like Taylor urge parents to visit a local library, giving their children access to seemingly countless books for free.

But Montefiore’s read-along program does more than just promote early literacy, Kokotos said. It also can reassure young patients living through an event as uncertain and scary as the coronavirus pandemic.

“We can read aloud stories to our patients in the community, get the children involved with this activity, (reach out) to our community, (and) let them know the pediatric doctors are here,” Kokotos said. “They’re still open. They’re providing health care, administering vaccinations, and we’re taking care of our patients as best as we can during this COVID pandemic.”

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