Early Reading Programs Give Young Children a Head Start in Israel and the U.S.

photo: Debbi Cooper

How often have you seen public service ads encouraging parents to read to—and with—their young children, or heard about family literacy programs that distribute books on a regular basis to young families?

Well, proof is in that programs like these—both here in the U.S. and now in Israel— are working and making a difference in the school readiness of the children participating.

In Israel, the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute recently completed its evaluation of a Family Literacy Initiative introduced four years ago by UJA-Federation of New York, which has been implemented in some of the country’s most disadvantaged areas.

Programs developed through this initiative by JDC-Ashalim and other organizations have been raising parents’ awareness of the importance of promoting literacy and language development from their children’s earliest years—and providing practical training and guidance in carrying this out.

Implemented in Israel for Jewish and Arab families with children from birth to 3 years, the programs provide parents with hands-on knowledge of literacy-promoting activities, showing them how to engage their children in reading, play, and conversation. In addition, training programs for early childhood workers hone new skills that they can use in their childcare frameworks and pass along to the parents.

In the U.S., the PBS NewsHour recently aired a segment touting the value of programs with similar objectives that have been implemented here. One—Reach Out and Read—has a special twist:  it was based on the realization made years ago by a group of doctors and early childhood educators that the one place low-income children are most likely to go before they enter first grade is the doctor’s office.

Taking you inside the pediatric primary care clinic at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, PBS showed how doctors there have made checking their patients’ reading and language skills a part of their regular exams. Books are distributed at each visit and program volunteers show parents how to read aloud to their kids and engage them in conversation and play, promoting the same skills as the Family Literacy Initiative in Israel.

Surprising as it may seem, one doctor cited research that shows that with just that small amount of intervention—handing families a book every six months and giving them encouragement and age-appropriate advice on reading with their kids—those children really will do better in school, the goal sought both here and in Israel.

The Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, a partnership of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Government of Israel, and the David and Inez Myers Foundation, is Israel’s leading center for applied research on social policy and services. Among its many activities, it examines the needs of the country’s most vulnerable populations and evaluates the effectiveness of efforts to meet those needs.

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