Letters promote reading to infants

Published 2:08 pm Saturday, November 29, 2008

Reading begins immediately at Austin Medical Center-Mayo Health System (AMC).

Sure, there are important things to do when a baby is born, but afterward when mother and child are alone, reading can begin.

When the father arrives, it can continue into school years and beyond.

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Reading a book makes a friend for life.

The Austin Education Association (AEA) is making friends at AMC with books.

The AEA distributed books for babies born in November at the hospital. With them came bookmarks designed by Ellis Middle School students more than 200 letters to the newborn babies’ parents about the importance of reading.

“Dear Friends: Reading means a lot to me. It’s important to read to your child every day. Reading makes you smarter. You should read at least 20 minutes every day,” wrote Allison.

“Dear Parents of a newborn baby: Congratulations for having a newborn baby! No matter if it’s a boy or a girl, I bet it’s going to be very cute. I had fun when I was younger cause I was read to,” wrote Kaylee.

“Dear Parents: Reading to newborns is great! It’s fun to watch them giggle and smile when you read a funny book,” wrote Jason.

Nurses will present newborn babies’ families with letters from children about the importance of reading until the supply is exhausted.

Carol Gilbertson and Nancy Rohne chaired the AEA project.

Gilbertson is a third grade teacher at Banfield Elementary School Rohne is a reading interventionist at Neveln Elementary School.

“We just wanted to do something after going to our Education First convention in October,” Gilbertson said. “We listened to a speaker who was talking about reading aloud to children with expression.”

“We thought we needed to do encourage more people to do that more and more,” Gilbertson said.

“We came back from the convention and asked students throughout the district to write letters to the parents of newborns, encouraging them to read aloud to their children immediately,” she said.

The letters show a variety of writing styles: lower elementary to middle school and above.

All of them first congratulate the parents on the birth of a child and then point out the importance of reading to a child.

But, reading to a newborn infant? Can that work? Can it make a difference?

Health experts agree, at birth a baby’s brain can do a lot, especially stuff to keep the body running properly, but the brain isn’t fully developed.

The more the senses are stimulated, the more quickly the rest of a baby’s brain will develop.

Reading aloud is one of those shared activities that can offer such stimulation.

The AEA members asked the potential letter-writers to reflect on whether they enjoyed being read to, their favorite books, where they sat, what they remembered at the earliest age.

In the end, the AEA representatives collected enough letters to distribute them for the next six months at AMC, which, of course, willingly agreed to participate in the project.

Actually, this is a sequel to an earlier read-aloud project initiated by the AEA more than three years ago. According to Gilbertson, the 2008 project has attracted a greater response than the earlier one.

Nancy Hoversten, RN, and head nurse in the maternity ward, accepted the books, bookmarks and letters from Gilbertson and Rohne a week ago.

Babies born after Nov. 20 were sent home with the congratulatory letters.

Gilbertson and Rohne have their own reading rules courtesy of the Minnesota Humanities Center to start a lifelong habit: spend time with children talking, telling stories and singing songs; read to and with children every day; let children choose the book to read; and, when both parents and children are older, take the child to the library regularly.

Gilbertson and Rohne praised the school district’s teachers for their endorsement of the project.

“We couldn’t have done it without them,” said Gilbertson. “They were instrumental in the success of this project.”

So, there is an addition to the baby books carried by mothers of newborn babies: a letter reminding them to read to their infant, like the one written by Olivia.

“Dear Friends: I want to congratulate you on your newborn. I hope as life goes on you have a chance to read to your children. I hope you take good care of your newborn and be there for him/her through the good and bad,” Olivia wrote.

“A book is like a garden carried in your pocket,” the Chinese proverb tells us.

Who better to grow in that garden than a reader?