A message for parents is included with the gifts of baby books and library cards presented to newborns by libraries around the state: It's never too early to start reading to your child.
Librarians and other reading advocates are stepping up their efforts to keep parents and caregivers excited about reading to babies and preschool-age children, so they'll be ready to learn when it's time to start school.
"We talk to and play with babies all the time," said Gail Griffith, deputy director for the Carroll County public library, which distributes books and library cards to newborns. "It isn't a big step from that to pointing out pictures to baby in a cardboard book."
At the forefront of the effort is the Ready at Five Partnership, a statewide coalition of public and private organizations committed to ensuring that all children are ready to learn when they enter school at age 5.
"Children who receive literary experiences from birth have an advantage when they start school," said Louise Corwin, executive director of the Ready at Five Partnership. "Children who are not read to will not have as sophisticated language skills and as broad a vocabulary."
Research has linked academic success to a rich language environment during the first three years of life, said Janet DiPietro, a developmental psychologist and associate professor for the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.
"When you read to children, you're spending focused time with them," DiPietro said. "You're exposing them to rich language in terms of vocabulary and grammatical construction. And when the reading is done in the context of emotional warmth, it's very good for them."
Also, reading to children during their first few years nurtures the relationship between caregiver and child that fosters early brain development, DiPietro said.
"Reading is a great form of interaction," she said. "A baby may not know what the parent is saying, but the parent is spending warm time with that child. If the child doesn't understand the words, he or she will soon enough."
Public libraries can play a key role in helping Maryland's children be ready to learn to read when they start school, said Kathleen Reif, director of the Wicomico County Free Library, which provides parents of newborns with a board book, a cassette tape and a tour of the library.
Reif is chairwoman of the Birth to Four Task Force, which works with the Ready at Five Partnership to educate public libraries on how to provide the best preschool services.
"We are preschoolers' door to learning," Reif said. "And we can educate parents and child care providers on the glorious, wonderful literature they can check out for free and share with their children."
The reading preparation effort has drawn the attention of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, which includes 115 companies and joined the Ready at Five Partnership to try to find strategies to better prepare students to join the work force after graduation.
Those who scoff at the idea of reading to babies may be reassured by the experience of the Baltimore County Public Library, which offers story times for babies and preschoolers.
Lynn Lockwood, assistant director of the library, said the infants are alert, immersed in an environment filled with word repetition and rhyming in stories, with music, finger play and other language-based activities.
"The important thing for parents to understand is that it's not hard," Lockwood said. "It's not rocket science. It's loving. It's what parents do naturally. If you're loving and you encourage your child, there is no wrong way. But we can help parents learn how to do it best."
As guidance for parents and caregivers, the Ready at Five Partnership and Maryland public libraries have published a list of tips on reading to children that will be available at libraries around the state.
Set aside a special time each day to snuggle and read with children.
Read and reread a child's favorite book whenever asked.
Read with expression and run a finger under words.
Have the child point out objects, talk about the pictures and repeat common words.
Talk together about the story and allow the child to interrupt with comments.