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I recently attended a multicultural panel discussing some of the biggest challenges our region faces. One panelist mentioned something that has stuck with me for weeks. 

He discussed the high prevalence of illiteracy in Greater Cleveland. 

This stood out to me because growing up in Beachwood, I was sheltered from the reality of how serious this problem still is. Literacy has a profound and lifelong impact on a person’s ability to succeed in society. Parents have the obligation to nurture – and keep nurturing – their children’s reading skills, starting as early as possible.

In the age of video games, television and tablets, there is a growing trend away from books as early as during infancy.  

Fight this trend. 

An early introduction to books is the best way to encourage lifelong reading habits and expand an infant’s language development. Reading to your baby will strengthen the parent-child bond and will show them reading is a fun, fulfilling and magical activity. 

Infants will appreciate bright colors and fun shapes as they enjoy looking at the pages. This happens long before they recognize the words on the pages. As they get older, let them hold the books, flip the pages and become more active participants during story time.

For toddlers and preschoolers, reading should be part of their bedtime routine. Books will help them relax before bed while also helping prepare them for kindergarten.

Physical books are better than e-books for bedtime reading, since the blue light of tablets keeps kids awake. Parents should let their kids choose their own books at this age, both at home and at the library, to give them a sense of independence. Let them read books out loud to you or tell their own stories. They will still be enhancing their imagination and their vocabulary.

Once kids start school, reading time should continue to be encouraged. Don’t treat reading time like homework. This should be a quiet and fun time for them to read the types of books they enjoy, not the ones they’re assigned in school. Books can help children through the real situations they are experiencing: There are great books to help with potty training, coping with tough life events and encouraging them to be the best people they can be.

Again, while reading is important at every stage of development, the best way to get kids interested in books is to start at a very young age. 

Some expectant parents have adopted a strategy of asking for gifts of children’s books instead of cards or toys at baby showers. It’s a wonderful way to start building a library before their baby is even born.

Friends of mine made a similar request this past holiday season: They asked that friends and family buy their 1-year-old daughter new books instead of adding to her abundant toy collection.  

Simple actions like these can help promote literacy even in infancy. An early introduction to books will help children develop their language skills and their love for reading – benefits that will last a lifetime.

Dr. Laura Shefner writes about pediatric care for the Cleveland Jewish News. She is a pediatrician at The MetroHealth System and practices in Beachwood and Parma. 

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