Dr. Michael Cohen: "The most important goal is to verbally stimulate the brain at a very important time."


Read, read, read to those babies.

That's the advice - continuous and long-offered advice - of Dr. Michael Cohen, a retired Tucson pediatrician and clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Arizona's College of Medicine.

Cohen, 69, was recognized last month by the American Academy of Pediatrics for his volunteer work with Reach Out and Read at national, state and regional levels.

A program of the Arizona Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Read Out and Read Arizona is a nonprofit organization that promotes early literacy and school readiness in pediatric offices across Arizona.

Here are excerpts from a recent interview with Cohen:

You have been recognized for stewarding early childhood literacy by the Arizona Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Please tell us about the work you have done, and why early childhood literacy is so important to you.

Reading to children early in life achieves many important goals.

The most important goal is to verbally stimulate the brain at a very important time in brain development. ...

Providing language stimulation, by reading and talking to the baby, long-term language and speech development will be enhanced and ultimately allow the child to be better prepared when school starts.

At what age should parents or caregivers begin reading to their children? Please explain why.

Officially, the Reach Out and Read programs direct health providers to begin to encourage parents to read to their children daily at age 6 months.

Many professionals believed that there are similar developmental opportunities when the baby is even younger. The exact earliest beneficial opportunity has not been established.

At University Medical Center, we provide books to parents of newborns with the hope that they will be in the habit of reading and talking to their babies when the earliest benefit occurs.

You are involved with the Arizona branch of "Reach Out and Read." Please tell us about this organization and how it is benefiting Arizona.

Reach Out and Read is a medically-based preschool literacy and language stimulation program. It started in Boston in 1989 and has grown to over 4,000 sites in the United States. We have approximately 200 sites in Arizona.

The premise of the program is that early reading and language stimulation will enhance a child's language development, create a home environment where reading becomes an enjoyable focus for the entire family and to cultivate parent-child relationship in the long term.

The model involves giving age, developmentally and culturally appropriate books to children at all well-child visits from age 6 months to age 5 years.

During the visits, the provider gives the book to the child and observes the child's behavior with the book as well as the parent- child interaction around the book. …

Efforts are made to create a literacy rich environment in the office, especially in the waiting room. At some of the larger sites, volunteer readers read to children in the waiting room to model interactive reading strategies for parents.

Did you grow up in a house full of books?

My family was very educationally oriented and encouraged us to read for school and for fun.

Through my practice years, I became more and more impressed with the importance of school success to a youngsters emotional health and his relationships with peers and his family.

I also learned that kids who don't have the basic skills to begin to read when they enter school often have early academic difficulty and if they can't read by third grade, there is a strong probability that they will never learn adequately to support school success.

I knew that this program was where I wanted to devote my volunteer energy. I soon became medical director of the UMC program and of Reach Out and Read of Southern Arizona. I have since become most active in the state-wide program.

What else would you like to share about your work and early childhood literacy?

The Reach Out and Read approach has been proven to increase the reading frequency at home, elevated reading to a favorite activity of both children and their parents and better prepares children for kindergarten.

(It also) improves language development, especially in high risk populations. …

The program stands out as the only evidence-based program of its kind and is certainly one of the least expensive attempts to enhance educational success and solve the high illiteracy rate that exists in the United States. …

Reach Out and Read is a program that works, better prepares young children for school, increases the probability of academic success and can contribute to an improvement in our national agenda to better educate our leaders of the future.

Want to help or learn more about Reach Out and Read Arizona?

Visit www.roraz.org email at info@rorarizona.org or call 602-532-0137 and press 3.

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at 806-7754 or pmachelor@azstarnet.com