The Prescription for Reading Partnership one year later, and how it has affected literacy efforts

No one can deny that reading is one of the most essential life skills that children must develop. It is also a sad yet established fact that millions of at-risk children in the United States will not become readers without intervention from organizations and individuals devoted to early-childhood and family literacy.

While the goals that literacy groups have been pursuing are not new, the national spotlight on these efforts is a fairly recent phenomenon. One of the programs providing a significant boost for the literacy cause is the Prescription for Reading Partnership, announced by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in April 1997 . The announcement came on the heels of the release of brain research emphasizing the importance of reading aloud to children from birth, and created the kind of buzz that energized long-standing advocates and the general public alike.

The strides made by Partnership members in the past 12 months are encouraging by any standard and are sure to bolster literacy efforts at all levels. PW spoke with a sampling of directors of several national literacy organizations, related groups and children's book publishers about how the new attention has affected their work.

The Prescription for Reading Partnership is essentially an expansion of two existing national literacy initiatives: a Boston-based pediatrician program, Reach Out and Read; and the American Library Association's Born to Read program. The Partnership brings together doctors, health care professionals, literacy organizations, librarians, trade associations and corporations in the common goal of creating a nation of readers through such efforts as teaching parents how to read with their children and "prescribing" reading with children, as well as providing kids with a new book at each pediatric checkup until age six.

"The accomplishments one year later are impressive," said Steve Cohen, managing director at Scholastic Inc. and Partnership member. "People came together and really met the First Lady's challenge to do something; they delivered on what they promised and then some." According to the Partnership's annual report, the number of children served by Reach Out and Read increased from 150,000 to 750,000 in the past year, and more than one million books were given away by ROR-trained doctors. The number of libraries in the Born to Read program increased from five to 309, and the program was recently adopted statewide in Florida. In addition, more than 235,000 new books were donated to ROR by Scholastic and its nonprofit partner First Book, and an additional 60,000 books were donated by Random House.

These few highlights (and there are many others) are dramatic, but more importantly, they are indicative of the emerging trend of trying to unite hundreds of disparate literacy groups in powerful, effective partnerships. Such strategic alliances are proving to be the key to successful literacy work, enabling organizations to build grassroots structures that can reach more communities -- and children -- than ever.

Strategic Alliances

Partnerships are particularly important to nonprofit organizations, for which fund-raising is a constant concern. Grants from foundations, occasional donations and federal matching funds are their lifeblood. "There's a greater need for literacy organizations to truly partner so that resources can be wisely leveraged and shared," said James Wendorf, v-p of Reading Is Fundamental, the nation's largest and longest-standing nonprofit literacy organization and also a Partnership member. "We're working very hard to let elected officials know that we are proven, effective and cost-effective. Literacy programs are a wise use of their taxes."

And harking back to an old proverb, partnerships also mean the difference between giving someone a fish and teaching someone to fish. Washington, D.C.-based First Book, RIF and other groups build intricate grassroots systems, which eventually allow communities to become self-sufficient. National groups inspire and support local ones, assisting with fund-raising, buying books, training, mentoring, donations (when possible) and other steps along the way. On the local level, corporations, bookstores, libraries, volunteers and other community leaders frequently find innovative ways to pool money, effort and talent for the greatest impact on local children and families. RIF president Bill Trueheart underscored the importance of these networks when he commented, "We can do together much more than we can do singly."

Equally important to the success of literacy programs is an awareness of the literacy issue. Children's literacy needs must be identified before they can be met. To that end, highly visible efforts like the Prescription for Reading Partnership and its larger umbrella initiative, the America Reads Challenge, issued by President Clinton in 1997, have definitely helped get the word out, according to most of the people PW spoke with.

"The Prescription for Reading Partnership has had a wonderful effect on us," said Lee Wilson, v-p of operations at First Book. "Because of this new awareness, literacy is at the forefront of everyone's mind, which is terrific." Cohen of Scholastic concurs. "Anything that draws attention to the need for and the love of books is good for us all." Trueheart at RIF is also encouraged by the Partnership's achievements. "The Prescription for Reading Partnership set a tone and a direction for literacy organizations that was very healthy and we're now building on that important groundwork," he said.

Caron Chapman, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, noted her members' thorough awareness of literacy issues and the latest research. "The mushrooming of cooperative programs from a variety of institutions complements and gives credibility to the concepts that children's booksellers have been promoting for years," she said. Chapman noted that ABC was instrumental in helping ROR and Born to Read devise reading lists in the early stages of those programs and also mentioned ABC's ongoing campaign, "The Most Important 20 Minutes of Your Day... Read with a Child."

The Role of Publishers

Since no literacy group could go about its work without books, that's where the publishing industry assumes an important role. Children's book publishers traditionally support literacy organizations in two ways: by offering deep discounts on book purchases and by donating books. National nonprofit groups frequently negotiate deep discounts and free freight for their various sites of operation. On a smaller scale, booksellers sometimes make special purchasing arrangements with local groups. In addition, the industry's trade organization, the Association of American Publishers, has provided financial support to ROR, devised a promotional Designated Reader campaign to encourage adults to read with children, and has plans to implement a "Books for Babies" (tentative title) program in several cities that work with the Institute for Civil Society.

With their sizable donations to the Prescription for Reading Partnership and other programs, Scholastic and Random House have been especially visible as literacy supporters, but they are certainly not the only companies that have made contributions. However, literacy group directors continue to hope that all publishers will follow their lead and make substantial efforts on behalf of literacy. "Over the past 30 years, the publishing industry's support of RIF has been uneven," said RIF's Trueheart. "We've had great support from a few, though on the whole, publishers have not really been out front." On the flip side, he added, "We're really excited about the work that [AAP president] Pat Schr der is doing, with the Designated Reader campaign and other new programs."

To many industry professionals, a commitment to literacy is as essential to their financial survival as producing and selling books. "Supporting literacy campaigns is a way for us to do good and do well," Cohen said. "It is a terrific investment. Every kid who becomes a reader is a long-term customer."

Chapman of ABC expressed a similar sentiment, pointing out that "children's booksellers base their success on the ability of children to read." And Kelly Grunther, public relations director for Random House Children's Publishing, cited an example of teaming with accounts. "We are always tossing around ideas for programs that feature literacy-based selling. Our Babies Bloom program [a year-long literacy-awareness/backlist promotion campaign] was a way to let booksellers get more involved and make money."

Judy Platt, director of communications and public affairs for AAP, termed her organization's literacy efforts as "enlightened self-interest." In her words, "No publisher will make a profit selling books to literacy programs, but the real profit is in raising a generation of readers."