Right now, we can take action to improve the chance of success in school for Utah's lowest income children by expanding an early literacy program with proven results, Reach Out and Read.

Using the existing health-care system to deliver literacy advice and books to families, Reach Out and Read Utah works with doctors and nurses. Medical providers give free books to children and reading advice to parents during pediatric visits at the critical stage before children enter kindergarten.

Reach Out and Read focuses on the children at greatest risk — children 6 months to 5 years living at or near poverty. It is one of five organizations worldwide to be awarded a 2007 UNESCO literacy award, the only American literacy program featured at the recent White House Conference on Global Literacy and is endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Doctors participating in Reach Out and Read distribute carefully selected new, developmentally and culturally appropriate books — starting with board books for babies and moving on to more complex picture books for preschoolers. Bilingual books are available in 12 languages. Each child who participates in Reach Out and Read starts kindergarten with a home library of up to 10 books and a parent who has heard at every well-child visit about the importance of books and daily reading.

Studies show that parents who get books and literacy counseling from their health-care provider are more likely to read to their young children, read to them more often and provide more books in the home. Children who participate in Reach Out and Read score higher on vocabulary tests, giving 2-year-olds a six- month head start developmentally. Low-income children exposed to Reach Out and Read show improved language development — the single strongest predictor of school success.

A recent report by University of California at Los Angeles found that fewer than half of Utah children under the age of 6 are exposed to daily reading, ranking the Beehive State 36th in the nation. The report, Reading Across the Nation — A Chartbook, found that only 37 percent of non-white Utahns read to their children daily. When compared by race, Utah ranks 47th in nation for white residents who read to their pre-kindergarten-age children daily.

Last year, Reach Out and Read health-care providers empowered parents to read with their children by giving nearly 38,000 books to almost 25,000 of Utah's most vulnerable infants, toddlers and preschoolers at 23 Reach Out and Read sites.

Unfortunately, there are still over 70,000 low-income children who do not participate in Reach Out and Read.

I applaud Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. for redoubling efforts to improve school readiness this year — the 10th year of Reach Out and Read in Utah. Proposing expansion of this proven, cost-effective, nonprofit literacy program to more of Utah's at-risk children, the governor has included $225,000 in his state budget to expand and support Reach Out and Read in Utah.

I urge the Legislature to recognize the value of providing Reach Out and Read to even more high-risk families. We must do our utmost to make literacy advice for parents and books for children a standard part of pediatric care in order to help ensure that every child enters school ready to learn.

Wendy Hobson-Rohrer, M.D., MSPH, is the medical director for Reach Out and Read Utah.