ThedaCare encouraging families to read & learn together through the Reach Out and Read Program

Books build better brains, especially when parents understand the power that comes from sharing books together with their children. In fact, reading daily with children starting at birth has a lasting effect on language and literacy development, caregiver-child relationships and social and emotional health.

“The best time to influence a child’s future is in the first five years, a critical window of rapid brain development that does not occur at any other time,” said Eileen Jekot, MD, a pediatrician with ThedaCare Physicians Pediatrics-Neenah and a Reach Out and Read medical champion. “Children who hear fewer words during early childhood start school developmentally behind their peers. Sadly, they may never catch up.”

Because early reading is so important, ThedaCare participates in the Reach Out and Read program. Through Reach Out and Read, each child starts kindergarten with a home library of up to eight books.

“The number of words a child knows can predict their third-grade reading scores, which predicts graduation rates, which often predicts how productive you’re going to be as a community member,” said Tracey Ratzburg, Coordinator with Community Health Improvement for ThedaCare. “So that learning all ladders up to the health of somebody by the time they’re an adult.”

The program begins at the six-month checkup and continues through age five. At the end of each visit, the child will get a book that is age, language and culturally appropriate.

“The Reach Out and Read program is an evidence-based early literacy program,” said Dr. Jekot. “What we know is that parents are two-and-a-half times more likely to read to their children if a provider prescribes it; that’s part of the Reach Out and Read program. Also, children’s language development is improved by three to six months, and their language ability improves with increased exposure.”

In this program, medical providers use the Well Child visits to talk with families about the importance of talking, singing and reading aloud with babies from birth on. “The provider will be using this as an opportunity to do some developmental surveillance. So, when they hand the child the book, they can see how the child interacts with it and how the parent or caregiver interacts with the child and the book,” Dr. Jekot said. “They look for developmentally-appropriate things and can then have a conversation with the parent or caregiver about what they can expect at the age the child is at, and how to incorporate reading.”

Some ThedaCare clinics have been participating in the Reach Out and Read program for a few years. In 2018, there was a commitment to take the program system wide. As of June 2019, all clinics had completed their applications to be part of the program. After the application process, there will be training period to show providers how to incorporate the program into their Well Child visits.

“The goal is that all that training and the full implementation of the program will be done by the end of 2019, so everyone is up and running by 2020,” Ratzburg explained. “That includes all of our primary care clinics.”

The Reach Out and Read Wisconsin program provides coordinators for the clinics. ThedaCare works with two coordinators – one specific to the Fox Cities and one who is more regional, working with rural clinics.

“To get started, funding for books was provided through generous donations to the ThedaCare Family of Foundations at each of the hospitals during the first year,” explained Ratzburg. “Starting in 2020 the books will be purchased using operational funds.”


Reach Out and Read is the only national network of medical providers ensuring that millions of infants and toddlers do not miss out on critical years of early brain development by integrating early literacy into the healthcare experience, starting at birth.