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Catch them young

It's never too soon to start, writes Geraldine Brennan.

The children of Bentley in Walsall first hear about Bookstart in the womb. Their mothers get a leaflet about the benefits of reading with their children from their health visitors during statutory check-ups in the 36th week of pregnancy.

The first book arrives when the babies are four months old - usually photographs of babies, or a "feely" book. At eight months they get nursery rhymes. Next year, the first babies born into the scheme will reach 18 months and receive a second book of nursery rhymes with a tape.

"The value of nursery rhymes for phonic development as well as bonding with the parent is immense," said David Brook, head of King Charles primary school in Bentley and local co-ordinator of Bookstart. The school hopes to reap the benefits when the first batch of children reaches the nursery class.

"We were looking at what we could do to improve our language development, particularly at what happens pre-school and the number of books children have at home. When we heard about Bookstart it seemed ideal for us."

Walsall Community Health Trust is funding the Bentley pilot scheme until 1999 (a total cost of Pounds 5,000) and has also contributed Pounds 3,200 to Barrie Wade and Maggie Moore's research.

"It's the health visitors who make it happen," said Mr Brook. "When the children come to us their potential will be so much greater."

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