Health visitors are key professionals in a new project that aims to give literacy the earliest possible boost. Ann Treneman reports.
Stephanie Onamade looks too young to own anything - much less a book. But, at six weeks, she owns not one, but four volumes and a story tape. By the time she is able to hold her head up, she will own five more. And, by the time she is crawling this autumn, she will have filled her very own shelf.
Stephanie's early reading habits are the result of Baby Start! - a pilot project in Lewisham, south London, that aims to find out if language and reading skills can be boosted within a few weeks of birth. It is the kind of question Stephanie's mother, Susan, already feels ready to answer.
"At 34, I have thought about what sort of life I'd like my baby to have. I was reading to Stephanie when she was in the womb," she says. "I suppose people might think I am going overboard but I believe if you can stimulate her then it cannot be bad."
Stephanie is a lucky girl. The borough of Lewisham is among the most deprived in the UK, and her area of Downham has more than its fair share of families without jobs or permanent homes. Some are refugees or young single mothers living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but Stephanie's parents have good jobs and a nice house they share with a not-so-nice Amazon Green parrot named Hewey.
Not all the 20 infants born in this Downham postal district in February are as fortunate as Stephanie, although each is already a book-owner, because this is the group chosen at random for the Baby Start! project.
Under the programme, health visitors distribute the book packs during regular checks at eight weeks or earlier, then at 16 weeks and eight months. There are also free sessions on storytelling at the local health clinic and library.
"I've gone for this project because I believe we can do something about literacy right from the word go," says Karen Feeney, director of Lewisham's Literacy 2000 and of Baby Start! "Health visitors are in a unique position because they have access to almost all families. We already have several family literacy projects that are successful. But they are mainly based in schools - there is a whole population that may never come into these projects. When those children come into school, they have no knowledge about books."
Teresa Ross has worked as a health visitor in Lewisham for six years, and says Baby Start! is "brilliant". She knows from experience that books are not the first, or even the last, priority in many homes.
"I was doing a two-year check on a little boy, and he was not speaking. So I asked the father - he was the parent who was there - if he ever read to the child or showed him books. He said: 'No, I didn't think I had to do that. ' I thought that was rather sad. He knew he had to feed the boy and keep him warm but that was it."
Baby Start! is one of several projects around the UK that links literacy and the very young, although Lewisham's babies are the youngest. The pilot project, Bookstart, took place in Birmingham in 1993, and many, such as one in Sunderland, are based in libraries. The idea has really taken off. In Hertfordshire, for instance, 13,000 or so babies will receive a book pack at their eight-month check-ups this year. "We'd love to start them even earlier, " says Catherine Blanshard, head of the county's library services for young people.
Such programmes can change lives. Barrie Wade and Maggie Moore conducted research into the Birmingham pilot - in which babies between six and nine months received a book pack - and compared families that received the packs with those that did not.
"The results are startling," they wrote. Almost 70 per cent of Bookstart parents placed looking at books as among their child's three favourite activities (compared to 21 per cent for the other families). Forty-three per cent took their child to the library at least once a month, compared to 17 per cent, and two-thirds read to their children every day, compared to less than half for the comparison group.
Karen Feeney says: "The idea came when I was reading the stuff about Birmingham and Sunderland. I thought we could go much earlier as, for some, nine months is too late. We could could get in there right from the start with the health visitors."
The Pounds 1,000 cost of the Lewisham pilot has been met by the Reading Is Fundamental group at the National Literacy Trust. The group, funded by corporate and other private sponsors, has been around in the US for 30 years. There it has an annual turnover of around Pounds 12 million, and last year it handed out 11.5 million books.
"Our unique selling point is that we exist to provide free books for children," says its UK director, Roy Blatchford. "I liked the Lewisham project because I believe the die is cast young. Not reading to children until they are able to read for themselves is like not talking to children until they can talk."
Back at the Onamades', Stephanie is having her own kind of conversation, cooing and gurgling at the grown-ups and the ever-watchful Hewey. She is batting away at her new chunky, accordian-style book, This is Me. Also in her rather trendy red-and-white sturdy plastic Baby Start! book box is a Ladybird "look and talk" frieze and book and a Round and Round the Garden book and tape (particularly welcomed by Hewey, who likes to mimic sounds). Finally there is one for the grown-ups by Dr Miriam Stoppard.
"This could be done nationally. The total project costs Pounds 1,000 and the families will get 15 to 20 books each, as well as all the support," says Ms Feeney. "The important thing is to have an inter-agency approach. That is why we started small."
You cannot get much smaller than Stephanie. "She is curious about them, " says Susan. "That is all I can hope for now but that will change and it will become information that she can use."
Everyone in the room - even the parrot - could not help but nod.