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Reading and Literacy

Professor Frank Oberklaid

As a young boy, Frank Oberklaid would visit the local library twice a week during school holidays and borrow a stack of books. Television, he recalls a little shyly – lest he give away his age – was yet to infiltrate family homes.

“My mother always loved reading and I always loved reading. Hopefully, I have passed that on to my kids,” the researcher says.

Now Frank wants to pass this love of reading on to a new generation of children. The softly-spoken paediatrician with a handshake like a hug is the driving force behind the ‘Let’s Read’ campaign, which encourages Australian parents to read to their kids.

The program addresses troubling data that more than one in five Australian children start school developmentally vulnerable or at risk. Brain development research over the past 20 years has indicated that the first five years of a child’s life is incredibly important not only for future learning but also health and wellbeing.

This shone a light on the importance of early childhood development. “The foundations of literacy are laid down well before kids get to school,” says Frank. “Language develops naturally. Reading doesn’t. You have to be taught.”

The building blocks of reading, Frank adds, include learning the alphabet, understanding that the letters have particular sounds and becoming familiar with the way words appear in books, from left to right. The best way to establish this before school is to simply read to children.

“In the same way we immunise children against the risk of infection, the best way to immunise your child against the risk of reading failure is to read to them from a very early age,” Frank says.

“We are not trying to turn kids into readers by the age of two or three. But reading is a lovely thing for parents to do with their young child. If it’s on a daily basis from an early age, kids start to anticipate it, they start to enjoy it.

“Then they get interested in books and there’s every chance that by the time they get to school they are eager to start to read.”

Frank’s passion for early intervention and prevention was sparked early in his career, during his four years at Harvard and the Boston Children’s Hospital paediatrics department. One of his mentors used to say: “Every time a child is admitted to hospital it represents a failure of the healthcare system,” Frank recalls.

He returned to Melbourne to establish Australia’s first department of ambulatory paediatrics, a term then used in the USA to refer to children who had problems that didn’t require admission to hospital.

The department has grown to 200 staff and is now known as the Centre for Community Child Health, which Frank still leads today. He proudly points to three landmark projects to emerge from the group’s research: the government-funded Raising Childrens Network parenting website (his favourite feature is ‘Baby Karaoke’ ); the Australian Early Developmental Index, a population-measure of children’s health and wellbeing at age five (“we have data now on 97% of all Australian five-year-olds”); and the Victorian Infant Hearing Screening Program, which screens babies for deafness soon after birth.

“We have put a lot of effort in recent years into translating the research at the Murdoch Children's and elsewhere around the world so it informs public policy, service delivery, clinical practice and parenting,” says Frank.