Jul 02 2009

Your Baby Can Read – Not!

I have received numerous questions recently regarding the latest infomercial craze called Your Baby Can Read. This is a program that promises to teach infants and toddlers how to read, giving them a jump start on their education. Their website claims:

A baby’s brain thrives on stimulation and develops at a phenomenal pace…nearly 90% during the first five years of life! The best and easiest time to learn a language is during the infant and toddler years, when the brain is creating thousands of synapses every second – allowing a child to learn both the written word and spoken word simultaneously, and with much more ease.

This is mostly true – in fact the first four years of life is not only the best time to learn a language, it is the only time that language itself can be acquired. If a child is completely deprived of exposure to language during this time the neuro-developmental window will close.  People can still, of course, learn second languages after the age of four, but it is more difficult and their brains will never be as hard-wired for those second languages as they are for a primary language learned before age four.

But the company goes off the rails of evidence when it conflates language with reading. There is no window of opportunity for reading like there is with language – adults who have never read can learn how to read. And while our brains are pre-programmed to absorb language, reading is more of a cultural adaptation.

The site also abuses evidence when it claims that:

Studies prove that the earlier a child learns to read, the better they perform in school and later in life.

Yes – but this might have something to do with smarter kids being able to learn to read earlier. Also, smarter parents, or just parents in a more stable and nurturing environment, may be more likely to read to their children early. What we have is correlational data with lots of variables. None of this necessarily means that forcing kids to learn to read early has any advantage.

In general studies of neurological development and education show that forcing kids to learn some task before their brains are naturally ready does not have any advantage. You cannot force the brain to develop quicker or better. In fact, it seems that children need only a minimally stimulating environment for their brain development program to unfold as it is destined to.

This further means that the whole “baby genius” industry for anxious parents is misguided. This is just the latest incarnation of this fiction.

There is another layer to this debate, however – that between phonics and whole word or whole language reading.  One school of thought believes that children learn to read by first mastering the sounds that letters make then putting them together (ala hooked on phonics). The second school of thought believes the children read whole works, and therefore can be taught to memorize whole words and the phonemic understanding will come later in its own time.

In recent years the phonics side of this debate has been dominant in the education community. But the whole word group is a vocal minority.

However it also seems that there is an emerging third group who combine the two methods in a practical way. People read by both constructing words from their phonetic parts, an also by memorizing and reading whole words. Have you ever  received this e-mail:

Arocdnicg to rsceearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pcale. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit pobelrm. Tihs is buseace the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

This would seem to support the whole word school of thought. However, we also learn new words by sounding them out, and still have to do this for uncommon words. So a blended approach seems practical and is gaining acceptance.

The Your Baby Can Read program is an extreme whole word approach. Infants and toddlers are taught to memorize words, which they can then recognize and name from memory, even before they can understand what they are reading. Critics of this approach claim that this is not really reading, just memorization and association. Some even caution that by taking an extreme whole word approach, phonic understanding can be delayed and the net result can be negative.

Others are critical of this entire approach of forced learning at a very young age. It is more productive, they argue, to give the child a loving supportive environment and let their brain develop as it will.  You are far better off spending your time playing with and bonding with your child than engaged in drills or having them sit in front of a video.

There also does not appear to be any evidence that programs like Your Baby Can Read have any long term advantage. Their website does not provide links to any published studies to support their claims. Regarding the founder it declares:

Dr. Titzer’s research has been published in scientific journals, including the prestigious Psychological Review.

True – but misleading as a Pubmed search on Titzer R came up with only two publications, neither of which have anything to do with learning to read.  His Wikipedia page claims that he has published no scholarly work on infant reading.

Conclusion

While the background concepts are quite interesting, the bottom line is that we have another product being marketed to the public with amazing claims and no rigorous scientific evidence to back them up. This product also falls into the broader category of gimmicky products claiming to make children smarter or more successful academically.

Anxious parents wanting to give their kids every advantage is a great marketing demographic, in that they are easily exploited. But like all gimmicky schemes promising easy answers to complex or difficult problems (weight loss, relationships, or academic success) in the end it is likely to be nothing but a costly distraction from more common sense approaches – like just spending quality time with your kids and giving them a rich and save environment.  What such products often really provide is a false sense of control.

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