Mar 03 2014

Your Baby Still Can’t Read

Five years ago I wrote a blog post about the product, Your Baby Can Read. I concluded:

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 safe environment.  What such products often really provide is a false sense of control.

The comments quickly filled with parents who had used the system, which claims to teach even infants how to read, saying that the system worked for them.

I often write about products with claims that are not adequately backed by scientific data. Sometimes there is evidence that the product does not work. Other times there isn’t any research, or the scant research is insufficient to settle the question directly. I can always explore the plausibility of the claims, but without evidence I am left to say that  – the claims are not backed by evidence. This is often misinterpreted as me saying that the product does not work, usually followed by attempts to shift the burden of proof to me to prove a claim I actually never made.

As an aside, I often encounter this flawed reasoning, and even catch myself falling into this trap on occasion. We tend to categorize people into various positions, often a false dichotomy. Either you are for or against something. People will then assume that you hold the typical suite of positions held by whichever side they identify you with. This leads to them arguing against your perceived side, rather than your actual position and arguments. The result is people talking past each other – duelling narratives, rather than actual engagement. (Just read the comments to this blog and you will quickly see what I mean.)

I try to be careful with my words, and particularly pay attention to nuances such as the difference between lack of evidence for efficacy and evidence of lack of efficacy. Further, even if I argue that a particular claim is not very plausible, that does not mean I am not open to new evidence. If the evidence clearly shows that it works, I can reassess the plausibility.

With Your Baby Can Read, the claims have a lowish plausibility, but are not crazy. The idea is to start with a whole-word approach to get young children to associate written words with pictures and sounds, and then move on to new words. Certainly children are capable of learning, and perhaps they can learn to read younger than is typical if given the chance.

But – their brains are also still developing. Infants and toddlers develop at their own pace, and within a fairly broad range this is all normal and healthy. The rate at which children develop specific neurological abilities, like language, does not predict their ultimate ability. There is no evidence that you can force early neurological development. Children need enough stimulation to develop optimally, but giving them superstimulation will not, it seems, make them develop faster or better. Further, even if you could get them to develop certain skills ahead of schedule, this does not necessarily mean there will be any long term advantage. If you get your kids to read early they still may end up in exactly the same place at age 10.

Before making specific claims for a product, and before parents commit time, money, and energy to a teaching program for their children, these questions should be sorted out. Otherwise it seems far more likely that parents are going to waste precious time and energy on things that ultimately aren’t helpful.

All of these plausibility and practicality arguments, however, are ultimately not that satisfying. People just want to know – does it work? Now, five years after I wrote that first blog post on the topic, we finally have a direct study looking to see if such reading programs work. Here is the abstract:

Targeted to children as young as 3 months old, there is a growing number of baby media products that claim to teach babies to read. This randomized controlled trial was designed to examine this claim by investigating the effects of a best-selling baby media product on reading development. One hundred and seventeen infants, ages 9 to 18 months, were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups. Children in the treatment condition received the baby media product, which included DVDs, word and picture flashcards, and word books to be used daily over a 7-month period; children in the control condition, business as usual. Examining a 4-phase developmental model of reading, we examined both precursor skills (such as letter name, letter sound knowledge, print awareness, and decoding) and conventional reading (vocabulary and comprehension) using a series of eye-tracking tasks and standardized measures. Results indicated that babies did not learn to read using baby media, despite some parents displaying great confidence in the program’s effectiveness.

Senior author, Susan Neuman, is quoted as saying:

“It’s clear that parents have great confidence in the impact of these products on their children,” Neuman explains. “However, our study indicates this sentiment is misplaced.”

So the one clear effect of this program is to convince parents that it works, despite having no effect on actual reading ability. That does make for an effective marketing strategy, creating the illusion of efficacy, but does not appear to do much for the children.

Of course, one study is never definitive, but this study seems reasonably designed and powered. One study does not “prove” that early child reading programs do not work. What we can say is that what evidence we do have is negative. Combined with the dubious plausibility (although not impossible) this clearly puts the burden on anyone claiming such products do work to provide more and better evidence to back up that claim.

This study also showed that the parents of children who did not display any actual reading ability still had a firm belief that their children had learned to read. This is perhaps the hardest thing to confront as a scientific skeptic – the individual who has been convinced by their personal powerful experience (the, “it worked for me” argument).  It takes a fairly extensive understanding of the various mechanisms of self-deception, what I call “neuropsychological humility,” before people will typically accept that their personal experience is misleading.

I get this. It would be incredibly destabilizing to have to confront, all at once, the unreliability of perception and memory and the profound effect of all the various biases in our cognition. Even just fully grasping the power of confirmation bias can be mind-blowing. When I tell a parent who is convinced that their child did not learn to read despite their direct experience that they did, I am not just asking them to surrender this one belief in the name of objective evidence, I am asking them to surrender the basis for how they make sense of reality, and replace it with an entirely different process.

When confronted in this way, the more common response is to maintain one’s belief, which involves rejecting the science. People will not only reject the specific science in the way of their belief, they will often reject science itself.  The more they are confronted, the more they must recall and strengthen evidence and arguments that support their belief. The more scientific evidence is in the way, the more they have to reject science. If consensus is in the way, then they reject consensus. This can lead to increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories. The greater the evidence that opposes their belief, the larger the conspiracy must be. I, of course, as the messenger for the science, must be part of the conspiracy (manifesting as the shill gambit).

This is all part of motivated reasoning, and we encounter its full spectrum, from finding fault with a single study, to a full blown conspiracy and anti-science world view. To be clear, parents who falsely believe their children can read are on the very mild end of this spectrum. But the process is the same, and it’s important to understand such processes before they lead farther and farther down the rabbit hole.

Conclusion

Back in 2009 I wrote that companies that market products claiming to teach infants how to read did not have the science to back up their claims. Now I can add that a large and reasonably rigorous clinical trial finds absolutely no benefit from such programs, but do lead to the false belief among parents that their children did learn to read.

At the very least this should caution new parents against readily believing marketing hype about any “baby genius” product. As with many things, it is often better to cover the basics well than to spend lots of time and money on getting a perceived special edge. Spend time with your children, enjoy them, nurture them, bond with them – but don’t feel pressured into drilling them with lessons to make them develop faster or become super children. You’re just paying for motivated reasoning.

 

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