You’ve got a precocious baby who seems to love books (chewing them, at least). And you’ve seen the advertisements for products that say your infant can get a head start on that all-important skill of reading.
But can babies really learn to read?
Not really, according to researchers who took 117 babies and had half the group use flashcards, DVDs and books while half did not. In 13 of 14 assessments, which included the ability to recognize letter names, letter sounds and vocabulary, the researchers found no difference between the two groups. The one category in which there was a difference: The parents of children exposed to the reading product were convinced their children were, in fact, learning new words and reading.
“The results really surprised us,” says Susan Neuman of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, who led the research, which involved babies 9 to 18 months old. “We thought that at least some rudimentary skills would show up, but none did.”
Yet several parents say they have seen an effect, and the creator of the product used in the study, “Your Baby Can Read,” says that the babies exposed to it probably were reading but that the researchers missed it. “Parents know their own children and would come up with more logical tests than the ones the researchers did,” says Robert Titzer, founder of Infant Learning Co., which created “Your Baby Can Read.”
Intended for infants as young as 3 months, “Your Baby Can Read” is one of several products that claim to teach babies to read. There’s also the BrillKids learning system for babies and toddlers in English, French, Spanish, Mandarin and Thai. Intellectual Baby’s Web site says its $139.95 baby reading kit (which includes 10 DVDs, two books and five sets of flashcards) can “give your child a head start in life” by taking advantage of the period when a young brain can “effortlessly learn and absorb mass amounts of information.”
Neuman’s study examined only “Your Baby Can Read.” In home and laboratory visits, the researchers used eye-tracking technology and other approaches to assess whether the babies were able to recognize letter names, letter sounds, vocabulary, words identified on sight and reading comprehension.
Neuman doesn’t believe young babies can read.
“To put it bluntly, parents are wasting their time when they think these materials are actually helping,” she says. “If it were just wasting their time, that would be problematic, but it’s also wasting money.” A “Your Baby Can Read” boxed kit of five DVDs and books costs $149.95.
Wiley Blevins, an author and educational consultant who has written about 15 books on methods for teaching early reading, says the earliest he has ever seen a child learn to read is 4 years old. He defines reading as analyzing words letter by letter and sound by sound and putting them together into a word. He says very early “reading” is more likely babies seeing words as pictures. They see a squiggly line on the page or TV screen and associate it with a specific word, which is a very primitive form of reading, Blevins says.
“It’s not what we in the academic community would say is reading because it’s not transferable. It relies on what you’ve memorized,” Blevins says. “It could be a smudge on the page reminds them that it’s the word ‘cat.’ ” (Parents who have used these programs say that their children can recognize words in multiple settings. Also, “Your Baby Can Read” varies the colors and fonts of words throughout the program.)
Typical 3-month-olds are working on building neck strength, grasping objects and settling into sleep patterns. More valuable than trying to teach babies to read, Blevins says, is teaching children of all ages to enjoy books and helping them build their vocabularies by talking and reading to them.
Titzer says that the NYU study seemed designed to find no impact. The researchers tested things that “Your Baby Can Read” doesn’t teach, such as the names of the letters of the alphabet, he says. They also asked babies to read the word “face,” which is taught on a company DVD that the babies in this study did not watch. (Neuman says she has videos showing babies who were not able to read words they had been taught on the DVDs.)
The “Your Baby Can Read” Web site cites 14 studies and reports attesting that the program works, though none have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
In 2011, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint of deceptive advertising against Titzer and the company to which he had sold the baby reading product, citing lack of evidence backing up advertised claims.
Two people cited in the complaint settled with the FTC, but Titzer, who has since regained the rights to “Your Baby Can Read,” says he is “fighting this because I am completely innocent and because the early literacy movement will be set back by settling with the FTC.”
Krista Guerrero, president and founder of Intellectual Baby, which is headquartered in Orlando, says the sheer number of children she knows who have learned to read through infant learning systems prove to her that they work.
“I know too many people who have had results for it not to be true,” she says. “We are living it every day.” The company Web site says, “All babies are Einstein’s [sic] when it comes to learning to read. Your baby can actually learn to read beginning at 3 months of age. Research shows that from this early age, babies have the ability to learn languages, whether, written, foreign or sign language with ease . . . . They actually just absorb the language that surrounds them.”
KL Wong, the founder and chief executive of the Hong Kong-based BrillKids, points to a YouTube video of his daughter recognizing words such as “point,” “hair” and “clap” at 12 months. He is a proponent of what he calls the “whole-word reading method,” as opposed to teaching babies to piece words together through phonics, which is the method Blevins describes. Wong says that baby reading programs make it “dead simple for babies to figure out the phonics rules for themselves,” but not until a year or two after working through the program. “It would be sad to ignore the very obvious effect it has on reading skills later on,” he says.
Ebony Langford-Brown an educator in Maryland schools for 21 years, says she is convinced her 2-year-old daughter can read because of Titzer’s program.
“I can write a sentence that says, ‘Point to Daddy,” and she’ll point to Daddy,” she says. Her daughter started the program at 6 months old and started to show signs of reading at 8 months, Langford-Brown says. She would clap when she saw the word “clap,” for example.
Langford-Brown says she has noticed that more students are starting kindergarten as readers and that those students are “more confident and successful.”
She aims to give her daughter 70 to 90 minutes (not all at once) of reading and language instruction a day. She uses the program “Your Child Can Read,” having completed “Your Baby Can Read” in both English and Spanish. Her daughter has a Spanish-speaking au pair and is learning Chinese with a tutor and at her Chinese-immersion preschool.
“It’s controversial — at best — what I’ve done,” Langford-Brown acknowledges. “I get the question a lot: ‘Why won’t you just let her be a child?’ ”
She stresses that her daughter is a normal kid who plays with baby dolls and bubbles but also plays by looking at flashcards, reading books and doing activities such as putting something purple on the written word “purple.” Langford-Browns says that if she asks her daughter to point to a specific word such as “dog” or”‘play,” the child can do it and demonstrate what the word means. She cannot independently read an unfamiliar book cover to cover, though she can read full sentences, Langford-Brown says.
Paige Murphy is a flight attendant and mother of three who lives in Columbia, Md. She decided to buy the “Your Baby Can Read” set after seeing a television story about it when she was pregnant with her first son, who is now 8. It was fun to watch the videos with her son every day, so she figured that even if nothing happened, that would be fine. But when he was 12 months old, she would show him the word “head,” and he would touch his head. By 18 months, he was reading street signs and labels at the store, she says. She used the program with her next two sons, too.
“I just don’t understand [the study] because I can’t imagine [that] if they really followed the program, it wouldn’t work,” Murphy says. “Everyone I know who has done the program had it work fabulously.”
Neuman says some of the children in her study were mimicking the DVDs by raising their hands when they were supposed to and then getting positive reactions from their parents.
“The pleasure was sitting next to their mom and performing for their mom,” Neuman says. “It’s not staring at a screen with words they don’t understand.”
Saslow is a freelance writer.