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Infant Intelligentsia: Can Babies Learn to Read? And Should They?

• September 10, 2012 • 9:30 AM

THE VIDEO CLIP on Larry Sanger’s website shows the cofounder of Wikipedia looking both scholarly and paternal with his owlish glasses, thinning pate, open book, and lapful of chubby-cheeked 3-year-old. Sanger’s son is gazing hard at the book pages and pronouncing words with the charming r-lessness of a toddler: “Congwess shall make no waw wespecting an establishment of wewigion or pwohibiting the fwee exewcise theweof or abwidging the fweedom of speech or of the pwess…” It’s not clear whether the boy is working toward a doctorate, like his dad’s, or training to be our future pwesident. But it is stunningly obvious that the boy is sight-reading the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution at an age when most tots can’t tell an a from a b. When an influential philanthropist viewed the video, says Sanger, “he was gobsmacked.”

True, the Sanger child inherited both the genes and home-schooling attention of a high-tech icon. But YouTube now overflows with videos of tiny tykes reading words off of book pages, flash cards, and computer screens. And these images have stirred a Battle of the Experts flinging epithets like “witch hunt” and “snake oil.” Are the munchkin-voiced 2- and 3-year-olds actually reading those multisyllabic words? Or have they merely associated sights of certain words with their sounds? Is a baby’s brain even capable of decoding words and extracting meaning? And if it can, should we program it this way, this early? Or should we channel its effervescing language ability in other directions?

Any curious web surfer can track the recent baby-reading brouhaha. Here is a PhD who blogs for Psychology Today describing trademarked videos and games by Your Baby Can Read! and wondering, “Is there a ‘baby can read’ witch hunt?” LeapFrog, Baby Einstein, and BrillKids make similar products and could elicit similar questions. There is the Today show investigating Your Baby Can Read! And citing numerous critics. Here is news of a consumer group filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging “deceptive marketing.” There is a blog called NeuroLogica labeling the whole business “gimmicky schemes promising easy answers,” and headlining it “Your Baby Can Read—Not!” Here, a medical doctor warning that pushing children to write, read, or spell in preschool or kindergarten “might create learning disabilities.” There, a self-published author whose children read at age 2½ warning that “late reading” (age 6) might lead to dyslexia. And finally, here is Larry Sanger himself, with the help of the “gobsmacked” philanthropist, starting a website called Reading Bear to help other parents use his favorite techniques—gratis.

For more than a century, kids have encountered letters in kindergarten and reading in first grade, although many preschools now teach “preliteracy skills.” Complete reading lessons in the playpen, however, probably grew out of the 1990s enrichment movement. Journalist Susan Gregory Thomas traces the drive to buy a smarter baby to a 1994 Carnegie Corporation report on the importance of nurturing and stimulation for babies from birth to 3. In 1997, a media blitz brought the similar themes from that year’s White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning into virtually every home. Within months, stores were selling Baby Einstein videos, Mozart Effect CDs, and baby enrichment products bearing the logos of several well-known toy companies. To paraphrase Noam Chomsky, writes Thomas in her book Buy, Buy Baby, “Our American consumer economy takes our concerns, commodifies them, and sells them back to us.”

New millennial baby-reading videos and books are logical extensions of that process, and so are the parental motivations for buying them. “Some parents worry that their child comes from an impoverished language background,” says Tufts University Center for Reading and Language Research director Maryanne Wolf, “and they want to give their children everything they can.” Wolf sees less idealism, however, in the parents who are “worried about their child not getting into the right preschools” and eventually, “into an Ivy League college.” The photogenic professor appeared on the Today show, criticizing the pricey Your Baby Can Read! videos and flash cards and their repetitious presentations of written words, illustrations, and pronunciations. “To force a 3-year-old or infant” to watch and repeat these things, she says, is akin to the “paired associative learning” B.F. Skinner used with his laboratory pigeons. The result is “memorization, but it’s not reading with comprehension.”

Every early-reading product this writer reviewed warns parents to stop the instant a youngster seems bored or resistant, to use the lessons sparingly, and to make them fun. Every parent contacted swears their child loved the baby-reading materials. Children are “getting a lot of exposure to words and letters,” Wolf says, “and that is one good thing. But forcing this child—whether they say they are, or not—is, in my book, coercion,” and it risks “turning a child off [to reading] and making them feel like a failure.”

Larry Sanger read storybooks to his first son (now 6) for an hour or more at a sitting, starting in infancy. He also used alphabet books, homemade flash cards, and the Your Baby Can Read! videos. “He really liked [it], he just ate it up,” Sanger declares. “By 25 months he could read brand-new words he had never seen.” When asked about pressuring kids to learn, Sanger replies, “From what I can gather and what people say about how they use such programs online, very few do that.

“But I have yet to encounter a single reading expert,” he continues, “or psychologist specializing in development and language who says, ‘Well, I have interviewed early readers and based on my observations of them, I conclude the following.’ The fact is they haven’t even dealt with the phenomenon. They are still in the stage of denying that it even exists.” Young children, he says, “may not be able to read and understand a long story, that’s true. That’s more advanced. But are they beginning readers? Absolutely. What really is the point in denying that?”

One major federal report on early reading does confirm this dearth of data. In 2008, the National Institute for Literacy published a report called “Developing Early Literacy” by a stellar panel of reading and child-development experts. Led by Timothy Shanahan, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago Center for Literacy, the academics sifted through more than 8,000 scientific research articles on newborns through 5-year-olds. They eventually picked out 500 studies that reliably documented the skills, abilities, programs, environments, and personal traits that determine whether young kids will go on to read, write, and spell well in school. Of those 500, just a handful considered kids under age 4.

Tim Shanahan is a charismatic reading guru who writes a popular, authoritative blog on literacy issues in addition to his internationally recognized scholarship. Shanahan estimates that only two or three of the studies his panel reviewed looked at 1-, 2-, or 3-year-olds, and even those looked only at the prereading skills that underlie reading, not reading itself. Chief among them is “phonemic awareness”—mastering the “code” or the association between letters and their sounds individually and in words. In the reading world, “decoding” means sounding out the letters in words, and then reassembling them into a pronounceable whole.

“To learn to read in our language,” Shanahan says, “you need to be able to hear the sounds in a word like pig—puh-ih-ga”—not just say the letters—pee-I-gee. If you tested “whomever you thought were the smartest 3-year-olds in the world, you would find very few with phonemic awareness. It’s not an IQ thing,” he adds. “They can’t hear it; they are not programmed to perceive it.” Existing studies do seem to show, however, that you can begin teaching “the code” to kids under 4 and “it does make a difference in their reading achievement.” Shanahan also acknowledges that the majority of deaf readers, a fair number of Baby Boom adults, and nearly all of the Boomers’ now-elderly parents learned to read without phonics lessons or learning the “code.”

Most intriguing are the children who take an intuitive leap to reading after no instruction at all. In his book, Native Reading, self-published author Timothy D. Kailing describes how his children learned to read simply by watching him point to every word he was reading aloud from hundreds of children’s books. Likewise, psychiatrist Darold A. Treffert of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health reports a form of “hyperlexia,” or precocious reading, in his own daughter. She would watch her mother’s lips closely during storybook sessions. Then one day, he writes, “she read the book to her mother instead of the other way around.” By age 3, she was reading at a sixth-grade level with “full comprehension ability,” he reported to the Wisconsin Medical Society. His report also describes savantlike forms of hyperlexia in children with autism spectrum disorder.

Shanahan finds neither pathology nor mystery in most cases of early reading. Some precocious kids “figure things out themselves,” he says, but quite often the parents were working on letters and sounds in their daily storybook reading. And sometimes, he adds, “an older sister had been ‘playing school,’ and teaching Junior what she learned down at the local school.” If, as Louis Pasteur famously stated, “Chance favors only the prepared mind,” then perhaps the family inadvertently stacked the mental kindling that ignited with an intuitive spark.

At least one language expert is probing that ignition process itself and trying to jump-start it through technology. Dominic Massaro, an emeritus professor of psychology (with whom this author collaborated briefly last year) from the University of California, Santa Cruz, is a wiry long-distance bike rider with a reputation for being both “brilliant” and “a maverick.” He codeveloped a model for how the brain makes simultaneous sense out of separate inputs such as the sound of a person’s voice and the sight of his or her lips moving. Most of his colleagues who study language perception look at either speech or writing. For 40 years, however, Massaro has researched how both modes operate and interact.

One practical offshoot was a smooth-pated, mocha-colored avatar called Baldi. Massaro and coworkers programmed this on-screen representation of a head to be a patient and affably neutral tutor that can help autistic and hearing-impaired children learn to speak and read. While studying children’s language acquisition, he concluded that “babies are statistical learners,” meaning they integrate multiple cues such as “expressions, gestures, and the language they hear, to bootstrap the meaning of what people are saying to them.” These cues include subtle rules such as “which pairs of letters go together and occur in certain positions, but not others.” For example, “th” is common, but “gx” isn’t. “You don’t have to teach a child the phonemes of their spoken language,” he says, “and you don’t need to create fun word games to tell a child ‘dinner is ready.’ They are motivated by communication itself and by a desire to understand their world.”

Massaro is convinced that because spoken and written language share many innate rules, a young child should be able to pick up reading “naturally and without intentional instruction” as long as he or she is immersed in an environment that presents written and spoken words simultaneously. Massaro has applied for a patent on new technology that could, for example, instantaneously translate a caregiver’s words (“Here’s your toy bear!”) into written words on the screen of his or her “digital T-shirt.” The words could simultaneously appear on a screen embedded in the stuffed teddy she is handing the child. Other technology Massaro envisions could perceive, interpret, and label the child’s familiar surroundings (“Your bedroom”); actions (“Throwing the ball”); experiences (“It’s raining outside today”); and words (“Want juice!”).

From infancy, Massaro says, “the child would process in parallel fashion both written and spoken information, like two horses on a track. Neither horse would win, though, and there is no finish line. Both would simply gallop toward an understanding based on a synergy between the two sources.”

Tim Shanahan finds this “a really fascinating idea. And if someone can pull it off, Dom would be one of those people. But I think it’s pretty far away from anything like a reality at this point.”

Massaro himself is much more optimistic about developmental timetables, both for his products and for their young users. He points to the well-documented period in a child’s early neurological development when internal programming and external experience allow attention, listening, talking, and understanding to skyrocket. Through high-tech devices, Massaro would like to add reading to that list, even though most language researchers believe literacy requires deliberate training while spoken language gets an automatic free pass.

Some who market reading programs for babies, however, exploit the specific intervals within that time of rapid learning—so-called “critical periods.”

Neurologists have known since the 1960s that intervals exist for every baby’s brain during which light patterns, sounds, and other inputs stimulate the pruning, shaping, and hooking up of specific permanent neural circuits. For example, researchers in the 1990s confirmed that children deprived of spoken or signed language during a critical period, from birth to age 6, or so can have lasting deficits in grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, and understanding words. The ads for some baby-reading products infer that children who first encounter reading after this critical period for spoken language may be doomed to mediocrity or even dyslexia.

A 2009 study on Colombian guerrilla fighters disproved this claim. Spanish and British neurologists using fMRI scanners imaged changes in the brains of almost two dozen adult fighters who had quit the movement, emerged from the jungle as illiterate adults, and only then took up reading. Not only did they learn to read at a sixth-grade level or higher, but their brains accumulated gray and white matter in the same spots as their compatriots who had learned to read during childhood.

French cognitive scientist Stanislas Dehaene and others have been methodically scanning kids and grown-ups to see where the ability to read resides in the brain. Dehaene nicknamed a region in the left hemisphere’s visual cortex “the brain’s letterbox.” In a fluent reader, this small area recognizes strings of letters, then rapidly signals to nearly a dozen other left-brain areas. The result is the lightning-fast decoding of letter and word sounds but also the retrieval of word meanings from a potentially vast mental dictionary. Readers need phonics to sound out unfamiliar words, but they also need vocabulary and general world knowledge to comprehend text. Recent research by Karin James at Indiana University also shows that a learner’s “letterbox” works most actively while printing letters, not just recognizing ABC’s or touching them on an iPad. This, James explains, is because the child must imagine each letter mentally before creating it on paper.

Although the critical-period claim is probably wrong, the purveyors of early-reading products do make another assertion with scientific footing: early readers generally go on to become better readers and higher academic achievers.

Education professors Anne Cunningham of the University of California, Berkeley and Keith Stanovich of the University of Toronto tested reading in a large group of first-graders, then again when the students were high school juniors. They found that kids who could already read well in first grade also scored the highest on several measures in 11th grade. This was more than just smart kids staying smart, they concluded: A fast start to reading unlocks an upward spiral of skills, achievement, positive attitudes, and willing practice. Conversely, a slow start tends to touch off difficulty, discouragement, dislike, and avoidance.

The early reader’s steady ascent can explode into a towering geyser of literacy because, Cunningham explains, reading is largely self-taught and begets its own mastery. Only through reading—not listening to talk—can a youngster expand his or her mental lexicon enough to allow truly fluid reading, with its rapid line-by-line scanning and its effortless absorption of meaning. Cunningham and Stanovich cite earlier statistics showing that a fifth grader in the lowest percentiles for time spent reading typically devotes less than a minute per day to independent reading and encounters 21,000 written words in a year. A classmate at the 50th percentile will spend an average of about five minutes per day reading independently and encounter 282,000 written words. A fifth-grader at the 98th percentile will spend more than an hour a day and input almost 4.4 million words that reinforce the mental dictionary. “Those who read a lot will enhance their verbal intelligence,” write Cunningham and Stanovich, “that is, reading will make them smarter.” And, they add, this goes for good readers and struggling readers alike.

SPOKEN LANGUAGE multiplies the same bootstrapping effect. Researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley have written about an “early catastrophe” of generational word poverty set in motion by socioeconomic factors such as poor educational opportunity. In the first three years of life, a child of welfare parents hears 974 different words in daily conversation (9.6 million total), the working-class child 1,498 (19.5 million total), the child with professional parents 2,176 (33.6 million overall).

No surprise, then, that middle-class kids come to school with far bigger tinder piles of preliteracy skills than lower-class kids. Reading expert Marilyn Jager Adams calculates that parents who read actively to their children daily and play simple alphabet and phonics games provide 3,000 to 4,000 hours of prereading exposure compared with tens, hundreds, or none. A first-grade teacher with 20 students and 90 minutes to devote to each day’s reading lesson could never equalize the “piles” kids bring from word-rich and word-poor homes.

Dominic Massaro’s theories and proposed high-tech gadgets could someday help level that playing field. If spoken and written language can horse-race from the same starting gate on the same learning track, then early literacy needn’t rely as much on parental vocabulary, motivation, or time on task. The reading-acquisition devices Massaro envisions such as digital T-shirts and electronic teddy bears would no doubt start out as the pricey domain of high-earning parents. But Massaro hopes the prices would fall so that public day care and preschools could bring such devices—and early-reading acquisition—to a wider group. Observes Tim Shanahan: “I wouldn’t bet my children’s education on it quite yet.” But any approach that would make reading acquisition “easier and more universal in the future—I’m all for that.”

In the meantime, virtually every traditional reading expert and baby-reading advocate consulted had similar advice: get children reading-ready by reading out loud to them every day from infancy onward in a lively way. The experts also say that to help children learn the alphabet, letter sounds, rhyming, and simple printing, parents can use home-designed or commercially available programs. Most children exposed to this kind of developmental smorgasbord can enter kindergarten already reading or primed to readily pick up the traditional skills.

Tufts professor Maryanne Wolf tells parents to “use the Grandmother Principle. Do what makes sense! Get into conversations with children while you are reading to them. Just have a natural desire to speak, read, and talk to your children—that’s the best set of things you can ever do.” For those who choose to try to teach their babies to read, experts underscore that extra admonition: don’t pressure! A child who feels pushed into early reading and senses parental impatience or disapproval could become discouraged. Far worse than reading at a later age would be missing out altogether on the wonder and fountain of learning that reading brings.

Janet Hopson
Janet Hopson writes about science, health, and safety issues. She is currently teaching science writing at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

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