Your Baby Can Learn! uses a multi-sensory and interactive approach to help parents teach receptive, expressive, and written language skills simultaneously during the child’s window of opportunity for learning language. It is designed to teach language skills in a way that is similar to how babies learn spoken language, second languages, or other aspects of language. Our program is designed to teach language skills in a way that is similar to how babies learn about toys. We recommend parents use more of the child’s senses when learning language skills and encourage the child to interact with the environment by doing physical actions or answering questions.
Multi-sensory learning means learning through more than one sensory system. Babies learn more with multi-sensory learning than they do through a single sensory system1. Babies naturally use all of their senses to learn. For example, when learning about a toy babies generally look at the toy, touch the toy, listen to sounds made by the toy, and put the toy in their mouths. Babies often use movement to help them learn and they may shake the toy. Your Baby Can Learn! allows babies to learn about language in the same way that they naturally learn about toys or objects, so babies see language at the same time they hear it. They see and hear what the words mean. They use touch and other senses and they do physical actions related to the meanings of the words.
Interactive in this case means that we encourage the baby or child to do physical actions such as clap or wave, touch body parts, say words, or answer other questions. Interactive environments are generally better than passive environments for learning. We also encourage the parents to play with their babies in an interactive way whether playing with our products or other items.
Window of Opportunity for Learning Language Skills
The window of opportunity for learning language refers to a time period where it is easier to learn some language skills at a higher level earlier in childhood compared to later in life. For instance, some aspects of syntax ability2, grammar3, speech production4, and sentence processing skills5 are better when learned earlier compared to later. These “windows” may be open longer for certain language abilities compared to others. For instance, it is possible to learn a second language at a high level as an adult even though it is far more likely to learn at a higher level in early childhood.
In some rare cases children are deprived of language in early childhood during the “window” for learning. This has lasting negative effects6 making it unlikely the children will learn at a high level regardless of how much enrichment these children receive later in childhood.
Some argue that reading is not a language skill so the “window of opportunity” does not apply to written language. However, there is some evidence suggesting written language has a timeframe where it is easier to learn at a higher level earlier in childhood compared to later in childhood. For example, if a child can’t read at grade level by around age 7½, the child has very little chance (under 12.5%) of ever catching up to read at grade level again7. Some argue that these children were going to have problems learning to read no matter when they were taught. However, Durkin stated from her longitudinal studies from the 1970s that lower IQ students benefited even more from early reading instruction compared to higher IQ students. It is possible that the window for learning to read at a high level may be closing — at least for some people — prior to age 7½. In addition, there is evidence that the optimal time for learning to read is earlier in life. For example, 3- and 4- year-old children who are taught to read remain significantly ahead of same-IQ, same socio-economic status children who are taught at ages 5 or 6 six, and the children who are taught at ages 7 or 8 are farther behind7. Unfortunately, that study did not contain 1- and 2-year-olds, or babies under 12 months of age.
Using a traditional approach to teach reading at the traditional ages of 5-7 in the US leads to about 66% of 4th graders reading below grade level. It is hard to argue that traditional approaches are working well for most children in the US.
To be clear our definition of “window of opportunity” does not mean that if a child does not learn language skills during this “window” that it is impossible for the child to learn at a high level. It means that it may be more difficult for the brain to change or modify to learn at a high level after this “window” or timeframe — making it less likely the child will learn at a high level.
Learning Language Skills Earlier has Lasting Benefits
The earlier a child learns the language skills, the better, is a consistent finding in language research. This is true with learning the first language, second language, sign language, and written language.
For example, Hart and Risley (1995) found that the number of words spoken to a child by age 3 had a lasting impact on the child’s vocabulary at age 11 – even when taking into account the parents’ IQs, child’s IQ, and the family’s socio-economic status8.
Children who are taught to read earlier have long-term benefits according to numerous longitudinal studies9,10,11,12,13. Not only do children read better later, they do better in school, and they are more likely to enjoy reading. A very long-term study in the UK found that for each grade level of improvement at age 7, the child made about $8000 (5000 GBPs) more per year10. This study controlled for other factors such as socio-economic status, the child’s IQ at age 7, and other pertinent information3. The studies show that it is important that children are reading at grade level by age 8 or there are often lasting negative consequences.
Rapid Brain Development
About 75% of the brain’s mass is formed by age two. Since infants have tens of thousands of new synapses forming every second, learning comes naturally and effortlessly. The number of new sensory synapses peaks prior to 5 months of age14 making multi-sensory learning important in infancy. For language acquisition the number of new synapses peaks prior to 11 months of age13. Even for higher cognitive functioning the peak is in the second year of life14.
Approximately 90% of your child’s brain is developed by age 5. We recommend that you invest as much time and energy as possible during the early years since this will be the easiest time to make a long-lasting positive impact on your child’s brain development. We recommend a balanced approach where you help your child learn social, language, cognitive, emotional, and physical skills. While early reading and math skills in kindergarten and early primary grades have been shown in studies to good predictors of later abilities, we suggest also learning about many other topics during this time of rapid brain development.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change or modify based on the environment. Since an infant has more neuroplasticity than a six-year-old, it should be easier for the brain to adapt if the child is learning written language during the first three years of life than if the child is learning to read at traditional ages.
Charles Nelson argues that our actual biological brain structures change due to experiences15.
Infants Naturally Acquire Patterns of Language(s)
Evidence shows that infants are excellent at figuring out many types of patterns12. For example, 8-month-old infants can learn the segmentation of words from fluent speech from the statistical relationships between adjacent speech sounds. Saffran, Aslin, and Newport (1996) stated that babies learned this important task in a lab setting in “only 2 minutes of exposure, suggesting that infants have access to a powerful mechanism for the computation of statistical properties of the language input16. In other words, infants are great at figuring out patterns.
A recent study indicates that babies who are learning English and another language are able to figure out the patterns of their first language just as well as babies who are only learning English17. In other words, bilingual babies could acquire patterns of two languages in the amount of time that monolingual babies acquired the patterns of one language.
Your Baby Can Learn! is designed to help children naturally acquire patterns of written language at the same time they are learning of spoken language.
The Natural Way of Learning Language Is with Meaning
To help babies learn spoken language, parents don’t artificially break words into parts when speaking to their children. Instead, we speak naturally by naming objects and talking in complete sentences. Babies learn spoken language naturally without needing someone to explain the rules of grammar. Imagine if we allowed babies to see language at the same time they hear it – with meaning. It is possible the written form of language could be learned in the same way – naturally without the need to explain phonics rules. Scientists would disagree over whether or not infants can learn these patterns with some infant researchers and language specialists pointing to the numerous studies showing infants have already learned many different types of patterns in controlled studies. Many traditional reading specialists would say that learning to read is too complex for a baby and to wait until the child understands spoken language before teaching reading.
With written language we traditionally spend a lot of time teaching the child the names of letters. Imagine a child who cannot read a single word, the child would not know what the letters are for; they would be abstract shapes without meanings. Some traditional reading milestones with children suggest that children should be able to recite the names of letters by age 3 years or identify and name 12-15 letters at age 4. Our approach is to teach written and spoken language simultaneously during the first several years of life and focus on the meanings of the words.
Scientists have hypothesized that infants can learn written language in the same manner as spoken language18-23. This approach is also grounded theoretically in brain development. According to Edelman’s Theory of Neuronal Group Selection24, the brain makes more elaborate connections when infants are learning through more than one sensory system. While Edelman’s theory was not specifically about learning written language it is consistent with his theoretical approach because important sensory information is being added when children are allowed to see and hear words simultaneously, then do actions related to the meanings of the wrods.
The image represents new brain connections, called synapses, which connect various language and sensory areas of a baby’s brain. It’s easy to see that the more sensory systems involved, the more brain connections there would be according to Edelman’s Theory of Neuronal Group Selection. When your child’s learning is multi-sensory, then the connections make sense as long as what the baby sees and hears are logically connected.
Some other baby DVDs are not multi-sensory and the connections that are being formed don’t have a lasting value. For example, classical music may be playing while colorful objects are floating on the screen. Babies may watch intently and their brains are developing new connections about videos and sounds that were randomly paired instead of being logically connected. We very strongly discourage watching these types of entertainment-based videos during infancy.
Use the Television as a Multi-Sensory Educational Tool
When I originally made the reading videos for my own babies, I saw television as a multi-sensory learning opportunity because it was such a novel experience for my daughters to see and hear a television. If the television is being used frequently, it probably won’t have the same interest or impact for your children.
Some media reports that dismiss television as being harmful are citing studies that did not differentiate content. In other words, the researchers in those studies grouped together all programs and found negative effects for babies who were watching entertainment-based children’s programs, soap operas, reality TV shows, sporting events, news, or whatever programs were being watched. Television is capable of providing multi-sensory information that can either help or hurt learning depending on what the child is watching25,26.
Studies show that children – including infants – can and do learn from educational TV25,26. When television was first introduced on a wide scale in America in the 1950s, people’s vocabularies increased significantly from hearing novel words and more language. We are not saying television is better than active, energetic parents who are focused on their babies. What we are saying is that there are times when you are busy as a parent attending to another child, talking on the phone, cooking, cleaning, working on your laptop, reading silently, or otherwise not engaged with your baby. During all of these times while parents are busy, children still have thousands of new synapses forming and your child could be learning.
As an infant researcher, I made the videos in a different manner than most of the videos that are being tested in studies. In addition, in some of the studies, a baby will watch a short part of a video one time, then the baby is tested. These results are often generalized to say that babies can’t learn from videos or that there is a “video deficit” in learning even with some repetition27. There is also a “photo deficit” compared to using actual objects, but people don’t say this means not to let babies see photos in books. In most cases actual 3-D objects would be better than showing videos of those objects. However, there may be times when your child could learn more from a video with audio than from a parent. For example, your baby may learn more from seeing videos of camels or a beach compared to a parent trying to describe a camel or beach. Obviously, seeing real camels or a beach is the best when that is practical, but videos are generally better than photos and photos are generally better than drawings for young children.
NOTE: In general, I am opposed to babies watching entertainment-based TV, please read my tips for when to use television with your baby.
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