By Dr. Bob Titzer
I have been answering questions about teaching babies to read for more than 22 years. We’ve noticed many misconceptions that people have, not only about our program, but about teaching babies to read in general. In this article, we explain some truths and debunk some myths about teaching babies to read. Just click on any of the questions below to see our answers.
Thanks for reading and please feel free to make comments or ask any questions in the box below.
Truth or Myth?
- Learning to read earlier won’t matter later in life.
- Your Baby Can Read! doesn’t teach the names of the letters of the alphabet.
- Babies are “only memorizing” the words.
- It is not natural to teach babies.
- Babies won’t enjoy it.
- Watching television is bad for babies.
- Teaching reading is taking time away from playing.
- Babies aren’t “ready” to read.
- Only precocious babies can learn to read.
- Your Baby Can Read! doesn’t teach your baby to read her/his name.
- Your Baby Can Read! is not designed to teach phonics.
- I am not qualified to teach my baby to read, so my child will learn to read in school.
- I’m more concerned about my child enjoying reading rather than being forced to read.
- I already read to my child – so that’s the same as using your program.
Learning to read earlier won’t matter later in life.
This is false according to longitudinal research on early reading because children who learn to read earlier have long-lasting benefits1, 2, 3, 4 compared to children who learn at traditional ages. Some of this research shows life changing benefits for children with early reading skills –independent of the child’s initial IQ or socio-economic status. Clearly, there are long-lasting benefits for children who learn to read earlier than traditional ages. The benefits include better reading scores, more success in school, enjoying reading more than children who learn later in life, and the longest-term study5 even found large increases in income at age 42 based on reading abilities at age 7. The advantages appear to be similar to the longitudinal effects in other areas of language learning, such as learning second languages, sign language, or spoken language. Please take a few minutes to read the scientific rationale for Your Baby Can Read! to understand why learning to read early could have such large positive benefits.
Your Baby Can Read! doesn’t teach the names of the letters of the alphabet.
This is true. Imagine you are a baby who doesn’t understand any or many words. Or imagine you are a toddler or preschooler who doesn’t know how to read a single word. Would you understand the purpose of the letters?
Not only would it be abstract for a child who can’t read any words to spend time learning the names of the letters. But knowing the names of the letters is not needed in order to learn to read and it could actually slow the child’s speed of reading. While reading, the child may think of the names of individual letters instead of quickly recognizing written words. Many parents – including me – have already taught their babies or toddlers to read before teaching the names of the letters.
I did not see the point in spending time teaching my babies the names of the letters until they knew the purpose of the letters. In other words, I thought it was too abstract and I wanted to focus on the meanings of the words. My daughters learned the names of letters very quickly once they could read because they understood the purpose or meaning of the letters. Once your child understands the purpose or meaning of the letters from being able to read, the alphabet can be learned very quickly – similar to how babies quickly learn the names of objects.
Babies are “only memorizing” the words.
Babies do memorize the words, but they are not “only memorizing” the words, so this is false over a longer period of time. When babies memorize what words sound like and what they mean, almost everyone says that babies have “learned” the words or the babies “understand” the words. However, when babies memorize what words look like and what they mean, some people say the babies have “only memorized” the words.
Just as babies are learning patterns of spoken language by memorizing what words sound like6, they’re capable of learning patterns of written language by learning what words look like7. So, it is true that babies are initially memorizing words when learning language skills, but it is not true that the babies are “only memorizing” because infants are great at learning patterns7,8.
It is not natural to teach babies.
False. Learning language skills is completely natural for babies and we believe that allowing babies to see language is more natural than making babies figure out language skills with only auditory information.
Typically, babies are allowed to learn through several sensory systems when naturally exploring their environments. If you give your baby a new toy, she will likely use several senses to learn more about the toy. She may look at it, touch it, listen to it, shake it, put it in her mouth, and smell it. This is considered natural for babies to explore through several senses. If we allow infants to do the same while learning language, then it should be easier for babies to learn compared to restricting them only to auditory information. With Your Baby Can Read! babies are allowed to see it, hear it, see and hear what the words mean, and do physical actions related to the words.
In fact, the most natural time to learn language skills is to learn them early in life. Babies naturally figure out patterns of spoken language without having to be taught the rules of grammar. This is considered to be a more natural way of learning language than learning through rules. For example, people who learn English later in life generally have to be taught by rules instead of naturally acquiring patterns of spoken language. The same can be true with written language where it is possible to learn naturally if babies consistently see and hear language together along with its meaning.
An increasing number of scientists7,9,10,11,12 have very similar hypotheses to mine13– that written language (including phonics) can be learned naturally early in life. Later in life, children generally need to learn to read through complicated rules. It is difficult to argue that the traditional approach of waiting until about 90% of the brain is developed, then learning to read through the rules of phonics is more natural than a baby being allowed to consistently see and hear language while most of her/his new brain connections related to language are forming.
Babies won’t enjoy it.
False, in general babies love to learn. About 85% of babies “love” or “definitely like” playing with the YBCR materials, according to an independent study conducted at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center14. Many babies enjoy watching TV and they can watch something designed to teach them language skills instead of simply watching an entertainment-based video. Most babies enjoy playing with their parents and our program is designed to give parents ideas to do fun, interactive activities to help their babies learn.
In addition, the earlier a child is taught to read, the more likely the child will enjoy reading according to Durkin’s longitudinal research 2.
Watching television is bad for babies.
This is sometimes true and sometimes false – depending on what babies are watching.
The initial study15 that was used against the Baby Einstein DVDs caused fear in many parents after numerous media stories reported that watching television was bad for babies. However, this study – that was reported around the world – actually had data showing that babies who watched television had greater vocabularies than babies who did not watch television. This part of the study was not reported in the media accounts of the study.
In 2014, a new study was published that reanalyzed the same data16. A conclusion of the new study was: “Thus, the Zimmerman et al. (2007) data set could be seen as contradicting the AAP [American Academy of Pediatrics] policy position on children and media exposure. In fact, the current data might be used to support a recommendation that children should be exposed to media, although we are cautious about any such recommendation. Moreover, exposure to educational programming appears to be positively associated with language development.”
Older studies on babies watching television usually did not differentiate the content. The research that grouped all television content together sometimes found that television viewing was bad for babies.
Whether television is good or bad for babies (or adults) depends on what is being watched17,18. Educational programs can help babies learn vocabulary16,17.18, whereas mindless entertainment-based programs are generally not helpful and could be harmful. Studies show that Your Baby Can Read! teaches reading and vocabulary skills and no studies show any negative effects.
As an infant researcher, I did not want my own babies to watch television. This was why I made the first Your Baby Can Read! video in 1991 for my own baby – because I did not want her to watch entertainment-based TV. Please take a few minutes to read my tips on when and how to use television.
Teaching reading is taking time away from playing.
False. We believe this is a very negative way of looking at learning. First of all, babies love learning. Second, babies generally enjoy learning to read according to independent research14. Third, learning and playing should overlap so much that much of learning is playing and much of playtime is helping your baby learn.
The earlier a child is taught to read, the more likely the child will enjoy reading2. Many parents are busy and are already showing their babies or toddlers entertainment-based television show, so watching the YBCR DVDs do not take away time from playing with toys. Research shows that babies and toddlers generally enjoy using Your Baby Can Read!, so babies are playing with words and learning to read them at the same time.
Babies aren’t “ready” to read.
False. Babies can learn any language – English, Japanese, French, Spanish, Dutch, Vietnamese, Chinese, etc. – without making an intentional effort. If babies are allowed to see language, they can begin to learn the written form of language at the same time as spoken language10,11,13. They don’t need years to get “ready” to read just like they don’t need to get “ready” to understand their native language or second languages. Traditional reading approaches get children “ready” to learn to read in the first four years of life by spending a lot of time teaching “pre-reading” skills. These skills may take years to learn, in part, because they are often abstract to the child.
For example, imagine you are a child learning the names of the letters of the alphabet when you don’t know how to read a single word. It is abstract and once the child finally memorizes the order of the letters, she often can’t identify them in a different order. Also, knowing the names of the letters doesn’t mean the child can read anything. Using the YBCR multi-sensory, interactive approach connects the meaning of the written words with how the words look and sound. In other words, children can learn new vocabulary words while also learning to read the words at the same time.
Only precocious babies can learn to read words.
False. We have had many parents tell us that their babies learned to read where the child clearly was not considered precocious prior to being taught to read. A recent study19 analyzing 186,725 fourth grade students from 38 countries found reading abilities were based more than 91% on “nurture” and less than 9% on “nature.” In other words, it is not primarily the child’s biological makeup that determines how well the child will read. Instead, environmental factors accounted for more than 91% of the differences in reading abilities – while under 9% of differences were attributed to biological factors.
I believe this is similar to saying that only precocious babies can learn French or Japanese. While it is very difficult for most people to learn second languages later in life, virtually all babies on the planet could have learned any language as long as they were consistently exposed to that spoken language by native speakers. Please read some of the results from studies that have been conducted on Your Baby Can Read! and decide for yourself if all of the babies were precocious prior to learning. According to research by Durkin2, lower socio-economic status children benefitted even more from learning to read earlier in life than middle- or high socio-economic status children.
Your Baby Can Read! doesn’t teach your baby to read her/his name.
This is true. In a traditional approach to teaching reading, the first letter of the child’s name is often considered “her letter” and a lot of emphasis is placed on the child learning her name. They may spend a year or more teaching the sound of whatever letter happens to be the first letter of the child’s name. Some children would have letters such as ‘E’ or other vowels where the letters can make many sounds. Traditionally, these children are told that ‘e’ is for ‘elephant’ and makes the short ‘e’ sound. However, look at words anywhere and you will see that the ‘e’ has many possible sounds.
Traditional approaches to teaching reading may test to see if a child can read his name after a long period of time focused on that one word. Once your baby can read a few dozen words, he should have a better understanding of what people are talking about when they point to a word and say his name. We encourage parents to teach their children to read their names, but we believe it is more logical to also teach the child to read many words.
Your Baby Can Read! is not designed to teach phonics.
False. My babies learned phonics and I would not have created YBCR for other families if my babies had not learned decoding skills because that is an important part of being able to read in English. One of the Early Literacy Milestones when using YBCR is called “Learning Phonics.”
It is true that babies start off with the YBCR program by memorizing what the words look like, how they sound, and what the words mean. Remember, when learning to understand language babies memorize what words sound like in order to learn the meanings of the words.
This program has always been designed to teach phonics in a way that is similar to how babies learn grammar. Babies figure out patterns of spoken language simply by people talking to them in sentences. Babies do not need to learn grammar through complicated rules. The same can be true with written language7,9,10.11,13. However, just like with spoken language babies need to learn hundreds of individual words to learn the patterns well.
In addition, specific parts of the program are more phonics-based. In fact, we have Sliding Phonics Word Cards designed specifically to teach phonics. The Your CHILD Can Read! program (to be used after Your Baby Can Read!) has many phonics sections for toddlers or preschoolers who have not yet figured out these written language patterns.
I am not qualified to teach my child to read, so my child will learn to read in school.
It is likely false that you aren’t qualified. If you can read and you have a positive attitude, you would likely do a great job because there would be one teacher and one child. Parents are experts at their children’s language and cognitive abilities20,21,22,23 and this knowledge will make you more qualified at teaching your baby to read than if you did not have that knowledge about your baby.
You are your child’s first teacher. You are already teaching your child other language skills including grammar and vocabulary. You will do your best to teach your child in a fun way that promotes a love of books and a love of reading and learning.
Teaching reading early could put your child on a more educated path in life. The best predictor for academic success at the end of high school, according to longitudinal studies, is the child’s reading and math abilities prior to entering school.3 If you wait until your child is in school before learning to read, you may be leaving the most important academic skill your child will learn up to chance.
A 2014 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation24 shows that 66% of 4th graders in the United States are reading below grade level. In the US, it is estimated we will spend 670 billion dollars a year7 on teaching reading or remedial reading – yet two-thirds of 9- and 10-year-olds are not reading at grade level. Parents need to be involved to try to prevent these problems early in life instead of waiting and trying to fix the problems later. Fixing those types of problems may require more effort, time, and energy than whatever time you invest teaching your baby to read.
If your child can read prior to entering school, he could become a positive influence on that classroom. Possibly, your child will be a good influence on other children by sharing the joys of reading and learning with other students.
What do you think would be better for your child’s long-term success in life?
- Being taught to read one-on-one by you while her/his brain is developing rapidly and while she/he has more new language synapses (brain connections) forming, or
- Waiting until formal schooling where there is one teacher and usually somewhere around 20 students. There is more than a 66% chance that your child will not be reading at grade level in 4th grade according to a 2014 report24 if you wait since some of the 34% who could read at or above grade level were taught to read prior to entering school. The long-term advantages of knowing how to read prior to entering school are large.
I’m more concerned about my child enjoying reading rather than being forced to read.
We are also concerned about your child enjoying reading. We encourage you to teach reading to your baby or toddler when your child is in the mood. The earlier a child is taught to read, the more likely the child will enjoy reading, according to longitudinal research by Durkin2. Studies specifically on Your Baby Can Read! show that children enjoy using the program14,25,26. Please read some of the comments on our Facebook pages around the world. Many of the parents use the word “love” to describe how much their children enjoy reading. In Durkin’s work, she commented that the 3-year-old readers “devoured” books.
I already read to my child – so, that means I’m teaching reading.
Unfortunately, that is false. Reading to your child is a fun, positive activity that teaches vocabulary skills; however, reading to young children doesn’t teach them to read. In most cases, children are not looking at the text as the parents are saying the words.
A study in Psychological Science (2005) shows that the average preschooler spends about 5 seconds per book focused on looking at the words when parents or teachers are reading to them27. The rest of the time was spent looking at the pictures or not even looking at the book. The authors of the study said that parents should not expect that reading to their children will teach them to read. Most books for children have small words and big pictures. The Your Baby Can Read! Lift-the-Flap Books have very large, isolated words and they can be used to teach reading.
I recommend two types of reading to children – one where you simply read for the love or joy of reading (where you are not trying to teach reading) and one designed to teach reading. It is easy to turn the typical “read to your child” experience into a “fun, learning to read” experience once your child learns to read a few dozen words. More information on this topic is available in the Early Literacy Milestones (see Milestones 4, 6, and 8).
Truth and Myths About Teaching Babies to Read Bibliography
1 Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., et al. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1428–1446.
2 Durkin, D. (1966). The Achievement of Pre-School Readers: Two Longitudinal Studies. Reading Research Quarterly, 1(4), 5-36.
3 Hanson, R. A., and D. Farrell. 1995. The long-term effects on high school seniors of learning to read in kindergarten. Reading Research Quarterly 30(4), 908–933.
4 Sénéchal, M., & LeFevre, J. A. (2003). Parental Involvement in the Development of Children’s Reading Skill: A Five-Year Longitudinal Study. Child Development, 73(2), 445–460.
5 Ritchie, S. J. & Bates, T. C. (2013). Enduring Links From Childhood Mathematics and Reading Achievement to Adult Socioeconomic Status. Psychological Science.
6 Saffran, J. R. & Wilson, D. P. (2003). From Syllables to Syntax: Multilevel Statistical Learning by 12-Month-Old Infants. Infancy, 4(2), 273–284.
7 Massaro, D.W. (2012). Acquiring Literacy Naturally. American Scientist, 100, 324-333.
8 Saffran , J. R., Aslin, R. N., & Newport, E. L. (1996). Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants. Science, 274(5294),1926-8.
9 Doman, G. (1964). How to teach your baby to read. N.Y. Random House.
10 Söderbergh, R. (1986). Acquisition of Spoken and Written Language in Early Childhood. Advances in Psychology, 39, 629-666.
11 Cohen, R. & Söderbergh, R. (1999). Apprendre a lire avant de savoir parler, Albin Michel Éducation. Paris, France.
12 Michaud, A. (2001). The neurolinguistic foundations of intelligence: On the need for early childhood mastery of reading skills. SRP Books.
13 Titzer, R. (1998, April). Infants’ and Toddlers’ Abilities to Visually Discriminate Written Words. Presented at the International Conference on Infant Studies, Atlanta, Georgia.
14 Hare, M.E., Baldwin, K.M., & Okoth, R.G. (2013). Parental Perceptions of an Early Childhood Reading Program (Your Baby Can Read). Department of Preventive Medicine, University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center, Memphis, TN. February 22, 2013.
15 Zimmerman, F.J., Christakis, D. A, & Meltzoff, A. N. (2007). Associations between media viewing and language development in children under age 2 years. The Journal of Pediatrics, 151(4),364-368.
16 Ferguson, C. J. & Donnellan, M. B. (2014). Is the association between children’s baby video viewing and poor language development robust? A reanalysis of Zimmerman, Christakis, and Meltzoff (2007). Developmental Psychology. 50(1), 129-37.
17 Linebarger, D. L. & Walker, D. (2005). Infants’ and Toddlers’ Television Viewing and Language Outcomes. American Behavioral Scientist, 48(5), 624-645.
18 Wright, J. C., Huston, A. C., Murphy, K. C., St. Peters, M., Pinon, M., Scantlin, R., & Kotler, J. (2003). The Relations of Early Television Viewing to School Readiness and Vocabulary of Children from Low-Income Families: The Early Window Project. Child Development, 72(5), 1347–1366.
19 Chiu, C. C., McBride-Chang, C. & Lin, D. (2012). Ecological, Psychological, and Cognitive Components of Reading Difficulties: Testing the Component Model of Reading in Fourth Graders Across 38 Countries, Journal of Learning Disabilities, 45, 391-405.
20 Dale, P.S. (1991). The Validity of a Parent Report Measure of Vocabulary and Syntax at 24 Months. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, Vol. 34: 565-571.
21 Dale, P. S., Bates, E., Reznick, S. J., & Morisset, C. (1989). The validity of a parent report instrument of child language at twenty months. Journal of Child Language, Vol. 16:2, 239-249.
22 Rescorla, L. & Alley, A. (2001). Validation of the Language Development Survey (LDS): A Parent Report Tool for Identifying Language Delay in Toddlers. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, Vol. 44, 434-445.
23 Trudeau, N. & Sutton, A. (2011). Expressive vocabulary and early grammar of 16- to 30-month-old children acquiring Quebec French, First Language, 31(4), 480-507.
24 The Annie E. Casey Foundation Report (2014). Early Reading Proficiency in the United States, Kids Count Data.
25 Titzer, R. (2010a). The Effectiveness of the YBCR Program on Reading and Vocabulary Skills: Study 1.
26 Titzer, R. (2010b). The Effectiveness of the YBCR Program on Reading and Vocabulary Skills: Study 2.
27 Evans, M. A. & Saint-Aubin, J. (2005). What Children Are Looking at During Shared Storybook Reading Evidence From Eye Movement Monitoring. Psychological Science, 16(11), 913-920.