By Dr. Bob Titzer
Children ages 2 and up can recognize their first written word in minutes. But it can take a 2-month-old baby just as long to recognize her first written word as it takes her to say it. So if it takes a long time for your baby to reach this first milestone, why start at such a young age? Is it even natural for babies to learn to read? Absolutely. See our article here that debunks common misconceptions. But for the purposes of this article, we will explore how you can help your baby naturally learn to read.
Key concepts to get started:
- The first word may be the hardest to learn.
- Let your baby learn language with his eyes and his ears.
- Your baby is memorizing how words sound, but she is also learning patterns of spoken language at the same time.
- Learning written language can parallel learning spoken language during infancy.
- Start with at least 20 written words.
- Point to the words from left-to-right as you say them, then demonstrate what the words mean.
- Repeat a few of the words often in order to help your child learn her first word faster.
The First Word is the Hardest!
The first word is likely the most difficult to learn whether it is receptive language (understanding), spoken language (talking), or written language (reading). Given the many advantages of learning to read early, it is worth the effort.
Using a Multisensory Approach
Your Baby Can Read is a multi-sensory, interactive approach designed for your baby to naturally acquire written language in a manner that is similar to how your baby acquires spoken language. You help your baby learn spoken language by talking to your baby throughout the day, repeating words, having more than one person say the same words, and pointing out what the words mean.
If you want your baby to learn how to read at the same time, then add written language to what you are already doing: allow your baby to see and hear words throughout the day, repeat the words, show your baby the same words with different fonts, colors, etc., and show and tell your baby what the words mean. In other words, allow your baby to learn language(s) with her eyes and ears, instead of only with her ears.
Differentiating How Words “Sound” and “Look”
Many words in English sound very similar to each other. It would actually be harder for babies to understand their first word if they only heard words that sounded alike. Parents provide a wide range of words when talking to their babies. Parents wouldn’t speak to their babies just using one-syllable words, for example, because it would delay learning spoken language. In learning to read with this approach, babies will also get to see a wide variety of words including many words with more than one syllable.
Just as your baby will initially understand his first spoken word by differentiating how words sound, he will initially understand his first written word by differentiating how words look.
Babies Are Memorizing Spoken and Written Language AND Learning Patterns
When you talk to your baby and demonstrate the meanings of words, new synapses form in your child’s brain. By repeating the same words over and over to your baby, these connections get stronger until eventually your baby memorizes a word from its sound. The same type of learning is likely happening when learning to read. The baby initially memorizes the word from how it looks.
Later, we’ll see that just as with spoken language, your baby is not “only memorizing” the words. Babies are also learning language patterns at the same time they are memorizing, or learning, individual words.
The Shape of the Word is Important
Infants are not born knowing that the shapes of objects provide important information, but they learn that shapes of objects give more information about their functions than their colors, textures, or other factors. Over time, your baby learns to categorize objects based on their shapes. This is called the “shape bias.”
One of your goals then is to help your baby learn that the shape of a word is more important than its color, the background color, the print material, the specific font, the size of the word, or other factors. Teach this by varying the less important factors while the shape of the word stays fairly constant. Your baby needs to figure out that the word has a “generalizable” shape in the same way that spoken words have a “generalizable” sound. In this way, you are systematically teaching your baby the shape bias which is important for your baby’s overall ability to learn. The shape bias helps babies categorize objects in a more logical manner. The ability to categorize objects is considered a fundamental building block of intelligence, so teaching the shape bias could potentially have other positive benefits for your baby.
While learning both spoken and written language your infant may initially think that two different words sound, or look, the same. However, with more experience listening to and looking at language, your child will learn to differentiate words better.
Seeing and Hearing Words Simultaneously
Babies who are allowed to see and hear words have additional information compared to babies who only hear words—which should help them learn words faster. In fact, studies of YBCR show that babies who consistently used YBCR learned additional vocabulary.
Your baby will learn to use other information to differentiate words. For example, the words ‘there’, ‘they’re’, and ‘their’ are pronounced the same way, yet your child will eventually figure out which word was spoken from the context instead of only using sound information. If your child has not seen the words, this will obviously take longer since the words sound identical to one another and one way to tell them apart is by looking at them.
Many babies develop similar skills while learning how to read. Initially, they are taught to use information about the shape of the word. Since adults still use these abilities, this is a great skill to have. However, it’s possible for babies to also learn the phonetic patterns of written language by consistently seeing and hearing language – just like it’s possible for babies to learn the patterns of spoken language, or grammar, by hearing it.
In order to understand spoken language, parents try to make the first words easier to memorize, or learn, by repeating them hundreds of times over a 9- to 12-month period before the baby learns to understand them. Parents tend to slightly over-enunciate words when speaking to their babies. This helps your baby since so many words in English sound very similar. We use similar strategies with written language by printing them neatly and using high-contrast colors.
Using Contextual Cues
Your baby will go from using only the sound of the word to eventually using contextual information in a sentence (including syntax or semantic cues) to determine which word was spoken. Evidence suggests that babies are already using this syntax information by 12 months of age. It’s normal for babies to make mistakes when learning spoken or written language, so don’t be overly concerned about this.
In order to teach your child his first written word, consistently allow your baby to see the word while hearing it instead of only hearing it. Just like it takes a newborn many months of hearing words before learning to understand them, it should take most young infants many months of seeing and hearing words before learning to read them. Older babies and preschoolers can often learn their first written words very quickly.
Babies need to frequently see and hear words at the same time. Try pointing to written words from left-to-right as you say them, then demonstrate the meanings of the words. Repeat this many times throughout the day even if it is just for a few minutes at a time.
Start with a fairly large number of words—at least 20—so your child can also begin to learn a general pattern of what English words look like while also learning her first written word. Babies should see some words more than others. In the first YBCR DVD, some words are repeated much more frequently than others. These high-frequency words—for example: clap, wave, and mouth—are also shown on YBCR word cards and they are highlighted in our books in order to help your child learn the first written word.