By Dr. Bob Titzer
If your child has reached the second milestone, there’s a chance that she has reached the third milestone without you noticing! You may even need to behave a bit like an infant researcher in order to test whether your baby has learned any initial patterns of written language.
Why is this milestone important?
When learning spoken language, many researchers used to believe that babies learned individual words first, then general patterns of the language later. Now it’s clear that infants learn some language patterns of spoken language in the first year of life while learning their first words. Put another way, your baby is learning some syntax and grammar at the same time as learning initial individual words!
Some scientists report that infants are better language learners than adults too. This may be because of their abilities to learn patterns of languages. For example, infants who are learning two languages at the same time can learn language patterns in their native language just as well as babies who are only learning one language.
Also, the number of new synapses related to language development appears to peak before 11 months of age. This may help explain why infants may learn patterns naturally whereas adults may need to learn patterns through rules and explanations (as well as a lot of effort).
Learning to Read and Speak at the Same Time
Many researchers have pointed out how difficult it is to learn a spoken language simply by listening. One of the many difficulties in learning a language is figuring out where words begin and end since people typically don’t space their words out while speaking. Instead, one word often flows into the next in natural speech. Babies are able to learn language in this manner, but adults often struggle.
Listen to an unfamiliar language. Imagine that you don’t even know individual words exist and you don’t know anything about grammar. You can see how complicated learning spoken language could be for infants without this information. Babies who are learning written and spoken language simultaneously are obviously getting extra sensory information which should help them figure out where words begin and end.
Advantages of Seeing Language While Hearing It
It could also help them distinguish words that sound very similar because they would have visual information that other babies don’t have. In studies of babies who consistently used Your Baby Can Read (YBCR) for at least 7 months, their receptive language, expressive language, overall language, and overall cognitive scores were significantly higher than a control group matched for socio-economic factors. The extra sensory information YBCR babies had by being allowed to see the language while hearing it may have given them the advantage, making it easier for them to learn language skills in general.
Why? Scientific evidence shows that learning through more than one sensory system helps infants learn more. Studies also show that learning one aspect of language often helps learning other aspects of language.
My hypothesis – along with hypotheses of other scientists – is that infants are capable of learning written language naturally in a way that is very similar to how babies learn spoken language. If this is true, one would expect that infants would begin to figure out some patterns of written language at the same time they are still learning to say individual words. This type of evidence is extremely important theoretically because it indicates that reading is a language skill in spite of some traditional reading experts’ insistence that children are not “ready” to learn to read until after language skills are acquired.
Some Factors Involved
I noticed that my daughters demonstrated they had learned some of these written language patterns by 12 months of age. I have tested many other babies at various ages; sometimes they show signs of having learned the patterns and sometimes they don’t. I believe it depends on many factors, such as:
- the age at which the child began consistently seeing and hearing written language
- how many words the child knows
- which words the child knows
- which words the child has seen and heard
- the overall number of words seen and heard
- what types of tests are used
- the child’s mood at the moment of the test
- the individual child
And many others.
I intentionally included a wide variety of words in the YBCR program to make the initial learning sufficiently complex in order to help babies to acquire these patterns. If, for example, your child only sees and hears three-letter words in a consonant/vowel/consonant pattern such as ‘cat’, ‘red’, and ‘tap’, it would be much more difficult to learn more complicated written language patterns.
Do Your Own Research
I learned serendipitously that my older daughter was figuring out more than the individual words that I was teaching her when I accidentally held a word upside-down and she turned her head upside down to look at it. You may have had a similar experience already. If so, this is evidence that your child has learned some general pattern of how words generally look.
I developed tests to check if my younger daughter, Keelin, had learned these types of patterns.
Here are two ways of checking:
- Show your child at least two or three words that are in the normal, upright orientation first, then show a word that is upside-down.
- Select a word that clearly looks unusual for an English word when it’s upside-down (for example, ‘bellybutton’, ‘kicking’, or ‘gorilla’). Many letters in English look like letters even when they are upside-down, so don’t choose a word where the letters have vertical symmetry or where it still looks like a string of letters from our alphabet.
- Don’t give your baby verbal or nonverbal cues that the word is upside-down. Just hold up the word like you would normally and observe your child’s response. If you have a moment, please post your comment below and let us know what happened.
- Hold up two novel words in front of your baby (for example, “tabletop” and “juggle”).
- Please tell your child “First, look at both words. One of these words says ‘tabletop’ and one word says ‘juggle’.”
- Next, say something similar to “Which word do you think says ‘tabletop’?” Wait for your child’s answer.
- Next, say “Which word says ‘juggle’?” OR “Which word do you think says ‘juggle’?” Babies may answer by looking, pointing, or reaching for a word, so try to keep the words an equal distance from your child.
- Hold the words in various positions (for example left and right, up and down, upper-left and lower-right, and so on) but with no pattern. Also, try to have the two words about the same distance from your child.
- Now, hold up two more words in front of your child (for example, “newspaper” and “laptop”). Encourage your child to look at both words before doing the test. Please do not tell your child what the words say.
- Ask “Which word looks like it says ‘newspaper’?” OR “Which word do you think says ‘newspaper’?”
- “Which word looks like it says ‘laptop’? OR “Which word do you think says ‘laptop’?”
Please do NOT do the first test frequently. It will be far better for your baby or child if most of your time is spent showing and saying words in an upright position. If your child shows no signs of having learned written patterns on the above tests, you may want to teach your child another 20 words before checking again.
We encourage you to make a short video of your “test” the very first time you do it, then share it with us. It would be helpful if you would state the number of written words your child consistently reads and your child’s age.
It can be a very exciting time when you notice that your child has learned a pattern of written language that you did not even attempt to directly teach. This would show that your baby has not only memorized what words look like, but has also started learning patterns of written language. It also would provide additional evidence that babies or toddlers can learn to read in a way that is similar to how they learn to speak.
We look forward to hearing your comments about this milestone or watching your videos. Thanks so much for your interest in this extremely important topic.
Dr. Bob Titzer