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Can You Really Teach Your Baby to Read? Experts Clarify
  • You've got your flashcards and educational videos ready, but can your baby learn to read? At the moment, experts are saying not exactly, at least not in the way that products promise to make your babies "early readers" would like to make you believe.  

    Babies crawl before they can run and jump. To learn to read, we need to nurture their language development skills first before they can read with comprehension, according to child development and literacy experts. Talking about babies aged 10 to 18 months, Susan Neuman, a professor of early childhood and literacy education, told Popular Science, “These children do not have the internal capabilities to learn how to read at this young of an age.”

    Neuman co-authored a study from New York University that tracked over 100 babies for seven months. The researchers assigned half of the babies to a program supposedly designed to teach infants how to read by using flashcards. The other half did not have flashcards. Their findings? There was no difference in the ability to recognize letters, letter sounds, and vocabulary at the end of the study between the two groups of infants.

    What other parents are reading

    In her study, Neuman also encountered parents who insisted their little ones did learn how to read the flashcards. After all, the babies knew how to say “car” when the word was shown to them. But, Neuman countered, “Results suggest that parents may have interpreted imitation and mimicking as an indicator of word learning.”

    Other experts agree. Peter Vishton, a psychology professor at the College of William & Mary, told the Washington Post, “Most researchers are confident that the children are not really reading, but just responding to shapes in a stimulus-response fashion.” 


    Use a different set of words or give the baby a new book, and she won’t be able to “read” anymore. “[The process of reading] is quite different than memorizing the shapes and contours of whole words, as ‘reading babies’ are trained to do,” said Lisa Guernsey, the director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, said in an article for Huffington Post.

    What other parents are reading

    A child who knows how to read means he can recognize letters and the sounds they represent. He can put them together to form words, and he has a grasp of what the words mean. He understands enough to elicit a reaction or emotion without his parents prompting him.

    What the experts are saying is your baby won't reach that kind of level of reading with flash cards or "educational media." Instead, according to Guernsey, lots of playful conversation, story time and read-aloud will give your baby a strong foundation in language development. "Children will have a much easier time decoding as well as comprehending printed text when they are taught to read in kindergarten and first grade.” 

    Yes, talking to babies impacts many areas in their development, not just language and reading. It boosts social and even math skills, said Casey Lew-Williams, Ph.D., co-director of the Baby Lab at Princeton University, who also believes that interacting and playing with mom or dad is much better for baby’s brain development than flashcards. (Find a guide on how to talk to your baby, from 0 to 2 years old, here.)

    To raise a reader, parents need to begin by reading to their baby! The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends reading to your child beginning at birth. Reading aloud to newborns encourages word learning, positive family relationships, and — yes, literacy. (Find a guide on how to read and choose books for your child, from 6 months to 5 years old, here.) 

    “There is good evidence that reading to your children promotes language development, reading skills, and even success in school. There is really no evidence that spending hours teaching a toddler to respond to flash cards will promote these same things,” said Vishton. 

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    What other parents are reading

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