Learning to Read: How Young is Too Young?

Parents and caregivers should be reading books to and conversing with babies and toddlers, no doubt about it. But this is a far cry from repetitive training. Babies need and deserve more than flashcards.
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Should reading be taught in first grade or in kindergarten? Maybe preschool?

How about even younger?

Most literacy researchers agree that there's a limit to how young you can go and that in infancy and toddlerhood it makes no sense to try to start formal reading instruction. Don't tell that to Janet Doman, director of a small organization called the Institutes for Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia. Doman is trying to spread the idea that the process of learning to read can start in babyhood.

She suggests that parents train their babies by holding up cards with words written in large letters while speaking the words. Her father, Glenn Doman, is the Institutes' founder and co-author of a decades-old, self-published book, How to Teach Your Baby to Read.

To serious researchers, the Domans' ideas are disturbingly devoid of any basis in mainstream science and appear to rely entirely on anecdotal evidence. Yet among many parents and some childcare providers, the notion of very early reading is taking hold nevertheless.

Last month, a set of videos produced by a different group from Doman's -- the $200 Your Baby Can Read series created by a company in California -- became the subject of a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission. In the complaint, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood argues that the videos are marketed to mislead parents into thinking that reading in infancy will give their children a head start.

Not many national media outlets have paid these baby-can-read programs much heed, with the exception of the TODAY show, which ran an expose on the claims of Your Baby Can Read, and a segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation in 2009 that touched off an angry exchange between David Elkind, a Tufts University professor and author of The Hurried Child, and Janet Doman.

But late last month, Janet Doman was a guest for a podcast on the BAM Radio Network, an online education channel for pre-k and elementary school educators.

The podcast was intended to trigger deeper discussion about what kind of experiences children need to become strong readers. I happened to be an on-air commentator for that particular segment, and I stressed what serious research shows us -- that language development must come first and that babies need adults to interact and converse with them, pointing out interesting things in the world and reacting to their responses.

With a strong foundation of language development, fostered by lots of playful conversation, story time and read-alouds, 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. Putting flashcards in front of babies, which is a key component of both Domans' recommendations and the controversial video series, is nowhere near as richly stimulating to children as communicating with them through real back-and-forth conversations about the world around them. Even if babies are still in the babbling stage, they are learning a lot about language by interacting with adults who respond to the sounds they make.

Experts in child development are emphasizing the same. In a Washington Post On Parenting webchat a few weeks ago, Peter Vishton, a psychology professor at the College of William & Mary, warned parents about baby-can-read products:

"There has been little to no evaluation of the effectiveness of programs like 'Your Baby Can Read.' Most researchers are confident that the children are not really reading, but just responding to shapes in a stimulus-response fashion."

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff, two nationally recognized developmental psychologists who co-wrote, with Diane Eyer, the acclaimed book Einstein Never Used Flashcards, have been urging parents to recognize the simple power of conversational moments with young children instead of drilling them on vocabulary words.

The BAM podcast, as well as the ensuing online discussion , are the latest and perhaps most extreme iteration of a larger conversation throughout the early childhood community about exactly when children should be formally taught to read. Putting aside the question of babies and toddlers, some people worry that even kindergarten is too early to expect children to start decoding -- the process of putting sounds of letters together to form words. (A process, by the way, that is quite different than memorizing the shapes and contours of whole words, as "reading babies" are trained to do.)

Representatives from the Alliance for Childhood, an advocacy group in College Park, MD, have pointed out that students in Finland are not introduced to formal reading instruction until age 7. But Finland does offer free childcare and kindergarten to all Finnish children -- 97 percent of them attend kindergarten -- and officials say that its early childhood curriculum emphasizes pre-literacy skills. In the United States, many early literacy experts argue that children at ages 4 and 5 should be exposed to some of the building blocks of reading -- for example, the letters of the alphabet and their sounds -- so that those components of reading are readily retrievable from memory when children are asked to start reading words in later grades.

The reading debate today contains echoes from two years ago, when the National Early Literacy Panel published a report that was criticized by some for taking too narrow a view of scientific studies. Some experts said the report de-emphasized the importance of play and conversation in language development, a critical foundation to success in reading. (I delved into this omission in an American Prospect story last year.)

But parents and educators cannot ignore the NELP report's important synthesis of research on what types of early experiences are most closely associated with successful reading - including an exposure to letters and an awareness of phonemes in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.

That said, I'd welcome a study that examined the age at which children in other countries are first introduced to their language's alphabetic symbols and phonemes. What does formal reading instruction look like in other places, when are teachers expected to start, and how do their students' eventual reading skills compare to American children across socioeconomic circumstances? So far, I have not seen any robust studies that definitively pinpoint the most advantageous age for starting formal instruction. Variation among young children is quite common.

What we do have are decades of peer-reviewed literacy research that points to the need for a balanced approach that is grounded in helping children to communicate using spoken and written language while also helping them identify individual letters and recognize the use of print. (A great source for summaries of the latest peer-reviewed research is Reading Rockets, a website created by WETA, a public broadcasting station in Northern Virginia, and funded by the U.S. Department of Education.)

Notably absent from that vetted research, are any studies expounding on the wisdom of training 12-month-olds to utter certain sounds whenever they see the shape of certain words in big type. Parents and caregivers should be reading books to and conversing with babies and toddlers, no doubt about it. But this is a far cry from repetitive training. Babies need and deserve more than flashcards.

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