- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 16, 2009

It is an infomercial darling, with cute kids pointing out words on cards to the delight of their parents. “Your Baby Can Read,” a system of DVDs, word cards and books, touts that infancy is the ideal time to give children an academic head start. Thousands of parents have purchased the $200 product since it was developed in 1997.

“Your Baby Can Read has made Evan a happier baby,” one mom says in company promotional materials as her toddler reaches for the word card she designated. “Evan enjoys stimulation and connections. When he learns something, he wants to keep going. At 19 months, he can read more than 500 words.”

So will little Evan be tackling Shakespeare by age 3? College-level analysis by age 7? Headed for an academic rebellion by age 10? Tough to say, but Robert Titzer, inventor of “Your Baby Can Read,” says his own daughter is a good indicator of how fostering early reading can lead to a love of learning.

Mr. Titzer, who has a doctorate in human development and has researched infant learning, developed the prototype for “Your Baby Can Read” 18 years ago, when his daughter was 3 months old. By 9 months, she could identify — by acting out, as baby language centers are still developing — 30 words, he says.

“I knew she was learning language skills at a rapid rate,” he says. “I was studying how babies learn, and I wanted a video that was multisensory and interactive and not mindless entertainment for babies.”

What Mr. Titzer came up with was a production that shows a word, for example, “clap.” It has a voice saying the word, as well as arrows showing left to right, the direction in which the word is read. Additional voices may say “baby is clapping,” additional footage will show a baby clapping, and, eventually, the baby watching the footage will clap, too. Mr. Titzer says this kind of sensory give-and-take is what children need to learn.

“Infants are learning more about language earlier than people realize,” says Mr. Titzer, adding that early reading has an impact on all kinds of higher cognitive functions.

“The best and easiest time to learn a language is during the infant and toddler years, when the brain is creating thousands of synapses every second — allowing a child to learn both the written word and spoken word simultaneously, and with much more ease,” he says.

Mr. Titzer says the natural window for learning a language is from about birth to age 4, with the peak in synaptic connections occurring by 12 months. The current practice of teaching children to read when they start school after age 5 is too late, he says.

“The earlier the child is taught to read the better they will read and the more likely they will enjoy it,” he says.

Yale neurologist Steven Novella agrees that those first four years are a crucial time for learning. If a child were deprived of sensory stimulation and language during that window, he says, he or she surely would have some language and learning deficits.

However, he takes issue with “Your Baby Can Read” equating language with reading.

“There is no window of opportunity for reading like there is with language — adults who have never read can learn how to read,” he says. “While our brains are preprogrammed to absorb language, reading is more of a cultural adaptation.”

Dr. Novella says what “Your Baby Can Read” is teaching is generally whole-word reading, meaning memorization of sight words without regard to phonics.

“These kind of approaches have been around a long time,” he says. “There is a focus on raw memorization. That’s about all babies can do; they don’t have a developed language center at that age. You have to ask, ‘Is there any long-term advantage to teaching children tasks before their long-term development is up to it?’”

Story Continues →