- 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?’”

Linda Boit of Ellicott City was similarly skeptical when she picked up a copy of “Your Baby Can Read” when her daughter, Autumn, was 3 months old. She would put it on twice a day while she cooked dinner or did other household tasks.

By 15 months, Autumn was reading fluently. Autumn is now 5, and “can probably read at a college level and understand most of it,” Mrs. Boit says. She says her daughter’s reading started out as whole-word recognition, but later developed into phonics as she learned to sound out more words.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Boit’s younger daughter, April, could read many words before her first birthday.

“They are pretty smart, so I am not sure whether it is the cart or the horse,” Mrs. Boit says. “But when you can read words, the world is an entirely different place. Everyone was skeptical at first, and said, ‘Why do you want to do that?’ I said, ‘Why not?’”

Donald Shifrin, a pediatrician in Bellevue, Wash., and spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says learning programs for infants certainly won’t do any harm — but parents should keep in perspective what products can and cannot do for them.

“It is like saying ‘Take ginkgo biloba and you will have a better memory,’ or ‘Teach your youngster to swim, and they will be drownproof,’” he says. “All have been proven to be somewhat less than accurate. Reading programs may have a point, but do we know they provide an academic edge? Will they necessarily get into Harvard? Essentially, they are pandering to parental hopes and fears. And parents have those in abundance.”

Dr. Shifrin says infants younger than 1 do not need educational systems. What they need most is interaction with caregivers who give them security and attention.

Educators Kathy Hirsch-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, co-authors of the book “Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn — and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less,” agree the best early learning comes from interacting.

“If we really want to promote learning and brain growth in babies, toddlers and preschoolers, we must help them learn in context and not through flash cards,” the authors write. “Memorizing just does not do the trick and often is mistakenly thought to be true learning. There is no pressing need for our children to read before they go to school.”

Mr. Titzer says that even though his system starts with whole-word recognition, over time children figure out the phonics necessary for more advanced words. He also admits that even if toddlers can read, they usually won’t know what it is they are reading beyond a simple picture book.

“We have babies who can read the newspaper, but they really don’t know what they are reading unless someone explains it to them,” he says.

In the big picture, though, those babies are getting a head start — which will be vital in a very competitive worldwide work force.

“I was just in Hong Kong, and their baby expos are very different than ours in the U.S.,” Mr. Titzer says. “Here, we are focused on choosing a stroller or what we can do to make baby look cuter. There, they are focused on how can I help my baby learn? It is a totally different mind-set.”

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