Ever since I published videos of our daughter, Felicity, reading at twelve months of age on YouTube and switched career paths to the field of early childhood education, I have often heard negative comments by people concerning the idea of teaching babies to read.
At first, I was shocked by such a negative reaction, especially the intensity of some of it. Over time, I became accustomed to it, and saw that I was not the only one to experience this (see these discussion topics for example: Forum thread 1, Forum thread 2).
We explored the pros and cons of early reading and early learning in general in the BrillBaby.com articles here:
However, after watching the recent Today Show’s highly-critical piece on the “Your Baby Can Read” program, I decided to write out my direct responses to the common criticisms leveled at the topic of early reading.
Here are some of the most frequently-heard comments I hear from critics, and my responses to them:
- Those babies are not reading!
- What’s the rush?
- Why are you forcing that poor baby?
- Just let babies be babies!
- Teaching them to read would take time from other areas of development.
- Babies should be allowed to play.
- Teaching reading skills so early creates unhealthy pressure on the child.
- Babies should be taught to read through play.
- The best way to teach babies to read is by reading to them.
- Teaching babies to read in that manner is too formal, too unnatural.
- There is no scientific proof of any long-term benefit to early reading instruction.
- Won’t My Child Eventually Learn To Read In School Anyway?
- These children will be bored at school.
- These children will not fit in with their classmates.
- Teaching children to read should be left to teachers.
- It’s developmentally inappropriate. The child’s brain is not ready for reading.
- I wasn’t taught to read as a baby and I turned out okay!
Those babies are not reading!
Well, that depends on your definition of ‘reading.’ If you use the most common definition (e.g., Oxford Dictionary), then ‘reading’ simply means being able to understand the meaning of written or printed words. By this definition, it is clear that babies can read. Countless babies can be seen on video (search “baby reading” on YouTube for example), gesturing appropriately to the word shown (clapping for the word clap and pointing to their noses for the word nose.)
Some might argue that those gestures do not prove that the child understands the word. They would contend that she is just gesturing as a ‘conditioned reflex’ due to the ‘training’ we give her. So, for example, when she sees the word ‘nose’ and points to her nose, she is just pointing automatically without really understanding what she is doing, nor is she understanding that the word ‘nose’ means the object she is pointing at.
Because we cannot peer into the baby’s mind, we will never know for sure if that’s the case. But consider this: Let’s say we ask the child, “Where’s your nose?” and she is able to point to her nose. Would we argue that the child does not understand our question and is pointing to her nose as a conditioned reflex? I doubt it. So, if we show her the word ‘nose’ and ask her, “Where is this?” and she can point to her nose, why would that be so different?
The more common objection, however, occurs when we take ‘reading’ to mean being able to sound out words phonetically. The objection goes: “She’s not really reading. She has just memorized the shape of the words, like a picture.”
The answer to that would be, yes. It’s true. Felicity, at twelve months, did not even know her alphabet, much less the rules of phonics. The way she learned to read in the beginning is similar to how you would read Chinese characters, where you either know the character, or you don’t (since there is no concept of phonics in Chinese writing). In English, this type of reading is called ‘whole-word reading’ or ‘sight reading,’ and is regarded as a form of reading. Whether or not that is a good way to learn to read, is a different matter.
Phonics-based reading versus whole-word reading is an ongoing subject of heated debate. We have addressed this topic, in detail, in the “Whole Language vs. Phonics” article on Brillbaby.com. In short, we advocate both. Because most traditional phonics-based approaches are only really appropriate when the child is three or four, we recommend teaching babies using a whole-word approach first, and gradually building upon their phonetic understanding in a natural and intuitive manner before explicitly teaching them phonics rules the traditional way. See here for more details concerning how we integrate the whole-word and phonics methods.
What’s the rush?
I would prefer to rephrase this question as: “Why teach them to read so early?” I think it asks the same question without the underlying negative assumption.
The answer that many people frequently trot out in response to this question has to do with the rapid rate of brain development that occurs during the first few years of a child’s life – i.e., that the brain is most absorptive at that age, the plasticity of the neural network, and so on.
For me, that is not the main reason, at all. I believe that it’s the best time to teach because it’s also the EASIEST time to teach. And the main reason why it’s much easier to teach at an early age is because there are more and more distractions later on, as a child matures.
Let’s take Felicity as an example. I first started seriously teaching her to read when she was nine months old. At that age, she could crawl, but she couldn’t stand, walk, talk, nor do much else. I taught her using various tools and methods, including many personalized books that I made for her. Whatever I showed her, she totally lapped up. She was absolutely hungry for whatever I put in front of her—so much so that it was I who had to stop the lessons despite her protests for more!
In the months and years following that, her interests grew along with her physical and mental development. At three, all Felicity wanted to do was to draw. Next she was fixated on dinosaurs. Then dragons. Then horses. And the list goes on. Boy, was I glad that she had already learned to read, because learning to read at that age would pale in comparison to playing with dragons, drawing horses, and play-pretending with her play mates!
In short, I would have found it so much more difficult to engage Felicity’s attention at age three than when she was one.
Furthermore, I only really made deliberate efforts to teach her to read (in English, anyway) between the ages of nine months and eighteen months. After that, reading instruction required only minimal effort on my part to read bedtime storybooks with her. Felicity built on her reading skills herself after that. The great thing was: because she could already read, she could enjoy her interests so much more by reading up about those interests herself!
Why are you forcing that poor baby?
A common assumption made by many is that we need to force babies against their natural will to do things like learning to read.
As already mentioned, I never forced Felicity to learn to read. It was the complete opposite. Many parents also experience the same thing. Indeed, it is commonly the case that young children protest when they are not given their reading lessons. This can be seen on the video of 16-month old Naimah who protested and cried when she mistakenly thought she wasn’t about to be given her reading lesson.
The fact that we adults often associate learning with pain (and therefore requiring forcing) says, I believe, a lot more about our attitudes towards learning than it does about a child’s. I contend that such attitudes arise precisely because we, typically, leave teaching too late. By then, forcing becomes necessary as the child has other interests with which reading instruction must compete. She would prefer (for example) to play with her toy puppy instead.
Forcing children to learn also runs completely contrary to our message.
What we encourage parents to do is simply provide the learning opportunity to the child. It’s up to the child whether or not he wants to engage in the lessons. If there is resistance or a lack of interest, then we stress that the parents should put the materials aside and try again later. The more frequent the resistance, the longer the materials should be put aside.
We always stress to parents that they should NEVER force their babies to learn if they are unwilling. They should always maintain a joyful learning atmosphere. We also stress that the first and foremost objective of the learning experience is to expose your child to reading in a loving and joyful environment. Results are secondary.
Of course, I realize and acknowledge that, despite such advice, some parents, in their over-zealousness to have their child learn, ‘lose the plot’ and impose lessons on the child even when he/she shows obvious signs of disinterest or resistance. In a way, this is understandable because many parents have been brought up in an environment where learning has always needed to be forced.
But how do we address the issue of parents forcing their children, which, we agree, can be harmful? Should we tell all parents that they should not be teaching their babies to read? I believe that such extreme attitudes are not only unnecessary, but also deprive babies of something they could potentially love and would benefit from. What we need is more education of the parents, instead of discouraging them from teaching their babies.
Even though we agree that babies should never be forced, here’s the good news: If you start early enough, you are more likely to not need to force. If the parent avoids having a results-oriented mindset and keeps the lessons loving and joyful, then, in our experience, the parents will likely find that, at some stage in the child’s development—whether it is six months, twelve months, or two years—the child will show great interest in the lessons. Forcing will be unnecessary!
Just let babies be babies!
This comment is similar to the ‘don’t force your baby’ comment, and my response above would also be relevant here.
However, to those saying “Just let babies be babies,” I would ask this question: “What, exactly, does ‘being a baby’ entail, and upon what is that opinion based?”
Since most people have always believed that babies are incapable of learning skills such as reading, it has naturally been the norm for babies not to be taught to read, and hence, the general notion of what “being a baby” should be like would certainly not include such activities.
But, if we discover that babies are, indeed, capable of learning, and love to do so, then does it make sense for us to cling to our past notions of what is the norm and deprive our babies of doing something they enjoy?
I believe that those who are saying, “Just let babies be babies”, also mean that babies should just have fun. Well, guess what? There is no disagreement there! What many people don’t realize is that reading can be fun for the baby, and most often is!
In that way, giving a baby an opportunity to learn to read is no different from offering her any toy. The baby may like the toy, or the baby might not. If the baby doesn’t like the toy, then, of course, we put it away. If the baby likes it, we encourage her to play with it. The same applies to learning materials or reading lessons!
Teaching babies to read would take time from other areas of development.
This may sound logical, as a matter of theory, but how true is it in practice?
How much time is spent every day teaching a baby to read? As the creator of the product, I will speak for Little Reader. Each Little Reader lesson takes as little as five minutes per session. We recommend one or two sessions a day, five days a week. So during weekdays, it would typically take five to ten minutes in total. (For me, it’s about five minutes as I usually do just one session a day.)
What is the impact of taking five minutes once or twice a day during weekdays? What would it displace?
This will differ. In the case of Felicity, when she was still an infant, it would have sometimes displaced periods where we would otherwise have left her to her own amusement in her crib, rocking chair or playpen while we watched her. Maybe the reading session robbed her of five minutes of chewing on her rattle or she would spent five minutes more looking around the room and kicking her legs—because that’s what she was doing plenty of. Past her first birthday, the five-minute reading session would have probably displaced 5 minutes of Felicity’s walking around the house or playing with the same toy that she had been playing with for hours before that.
For those five to ten minutes a day, what did she get instead? First and foremost, she got more bonding time with Daddy or Mommy. She also got to satisfy her craving to learn and to be stimulated. Oh, and she also learned to read very early. Most importantly, however, she had a lot of fun. We also spent plenty of time engaging in other activities with her: swimming, playing in a park, reading stories to her, going on family outings.
Babies should be allowed to play!
Firstly, this statement involves a similar issue to the previous point regarding the ‘opportunity cost’ of learning. In other words, “Don’t deprive the babies of playing time!” As I already mentioned, we are talking of very short periods of time (five to ten minutes each day).
Secondly, let’s look more closely at the word ‘play.’
In the adult world, there is a clear distinction between learning and playing. Playing is fun; learning is not usually very much fun. Often, we learn because we have to; we play because we want to.
But is this necessarily the case with babies?
I think many, if not most people, will agree that infants love to learn. They are extremely curious about the world around them, and love to explore new things.
Do we really believe that, in a young child’s world, there is the same distinction between ‘learning’ and ‘playing’ that we have in the adult world? If we can see that the baby is having fun during the learning process, does it matter whether we label it ‘learning’ or ‘playing’?
Learning can be fun for a young child. The younger the child, the more fun it will be. That’s why many consider the early years to be the most joyful period of learning for a child.
To make sure the process is fun, the most important thing to get right is our mindset. If we approach learning as something that is not fun, then our attitude will show in our interaction with our children. How much fun can a child really get out of the lessons when the parent is treating them like a chore?
Of course, we should also be sensitive to the child’s mood. We should never force a lesson when it’s not wanted. The same is true for toys!
If we maintain a loving and joyful attitude and are sensitive to our child’s moods, then the learning process can be extremely enjoyable.
Teaching so early puts unhealthy pressure on the child.
This need not be the case.
Having the right frame of mind involves making sure we do not have a results-oriented mindset.
We, therefore, always stress to parents that the main focus should be on having a loving and enjoyable time bonding with the child. Having a results-oriented focus tends to bring about stress and tension which will be picked up by the child sooner or later.
When we approach the whole matter without the need for or expectation of results, but merely for the purpose of bonding with our child over an enjoyable activity, we believe that results will actually come more easily as a pleasant ‘side effect.’
Of course, no matter how much this point is stressed, there will always be parents who will be interested only in achieving results. Yes, this would create unhealthy expectations and pressure to learn on the baby.
However, I believe that this can be kept to a minimum with proper education of the parents—which we do in many other parenting areas. To advocate against teaching our babies at all for this reason despite all the benefits would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Babies should be taught to read through play.
I agree! In fact, it may even be the case that the most effective way of teaching a child anything would be through play.
First of all, I’ve already discussed whether a baby really perceives a difference between playing and learning.
For the purposes of this argument, let’s assume the case of slightly older children (say, three-year-olds), where the difference between play time and lesson time is probably more distinct (though not necessarily one being any less fun than the other).
Learning the alphabet through play could be done, for example, by having the child use a ball to try to knock down the bowling pin that has a particular letter written on it. I’m sure there are countless more imaginative examples. Yes, that would be fun for the child, and I would totally encourage such learning games to be played.
But let me ask a few questions:
- How realistic is it to expect a parent to be able to continually come up with games to teach the child to read?
- How much time does such an activity take, and how much will the child actually learn during that time?
- Why must this be the only way, to the exclusion of more dedicated reading lessons? Instead of thinking of it in terms of ‘either/or,’ why not consider the concept of ‘both/and?’
So, I totally agree that babies should be taught to read through play, and I, myself, do so every opportunity I get. I find, however, that if I were to rely purely on teaching through play, Felicity will not be learning anywhere near as much in the same amount of time as compared with having dedicated reading lessons, and it’s also much harder (practically impossible) to keep a daily routine of teaching that is simple and easy to use.
The best way to teach babies to read is by reading to them.
I certainly agree that we should read to our children, and it is also a good way to teach them to read.
Can babies learn to read simply by having parents read to them and pointing to the words while reading? According to some parents, some children apparently do learn to read this way, so yes, probably.
Is it the best way?
The great thing about books is that they can be very engaging for a child. They, typically, have colorful illustrations and an interesting story. If we judge the methods purely in terms of engaging the child’s attention, then yes, storybooks could arguably be considered to be the best way to teach a child to read (though even so, I believe that this would hold true only in the case of slightly older children, and not babies). But then, using the same criteria, it could also be argued that teaching by play is even better.
Is it the best way in terms of effectiveness in actually learning to read?
I would say ‘no’ unless the books are structured in a coherent manner (most likely as part of an overall series of books). Even then, I believe a child would find it much easier to learn to read, and learn much more, using a dedicated reading program that teaches a child in a gradual and systematic manner and which imparts specific knowledge on the rules of phonics.
In any event, does it really matter which is the best way? Again, why does one way need to be to the exclusion of other ways? We certainly would never propose that a parent should use Little Reader exclusively and not read books to their children! On the contrary, we highly encourage parents to read bedtime stories to their children. That is why we also create dedicated storybooks for this purpose and encourage all sorts of reading activities.
Teaching babies to read in that manner is too formal, too unnatural.
Whenever we introduce a systematic and structured program to teach a child, that will, by definition, make the teaching formal. From the point of view of someone who is not accustomed to the concept of deliberately teaching babies to read, then certainly this would seem to be ‘unnatural.’ Anything we are not used to or familiar with will likely be deemed ‘unnatural.’
I would ask: What difference does it make to a child whether the activity is something that we adults are unaccustomed to or consider unnatural? Were not many ways that we do things today considered unnatural decades ago? So what?
When one suggests that something is too ‘formal,’ I presume the underlying complaint is that it’s not fun, because formality is often associated with rigidity and forced learning. However, we have already discussed the question as to whether or not the lessons are fun for a baby. If the baby is having fun and enjoys the lessons, what does it matter that an activity is ‘formal?’
There is no scientific proof of any long-term benefit of early reading instruction.
Strictly speaking, that statement is probably true. However, it is also true that there is no scientific proof that there isn’t any long term benefit to early reading instruction. The truth is: there just isn’t much scientific proof either way.
Sadly, there have not been many studies conducted about whether children learning to read at young ages retain an advantage in later life. However, when people use this fact to suggest that scientific research affirmatively shows that there isn’t any long term benefit, that would not only be misleading, it would be blatantly untrue.
If anything, from what little research that has been done in this area, studies actually support the claim that there is a definite long-term advantage to learning to read early. In one notable study by Dolores Durkin entitled Children Who Read Early: Two Longitudinal Studies (1966), not only did the three-to-five-year-olds retain a significantly higher reading level than their peers even six years later, the gap between them and their peers was more pronounced with the three-year-olds than the four or five-year-olds.
Further details on this study as well as some other studies can found in Larry Sanger’s essay “How and Why I Taught My Toddler to Read” which I highly recommend reading.
Despite these studies strongly suggesting that there is a long-term benefit, I agree that it’s probably not strong enough to prove the point conclusively. However, does that mean that we should ignore this possibility altogether just because no one has conducted conclusive research yet?
If common sense tells you that there is likely to be a long-term benefit, are you really going to insist on waiting for research to prove it conclusively? And if/when that research does come ten years later, what would you be able to do about it then?
Won’t My Child Eventually Learn To Read In School Anyway?
Yes, most likely.
However, the first thing to consider is this. When other children are busy trying to learn how to read in school, a child who learned to read as a preschooler would, instead, be consolidating what she already knows from experience, and would start out as a confident reader. Instead of it possibly being an area of confusion and struggle, reading becomes an area of strength and confidence.
Next, a child may know how to read. But at what level?
The official literacy rate in the US is 99%, and this is similar to many developed countries, so the chances are very high that any child in the US or developed country will know how to read, technically speaking.
But how well can the child read?
You see, two children could both know how to read, but could be reading at vastly different levels. How easily is a child able to comprehend and absorb written information? When we start talking about levels (and concepts such as ‘functional literacy’), then the literacy rate starts to get much lower, even as low as 50% in the US depending on how you classify literacy.
The point is, learning how to read is only the first step. The more important next step is learning to read well.
This is particularly important because a child’s reading level will determine how well the child will be able to absorb written information, and this has very serious implications on the acquisition of knowledge in general.
Reading is said to be the gateway of further knowledge, and the foundation for learning almost all other subjects. The earlier a child masters reading, therefore, the earlier the child can begin to acquire such other knowledge.
Children are especially hungry for knowledge, even if it may be limited to topics that interest them, like dinosaurs. Imagine how much happier a child would be if he could read up and learn all about his favorite dinosaurs HIMSELF at the age of 5, when most children have not even started to learn to read yet and can only admire the pictures in the books.
If all children were to master reading earlier, would this not reduce the number of children whose learning of other subjects was hampered because of reading difficulties? Is it that difficult to see that learning to read early would therefore bring long-term benefits? To me, it’s just common sense.
These children will be bored at school.
This is an assumption which I do not believe is necessarily true, and I will examine this assumption a little later.
Assuming it to be true, are we really suggesting that we should deliberately “dumb down” our kids so that everything they learn in school will be new to them? Should we retard their development simply so that they can conform to the ‘norm’ at school, despite their desire and capacity to learn? Are we suggesting schools have a lock-step method of imparting knowledge that ignores students’ readiness to learn new information?
Surely, better solutions exist, such as finding schools which have systems that cater towards developmental differences between children.
Now let’s look more critically at the assumption that children will be bored at school.
When the teacher is teaching the class how to read, yes, they may become bored as they already know what is being taught. Or they may not. They may be finding it useful to consolidate what they have learned, or to see things from a fresh perspective.
Their experience of school might be one of boredom. Or it might not. It might be one of joyful ease, where they do not have to struggle, where they can finish their assignments more quickly and have time for other things that they enjoy.
Either way, it’s all speculation. What is true for one child may not be true for another. What is true one day may not be true the next day, even for the same child. For every story that you find about an early reader being bored, you will probably find another story about an early reader enjoying school.
When we are dealing with something that is so fundamentally important to master (i.e., literacy), I would prefer to err on the side of caution and make sure my daughter masters it, rather than take the risk of having a child struggle to read, and having this struggle negatively affect other areas of learning. But that is my personal choice.
These children will not fit in with their classmates.
One aspect of this statement relates to conformity, which I already discussed above.
Another aspect relates to social development. I believe that if parents merely focus on a child’s academic development and neglect other aspects like social behavior, then yes, there is a risk that the child will have problems socializing with other children. However, these problems relate less to the child’s reading level and more to the child’s social skills.
Teaching a young child to read does not necessarily lead to the child’s not “fitting in.” As with so many other things, it’s a question of balance. It’s a question of educating parents about the importance of maintaining such balance.
Teaching children to read should be left to teachers.
This is a comment often voiced by educators. In fact, some go to the extent of imploring parents not to teach their children skills such as reading.
Some teachers (though I believe a small minority) prefer that all kids start of as ‘clean slates’ as far as reading is concerned so that the teaching process would be simpler and more convenient. As I believe we all agree that what’s most important is the interests of our kids’ education and not the convenience of teachers, this objection cannot hold much weight.
From my discussions with educators, it would seem most educators expect and welcome differences in abilities between children, and even see early reading abilities as a help to the teacher, not a hindrance.
The main objection they seem to have against early reading education by parents is that if parents force reading on their child (in their exuberance to help the child), parents will make learning ‘work’ and not a natural, enjoyable, joyful experience. Teachers want to make sure children are curious about learning and see it as an enjoyable experience. If reading is forced on a young child who is not ready by a well-intentioned parent, the child’s willingness and curiosity to learn may already have been compromised.
These are certainly very valid concerns. However, as I already mentioned before, I believe that not only can teaching be done in a way that is not forced, but the earlier you teach, the less likely you will need to force (and even the complete opposite).
What is most important here is the education of parents to instill the appropriate mindset.
If everyone agreed that the best time to teach a child to read is in the first few years (discussed above), and that the child retains significant long-term advantages from having done so (also discussed above), then changes need to be made to the current educational system so that teaching our children to read is started well before they enter the schooling system.
If parents can be better educated concerning how to teach their children to read (and most importantly, their mindset when doing so), and the educational system supports the entire notion of teaching babies to read, then I’m sure even the teachers would no longer think that teaching children to read should be left to teachers.
It’s developmentally inappropriate. The child’s brain is not ready for reading.
I am not a neurologist, so I will not comment on brain science.
Instead, I will ask these questions:
- If the child’s brain is really not ready for reading, why do we see increasing numbers of babies and toddlers learning to read?
- How exactly is it “developmentally inappropriate?” If it is, then presumably, that would mean it leads to stunted development of the child’s learning faculties later on. But where do we witness that? If anything, what we see suggests the exact opposite. If the child likes to learn to read, is able to learn to read, and there is a long term benefit, then how can it be developmentally inappropriate?
For a more in-depth look at ‘brain appropriateness’ criticisms, I would recommend reading Larry Sanger’s essay.
I wasn’t taught to read as a baby and I turned out okay!
I believe almost everyone would consider that he/she turned out fine, and who would argue otherwise? Of course we all turned out ‘okay.’
The only question is: how would our academic lives have been different had we learned to read at an earlier age? No one will ever know, of course. This brings us back to the question we already discussed: Is there any long-term benefit to learning to read early? I’ve already discussed that above.
If we believe that there is a long-term benefit to learning to read early, then it becomes a personal decision as to whether we want to give our children the opportunity of that benefit. And there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to that decision. It’s simply a matter of personal choice and the consequences that follow from that choice. Either way, of course your child will turn out ‘okay.’
For me, personally, the norms of previous generations hold very little relevance in my decision as to what I choose to do. I believe that, if everyone had a mindset of sticking to how things are done in the past, there would be very little advancement (if any at all) amongst us as a human race.
Some ending words:
Firstly, you’re not a “bad Mom” if you don’t teach your baby/toddler to read! Being a parent is very challenging, and often we don’t even have time for ourselves. So, very often all we want to do is to just relax and do nothing. And that would be fine, because first and foremost, you as a parent should take care of yourself.
At the end of the day, whether or not we should teach our baby to read is a very personal decision. Ultimately, it matters not whether our views are in agreement or not, because as parents, we are the only ones who are responsible for our child’s upbringing.
Even where there is disagreement, we should all remember that all of us parents have one thing in common – we all want the best for our children!
For me, the issue of early reading instruction is very simple. Everything boils down to this: If I am able to give my baby the opportunity to maximize her potential, and my baby—most importantly—enjoys it, then why wouldn’t I?
More comments by BrillKids members can be found on this Forum discussion thread.
KL Wong is the Founder and CEO of BrillKids, and also father of Felicity, aged 5. He can be contacted at KL(at)brillkids(dot)com.