Raising Readers, Writers, and Spellers

An expert guide for parents

Baby/Toddler Reading: What Neuroscientists and Parents Need to Know

Welcome to understanding your baby's ability to read.

Child with stack of books
Here's a misleading statement: "Language is acquired quite well before the age of 6, but trying to force your children to read before the age of 4 is an effort that doesn't work very well because the brain is not very well equipped to tell the letter 'b' from the letter 'd' and so on," says neuroscientist Dr. Sam Wang on National Public Radio's recent "Fresh Air" interview. Wang's new book offers great tips for parents, but this comment sends the wrong message.

Great Book Interview–Fallacious Statement on Baby/Toddler Reading

Experts on brain development who understand baby/toddler reading should be cautious when making comments like the one above, which is misleading to parents and illustrates little understanding of how babies and toddlers learn to read. On the surface, the statement is correct–of course babies should never be forced to read. Force doesn't work well with 6-year-old nonreaders either. Force teaches children to hate reading. Beyond that, the process of teaching a baby or toddler to read has little to do with distinguishing the letter 'b' from the letter 'd.' Starting by teaching the letters of the alphabet is anathema to baby/toddler reading.

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Comments such as Dr. Wang's quote above reveal a fallacy in the thinking of many experts who say that baby brains can't read: These experts seem to think that baby/toddler reading and learning to read in school are the same. They aren't. Of course babies and toddlers don't have the brain development to learn to read like a 6-year-old. Early literacy experts have come to understand that babies and toddlers learn to read differently.

Baby/Toddler Brains Are Well Suited for Reading

Baby/toddler reading isn't well understood scientifically because few studies have been conducted with 1-, 2-, and 3-year-old readers. Yet successful baby/toddler reading is time tested, has been reported in the literature for over 100 years, and is documented by thousands of parents on YouTube and on worldwide baby-reading educational forums. Parents report long-term benefits, wonderful bonding experiences, and fewer reading problems in school.

Although no one can explain exactly how baby/toddler reading works, babies do have capacities from birth to age 3 for picking up reading–including phonics patterns and decoding–similar to their capacities for picking up languages. These aren't just outliers or baby geniuses. They are everyday babies and toddlers who learn to read with parents who interact with them joyfully in hands-on experiences-with printed words in repeated and meaningful book sharing, in reading labels around the room, and in today's world, with short interactive and engaging word games on the computer screen. These events require intimate physical contact such as snuggling with a book or cuddling with the baby or toddler at the computer.

I fear Dr. Wang's statement juxtaposing force with confusion between 'b's' and 'd's' will leave most readers or listeners thinking he's saying that babies and toddlers can't read. I don't think he's saying that but if he is, he's wrong. Babies can read and the world isn't flat: The Magellan ship of baby reading has already sailed around the world. Thousands and thousands of babies and toddlers wouldn't be reading if their brains weren't wired for it.

Great Tips from Dr. Wang

The interview with Wang, a neuroscientist, along with one of his coauthors, Dr. Sandra Aamodt, celebrates the release of their new book, Welcome to Your Child's Brain, which synthesizes research on how the brain develops from infancy to adolescence and provides scores of tips for parents. The interview and a report on NPR's web site, "How to Help Your Child's Brain Grow Up Strong," are chock full of great advice that dovetails with best practices for baby/toddler reading:

• Don't use force.
• Realize that children reach cognitive milestones at different times.
• Expect babies' brains to do very complicated things.
• Take advantage of the baby's special language capacities.
• Capitalize on babies' attraction to language.
• Use active and social exposure to words.
• Encourage bilingual learning in babyhood.
• Teach self-control.
• Take advantage of your child's natural sense of fun.

Each of these recommendations could be followed with the phrase "...for baby/toddler reading."

Offering tips to parents for helping their child develop language, coauthor Dr. Susan Aamodt makes worthwhile suggestions such as, "The most simple way is to talk to your baby and around your baby a lot" and "Respond when the baby speaks, even if the baby isn't forming the words correctly or you don't understand it. Just act like some communication has occurred–smile and give the baby a little pat–and encourage the baby to continue to try to communicate." These suggestions are also perfect advice when reading aloud to infants.

In addition to Aamodt's tip on talking early and often, add reading aloud and talking about the story to increase the number and quality of word data going into the baby/toddler brain in the first three years of life. But most of all, add book sharing and word games, because the attention and fun with words and books are a wonderful vehicle for physical contact and bonding. Baby reading may be a fringe benefit.

Experts and Caveats

I'm eager to read Welcome to Your Child's Brain based on the "Fresh Air" interview. But here are a few caveats as you get your mind around this book, expert advice, the interview, and the truth about baby/toddler reading.

Dr. Wang states that the 6-year-old brain (but not the baby's) is very well equipped to tell "the letter 'b' from the letter 'd' and so on." Not so fast. For many children, learning to read from formal instruction at age 6 is complicated. About 1 in 5 children struggle with phonemic awareness and other disabling issues, so dismissing reading as something that seems as simple as telling "the letter 'b' from the letter 'd' and so on" and saying that "it's something that older children can do without any effort at all," is oversimplification.

The interview article implies that babies have to learn to talk before they learn to read words. Many babies learn to read some words before they can speak them. If your child loves Elmo's Blanket, he may understand the word Elmo months before he can speak it. Your daughter may look at the word clap featured in the word game on your laptop and successfully complete the action or point to her nose to show you she can read the word before she can say it. Children have to think in words before they can read them. But they don't necessarily have to speak them before they can read.

Baby/toddler reading helps children develop language faster and more efficiently. Teaching your baby or toddler to read joyfully and informally is easier than teaching a child to read formally at age 6. If done correctly, baby/toddler reading adheres to best practices for raising young children like many of the recommendations of Dr. Wang and Dr. Aamodt. Teach your baby/toddler to read and bring loving physical contact, language, thinking, feelings, bonding, creativity and expression into one simple act. There may be no better way to help your child's brain grow up strong than to teach your child to read joyfully. It's a great legacy for you and your child. And remember, any expert who doesn't understand the potential for baby/toddler reading is engaging in "the-world-is-flat" thinking.

(Note: Dr. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers. Available on Amazon.com. Follow Dr. Gentry on Facebook and on Twitter.)

Raising Confident Readers cover

J. Richard Gentry, Ph.D., an expert on childhood literacy, reading, and spelling, is the author of Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write—Baby to Age 7. more...

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