Raising Readers, Writers, and Spellers

An expert guide for parents

Joys (and Frustrations) of Teaching Babies to Read

A mother tells the joys and frustrations of teaching her baby to read.

Teaching babies to read is a political hot potato. Should you teach your baby or toddler to read? Or not? What’s the best way? Are baby/toddler-reading products safe? Are baby readers “outliers”? A lack of consensus on the benefits of preschool reading leaves too many parents confused about what’s best for their child. There is an appalling lack of research on 2- and 3-year old readers. Too often parents must sort through myths, misinformation, and bad advice from well-intended skeptics. Some parents even endure personal attacks! Skeptics often claim no definitive evidence or focus on the expense of technology-driven reading products or possible harmful effects. What’s remarkable is that when I go to the real experts—the parents who are successful—they almost always express joy in being their baby’s first reading teacher. That’s the case with today’s guest poster, Amanda Stanford, who followed her own instincts. Now look at what 2 ½-year-old Evie can do! It’s time for more parents like Amanda Stanford to speak out on this important topic.

Amanda Stanford is a mother doing graduate work in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh. Here's the remarkable story of the joys (for Amanda, Ryan, and Evie) and frustrations and misconceptions (from well-intended skeptics) surrounding teaching Evie to read. Her remarkable story reaches out across the globe from Japan, to Scotland, to America.

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Teach Your Baby to Read

By Amanda Stanford

When I was pregnant with Evie (who is now 2.5 years old) I was a first-year doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh.  I made the mistake of telling a professor of mine that I intended to teach my first child to read as a small baby.  “Why?” he asked me, horrified, “You’ll take her childhood away from her!” 

 “Just let her play,” said another American friend.  “She’ll be in school soon enough and miserable – why start earlier than you have to?  Let her have fun while she can.”

Meaning no disrespect to the professor, or friend, I thought, “What nonsense!” My fondest childhood memories are of reading the newspaper at age four with my father at the kitchen table, a rare occurrence with him as he travelled for long periods and I hardly saw him.  I remember hours at the library sitting beside a stack of books, reading with a flashlight under my bed, going on imaginary trips in the stories I read, making my own “books” and filling them with stories – it was all playing.  How could early reading take away my daughter’s childhood when it had so substantially enriched my own?  An ability to read quickly and easily (and early!) made school easy, and left me more time to play outdoors instead of inside doing pointless homework.  Early reading was perfectly normal for me.

Besides, I had already seen toddlers who could read.  I had taught them in a small school in Japan.  They were sweet, caring, intelligent, bilingual, and great lovers of books – at 3 years old.  I ignored the “conventional wisdom” that said I was wasting my time or worse – harming my daughter – because I believe in history and personal experience.  Our cultural history is rife with early readers; inventors, writers, and scientists who were taught to read well before the age of three.  Personal experience had given me a year of seeing small children learn to read.  I knew “conventional wisdom” was missing a vital link.

So I ignored the naysayers and prepared my materials to the specifications in Glenn Doman’s How To Teach Your Baby To Read (the methodology the small school in Japan also used) while my daughter was still in the womb, and was ready to be my child’s first reading teacher before I went to the hospital.

What I wasn’t prepared for was that she would be a “high needs” baby.  She was alert at birth, and inched her way up to me as we lay in the recovery room.  Her eyes were open and watching us the next day.  And the next day after that she cried, and cried, and cried, and cried.  After 6 days of this non-stop crying I took a chance and showed her the word cards I had made using Doman’s methods and you know what?  She finally stopped crying.  

From then on (at one week old, strapped in the sling) we took trips to art galleries and the local Edinburgh cathedrals, shopping malls and cafes, talking about everything going on around her.  And I showed her the word cards every day. A few months later we started showing her the Your Baby Can Read videos, using the fold-out picture/word cards and flap books to talk about what she was seeing on the screen.  She was riveted – and best of all, when we were showing her Doman words, the YBCR videos, going on trips to local cathedrals (her gawking at the stained glass) she wasn’t crying.  Our extremely fussy baby wasn’t fussy if we stimulated her brain visually, verbally, and constantly. 

The problem was that we started noticing that we were having conversations with other parents like this:

“How old is she?”

“Six months.”

“And she knows where her chin is?”

“Yes.”

“And her arm, legs, and hair?”

“Yes.”

“She actually understands you?”

Did Evie actually understand me?  Of course she did!  Some skeptics found her incredible level of comprehension abnormal. 

Evie could flip the pages of those big fabric books independently by 3.5 months old.  People who met her on the bus (public transportation is exceptionally good in Edinburgh) would see her using a fork properly to eat broccoli and pasta while she sat in her pram from 9 months of age. By the time Evie was walking at 11 months of age she could also follow instructions like, “Here, take this and throw it into the trash can in the kitchen, please.” She could read and point to corresponding body parts and do simple actions from seeing the word cards (without me prompting her) when she was one year old.

And still parents at playgroups would say things like, “Wow, it looks like she is actually reading that book.”

I would have to respond, “Well, she is reading that book!”

And the next thing they asked was, “How did you get her to do that?” and “Why?” which was so annoying that it made me stop going to playgroups.

 I was offended that they thought I was doing some magic hocus pocus on my infant; that I somehow “engineered” her intelligence.  What was most offensive to me, however, was the underlying insinuation that I somehow forced her to read.  I just followed Evie’s lead. She was eager to expand her knowledge, and I was in the unique position to know exactly how to do it.  I didn’t “get” her to do this.  I simply filled her sponge-like mind with facts and words and stories. We “talked” about everything we did. And most importantly, I made it fun.

At 2.5 Evie can now read her word cards aloud (which she calls “Word game, please!”) She knows (amongst other things) most of the instruments of an orchestra, wild and domestic animals, famous painters’ masterpieces, world landmarks, and major organs of the body.  She can hand you the picture of the flute when you ask for it in a pile of other pictures of objects, or hand you the flute in a pile of other pictures if you ask her for the wind instrument. 

All this, and yet once when she came to my office in the post-grad building, a skeptical post-grad colleague exclaimed to me, “But she can’t read!”

 “There she is,” I pointed, “reading.”

“Well, she can’t read like you or I read.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, she might recognize words, or the patterns letters make, she might even be able to say them, but she doesn’t understand those words.”

“Of course she does,” I exclaimed.

The academic sagely shook her head, “Don’t be offended, but I think you see more than what’s there.”

Gentry: Evie is not only a reader at 2 ½ years of age, she’s incredibly well-rounded. In the photos below you see Evie the artist; Evie the climber with Dad, Ryan; and Evie exploring her curiosity of the world she lives in.

 

 

Did Amanda Stanford really “see more than what’s there?” Key in to Amanda’s next post in a week or two and find out when I feature “Can Baby/Toddler Readers Really Comprehend” by Amanda Stanford.

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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