Baby Brain Illustration

Or are too many child development experts from prestigious universities getting it wrong?

There is a controversy brewing over the definition of reading and whether babies and toddlers can learn to read. Driven by negative reaction to some of the commercial products that claim to teach babies and toddlers to read, print media and major news reports on television have recently quoted child development experts who state emphatically that "the baby's brain is not developed enough to read." WAIT A MINUTE! Sit back and take a deep breath. It may be a very good thing for a pre-school age child to learn to read words and phrases before age three and it may be a bad thing to equate this remarkable accomplishment with "the brain of a parrot." Show me a parrot that reads scores of flash cards with words and phrases through paired associate learning or operant conditioning! Reading word cards is not something trivial. When child development experts were asked if babies who pronounced the words or demonstrated actions to word cards such as "clap" or "arms up" were reading, many were emphatic: "No! The babies memorize cue cards. That's not reading." But automatic recognition of words, repetition, and memory are all aspects of proficient reading at any level. Joyful parent-child interaction helping the baby learn to read word cards is a good thing!

What Is Reading?

Part of the controversy surrounds the definition of "What is reading?" The truth is that the definition of reading is constantly changing and it depends on ones perspective. A neuroscientist may define reading differently than a child psychologist or a PhD in reading education. If we are making statements in the media to influence parents, perhaps our claims of having read all the research and figured it all out should be tempered. It may be a bad thing to say: "Your baby can't read" if that is interpreted by the parent to mean that literacy learning doesn't start at birth. Do child development experts really want parents to wait until six years of age when the frontal lobes have more fully developed? Parents are emailing me to ask if their reading baby is a "freak"-one parent's word-or just a "rare exception"-what I heard on TV. There seem to be a huge number of "rare-exceptions!"

Beginning Reading versus Mature Reading--The Great Debate

Two distinct types of reading with differences in brain functioning make defining reading complicated: beginning reading and automatic mature reading. One of the preeminent reading education scholars of our time made the distinction between beginning and mature reading in the conclusion of her 1967 landmark book, Learning to Read: The Great Debate. Dr. Jeanne Chall concluded that "beginning reading is essentially different from mature reading," but as she pointed out, they are both reading. Making this distinction is critical in any discussion of appropriate techniques or materials to use with readers or when educators, neuroscientists, or child psychologists investigate reading or communicate with parents.

What Does the Research Say?

Here's a sampling of what the research says:

  • Six-month-old babies are good at recognition.
  • Babies crave novel stimuli.
  • Eight-month-old babies can auditorily recognize specific words read from a story book for up to two weeks.
  • Five-month-old babies can remember visual stimuli up to two weeks. 
  • Recognition memory and novelty preference in two to eight month olds predicts intelligence measured by IQ tests in two to eight year olds! (See Eliot reference below.)

The prospect that research can prove that early recognition of word cards may help the baby build vocabulary, develop abstract reasoning, understand letter/sound correspondence, and read better during the preschool and the early elementary school years is very promising.

Bump the baby's brain up to eighteen months and research supports the existence of all kinds of reading compatible behavior: leaps forward in language, better focus, higher cognitive skills, and even symbolic thought. Research suggests that parents can hone their child's narrative skills with who, what when, where, and why questions by age three.

Changing the Debate: Formal versus Informal Instruction

Here's a caveat: Babies' brains are not ready for formal instruction. In her wonderful book, What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, neurobiologist Lise Eliot clarifies this issue:

It is not until about six years of age that the frontal lobes really kick into gear, when children can follow an adults' reasoning, use their memory in a deliberate fashion, begin to grasp abstract concepts, and have the self-control to sit still and really absorb what's being taught. This isn't to say that younger children can't learn to read, subtract, and recognize the planets.

Eliot goes on to recommend hands-on, developmentally appropriate, informal instruction that is fun for the child.

Babies and Toddlers Can Read!

Can babies and toddlers read? Yes they can. They can read words and phrases. They can interact with parents and have fun with all kinds of books, including alphabet books, rhyming books, picture books, pop-up books, sliding word cards, and even pencil and paper activity. They can "memory read" favorite books. Some can learn to sound out words before age three and read easy books with very few picture cues. What babies and toddlers can do with literacy and language is exceptional, and they aren't rare exceptions.


Raising Confident Readers

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

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