Cultural shifts in society usually happen over decades. Then along comes new technology and everything changes overnight. That’s exactly what seems to be happening in the world of baby/toddler reading. Lap reading alone is “out,” and software-driven reading lessons are “in.”
Good parenting skills include instilling babies and toddlers with a life-long sense of curiosity and exploration. What about a life-long sense of curiosity and exploration of words and reading? Wouldn’t it be nice if more kids loved reading from the beginning? Many new parents who are pressed for time and who embrace technology themselves are welcoming babies and toddlers into a new world for experiencing words and language in addition to the tried and true comfortable world of lap reading.
I bumped head-on into the world of baby/toddler reading technology myself mostly after the publication of my book for parents and caregivers, Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write—From Baby to Age 7. (The book made me a “go to” person for baby/toddler reading products such as Your Baby Can Read, Little Reader, WatchKnow and others.) Now, only two years after the book’s publication, I get tons of questions from parents and caregivers about baby/toddler readers and new technology. Here are five most frequently asked questions with answers.
1) Can babies really read and is it natural?
Most parents and even some educators don’t understand that the young child’s brain is hard-wired for early reading, but advances in brain imaging are changing that misconception. Scientist Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the University of Washington Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, and her colleagues have shown images of white matter in the 9-month-old brain connecting areas used for talking, grammar, reading, and social interaction with areas for listening and understanding. Dr. Kuhl reports that the track that connects areas of the brain used for reading is present in infants before 12 months of age.1 The first stage in baby/toddler reading is learning to read words without knowledge of letters and sounds. Many toddlers can read by decoding new words by 2 or 3 years of age. Four-year olds can read chapter books. A change in the culture in schools is already needed to accommodate early readers.
Baby/toddler reading is as natural as language learning. These early readers aren’t just geniuses with special capacities; every child’s brain appears to be wired for early reading, just as it’s wired for learning language. The window of opportunity for acquiring languages is understood to be between 0 and 7, when virtually any language you put in front of a child can be acquired with great skill. In fact, babies and toddlers can learn languages better and more easily than adults. Beyond age 7, the language-learning skill diminishes. While a new language can be learned after age 7—just as one can learn to read later in life—it’s learned differently and not automatically or with the same ease of production. When a parent or caregiver stimulates the reading brain through social interaction, babies and toddlers who crack the reading code likely use special brain-based computational skills similar to the way they crack the speech code and build concepts and vocabulary.2
2) What’s wrong with learning to read in school?
Waiting until age 6 to learn to read presents problems, especially in America where 88% of poor readers in first grade will be poor readers in fourth grade.3 The root of the problem is that one third of the kids entering kindergarten aren’t ready for success with reading. They haven't reached a pivotal benchmark for beginning reading: They can’t write their names, clap out syllables, name some letters, recognize even a few words in print, or tell about a favorite book that has been read to them over and over.4 This year in America, 33% or about 1.5 million children entered kindergarten without these preschool skills. Why? Because nobody taught them. Sadly, many kindergarten and first grade teachers are not well prepared to teach beginning reading and in poor communities they often have too many students who come to them underprepared.
3) Why not just lap read?
Reading aloud and talking to preschoolers is fundamental, but lap reading or bedtime stories may not be sufficient to enable young children to pick up reading. Longitudinal results from a recent study show that drawing attention to print in explicit ways during book reading to preschoolers enhanced the child’s reading, comprehension, and spelling scores two years later.5 The point of the study was that during lap reading, the child’s attention had to be drawn to how words work.
So the lap reading question becomes “Where are your baby’s eyes looking?” It’s well established that children don’t learn to read by looking at the pictures or at Mommy’s or Daddy’s face during lap reading.6 Some of the new soft-ware driven reading tools use overt means to evoke the child’s visual and verbal attention to the printed word, making this important quality of first good teaching easy for parents because attention to word properties is built directly into word games. For example, the programs use subtle and informal introduction of letter-sound correspondence and left-to-right directionality of spelling. Parents make sure the child’s eyes are in the right spot for reading simply by pointing to a curser that tracks a word’s spelling from left to right on the computer screen in concert with vocal presentation of the word.
4) What about phonics?
Some software driven programs order word presentation and sequence easy-books so that the reader can “pick up” knowledge of phonics patterns. How toddlers do this is not well understood, but it likely involves capacities for pattern recognition and inductive learning. It does not involve the deductive memorization of phonics rules and applications associated with formal instruction. That’s much too hard for toddlers.
This ordered presentation helps kids learn chunks of letter-sound correspondence just as they inductively learn the rules of grammar when learning to speak in phrases and sentences. That is to say, they learn to apply phonics rules by experiencing printed language in use, rather than by having the rules explained or by consciously deducing the rules. Along with the word games, engaging illustrated little stories contrasting words and patterns such as pink pig, pig wig, two pigs, and two wigs enable kids to intuit letter-sound correspondences for letters such a p, w, the ending s sound, and the –ig and –ink chunk. By 2 or 3 years of age, many early readers astonish their parents as they begin to use pattern phonics to unlock words they have never seen.
5) Is it safe?
Teaching early reading requires intimate physical contact, such as snuggling with a book or cuddling with the baby or toddler at the computer. Perhaps the best thing about either lap reading or cuddling at the computer with word games is that the activities build positive parent-child social interactions and expand opportunity for the parent and the child to talk and have fun with books, concepts, and words. The big question is how is the baby/toddler responding? Is the child having fun while learning? If the technology makes it easy for parents to customize reading “lessons” and present them in a brief game-type format that a child enjoys, it’s safe. If your 2-year old can read the word grandpa on a cell phone ap along with a pic of grandpa waving, you have found your mojo as a reading teacher. If you are using the DVD as a baby sitter, it’s harmful. Babies don’t learn language or reading by watching TV alone, they are people persons.
2 Patricia Kuhl, “Cracking the Speech Code: Language and the Infant Brain” Pinkel Lecture, Institute for Research in Cognitive Science, University of Pennsylvania. April 16, 2010. For the full lecture go to http://www.ircs.upenn.edu/pinkel/lectures/kuhl/index.shtml.
3 Connie Juel, “Learning to Read and Write: A Longitudinal Study of 54 Children from First Through Fourth Grades.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 80 (4) 443–47. 1988.
4 J. Richard Gentry, Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach your Child to Read and Write—From Baby to Age 7. New York: Da Cappo Press, 2010.
6 Shayne B. Piasta, Laura M. Justice, Anita S. McGinty, & Joan N. Kaderavek, (2012). Increasing young children’s contact with print during shared reading: Longitudinal effects on literacy achievement. Child Development, 83(3), 810–820.
Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.