The baby sees the word “hair” on a card or computer screen and points to her hair. When an infant seems to read words automatically on sight are they really comprehending or is it simple paired-associate learning like a parrot? Can 2-year-olds decode, comprehend, and make meaning from print? A young mother in Scotland shares her perspectives after skeptical colleagues asked the big question: “Can babies really learn to read?”

Can Babies Really Learn to Read?

By Amanda Stanford

“Word game, please!”

That’s what Evie exclaims when she wants to have fun reading scores of words from our word cards. We also do picture sorts—which she loves—identifying instruments of an orchestra, wild and domestic animals, famous painter’s masterpieces, world landmarks, and major organs of the body.

Too often my colleagues—especially in academia—are skeptical. Even when they see her reading they don’t think it’s really reading and comprehending. The conversation often goes something like this:

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

What does that mean?” I ask.

“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 respond, somewhat flabbergasted.

“Don’t be offended, but I think you see more than what’s there.”

Any observant parent who talks to their child will recognize whether children show an understanding of the meaning of words read from cards (or the computer screen) or comprehend a story during story reading. A parent can determine if the child is getting meaning from the printed word through observation and communication with the child.

Evie’s First Comprehension Lessons

Using the Doman method I made several books while Evie was only a few weeks old that illustrate short stories about Evie and our family, who live far away from us, using the same words in the reading program.  There are pictures of her grandparents, our family friends, and cousins.  Her first book, and long-time favorite, is simply called, “Evie’s Busy Day” and has sentences like, “Evie is smiling.  Evie is drinking.  Evie is crying,” in 3-inch high black letters with corresponding pictures of herself.  She grew out of the simple sentences quickly but was fascinated for a long time by the pictures, so I made a lot of them in the same vein.

In one of Evie’s early (and still treasured) little story books there is a picture of myself pregnant, standing in our bathroom.  The sentence reads, “Mommy is in the bathroom and Evie is inside Mommy.” We talk about the story.

“Mommy bathroom,” she says and points to my belly in the picture.  “Evie here.”

And then she sees a picture of herself at a table, eating dinner.  The sentence is, “I am learning to drink from a big girl cup.”

“What’s that?” she points to some small, peripheral object on the table.

“That’s your pacifier.  You don’t use it anymore because you’re a big girl.”

“Evie a big girl.  Mommy a big girl too.”

Babies and Toddlers Demonstrate Comprehension through Conversation

In addition to the 40-some little books I’ve made myself as well as the hundreds of picture books we’ve bought from second hand shops, Evie loves videos.  Luckily, Scholastic® has made many of our most beloved picture-book stories into short videos with wonderful, lively musical scores.  We will often talk about which instrument is being played and what’s going on in the story.

Our typical conversation during one of these video stories runs like this (remember, she is 2.5 years old):

“Watch baby Harold one time.  Mommy says no, no, watch it again, one time, please.”

I turn on Harold and the Purple Crayon where Harold draws the moon.

“The moon!”

“Yes, that is the moon.”

“When sun comes out, see Mommy, get out of bed.”

“Yes, when the moon goes away and the sun comes out, then you can get out of bed.”

“And go to café.  Scottish breakfast.”

(Which just reminded me of what happened recently.  We were having brunch at our neighborhood bistro and she took a big bite of her black pudding roll—a uniquely Scottish food—and saw the woman who owns the bistro peek out from behind the counter at her.  “Mmmm!” she called out to the woman, “Delicious!” It rang clear across the bistro and made poor Mary blush at the compliment.)

Will Early Reading Create Problems in School?

Sometimes I do worry about sending Evie to nursery (kindergarten in America). As a professional educator, I do not make such decisions casually.  In my research of the local schools, I have spoken to several in the Edinburgh area and encountered two distinct opinions:

1.    It’s okay if she’s reading in nursery.  She’ll grow out of it and become “normal” like everyone else once primary 5 rolls around (fifth grade in the American system).

2.    It’s okay if she’s reading in nursery.  We’ll see how emotionally mature she is and if she can handle it, we’ll move her up to Primary 1 (first grade, skip kindergarten.)

These attitudes seem to ignore the important issue:  A child who can read words such as animal, spider, knee, sitting, gorilla…” at 2.5 years old, among many other splendid things, won’t either “grow out of it” or best be supported by simply skipping grades.  Like all kids, parents and educators need to meet them where they are, follow their lead, and help them become who they can be. We need to support advanced kids and we need more of those kids.  And how do we get them?  One way is for parents to embrace the idea of becoming their child’s first reading teacher—never through force but in joyful literacy interactions.  And I believe we need to teach them when they are most receptive—as babies.

Early reading gives kids so many more options, and raises the bar for all kids.  Exposure to reading, using a systemized methodology, along with fun, organized and loving parent involvement is what raises that bar.  We need to reconsider our prejudices and remember our history.  Who taught our historical early readers to read?  Their parents.  Us.  To paraphrase Glenn Doman, “Who has more problems?  The kids who can read or those that can’t?” I encourage all parents to start teaching small babies and toddlers and realize that they not only want to learn but have amazing capacities—even for reading and comprehension.   

Evie is a sheer delight to everyone she knows—her laughter is infectious and her affection, concern, and love for other little people is moving.  People may not remember me very much—but they never forget Evie.  

Gentry: Find out how Evie got started as a reader in Amanda’s first guest post: Joys (and Frustrations) of Teaching Babies to Read

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.


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