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Is There a "Baby Can Read" Witch Hunt?

When popular media jumps to the wrong conclusions.

This week the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood and NBC's Today Show presented what seems to be a biased smear campaign against a product called "Your Baby Can Read." While no one wants babies spending too much time in front of screen media, do we really want to tout anti-reading toddlerhood? Thousands of parents worldwide are having success wit baby/toddler reading products with as little as five minutes a day in joint media screen-reading engagements. They say babies and toddlers love reading the words on the screen. Babies delight in the muitimedia presentation of the word elephant with visual tracking, sound, and animation. Are the experts missing something? Four out of ten American 8-year-olds can't read proficiently, we should encourage children's first reading teachers--their parents--not scare them.

The Real Story: Babies Can Read!

NBC's Jeff Rossen's overzealous scare tactics and unfair rehash of a seriously flawed report he did in November 2010 is misleading parents and it is harmful for baby/toddler development and parent-child bonding. This week's investigative reporting on NBC, (see link below) flies in the face of the uplifting story that Ann Curry did in March 2008 showcasing a blissful 17-month-old reader named Elizabeth.

After baby Elizabeth reads two-syllable words such as happy and zipper , you'll see for yourself in the link below what happens: Curry goes on flashing words, none of which Elizabeth has been coached on, and the remarkable little girl reads them: Kang-a-roo. Flow-er. Nice to meet you. Take a bath. Good morning, Ann. An expert on the show says Elizabeth has special capacities but the fact is that all babies have special capacity for perceiving patterns and connecting symbols with meaning which can begin as early as 8 months of age. All babies have good recognition memory and novelty preference so they likely enjoy looking at pictures and word cards with their parents. Perceiving patterns and connecting symbols with meaning is what reading is all about. And yes, 2- to 3-year-olds, who are shown contrasting word patterns five minutes a day in a joint media engagement with their parents, can intuit phonics, according to the parents who are using this technology in addition to reading aloud and sharing books.

This is the real story: Babies and toddlers can read. There are thousands of toddlers who can show you how well they read, not just words but easy books and signs they haven't seen before. Just go to YouTube and do a search on baby reading. Beyond that, we have records of parents who have reported on successful baby/toddler reading that go back at least 100 years. Yet there is not one single research study on 2-year-old readers in the recent National Early Literacy Panel (NELP) report. My advice to the Today Show experts is to say "we don't know about baby/toddler reading" and go do the research.

Watchdogs and Snake-oil

In this week's NBC report, buoyed by a "deceptive marketing" complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against YBCR, Mr. Rossen brings in Ms. Susan Linn, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood who weighs in on "Your Baby Can Read" after her successful campaign against "Baby Einstein." Regarding YBCR the so-called protective "national watchdog" starts barking: "It's deceptive, and it's really harmful. Parents are shelling out all this money for something that is basically snakeoil. We were just so pleased that the TODAY show took this on." Then Mr. Rossen piles on gloating about the report he did last November: "Last year, an NBC News investigation that aired on TODAY found that child development experts from coast to coast were of the collective opinion that while young children can be made to recognize or memorize words, the brains of most infants and toddlers are just not developed enough to actually learn to read at the level the way the enticing television ads claim they can."

When I checked out the statements of each of these experts--all if them admittedly respected academics--I was shocked to find that none of them had expertise with baby and toddler readers or reported research on 2- and 3-year-old readers. How could they, there is no current research on 2-year-old readers. In my view, each of these researchers had stepped outside their own research base. They assume that babies and toddlers must learn to read like 6-year-olds who develop left-brain reading systems through formal instruction. They are wrong. Babies and toddlers likely begin as right brain readers who pick up reading as easily as they pick up three languages if all three languages are spoken by their caregivers between birth and age 3. (If one waits until age 6, it's not so easy for the child to pick up three languages simultaneously. The baby brain, not the 6-year-old brain, has special language and reading capacities.)

The Baby/Toddler Reading Campaign Witch Hunt: What's It Really About?

I wonder who really is behind this latest complaint. I have no current association with the product called "Your Baby Can Read" although early this year I did provide an expert opinion on their behalf in an advertising complaint filed against them by one of their competitors. Here's an interesting fact that I bumped up against as I prepared my report that outlined the authenticity of baby/toddler reading but contained no endorsement of any product. The competing company, LeapFrog, filed the advertising complaint against "Your Baby Can Read" claiming that baby reading was impossible. Yet LeapFrog was founded by Mike Wood who developed the company's major product because he was having difficulty teaching his 3-year-old to read and use phonics ! Due diligence made me wonder if the complaint was more about market share than about protecting babies.

Investigative reporting should always do due diligence in tracking down sources, uncovering hidden agendas, and seeking the truth. I'm not sure the NBC report meets the standard.

(Dr. Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write--from Baby to Age 7. Available on . Follow Dr. Gentry on Facebook and on Twitter .)

Raising Confident Readers

Baby got Books

TODAY'S Ann Curry Report

TODAY's Jeff Rossen Report