Conquering Fear of Technology Helps Parents Teach Babies and Toddlers to Read

Parents click a button and baby learns to read in a brave new world.

Posted Jul 01, 2011

Baby clap picture
Baby and toddler reading lessons with DVDs or any screen media should be happy social interactions–never passive or addictive. They always should be "hands-on," joint, fun media engagements between the parent and the child, allowing the child to both hear and see how words are made. To learn more about how parents are using new technology for reading lessons, I recently participated in interviews with 17 parents who are having success with baby-reading technology. Rather than fear technology they are using it sensibly. Here's what they report.

Many Parents Use Technology to Teach Reading

A typical description of what happens is that the excited toddler comes in and pats the chair next to the computer, or if she can talk she might exclaim, "Reading time! Reading time!" All the parents reported that their children enjoyed playing the word game at the computer, and some of them had success with reading DVDs. The parents I talked to assured me they stop if it gets boring, and of course, they didn't use it as a babysitter or play it in lengthy durations. Some of the parents said their children enjoyed reading words on the computer so much that sometimes their child didn't want to stop.

Some of the parents had read to their children since birth, but frankly, some of them didn't know where to start and were happy to have a product that included easy books and other tools to help them get started. All of them said that by now (several had been doing reading lessons for only 11 weeks), their child had favorite, easy, happy books and loved to cuddle up in the parent's lap or spread them on the carpet and read them over and over. The easy books reinforced the words on the computer game and vice versa.

The parents mentioned other technology. Their children generally loved to imitate their keyboard action on smart phones and delighted in the phone's responses. Some helped kids send grandmothers text messages. Many said the babies or toddlers liked the camera on the cell phone. "She giggles when she sees herself on Facebook," one mother reported. Another father said, "She takes to any digital gadget she sees me using and tries to use it too." Several expressed amazement at what very young children could actually do with digital gadgets.

Some parents who used computer reading instruction driven by soft-ware reported that their children loved the customization features. "My son loves the digital multisensory lessons, especially when it's customized with faces, voices, objects, and animals he's familiar with," one mom reported, adding that it was easy to customize on her software-driven reading product. In families with more than one child, parents sometimes made the reading game a family affair–3-year-olds joined in with 20-month-olds in some of the interactions. Customization allowed parents to add authentic voices and pictures to match word cards such as these couplets: Mom's hair, Dad's hair, Granddad's hair, Owen's hair, and Caylee's hair.

Most of the parents played the reading game for about 5 minutes once or twice a day. One dad used the remote clicker because his 9-month-old son tended to grab the screen or pound the buttons and preferred to play the game with Dad holding him. One parent started with a 4-month-old but decided to hold off for a while because the baby didn't seem interested. All parents liked the game's focus on playful interaction with words and pictures that highlight specific objects, concepts, patterns, meaning, and feelings in their baby/toddler's world–arts of the body, actions, colors, animals, family members. A few were on an online forum for parents who were teaching their very young children to read and enjoyed sharing free content with other parents.

Several of the dads seemed to love doing the multisensory flash game because it was an easy way for them to bond and have fun with their very young children. A couple of dads told me they sometimes feel they miss out on bonding experiences with children in the first year of life. One said, "Teaching reading is a fringe benefit–we just have fun playing the word game or reading with our books spread out on the carpet. Before we played the word game and I got into reading, I didn't know exactly what to do with her." All of the parents balanced reading with play and other activities.

A Multisensory Word-Lesson Description

Click. "Clap." The word clap appears in large blue manuscript on the screen. (It will appear in red next time and in a slightly different font.) A big voice booms from the computer clearly enunciating and emphasizing "clap." As the word is pronounced, a cursor sweeps beneath the word from left to right, attracting the child's attention and tracking eye movement from left to right. So far the child has experienced less than one second of screen time.

Click. An amusing photo of a happy, smiling, clapping toddler appears on the screen. The baby is delighted. Simultaneously, a distinctive toddler voice asks, "Can you clap your hands?" In repeat sessions the baby, who loves looking at pictures of other babies, seems elated each time a new engaging baby or toddler photo illustrates the meaning of clap with a new voice and message: "Put your hands together." Sometimes she can't wait to see the photo of a particular little boy. She's charmed by him and she cheeps with delight every time she sees his picture. The surprise of the engaging and recurring photos holds her attention.

Click. This time the "clap" word card and voice activation is illustrated by an animated cartoon-like figure of a little girl who is continuously clapping. To the baby or toddler, it's a game. The parents I interviewed expressed this repeatedly. (So far, they would have used about 5 seconds of screen time.)

Typical Mom: "See the little girl clap? You can clap too. Let's try it!" (The mom would guide her daughter in clapping just like the baby on the screen. The entire sequence would have taken less than 10 seconds. It involves a lot of parent interaction, physical contact, and action with the computer screen as a catalyst.

All of the parents I interviewed expressed satisfaction with the new baby/toddler reading technology and thought screen media were effective in helping to teach their child to read. One of the parents of a 9-month-old, who had only tried reading lessons for 11 weeks, said his son wasn't yet reading but he was learning new words. Other parents who had children in their 2s and 3s said their children moved from reading single words, to couplets, to phrases, to sentences, to easy books. Their children were definitely reading because they had learned to decode new words that the parents had never exposed them to.

Most of the parents I interviewed were busy, working-class parents who carved out only 5 or 10 minutes a day for word-reading lessons 5 days a week. All had two crucial messages for skeptics of baby/toddler reading technology:

1)      "The babies think it's a game; they love it!"

2)       "Teaching our baby to read has had a profound impact on our family."

Without exception the parents agreed that the one who benefited most was the parent. They were most excited about the bonding experience. They felt like super moms and super dads. Fathers who previously hadn't known how to bond with infants in activities of short duration loved the word games. "It gives me a quick way to play with him and enjoy something together," one father reported. "We both love it."

(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