Revolutionary Machine Reveals Baby Geniuses

New science provides evidence of children being born to learn.

Posted Oct 11, 2011

Baby Brain Scan

A baby's brain is born with 100 billion neurons ready for the kind of stimulation that can lay down foundational language and beginning-reading brain circuitry. The new brain-scanning technology shows images of nine-month-olds creating what may prove to be foundational brain architecture for reading–synapses and growth of white matter in neural tracks connecting areas for talking, grammar, reading, and social interaction with areas for listening and understanding. When you see babies reading words before they can speak them, you are seeing baby genius at work firing neurons together that create ideas. When you talk and read to your baby, you are growing their white matter!

A Machine for a New Age of Baby/Toddler Reading

I'm eager to learn what specific parts of a baby's or toddler's brain lights up when he or she reads words. The new machine, recently featured on NBC's "Education Nation" (see link at end of post) by Dr. Patricia Kuhl, codirector of the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, uses technology called magnetoencephalography (MEG). It looks like a giant hair dryer, and the baby sits under it comfortably as the machine measures not only the surface but deep functioning in the brain, according to Dr. Kuhl. It's truly remarkable.

What will happen when this machine images word reading? My hypothesis is that the machine will record the first images of the baby or toddler laying down brain circuitry for beginning reading. I have argued that reading emerges in phases over time in joyful, social interactions with the parent or caregiver acting as baby's first reading teacher. With this machine, it seems early transactions between the reader's knowledge of the world and the print on the page may be measurable as early as nine months of age as the baby reads the word clap and completes the action. This is baby genius at work.

Is Reading a Word Really Reading?

Some experts argue that word reading by babies and toddlers isn't really reading. That's like saying that speaking the first word isn't really talking. I contend that word reading is a very important aspect of beginning reading that emerges over time and happens in phases. Accomplishing the first phase builds crucial reading circuitry. Word reading in babies or toddlers reveals that the baby/toddler has a concept of symbolic word representation along with knowledge that marks such as the ones you see here in italics–nose–have meaning. When the baby/toddler uses actions to show that he recognizes the words eyes, clap, or arms up, he is engaging in the process of constructing meaning from written words–and that's what reading is. The baby takes information from text and acts upon knowledge in his or her brain to produce meaning, demonstrating the interface of his current knowledge of the world and the symbols on the page.

Can Babies and Toddlers Decode?

But what about decoding? In the baby/toddler genius brain, implicit knowledge of /c/ + /a/ + /t/ = cat, and /j/ + /ack/ = Jack, seems to emerge just as implicit knowledge of grammar emerges in the baby-genius speaker. And just as knowledge of how to handle the complexities of two languages emerges in toddlers, demonstrating remarkable capacities of dual-language mastery by age three.

As for word reading, legions of two- and three-year-olds can decode and read novel words. These everyday toddlers stun their parents when they read the "for rent" sign that just popped up in the neighborhood, or ask Mom what "March of Dimes" means on the sign in the pediatrician's office–words that Mom or Dad did not expose the child to. This evidence of picking up phonics without formal instruction, along with ability to read novel words at two and three years of age, cannot simply be explained away positing that these early readers are precocious outliers exhibiting unaccounted-for phenomena. There are simply too many of them. Now with MEG, I hope scientists bring these babies and toddlers in, put that little cap on their head, and see what's happening in there. The time for bio-marker confirmation of baby/toddler reading is now.

What Are Word Readers Demonstrating?

In addition to demonstrating knowledge they have acquired about their world, babies and toddlers who read words reveal powerful social-emotional connections to reading when they construct the meaning of nose and revel in their parents' delight as they communicate to Mom or Dad that they have comprehended the word by pointing. Skeptics who pooh-pooh baby/toddler reading, equating this genius to simple memorization or parroting, often advocate waiting until the six-year-old brain is ready for formal reading instruction. They might be reminded that even for the six-year-old nonreader, memorizing images of words and automatic word reading is an important aspect of formal reading instruction in school. It is often promoted by using what teachers call "word walls"–postings where nonreaders learn to read two to five high-frequency words automatically each week. In other words, whether you teach babies informally in word games or six-year-olds formally using word walls, automatic word reading is an important aspect of beginning to read.

What About Baby/Toddler Reading and Its Tie to the Future?

Do children who learned to read before age five do better later on? It's logical to think that they will. Children who learn to read in preschool will not be in the cohort of 4 out of 10 third graders who can't read proficiently. Early reading may also help children overcome reading disability. Yet prominent developmental specialists report that they haven't seen the studies proving long-term gains. I say now that we have magnetoencephalography, do the studies. The National Early Literacy Panel (NELP) found over 8,000 peer-reviewed articles and used about 500 of them in its meta-analysis in search of indicators for early literacy. Virtually no studies of two- and three-year-old readers were included. Some experts have gone to that report to make derogatory comments about baby/toddler reading. Important as that study may be, it has no relevance to baby/toddler reading because two- and three-year-old readers weren't included in the analysis.

Do we wait for the science, or do we give parents something parents want and need, perhaps before they know it or before we prove it has long-term effects? I recommend not waiting 12 years to test whether some of the new baby/toddler reading products are useful. As long as they are not being used as mechanical babysitters, let's embrace their possibilities. New life-changing tools for baby/toddler reading shouldn't be held back for the completion of longitudinal studies.

Will Baby/Toddler Reading Help Us Reinvent Our Schools?

During the Great Depression America reinvented public education and made a high school education universal. It was revolutionary and helped propel the United States of America to its greatness today. We became one of the best educated nations on earth. Now we are falling behind in the education of our citizens once again. We are not investing in human capital. The new frontier is baby/toddler reading–a frontier that will substantively help eliminate the achievement gap and insure that every child in America begins school ready for success. What's needed for America's successful educational future is easy to accomplish and fiscally sound: investment in preschoolers. Reinvestment in children with universal preschool education and use of new technologies, including software-driven reading programs that can help parents be successful as their baby/toddler's first reading teacher, can change America this century as much as universal public high school did in the last.

Dr. Kuhl, the spokesperson for the unveiling of the magnetoencephalography machine, gets it: Taking advantage of the importance of learning during a critical period of brain development in preschool-age children will have huge implications for later success in school. According to Dr. Kuhl, "If the United States is serious about the commitment of making transformational change in the K-12 educational system, we will have to take seriously the images you see today, because it shows you what happens before children get to school."

In my own books and previous posts, I have championed this game-changing aspect of education reform in American schools: Take advantage of an early window of opportunity for learning in preschool children–and this includes baby/toddler reading. Dr. Kuhl's compelling video from the recent Education Nation broadcast provides convincing scientific proof that this early window of opportunity does exist and that babies are geniuses.

Building Baby Brains and Relationships through Invention

The MEG is not the only new invention changing the world of baby reading. Visualize babies playing word-reading games with their parents at the computer for 5 or 10 minutes a day. There's no force or stress. It's a word game that complements reading aloud. Last July I met with eleven parents who were successfully using a new software-driven learning program that complements traditional reading materials, packaged in a toolkit that makes it easy for parents to turn informal game-like reading lessons into cuddly moments for socializing and communicating with babies and toddlers. The results were amazing. Babies were learning to read words. Toddlers moved to sentences and delightful age-appropriate stories.

But what amazed me most were the parents' reports on how these simple interactions that used a computer along with parent interaction and physical contact were building relationships. Bonding studies show that parents who talk often and communicate with their children not only change the child's brain, they change their own. They love their children more. There may be no better way to build these relationships than sharing literacy interactions that guide babies and toddlers in learning to love and enjoy reading.

Babies are geniuses. Bring on the baby-genius brain building machines.

To see Dr. Kuhl's riveting 20-minute segment from NBC's "Education Nation," click on the picture of the infant brain below.

For additional information, read "The First 2000 Days Are Critical" by Irene Sege:

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