Any Baby Can Read?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009 at Tuesday, December 08, 2009
Recently, a friend from high school generously gave me the intro DVD for "Any Baby Can Read". I must confess that I am really excited to see what it is about. And she feels that it was beneficial. But the neuroscientist in me wonders if, well, any baby can, in fact, read? If I haven't already mentioned it, I highly, highly recommend "What's Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life", by Lise Eliot. Even if you aren't well versed in science jargon, this book is really easy, informative and well researched. The book gives a great overview of the stages of brain development of the visual, auditory, motor and language systems, just to name a few. And after reading this book, I realize that there are stages that babies learn, and there is really no way past those stages. For example, although there is an age range for babies to begin crawling, it is really based on how fast that portion of their motor system develops. Nothing you do can really make them crawl faster. So it is interesting that there is a program which claims it can teach a baby to read, well before most kidlets become "readers".

First let me start by explaining what "Any Baby Can Read" contends their product can do:
"A baby’s brain thrives on stimulation and develops at a phenomenal pace…nearly 90% during the first five years of life! The best and easiest time to learn a language is during the infant and toddler years, when the brain is creating thousands of synapses every second – allowing a child to learn both the written word and spoken word simultaneously, and with much more ease.

Dr. Titzer says the current practice of starting to teach reading skills in school is too late and children benefit greatly from getting a much earlier start since a child basically has only one natural window for learning language -- from about birth to about age four. During this period it is easier for a child to learn any type of language including spoken, receptive, foreign and written language. The earlier the child is taught to read the better they will read and the more likely they will enjoy it.

Studies prove that the earlier a child learns to read, the better they perform in school and later in life. Early readers have more self-esteem and are more likely to stay in school. Meanwhile, a national panel of reading specialists and educators determined that most of the nation’s reading problems could be eliminated if children began reading earlier."

Sounds good, eh? But let us take a look at these claims.

They are correct that when a baby is born, he/she has all of the neurons (cells in the central nervous system) in place, however, synapses (parts of the neuron that communicate to other neurons) are overproduced, called synaptogenesis. The reason for synaptogenesis is that experiences drive changes in the brain. An infants/toddlers brain is like a blank canvas (if you will) and is completely open to new experiences (words, colors, sounds, etc). As the infant/toddler experience their world, their language, their environment, the synapses that are not needed prune back. However, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that kids can learn language and reading simultaneoulsy just because synaptogenesis is occurring.

The next claim that "starting to teach reading skills in school is too late and children benefit greatly from getting a much earlier start since a child basically has only one natural window for learning language" really has no basis. It is true that there is a sensitive developmental window for language (not reading) development. If a child is deprived of language during this period, no matter what you do later, that child will never acquire language. But, reading is not like that. There is no "sensitive" window for reading. If there was, illiterate adults would not be able to learn to read, and they clearly can. I understand that they are saying that these kiddos learn best when they pair language and reading, but this argument really doesn't show that.

This claim really gets me going! They claim that "Studies prove that the earlier a child learns to read, the better they perform in school and later in life". Really? And where exactly are your citations for these studies? Most studies don't show findings so clear, cut and dry. There are a lot of variables to consider when it comes to reading and the effects on later school performance. Do these early readers come from smarter, better educated parents? Do they have a more stable, nurturing environment? Have they been read to from very early in infancy? Do their parents read frequently? Genetics? Environment? You get the picture.

In all honesty, I think what gets me a bit worked up about these products is they play into that natural, and ever-present voice we all have as parents. You know, the one that contanstanly makes you wonder if you are doing all that you can for your kidlet. We all want to have the brightest, smartest, etc. kids because that means they will go on to have productive lives and be contributors to society. And if "Any Baby Can Read" doesn't do what it claims, but at the end of the day encourages quality time spent between parent and child, then to me, that is what it is all about. But I think you can do that for free ;)

So all in all I will give it a try. And if Conner does well, that is great. But I also think that the claims they make are lacking scientific proof (at best) and conflates language acquisition with reading.

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