Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Your Baby Can Read – Part 3

It’s almost 3 years since I first did a review of 'Your Baby Can Read' (YBCR) (here) and two and a half years since my second post on acceleration and 'hot housing' children (here). On each occasion the posts have been motivated by questions from readers of the type ‘What do you think of YBCR?' ‘Is it a good thing to do?’ There is significant interest in programs of this type and over 100,000 people have read the two posts and almost 200 have commented. Some of the comments have been helpful, some quite outrageous. I have rejected 50+ that were anonymous and simply product testimonials or inflammatory in their criticism of YBCR program. How do I feel about the program 3 years on?

I never had a vested interest (even a general interest) in the product, because I saw little of significance in the program. To be honest, my views haven’t changed much, because there is simply no evidence to change my original position and advice given. The YBCR promotional material and various websites have claimed that there is extensive research evidence to support the program. Dr Titzer’s own web page suggests that “Dr. Titzer has become a recognizable expert in the area of infant learning and his work has been published in scientific journals - including the prestigious Psychological Review”. This statement lacks evidence. He does have a single publication in Psychological Review (1999), but it does not even deal with literacy and learning and is unrelated to his product. I am yet to see a single published study that offers evidence in support of the YBCR claims that allay my original concerns expressed in both previous posts.

Like readers of this blog I have seen some of the videos of very young children who have used YBCR reading at a very young age. I have also seen videos that show the same children reading more complex books at later ages. However, many parents of gifted (or even average) children could show you children who are very precocious readers with no formal instruction prior to school entry and yet, just 12-18 months later are reading quite complex novels 6+ years beyond their reading level. The videos are not research evidence and do not counteract my original concerns and warnings as well as a few new ones. The videos are only remarkable in that babies are reading words very early. What is still unclear is whether teaching children to read words in structured (‘school-like’) situations leads to long-term benefit, or if it in fact could have adverse consequences emotionally, socially and cognitively.

1. Does YBCR teach children to read? NO. But, can YBCR teach very young children to read single words by sight? YES. But is reading individual words by sight and memory ‘reading’? No! Certainly not in the fullest sense that I understand reading. Reading involves a search for meaning and understanding derived from written symbols using knowledge of language and the world. Effective readers ultimately need to: learn the sounds of language and their correspondence with print; understand the structure of language and how it works; learn how to use language appropriately for specific purposes; and learn to comprehend, interpret, use, appreciate and critique written texts. YBCR cannot achieve this. Of course, as some supporters of YBCR have commented on my previous posts, many users of YBCR adopt other practices in addition to the product that they purchase (e.g. reading to their children, stimulating their language etc). Research evidence on early reading would suggest that many of the ‘other things’ are probably the reason for the high performance of YBCR ‘graduates’, building on their intelligence and general giftedness, not the ability to ‘bark at print’ or even videos. While I am not suggesting that learning sight words has no value (it does, see some of my previous posts listed below), I am suggesting that children need much more to truly learn to read, and the things they need cost little.

Above: Browsing through 50cent books at an Opportunity Shop

2. What are the long-term positive and negative benefits of YBCR and other programs like it (e.g. does it lead to superior lifetime performance, or even high school)? We simply don’t know, because there is no longitudinal research that addresses this question for this program.

3. Is there evidence concerning the benefit of accelerating children’s learning through instruction? Yes, there is some but it is primarily based on the acceleration of older learners (over the age of 6 years) and it is equivocal. It is inappropriate simply to extrapolate from these studies to the acceleration of preschool children. Even based on the studies of older children, there is evidence to suggest that any academic gains for children who are accelerated are greatest in the early years of schooling with the bulk of benefit disappearing over time. It’s also worth noting that the leading nation in literacy over the last 10 years based on the OECD funded PISA assessment of 15 year old literacy levels in over 70 nations is Finland (recently Japan and Korea have joined them at the top), where doesn’t school starts until age 7 and there are only 9 years of compulsory schooling.

One of my over-riding concerns with approaches like YBCR is that children at a very young age are being placed under the pressure to learn material using repetitive and structured learning, not usually encountered until years later within the context of formal education. I have concerns about unintended effects of ‘hot-housing’ (i.e. intense study to stimulate a child's mind) by parents at home with limited training and knowledge of language development and learning.

David Elkind devoted a whole book to these concerns in the 1980s, ‘The Hurried Child’ (1981) in which he warned against the tendency for some parents to want to accelerate their children’s progress prematurely with little knowledge of what they were doing. Elkind stressed that children need time and appropriate learning strategies to develop normally. He also warned against the temptation to pressure children with simplified learning tasks at a very young age which inevitably end up relying on lower-level cognitive processes such as memorisation, repetition and simple word and sound recognition that could ultimately be at the expense of activities with greater richness and complexity.

4. In an age where time seems limited for family life and interaction with young children, is YBCR valuable use of this limited time? I don't think so. In introducing a program like “Your baby can read!” you are essentially devoting time to structured repetitive learning of a limited type that would probably replace other forms of learning (like play, firsthand experiences, story reading, craft, music etc). I'd encourage any parent in this time poor age who is considering using this program to ask themselves two simple questions: What other things would I stop doing while I use this program? What would be the impact of the loss of this other activity for my children?

5. Would I suggest that you introduce this program to children under the age of 4 years? No.

6. Would I use the program to supplement things like play, story reading, craft, and firsthand experiences for children less than 4 years of age? No.

7. Would I recommend the use of the program with children aged 4-6 years, particularly if they have a disability or learning difficulty? Maybe, if as a parent I wasn’t capable of doing basic sight word drill, because that’s mainly what the program offers.

Summing Up

This blog’s various posts should indicate that I am not against structuring children’s learning from a young age, nor do I see that there is only one way to teach reading. What I do question is the type of instruction that the program Your Baby Can Read (YBCR) at the very young age that it is recommended. The look-say word recognition methods used in YBCR are used in many preschools and schools from the age of 4 onwards, but to start using them before children can even walk is what I continue to question. The benefits of doing this are not clear and require formal research. As well, the potential harm from programs like YBCR to children has yet to be assessed. There are too many good things that you can do with children under the age of 1 year to spend time in formal instruction. This blog offers advice concerning the many benefits of stimulating early learning through language, first-hand experience, the arts, story, play and so on. I would encourage parents with children under four years to concentrate on these things.

Note: While I haven't commented on Glenn and Janet Doman's work, most of my comments about 'Your Baby Can Read' could also be made about the materials and adaptations based on their book (here). Here's one example (click here).

Related Posts

'Stimulating Children's Imaginations' HERE
'What Motivates Children?' HERE
'Stifling Creativity' HERE
'Emergent Comprehension for Children Under Five' HERE
'10 Pointers for Developing Writers' HERE
'Deliberate Play' HERE
'The Importance of Simple Play' HERE
'Firsthand Experience, Literacy & learning' HERE
'Nurturing Creativity in Children' HERE
'Brain Development in Babies & Toddlers' HERE
'The Dangers of Television for Young Children' HERE
'When Do Children Start Writing?' HERE
'Reading With Children' HERE
'Is Phonics all we Need?' HERE
'Basic Literacy Support' HERE


Emma Hartnell-Baker said...

Thanks Trevor yet again! Not sure if I posted my article on this blog for your site viewers interest- I wrote it regarding the program being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission.


Keep up the good work- its so important that parents (and teachers) are able to detach from the hype and mass advertising. Parents often just want what's best for their kids and think that these gimmicks (ie recognising words from their shapes) mean that those children are getting 'more' than their own. It's just not true. Any parents can help their child develop to their potential - but the academic achievement must surely be a by product and the process the real success story.

Emma Hartnell-Baker
Director- Read Australia™

sharon said...

I am so glad I read your blog. I am new to this and your insights and advice were very helpful.
learning disabilities children

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comment Emma. Yes, I have seen your post on YBCR. Nice to hear from you.

Thanks also Sharon, I'm glad you found the post helpful.

Best wishes,


Errin said...

Hi, I am a high school teacher who chose YBCR. I have no vested interested in its success. However, I decided to use it on my child when she was 18 months. She already had success with the Alphbet, but when she use YBCR is just to off like a jet-plane. I hope there is no side effect but she is incredibly smart beyound my imagination now that she is 3 years old. We just had a baby less than a week we want to start her earlier. Again I pray that there is no side effects. But waiting for kids to enter school is not very smart. Most kids don't perform well in schools anymore because the social aspect has truly become so hostile. Learning is not happening much in today's public schools. I am sorry to be the messenger of that bad news! But it is true. My advice is that all parents take your childs learning in your own hands and God speed.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Errin,
Thanks for your comment. I'm not sure where you're from but I'm surprised that you are so despondent about schools. I certainly know of many wonderful schools in Australia where I'd happily send my children and would be confident of the care and teaching they would receive. Schools are under enormous pressure and need our support. I'd encourage you to speak with your children's teachers and build a solid relationship with them. This will ultimately be in your children's best interests. It's good that you are involved in trying to support their learning at home. All the best. Trevor

Charles said...

We have used YBCR and Doman's methods with both of our children, one now 34 months and the other 14 months. We also used the Signing Time series for sign language.

Our 34 month old is now reading at about the first grade level, similar to the results acheived by Larry Sanger and reported in his blog. What is even more stunning is that our 14 month old can recognize 20-40 words. Despite not being able to speak many of the words, she uses distinctly different and appropriate signs for the words she is being show and she sqeals with delight when the cards are brought out.

I think it is fairly well established that children can learn to sign at an earlier age than they can speak. I wonder why it is so controversial that reading, which is just another form of visual symbolic communication, could not be deveoped as effortlessly as verbal communication at the same time.

I do not disagree with some of your comments regarding YBCR. It is certainly not a complete program that will lead to independant reading. It will help parents get started, but once the child has mastered the material in the program they will have to continue to spend a substantial amount of time helping their child develop their reading skills before the child is an independant reader.

That said, I think you do a disservice to parents in discouranging them from teaching their children to read early. It has been my experience that as the children learn to read the printed word, it also helps to reinforce and expand their spoken vocabulary.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Charles (or is it Larry?), thanks for your comment. When have I ever discouraged parents "..from teaching their children to read early"? Either in this post, or anywhere else on this blog? Have you read any other posts on this blog? Trevor

alexis said...

I would like to thank you for posting about this program! We were looking into purchasing YBCR for our daughter who is 22 months old! One of my main reasons for the interest in the program was due to her being born with a cleft palate. After her first repair, which she recently had, we wanted to find an additional way to help her associate more words with objects and sight! This blog has really given us a clear look into the program.

Birbal said...

Very interesting articles...I read all of them about this subject. I'm reasearching how can be possible for a child to learn how to read whitout any program or external help. I don't remember too much from my childhood but my parents told me that I learnt how to read, before I attended the primary school. So around age of 6 I was able to read and understand short stories for kids. But I can't understand how this can be possible...how I managed to learn such a complex thing? I'm very interested now to find any explanation that make sense. So if there anyone here who can help me with any idea I will be more than thankful.

Emma Hartnell-Baker said...

Erin- some children are lucky and do not/ will not have poor phonemic or phonological awareness. They can seem to read using any 'method'. However many are not so lucky.
The problem is that these children can often have great memories and learn the flash cards quickly. They are of course just doing that-memorising them. So this masks difficulties until they simply cant retain enough words to keep going- to actually read (and spelling becomes especially difficult)

The response many children get when they memorise these YBCR words (or any flashcards) is amazing- parents virtually jumping for joy- so the children want to do more- and the parents think YBCR must be 'working'. But it really is just a party trick. It isnt reading, and wont natually lead to reading (or spelling!)

You can teach your own child- and I agree you should take things into your own hands. But do this in ways that will meet the needs of your child regardless of learning styles, or if they are going to be at risk for reading difficulties. Reading to them, teaching them sight words will not help them overcome these difficulties. They MUST be taught about the alphabetic code.

Toddlers have a great capacity for learning and memorising new things. Of course they can learn to say a word when looking at a card with squiggles on it- especially when their parents are praising them and smiling at them. What child isn't motivated by that to a certain extent! We see thousands of 'testimonials' and videos on youtube apparently demonstrating that babies (who all look to be toddlers and older) can read. However they are not reading. They are saying a word when they look at a flash card. This is purely memory. They would learn to say a different word if we kept showing them the card and saying a different word!

Why is this not 'reading'? Think about what you do when reading an unfamiliar word- ie a word you haven't learnt before. What do you do?

Take this real word as as example...


If you have learnt the skills required to actually 'read' (and spell) words then you could 'read' it even if you havent learnt it by memory. How? You use your knowledge of our alphabetic code. You then start from the left and say the sounds as you recognise them, moving along the word. You would start with a 'n' sound as you would recognise that pn is the way we represent that sound (sound pic 'pn) and keep going.

The Your Baby Can Read program doesnt help children learn how to read. They have to memorise the whole word. So they arent being taught how to read the word 'house' for example by knowing the sounds in this word- ie h+ou+se ? They are having to memorise it- and do so according to the length and shape. If a picture of a house is nearby of course that also helps them. How could they possibly differentiate however, if given the word 'horse'? They wouldnt, because they are not looking at the parts of the word, as you did with the longer word given previously.

So let's stop confusing children and make sure we teach in ways that will work for every child. Dont take the risk that your child isnt going to have poor phonemic and phonological awareness. Teach as if they are, so you can prevent difficulties.

I actually start with this- I start with helping toddlers and pre-schoolers hear the sounds in our spoken words. How many, in what order etc. Hearing that 'fish' is spoken with 3 sounds f + i +sh even though of course we wont be starting with a digraph on paper. THEN I start introducing the concept that we can draw 'sound pics' to represent the spoken sounds. I dont use the word 'letters' as parents have a different idea of what 'letters' are for and use their names. These children become great 'spellers' as well as great readers- even before they start school. You can do that yourself- for free.

nanda said...

Thank you so much! All this sounds so crazy to me..it's good to find common sense.

Thanks again