Accelerated early childhood education

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Accelerated early childhood education is an ad hoc description of a loose movement, and pedagogy, according to which infants and toddlers benefit greatly from systematic, "academic"-type learning far earlier than has normally been thought appropriate. While there is no generally accepted name for the movement, it has been in existence since at least the 1964 publication of Glenn Doman's How to Teach Your Baby to Read. Doman and those who followed in his footsteps are in no small part responsible for the proliferation of educational videos aimed at infants and toddlers, such as "Baby Einstein." In recent years, a program called Your Baby Can Read has received a great deal of attention. There has since been a backlash against the movement and these products, with critics, such as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, accusing suppliers of products as profiteering.

Can babies be taught to read?

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A good place to begin a discussion of accelerated early childhood education is with very early reading.

The notion that babies and small toddlers can be taught to read--after a fashion, at least--is often met with disbelief and astonishment. It is well-known that children as young as one year old can learn to say printed words out loud, without further stimulus than text alone. An example can be found in the YouTube video at right. In it, the child is presented with a number of pages with words written on them, such as "ball," "banana," "no," and with no other clues. The child apparently has no trouble saying the word written on the card. Dozens of similar videos on YouTube and other websites appear to show the same thing.[1] Note that this is a different sort of case from those in which gifted children simply "pick up" the ability to read, without any explicit instruction.[2] Rather, the child has been deliberately taught to memorize the words.

Early childhood development experts and educationists have known for a long time that it is indeed possible to teach tiny children to memorize and repeat words in this way, but most of such experts are not very impressed by this fact. Many of them deny that it is really reading.[3] The children are not getting meaning from text, they say. These children are, instead, merely "barking at print,"[4] or in other words, merely memorizing the overall shape of a word and associating it with the sound of the word. Still, it is very likely that many reading one-year-olds have a passable understanding of words like "dog" and "cat" that they can pronounce off the page. Indeed, children as early as nine months appear to show that they understand to some extent, by for example pointing to their heads when they see the word "head."[5]

Another common professional reaction to infant reading is to observe that the children are, after all, merely repeating words they have memorized, and they cannot really be said to be reading until they can sound out new words they have seen before. Merely memorizing a lot of words is like memorizing commonly-seen logos and street signs--it is amusing and heartening, but it is not really reading, one might say. Indeed, two of most commonly used early reading tools, Doman's book How to Teach Your Baby to Read and Robert Titzer's video series Your Baby Can Read (YBCR), do not recommend or use systematic phonics. (YBCR does include some elements of phonics.)

Titzer, who has a Ph.D. in Human Performance from Indiana University, claims in the Your Baby Can Read videos that children from three months to five years or so are in the prime period for language learning of all sorts--including written language--and they can much more easily pick up phonetic patterns from examples than can older children. On his view, simply by seeing how a wide enough variety of words are spelled, children naturally infer the common phonetic rules, such as the "silent e" rule.[6] This is similar to the common tenet of the "whole language" philosophy of education, according to which (older) children infer the phonetic rules "implicitly." Titzer and others, for example parents in the BrillKids.com community, say they have observed children learning phonics rules in this way, but such examples tend to be dismissed as anecdotal (or perhaps just ignored) by most experts. Anecdotal evidence aside, there is not yet any body of research that indicates that small children can or cannot learn phonics implicitly in this way.

Even if some sort of reading can be taught at a very early age, there are some experts who say we should not try. See below for more (forthcoming).

In sum, it is a startling fact, for many, that babies without any particularly high intellectual ability can be taught to pronounce words from writing. Whether this deserves to be called "reading" is a question that many experts dispute. In any event, by the age of 2 or 3, there are some toddlers, who started learning to "read" earlier, who could, for example, test at a first or second grade reading level in decoding text. Ability to decode text, however, should be distinguished from comprehending text, and comprehension abilities are generally lower than decoding ability.

How are babies taught to read?

How are babies taught to "read" in this way? There are an increasing number of "teach your baby to read" products available, and while there are many variations, they tend to involve showing the child the word, in very large print, followed by a picture of the thing that the word describes. For example, you show a child the word "dog," followed by a picture of a dog. If this is repeated often enough, the child learns the shape of the word and can repeat the word out loud (if she can pronounce the phonemes of the word).

[In progress...anyone is welcome to join in writing this.]

References

  1. See the results of this YouTube search.
  2. An example of the latter type of early reading can be seen in this video and this video, in which the baby girl of a pair of speech pathologists can be found to read never-before-seen words with amazing facility. Her parents did teach her to sign, which no doubt increased the girl's facility with other modes of language.
  3. See, for example, Jeff Rossen and Robert Powell, "Experts: ‘Your Baby Can Read’ claims overblown, experts say," NBC News/TODAY Show, November 1, 2010.
  4. "Barking at print" is the phrase used by whole language advocates to describe what children do who have learned how to sound out words phonetically, without knowing what they mean. But it is pressed into service here as well, even though the children are not usually sounding words out.
  5. This is what Robert Titzer shows his nine-month-old daughter Aleka doing at the start of his Your Baby Can Read videos.
  6. For example, while "rat" uses a short a sound, the "e" at the end of "rate" is silent but transforms the a sound long.