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Can Babies Learn to Read?

No doubt you’ve seen the products that claim to teach babies and toddlers to read.  Infomercials tout their benefits, such as “…giving your baby the IQ advantage.”


We’ve got DVD and flashcard kits, apps and even TV programs that propose that as parents we’ll be giving our little one a head start by teaching them to read.


Heck, I want what’s best for my children, as I’m sure you do too. And I know reading is vital so why wouldn’t I purchase these products?


Well they simply don’t work.  They’re a whole lot of bolony.


Are you a time-poor parent? Want to access this blog post as an audio-recording? Click here or below.





Recently the Federal Trade Commission in the US settled charges against the manufacturers of the popular product ‘Your Baby Can Read’. The company was shown to have made baseless claims about the effectiveness of their program and misrepresented the scientific studies that supported their assertions.


We’ve been duped!


The product designers and marketers play on parental fear. They know that as parents we’re eager to provide what’s best for our precious babies and toddlers.  (That’s why we spend way too much on prams and buy clothes that only fit for a couple of weeks… but hey, they were organic and cute.) And we’ve been falsely misled into believing, thanks to the marketing hype and claims, that we should be helping our little ones learn to read (by purchasing expensive and ineffective programs and products).


Well, let me share some great parenting advice I once heard from Pinky McKay, “Don’t let anyone should on you when it comes to parenting.” [Try it on for size: it’s great advice for new parents who get bombarded with lots of  ‘shoulds’.]


 You see, babies and toddlers can’t learn to read. It’s just not cognitively possible. It’s a whole lot of bolony!


Babies and toddlers don’t yet have the brain architecture that’s required to read. Sure, they might learn to parrot words and rote learn picture cards and letter shapes, but this isn’t real reading. Birds can learn to recite words.  Monkeys can be taught to recognise picture cues. Real reading is making meaning and understanding what’s being read.  It’s so much more than simply reciting words.


And to be perfectly frank, babies and toddlers don’t need to learn to read. There’s plenty of time for formal academic learning.  When it’s developmentally appropriate.  And learning words and letters is just not developmentally-appropriate for babies or toddlers. It’s not what their developing brains need.


So why shouldn’t I teach my baby to read with these programs and gadgets?


1. There’s an opportunity cost

When babies and toddlers are sitting watching a baby reading DVD (or using an app, or looking at flashcards), they’re not doing something else.  And that something else may have been so much more beneficial for their developing brain.


For example, they may have otherwise spent the time crawling on the floor, or babbling to mum or dad, or stacking blocks to form a tower. And we know, from the neuroscience research that these types of experiences are exactly what developing brains need. No fancy equipment required.


Remember, babies need laps not apps.


Laps Not apps


2. It’s not developmentally-appropriate

Neuroscience confirms that babies’ and toddlers’ brains are built from the bottom up.  Just like a house, a solid foundation is required before we can erect frames and walls and roofs. So for babies and toddlers it means that we have to get the basic brain circuits built first, before we build more complex circuits. And learning to read certainly requires complex brain circuits.


So babies are just not capable of learning to read. Instead, this time should be spent building the basic brain circuits (such as developing language skills, learning how to physically move their bodies  and building attachments and relationships with parents and carers).


Sitting in front of a TV or iPad memorizing letters and words, or reciting flash cards takes away from these essential experiences.


3. It’s the ‘hurried child’ phenomenon

Kathy Walker coined the term the “hurried child”.  She used it to describe the social phenomenon of inappropriate expectations for children.  It’s a term used to describe the phenomenon of pushing children along the developmental trajectory.


More and more often we’re seeing formal, academic learning being introduced at younger and younger ages.  It’s sometimes referred to as the ‘academic creep’.  We’re now seeing ABCs and 123s part of pre-school programs, where they were once skills and concepts addressed in Kindergarten.


If we start to teach babies and toddlers to read, where do we stop?  What’s the rush?  Early childhood is a unique period in our lifespan.  There really is no need, or rush to introduce reading. There’s plenty of time for that when it’s right.


But isn’t reading important?


Absolutely. There’s no denying that learning to read is an essential academic skill.


And reading to your baby and toddler is vital. In fact, reading to your baby, even your newborn baby is one of the best (and easiest) things that parents can do.  It exposes them to language and that’s exactly what their developing brains need.  Lots and lots of language and serve-and-return interactions with parents and/or carers.


This exposure to books and language develops the basic skills and concepts that will enable them to become a reader later on…when it is developmentally-appropriate.  On their own developmental schedule.


But there’s no need to rush the process.  To hurry it up. To speed up the process.  Nothing gained, but a frazzled child and a parent who feels the need to push, push, push. No one wins here.


My Grandma has a lovely saying and that is, “You can’t hurry a baked dinner.” And it’s so true, especially when it comes to teaching children how to read. (In fact, it’s a great analogy for just about anything to do with raising children.)


So save yourself money and time and don’t feel compelled to buy products and programs that claim to teach babies and toddlers to read.  It’s just not possible.


I’d love to hear in the comments below, have you felt pressured to buy products or programs that will help your little one learn?


I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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