Study: Babies aren’t learning to read, despite parents’ beliefs

Can you teach a baby to read? It’s a mind-bending thought, like the idea of getting your cat to play the Moonlight Sonata on the piano. It’s also a notion that’s sold many instructional DVDs, books, and flashcards.

But a rigorous new experimental study – led by an expert in early childhood literacy – has found that seven months of training with a commercial baby reading program did not teach babies to read.

In fact, it didn’t even seem to teach babies important pre-literacy skills, like the ability to recognize if a book is upside-down.

And all this happened despite positive impressions that parents had of the results. In exit interviews, some parent participants told researchers they believed their babies were learning to read.

As lead author Susan Neuman says in a press release, “It’s clear that parents have great confidence in the impact of these products on their children. However, our study indicates this sentiment is misplaced.”

How did the study work? Neuman and her colleagues wanted to see what happens when you try to teach babies for many months using lots of instructional media: DVDs, picture flashcards, word flashcards, and picture books.

So they recruited the parents of 117 babies, aged 10-18 months, and randomly assigned half of them to use an instructional, multimedia “baby reading” product.

Parents were coached on the procedures, which included watching a DVD with the baby twice each day, pointing out words on the screen whenever possible, and spending an additional 45 minutes a day engaging the baby with word cards, picture cards, flip books, and word-related games.

The researchers checked up on parents twice a week to track compliance, and they measured the babies’ progress with monthly parent questionnaires and four laboratory visits. The parents’ reports were unavoidably subjective; the lab visits, much less so.

Since you can’t expect babies to read out loud–many babies were still learning to talk–researchers used an eye-tracking technique to figure out what babies knew.

For example, in one test they would show a baby two different words, like “cat” and “dog,” and then say to the baby, “Look at ‘cat’!”

If the baby looked longer at the correct word, that was interpreted as evidence that the baby recognized the word.

But babies in the training group showed no visual preference for either word, even when these words had been heavily featured in the reading program.

Nor did babies show evidence for having developed important pre-literacy skills, like an understanding of the sounds that letters make. Though babies were slightly more likely to look askance at pseudo-words containing “illegal” characters (e.g., “p#be”), they didn’t distinguish between regular writing and backwards (mirror) writing. As noted above, they didn’t even seem to recognize when books and words were presented upside-down.

Why the failures?

We might wonder if parents were inconsistent teachers, but the researchers found no link between a parent’s fidelity to the program and a baby’s outcome.

We might ask if babies were nervous or distracted during the lab tests. But babies were seated with their mothers and given breaks if they got fussy, and researchers controlled for things like the babies’ baseline tendencies to look right or left.

We might question the meaning of looking times, but it wasn’t merely that babies didn’t show a preference for one word or another. It was also that there were no differences between the “reading” babies and the control babies. Seven months of training seemed to have no impact on the way babies responded.

So the study authors are persuaded. “Although we cannot say with full assurance that infants at this age cannot learn printed words, we can confidently say that they did not learn printed words from a product of this nature.”

Parents, suggest the researchers, are better off investing time in adult-child conversation, reading books, and play. These are the activities “that have strong empirical support on children’s affect, cognitive development, early reading skills, and, in the long run, reading performance.”

Have you ever tried, or been tempted to try, an early literacy program?

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6 thoughts on “Study: Babies aren’t learning to read, despite parents’ beliefs”

  1. Well, I don’t know what product was used, but I can say with confidence that it worked for our family. 4 out of 4 kids were early readers. At the 10-18 month range, it’s all about input. Many families in the early learning community have amazing results that young, but others don’t see results until later, but when it happens, all the pieces fall into place. Those connections couldn’t be made without the pieces already being there. There can be no doubt that my 3-year-old is reading well into the 3rd grade level, and as a parent, I have no doubts that his reading skills began as we taught him from birth.

  2. The line “Why the failures?” about halfway through the article: was that a serious question?

    Why the FAILURES?? It’s hardly a failure if your kid can’t read by the age of eight months. For crying out loud, how about letting babies be babies, and they can just look at the pictures and drool on the pages, like that darling child in the picture at the top. They’ll learn to read in their own good time, which will probably be four or five years. (Three years if you’ve got an exceptionally clever one, or so I hear.)

  3. I think the “research” just wasn’t long enough to see results. My daughter learnt to read from 3 months old and at 14months (11months later) she showed me she could read now at 2.5yr old she is reading not just words or sentences but books. You just need to go into YouTube and see 100s of babies reading to really see the truth.

  4. That’s not “failures” in the sense of a value judgment. It’s “failures” in the sense of “researchers tried to see if they could get cats to play the piano but failed.”

  5. Jules, could it be that he knows “Mum” books versus “Dad” books? My son will happily fetch/recognize books if we mention their titles, even just looking at the spine but I assume that’s due to familiarity.

  6. I don’t believe for a minute that our kidlet can read, yet. He knows which books are Dutch and which books are English, though, and he is usually pretty good about giving me the English books and Dad the Dutch ones. And while I’m sure he’s just enjoying the pictures, there are few things more heartwarming than seeing him totally engrossed in his books, flipping the pages and warbling to himself.

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