Saturday, March 15, 2014

Teach your baby to read - Finally a scientifically based study

Philip Copitch, Ph.D.

Over the last few years, parents have asked me for my professional thoughts on teaching their baby to read. If you do not know what I am talking about, in a nutshell, there is a growing industry of products claiming they will help you teach your baby to read, usually starting at 3 months of age.
Good parenting
Part of being a parent, and especially a new parent, is dealing with that nagging sense, “Am I doing everything for my baby?” None of us want to be just ‘adequate’ at the daunting job of parenting, so it makes sense that we want our baby to have the best we can offer.
So, if you can teach your baby to read by age 9 months, why wait until age 5? In fact, if you wait until age 5, aren’t you really holding your baby back?
It is normal to fear
It is normal to fear making a mistake with our children. It is also normal to want to give our baby the best we can offer.
All this being true, is it appropriate for a product manufacturer to tell us that their product can do a wondrous thing, such as help us start our baby down the path to learning, without proof?
The teach your baby to read companies typically address this concern with “proof” through testimonials. They explain, “hundreds of parents say” or, “We get thank you emails every day” telling us that our flashcards and DVD’s change babies lives.
The testimonials are real, but are they proof that a product teaches a baby to read?
I am a true believer that the responsibility of proof for amazing products falls on the manufacturer to produce, and a testimonial is not proof. A testimonial is the opinion of a mom or a dad who has invested a great deal of time, effort, and love into the teaching project - a project they want to work. We can all be deluded into believing something, it is a common mistake. Just this morning, while I brushed my teeth, I was looking in the mirror and thought, “I’m not too fat…” Whatever that means.
Finally a scientific study
Susan B. Neuman, Professor of Early Childhood and Literacy Education at New York University, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and her colleagues, have conducted the first controlled study specifically looking at the effects of a best-selling baby media product on reading development.
The product is intended to be used with infants as young a 3 months old. One hundred and seventeen infants, ages 9 to 18 months, were randomly assigned to treatment (i.e. - did the reading program) and control groups (no reading program).
According to the study, Can Babies Learn to Read? A Randomized Trial of Baby Media, “Children in the treatment condition received the baby media product, which included DVDs, word and picture flashcards, and word books to be used daily over a 7-month period; children in the control condition, business as usual.”
The study was published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, Feb 24 , 2014, See the abstract
According to the study, “[by]examining a 4-phase developmental model of reading, we examined both precursor skills (such as letter name, letter sound knowledge, print awareness, and decoding) and conventional reading (vocabulary and comprehension) using a series of eye-tracking tasks and standardized measures.”
The study found
The study found that the babies did not learn to read. But, and this is a big but, some parents were happy with their baby’s reading skills and confident in the product’s benefit.
In conclusion
This is only one study and in science, replication of a study is important. However, if I wanted to sell a reading program I was sure was the best thing since the Gutenberg press was invented, I would go to three major universities and pay for rigorous science based studies of my product. After the researchers independently found out that I did indeed have a great product, I would email the scientific studies to parents, along with a 20 percent off discount coupon. Then I’d sit back and watch the money roll in knowing that I was helping babies learn to read.

In fact, I wonder why this isn’t the business model that companies use to sell, say… wrinkle reduction creams, weight loss wizardry, or free energy from unicorn tail hairs. If you can prove that your product is great, wouldn’t it be easier to sell it? And if you cannot prove the benefits of your product, it would seem you have to fall back onto testimonials and manipulative wordplay to sell your gadget.