Study: Educational Products Can’t Teach Babies To Read Earlier

by in Parenting


As parents, we want to give our children the best of everything in life. From the minute we find out we’re pregnant, we sit, headphones to our bellies, with the sounds of Mozart or Beethoven floating from the speakers in an attempt to give our babies a head-start in life. When they are born, we give them educational toys that will teach them their shapes, colors, numbers, the alphabet, zoo animals, and so much more. We sing to them, we laugh with them, and we read to them. So when we come across a product that tells us it will teach our babies to read, we won’t hesitate to pick it up. MyFox reports that a recent study suggests that these products are not all they are cracked up to be.

Study Educational Products Can't Teach Babies To Read Earlier

Frank Manis, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Southern California says that babies cannot read, explaining,

“Babies generally don’t understand narratives or stories until the age of 3 to 4, and they don’t acquire the skills to translate printed words into verbal words until the age of 4 or 5. This means that children don’t generally learn to read simple books on their own with adequate understanding until the age of 5 to 6 years at the earliest.”

But that hasn’t stopped the barrage of products being advertised, claiming that their product can teach children as young as three months old to read. For the new study that was published on March 6 in the Journal of Educational Psychology, the researchers randomly assigned 61 of 117 infants, ages 9 to 18 months old, to use the popular Your Baby Can Read program for seven months. The program employs various different methods to teach infants to learn how to read, including flashcards, word books and DVDs. The other 56 infants in the study did not use any program.

After seven months, the researchers followed up on the children, where no apparent differences were evident. According to the study’s words “Results indicated that babies did not learn to read using baby media, despite some parents displaying great confidence in the program’s effectiveness.” However, the makers of Your Baby Can Read say that babies can pick up reading skills through their “multi-sensory and interactive approach to teach receptive, expressive and written language skills simultaneously during the child’s window of opportunity for learning language.” The company that manufactures the product, called “Your Baby Can” had announced in 2012 that it was going out of business after complaints about the effectiveness of the program surfaced and an federal investigation was conducted. It appears though, that the product is still available for purchase.

In the study, researchers employed 14 different measurements that were designed to pick up on any early reading skills. Susan Neuman, chairwoman of the teaching and learning department at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development and lead author of the study said “We tried to be as generous as possible. We wanted to look at the full spectrum of reading abilities.” Neuman also made sure to express that the program showed no negative effects on the children who were using it.

Neuman suggests that parents who want to encourage learning in their little ones should “Talk, sing and read with them.” She also advocates playing games with your children, too, saying “There are some wonderful little learning games that are targeted to children’s development. You’ll see a lot of puzzle and shape games, stories told in lively ways to children that are highly engaging. Those things are fine.”

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About the Author

Jennifer is a stay-at-home mom who spends her days chasing around the never-ending ball of energy that is her son. By night you can find her at her computer, drafting up her next great blog post about parenting with chronic illnesses. She is also an avid photographer and jewelry artisan. She is the founder of the Fibromyalgia support website, www.fibro.me, where Fibromyalgia patients can go to gain support, learn how to advocate for themselves, and spread awareness of this still relatively unheard of condition.

Comments (2)

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  1. Krista says:

    The news of this study has been all over the Internet in the last week or so. As you mentioned, when we find out we are going to be parents we try to do all we can for our kids to succeed. While this study states that babies can’t read, that is simply not true. I myself have taught my own children and I know hundreds more that have taught their children to read as well. I don’t know why this evidence is ignored as all of these parents would be more than happy to offer proof and testimonials that it is possible. All of this is not taken into consideration. There were issues with the way they determined if the babies could read that would make it difficult to prove that the products were not effective. In the study the parents felt that their babies were learning. My point is, people can believe the study if they choose to, but having experienced this first hand and having a lot of friends that have done this as well, I have to disagree with the results of this study. Anyone that wants to know more cand check out the Brillkids forum. There are thousands of members, hundreds of videos and a endless number of posts of parents own experiences. There is also a Facebook Early Learning Group that people can check out to find out more. Your Baby Can Read is a very nice program to begin teaching babies to read. Little Reader is another great program and so is MonkiSee. Thanks for posting this and allowing me to add my two cents.

  2. Recently, your website featured an article about a new study using Your Baby Can Read! (YBCR). Some of the stories written about the study contain strong quotes such as: “These children do not have the developmental capacity to learn how to read,” said Susan Neuman, the study’s lead author. Parents in her own study disagreed with her and stated that their babies were reading. However, she dismissed their results by stating that “parents may have interpreted imitation and mimicking as an indicator of word learning.” Here, you will see that a more likely result is that the parents were correct that their babies were reading and the researchers’ tests were not accurate for measuring reading.

    More than a dozen studies show positive benefits for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers who use Your Baby Can Read. We encourage you to write a story that gives a more complete picture since in your original story, you did not contact Dr. Titzer, the infant researcher who developed the program that actually teaches babies to read. Teaching babies to read is a topic that is often misunderstood because of the assumptions some reporters had while writing one-sided articles. Please read the Truths and Myths about Teaching Babies to Read and the Scientific Rationale for Your Baby Can Read. If you are wondering why the topic is important, look at the Longitudinal Benefits of Early Reading. All of the studies on the topic are consistent – teaching children to read earlier has large long-term benefits. Considering that 66% of 4th graders in the US read below grade level, it is difficult to imagine that traditional reading specialists have the solution to the huge national reading crisis in the US.

    Why did the researchers and parents disagree in the study your paper featured?

    The researchers used a variety of tests to measure mostly “pre-reading” skills such as naming the letters of the alphabet, recognizing the baby’s name, identifying the sounds of individual letters, etc. that they knew were not covered by the program. On a test of reading, the researchers selected a word that was only in Volume 5 even though most of the babies had only watched the first 3 or 4 DVDs – meaning many babies had never seen the word or had only seen it a few times. Instead of simply asking the babies to point to the correct words, the researchers designed tests that required the YBCR group babies to look at a “target” word for most of the time while a novel stimulus was also present. Since infants generally look much longer at novel stimuli compared to familiar stimuli, the test was not a good measure of reading.

    On the other hand, the highly-educated parents (e.g., 78% of the moms and 75% of the dads had at least 4-year degrees) had six months to analyze whether or not their babies were reading after being randomly assigned to use the program. Three decades of research show that parents are experts at analyzing their infants’ language and cognitive abilities. The parents would have been likely to have noticed that when their babies saw words they either said them or acted them out prior to hearing the words being spoken. If parents were designing tests to determine their babies’ reading abilities, they would be far more likely to use words that they knew their babies had seen instead of testing them on words that they had not yet seen, the names of the letters of the alphabet, three-word phrases, or the other tests the researchers made up.

    These are the actual findings according to the data in the study:

    1) The babies in the Your Baby Can Read! group could read according to their parents who had numerous opportunities to test them on fair tests. Three decades of research show that parents are experts at determining their infants’ language and cognitive abilities.

    2) The babies in the Your Baby Can Read! group outperformed the babies in the control group on expressive vocabulary according to their parents.

    3) In all of the other tests, the researchers found a series of “null results” (no differences between the groups) – null results do not prove anything and they can occur for many reasons, including using insensitive tests that aren’t able to differentiate between groups. The researchers are ignoring the significant differences in their study that favored the Your Baby Can Read! group (that showed the babies learned to read and they learned vocabulary skills). Instead, they focus only on the null findings. Some of the probable causes for the null results are detailed below.

    The researchers’ tests were clearly biased against the YBCR group and/or flawed:

    • The researchers tested the babies primarily on “pre-reading skills” such as naming the letters of the alphabet. However, the YBCR program does not teach the names of the letters of the alphabet to babies because that is too abstract for babies who can’t yet read.

    • The researchers gave the wrong instructions to the parents. They told the parents to watch the DVDs less than half of the recommended viewing time listed in the Parents’ Guide and on the Viewing Schedule for months 2 and 3, for example.

    • Instead of asking the babies to read the words, touch or point to words, or act out the words, the researchers measured how long the babies looked at letters, words, toys with words on them, and/or very long strands of letters or symbols. The current study used mean looking time measures which were not appropriate and confounded their tests. In science, tests are confounded when an extraneous variable is added that interacts differently with the two groups. For example, ignoring the variable of novelty vs. familiarity in infant experiments is a major flaw since infants prefer novel stimuli. This variable — of being a novel or familiar stimulus – was introduced into the tests. Instead of only measuring if the babies would look at the “target” word or the “foil” word, the extra variable of novelty was added into the test only for the YBCR group, but not the control group (where both stimuli were novel since those babies had not used YBCR). This means that even if the babies from the YBCR group knew the “target” word, the natural inclination of infants is to look at novel stimuli which would make them wrong on the researcher’s tests.

    • The unusual looking-time measure was used for most of the tests. Generally, the study had two words – a “target word” and a “foil word” – placed in the infants’ views while the parent wore headphones and blinders. Anyone who has an infant or has conducted research with infants probably realizes that infants would likely look at and touch the headphones and blinders since these were likely very novel. The babies were asked to look at the “target word” and the amount of time babies spent looking at the words was calculated in the first five seconds. There were no differences between the groups for most of the measures. The authors interpreted this to mean that the babies didn’t know how to read the target words. However, infants prefer novel stimuli so the babies who had used YBCR were likely interested in looking at the novel stimulus more than the more familiar “target word.” Even if the babies correctly answered the questions by looking at the familiar target word, they also looked at the more novel “foil word” for about the same amount of time. The control group likely looked at the two words at a chance level. Infant researchers would have used the accepted habituation paradigm (1) in order to determine if differences existed between the groups, but the traditional reading specialists who conducted the study made up their own tests. The methodology that was used almost assured that there would be no statistical differences between the groups. This in no possible way means there were not actual differences between the groups as evidenced by the parental reports that found the YBCR group babies were reading and they learned vocabulary from the program. The tests were not properly designed to detect any differences and in many of the cases the tests were measuring material not in the program.

    • Babies were not tested primarily on the high-frequency words in the program. Instead, babies were actually tested on a word the authors stated was in the program, but they failed to mention that the babies had rarely, or most cases never, viewed the word. The word “face” is not in the first four Volumes of the DVDs, word cards, books, or sliding cards. The word “face” is only in Volume 5 of the DVDs and most of the parents had never used Volume 5 of the program at the time they were tested – yet the researchers selected “face” to test the babies. In spite of this, the babies just missed statistical significance at p = 0.064 on the “reading with meaning” test when the p level was set at 0.05. This was considered to be a very difficult test and the YBCR did better than the control group on this test. While only the YBCR babies correctly answered any of the “familiar” questions, they barely missed statistical significance. Remember, the researchers selected a word most of the YBCR babies had never seen as a “familiar cue.” If the researchers selected words all of the babies had consistently viewed, then it is likely the YBCR group would have done even better on this test.

    • The YBCR group looked longer at a string of symbols (which in this case was the “foil word”) than they looked at actual words. Most babies who used YBCR have not seen symbols such as #%^&* and they looked at them longer than the words. This could be interpreted as evidence that babies who had used YBCR actually figured out some patterns of written language very early in infancy. This is an important finding, but the authors are not infant researchers and they did not acknowledge its relevance. Infant researchers would have recognized that this was likely because the babies had learned a generalizable pattern of how words typically look from watching the DVDs and looking at words. I predicted that babies would be learning patterns of written language similar to this in the Parents’ Guide (see pages 22-23) that was included in the materials that Dr. Neuman and colleagues cited. Again, the researchers ignored their own data. The control group babies looked at novel strands of symbols and novel strands of letters about the same amount of time showing that they did not differentiate the symbols from words.

    • Another “test of reading” was to see if the babies could read their names. Obviously, we do not have the babies’ names in our DVDs, books, or word cards. Instead of asking babies to read their names, they confounded the test. If the baby’s name was “Nathan” the baby was told to “Get Nathan’s Car” when looking at two cars — neither of which was the child’s car. One car was labeled “Nathan” and the other car was given a different name with the same number of letters.

    • The new study reveals a bias toward the traditional approach to learning to read (e.g., learning the names of the letters first, followed by the sounds of the letters, etc.) by testing information that is thought to be important when older children are taught to read using a traditional approach. The lead author has edited several books on this traditional approach to teaching reading and she did not accept the data in her own study or other studies on babies reading that disagreed with her approach. This traditional approach is not working for 66% of 4th graders in the US who read below grade level according to a 2014 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (2).

    In summary, the parents in this study stated that their babies were reading after using Your Baby Can Read for six months. Parents also stated that their infants learned vocabulary by using YBCR. Decades of research show that parents are experts at knowing their own infants’ abilities. It is likely that the parents were selecting words that their babies had actually seen in the videos to determine if their babies were reading.

    The parents’ scores were highly reliable (in other words, their scores agreed with the researchers) in areas not related to reading. In spite of all of this, the highly-educated parents’ findings were dismissed by saying, “There was a belief among parents that their babies were learning to read and that their children had benefited from the program with their expressive vocabulary development.” The researchers go on to state that the highly- educated parents “may have interpreted imitation and mimicking as an indicator of word learning.” However, the parents had six months and many more opportunities to determine if their infants were reading and the parents likely measured babies on words they had actually seen instead of finding words in the program that the babies had never seen. Parents likely came up with fair tests to determine if their babies could read words instead of asking the baby to look at one word while a novel stimulus is also present and expecting their baby to stay focused only on the target word. In general parents are great at figuring out what their babies know.

    A dozen other studies on Your Baby Can Read! done by many different researchers all show positive effects for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers after using YBCR. In fact, the new study admits they couldn’t find any negative results and they reported positive effects (including reading and vocabulary) for the babies who used YBCR.

    To conduct an interview on this important topic, please contact Sharon Patterson at Sharon@InfantLearning.com or contact Dr. Titzer directly at 760 586-5237.

    Sincerely,

    Sharon Patterson

    1 The habituation paradigm is uses an accepted research methodology to determine if there are differences between groups. The methodology goes like this: a baby watches an event and the eye tracking device measures how long the baby is focused on the event, the same event occurs repeatedly and the infant’s mean looking time decreases until a baseline occurs (where the infant’s mean looking time is fairly constant). Once each individual baby has a baseline measure, then the researcher can show a new event, if the baby’s looking time increases significantly, then it is determined that the infant could perceive the difference from event 1 to event 2. In these cases variability in the baby’s looking time is actually controlled in the experiment because the baby doesn’t get to see a new event until a baseline is fairly constant. In the present study, two new stimuli appeared at once. In this study, the researchers somehow came up with 5 or 10 seconds and applied it to all of the tests regardless of how long it might take for the baby to answer the questions. For example, the YBCR group of babies could have looked at both stimuli, then looked at the correct answer (the target word). Next, the babies could have look at the novel stimulus (the foil word) for most of the remaining amount of time. If the infants explored by looking at the novel stimulus (which is what babies do) then they were counted wrong on the test.

    2 The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2014). Early Reading Proficiency in the United States. Baltimore, MD: Author. Retrieved from http://www.aecf.org.

    Join more than 32,000 YBCR Facebook Fans to read what parents are saying about the program:

    https://www.facebook.com/YourBabyCanRead

    Sharon Patterson
    INFANT LEARNING COMPANY
    1 865 379-5505

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