Can a Baby Really Learn to Read?

Jeannie Randall
Mother and child with book

Babies' brains develop at a tremendous pace. While they are learning constantly in those early years, there are still things that generally a baby cannot do until he or she is developmentally ready. Reading is one such task. Many products claim to teach a baby to read, but can they really?

Products That Teach Baby to Read

The Internet is littered with articles claiming babies can learn to read when they are only a few months old! These product-supported blogs and sites make bold proclamations. However, have you ever wondered if these really work? What do the companies mean by 'teaching a baby to read?' Furthermore, how is it possible for a baby to learn to read when he cannot even talk yet? Closer examination of these companies helps explain their methodology and terms.

Intellectual Baby

Intellectual Baby is one such company that claims to teach babies to read. On their blog, the manufacturers claim that due to the rapidly developing brain, the child can effortlessly learn to read starting as early as three months. The manufacturers allude to research to support this, but do not provide a link to the research.

The company claims that by saying words as you present the words in flashcards very rapidly, babies will learn whole words. You then begin to pair the learned words together into couplets, then phrases. They do not give an estimated time as to how long it takes for babies to learn the words, but do say that you can start teaching at around three months.

Brillkids

Brillkids is another company that offers a "little reader" program claiming to teach babies how to read. While they do not give a starting age, their products are clearly geared towards babies that can sit unassisted. Their website includes parent testimonials praising the program and claims that babies "can, do and love to" learn how to read. They even provide video links showing children as young as 17 months reading. They do provide reference to research conducted in the 1970s. However, the research talks about 'early reading,' but they decline to define how young the subjects of the research were.

The Brillkids method relies on software and similar principles of introducing words and then phrases using those words and finally sentences.

Unreliable Allegations

There is very little research to suggest that young babies can learn to read. It seems that many products rely on the testimonials of other customers to 'prove' their claims. In fact, so misleading is the claim that babies read, the FTC charged the CEO of one company offering a reading success program geared towards babies, with false and deceptive advertising. The FTC cites that the company CEO and the product creator failed to provide competent, reliable scientific evidence that their product was effective. The company settled the lawsuit, is paying a large fine and altering their ad campaigns to remove unreliable claims.

Reading Research

It seems that there is quite a bit of research indicated that babies cannot learn to read.

Videos Hinder Learning

Researchers from University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University compared a group of babies who had been exposed for one month to an educational program designed to teach babies to learn, to a group that had not been exposed to the program. The researchers found no difference between the two groups and concluded that the use of such programs does not contribute to an infant's ability to read. They found the highest level of learning occurred when babies didn't watch videos at all, and just interacted with their parents.

Research on Exposure to Reading Instruction

The February 2014 edition of Journal of Educational Psychology published a study conducted at New York University to investigate if babies can be taught to read. Researchers studied 117 babies aged 10 to 18 months. The babies were divided into two groups. One group was exposed to a variety of lessons using different tools focused on teaching the babies to read. The other group was not involved in these lessons. The two groups were then assessed on their ability to recognize vocabulary, letter sounds and letter names. The researchers found no difference in the ability of the two groups. The head researcher, Susan Neuman, who is an early childhood and literacy education professor at NYU concludes that it is later in life before children are able to link concepts to symbolic representation, which is required for reading.

Experts Agree: Babies Cannot Read

NBC Today ran a segment in which ten developmental experts were asked their opinion about the ability of babies to learn to read. The experts all agreed that babies do not possess the cognitive development necessary to learn to read.

Reading Development

While you might not hear junior reading to you before he walks, kids do pass certain reading milestones as they grow older. According to KidsHealth, learning to read is a process with many developmental milestones. Before the age of two, you can expect that your child is interested in books, but not that he or she will read from them. It isn't until around age five that most children start learning to decode and read some words.

Normal Development

Watching a baby grow and develop is amazing. There are many developmental milestones during the first years of life. While each baby will develop at a slightly different rate, there are common themes that do present themselves. The ability to read during these first formative years is highly unlikely and not an expected milestone for this age group.

Can a Baby Really Learn to Read?