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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Friday, August 29, 2014

No,Your Baby Can't Read-- She's Working on Baby Jobs

{My thanks to Barbara Reynolds for bringing this to my attention!}

The video series Your baby can read, by Robert Titzer, appeared some years ago and is still being sold on Amazon (where, to my incredulous amusement, it’s sold in the form of CDs, “as seen on TV”, presumably by non-reading adults). Titzer has claimed remarkable effects on early learning achieved by putting infants as young as three months in front of a screen. By nine months, these children were supposed to be able to read words--  a promise that led to many purchases by parents who thought they were doing the right thing, but a claim that had no evidence basis and indeed was contradicted by reliable information.

Fortunately, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (  (the same group  that fought “Baby Einstein”) went to work against the sale of Your baby can read, and now can celebrate success in getting rid of this material (and we’ll see how soon Amazon drops it--  I notice that they’re having a sale right now, a bit like the paint manufacturers selling off the lead-based paint years ago).
It’s difficult to fight fraudulent commercial claims in the United States, where commercial speech receives more legal protection than it does in many parts of the world. However, in 2011, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and its attorneys filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on the ground that Your baby can read was falsely marketed as educational for infants. In particular, CCFC stated that there was no evidence that the program teaches babies to read, or that there is a “window of opportunity” for learning to read that closes at age 5 years or earlier, or that babies exposed to the Titzer program do better than other children later in life. In 2012, a FTC decision and settlement prohibited advertising that claimed any educational benefits for the program, with a judgment of $185 million against the company. A final order for the settlement was entered in the U.S District Court for the Southern District of California last week.

What evidence would Titzer and his company have needed to present in order to argue that their claims were not fraudulent? Testimonials, of course, would not be sufficient, however enthusiastic they were. Organizations like the American Psychological Association define evidence-based treatments as those shown to be successful by specific types of research; an adequate number of infants would have to be assigned randomly to a group receiving the Your baby can read package, or to a comparison group that did not receive it, and the Your baby group would have to show statistically significant superiority over the other group on some measure. What’s more, an independent researcher would need to replicate the study and find similar results. Weaker types of research could be used to argue that the claims were not fraudulent, under some circumstances, but Titzer appears to have established neither strong nor weak evidence to support the claims he made.

One of Titzer’s most questionable claims was about a “window of opportunity” to learn to read quickly, which was said to close by about age 5--  at about the same time that most children begin the process of learning to read. It’s true that there are “windows of opportunity” in the form of critical or sensitive periods, during which certain aspects of development (e.g., binocular vision, learning of the sounds characteristic of a language, or attachment to a familiar caregiver) occur more readily than they would earlier or later in the individual’s life. But reading obviously does not have a window of opportunity in early life, or young children would learn to read very quickly simply as a result of being read to or hearing adults read signs or other material out loud. For some children, learning to read is not a genuine developmental possibility until about age 8, and adults who have not been schooled learn to read when given instruction, as we see from accounts of slavery in the U.S. and the motivation of adult slaves to learn this forbidden skill.  

 Why can’t babies read? There are a number of developmental steps that must be in place before reading can be learned. In languages like English where speech sounds (phonemes) are represented by letter shapes (graphemes), a new reader must understand that connection and then learn the associations between specific phonemes and graphemes. (And pity the poor reader of English, where several different phonemes may be represented by a grapheme, or various graphemes may work together or separately to represent a phoneme!) This connection cannot possibly happen before the baby has learned, in the second half of the first year, to realize that only the phonemes of its family’s language are part of speech, and that all other “mouth noises” that humans can make should be ignored while trying to understand speech--  that when people say “uh, mmm” or cough, those sounds don’t carry the meanings that speech has. A baby who has not yet learned about phonemes can’t connect speech sounds with graphemes.

Although babies can learn to recognize shapes, there are some shape features of graphemes like those in our Roman alphabet that will elude them for years to come. Even at kindergarten age, many children cannot yet recognize that the orientation of a shape makes the difference between “b” and “d”, or “p” and “b”, or between “g” and “q” in some type faces. They do not “see letters backward” but have not reached the developmental milestone of paying attention to right-left or up-down differences.

So, babies can’t learn to read, no matter what methods we might try. And they already are busy with their own baby tasks which must come before speaking and certainly before reading. Those tasks are ones that babies do not learn from a screen, but do master as a result of looking at and listening to smiling, playful, talking, singing caregivers, adults who delight in the babies’ joyful responses to social fun. You can’t package the experiences that help babies develop skills that will help them learn to read with pleasure, when the time for reading comes.  

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