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Can you teach a baby to read?

'By approaching teaching a lesson with a new mind-set, teachers will find that they're able to create new spins on developing literacy.'

'By approaching teaching a lesson with a new mind-set, teachers will find that they're able to create new spins on developing literacy.'

Published Jan 2, 2013


London - John Wilkey was just four days old when his mother Dana set about teaching him how to read. The fact that newborns can’t focus on anything more than a few centimetres away – let alone understand words in any form – did not deter her.

Dana, 39, an events organiser in London, is so passionate in her view that it’s never too early to make your child brilliant, she used to run through a set of 10 flashcards with her son twice a day. “I would show John words like ‘milk’, give him my breast, and then show him the baby sign language for milk,” she says. “I did it morning and evening.”

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Baby sign language, for those not familiar with modern parenting, is something “tiger parents” like Dana are well versed in. It works on the theory that children want to communicate long before they develop speech and can be taught little hand signals to communicate their needs and thoughts.


When he was nine months, Dana says John – her only child – was pointing and using basic baby sign language to show he could recognise up to 20 words and phrases, including “I love you”, “nose”, “ear” and “arms-up”.

From there, Dana says his vocabulary grew at break-neck speed. A video of John at 20 months shows him sitting in his high-chair using a chubby finger to trace underneath the words “eyes”, “clap” and “book” from left to right.

Dana is one of a growing number of mothers convinced that getting children reading before they are potty-trained will help them get ahead in later life.

One of the trend’s most vocal supporters is Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, who boasts of using Powerpoint presentations to teach his son to read before he was two.

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The former philosophy professor posted videos of the child, who is now six, reading everything from engineering texts to the First Amendment of the American Constitution.

Sanger is so convinced that learning to read should not be left until school that he has launched a free website called Readingbear for parents worldwide to follow his example.

But sceptics are unimpressed and question whether Sanger’s child is really “reading” at all.

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Babies and toddlers, they suggest, may be taught to associate shapes on a page with certain sounds – but that doesn’t mean they understand or attach any meaning to them.

It’s generally accepted among teaching and paediatric professionals that most children don’t decode and understand new words before they are three or four, because reading involves such a multitude of complex skills, ranging from noticing the tiny differences between letters to translating them into sounds.

But the fact that baby sign language lessons are now huge in countries such as Britain means it is only a matter of time before the new milestone for pushy parents is a baby who can read, too.

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So is this competitive parenting gone too far? Or, given that early literacy training appears to give some children a headstart, should we welcome it?

According to one 10-year study, children who can read at five – no matter how well they understand the text – are still doing better at 16 regardless of their IQ. Researchers found the early confidence boost sets youngsters off on an upwards spiral which they want to maintain.

So is John, now three, way ahead of his contemporaries in the development stakes? Dana insists he is.

I decide to see for myself what he can do. As soon as I see John, it’s clear he is just as boisterous and full of energy as other little boys his age. No wonder his mother is nervous about whether he will “perform” for me or not.

He doesn’t seem overly bookish – and seems just as interested in his toy racing car. He also loves sport, his mother tells me.

After some coaxing and complaints that he’s tired, he settles on his mother’s knee – and agrees to read out some words she writes down. It takes him a second or two, but slowly he forms the sounds N-E-B-U-L-A. John, Dana assures me, is big on his planets. He knows a nebula is where stars are created. For his next trick, Dana picks some words at random that he does not already know.

She plumps for “empathy” which, after a lot of lisping, John also sounds out in sing-song fashion. Next, Dana brings over his current reading material – a picture book with three or four sentences per page – and although his diction is not clear, he whips through it without too much problem.

I ask if it’s possible he’s memorised it – but Dana tells me he only got it two days ago.

Dana, who says she is also teaching John meditation and scientific plant and animal classification – the subtle differences between spiders, insects and crustaceans, for example – says: “Of course, when he was a newborn, I knew he couldn’t see the words, but he could hear them and I knew it couldn’t do any harm.

“By eight or nine months he could start to sign them back to me, so I knew he could read. We kept adding flashcards and increasing his vocabulary. By giving John words to describe the world, it’s like giving him a framework to understand it, a tree of intellect that will grow from there. He can fill in the gaps.”

Dana, a self-made businesswoman, is in no doubt she has been the best possible parent by giving John skills that will put him in front. She says: “It’s survival of the fittest. I want him to get ahead of the pack.”

Soon it seems, many other babies will be encouraged by their parents to have read before they’re even out of nappies. YouTube is flooded with videos of tiny tots reading books and flashcards.

But does an unusually early ability to read really count for anything in the long-term? Could it even be a source of problems?

One adult, who was able to read as a two-year-old, argues that it can actually be a disadvantage.

Alex Curling, now 40, remembers how she used to amaze her mother’s friends by being able to read out any page of an encyclopaedia at the age of four, after teaching herself to read at two.

But although at school she continued to be strong in English – she can read a thick novel in two hours and takes up to 15 books on holiday with her – she describes herself as “distinctly average” in most other areas.

Looking back, mother-of-one Alex, 40, believes she may have been hyperlexic (a condition that is the opposite of dyslexia) in which children have a precocious ability to read without prior instruction. About two in every 10 000 children with “autism spectrum disorders” have hyperlexia.

Although Alex won the English prize at school and went on to become a local newspaper journalist before going to work for the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, she believes that reading young held her back socially.

“By the time I hit puberty, it took a concerted effort to fit in and make friends. I had to hide having such a large vocabulary because it set me apart. I would drop words casually into conversations that I thought were everyday parlance, and everyone would roll their eyes.”

She now has a son of her own, Oliver, three, who has not inherited her unusual talent – and Alex has no desire to push him.

“I don’t believe that reading early gave me any huge advantage in life and I’m a firm believer in letting children do things when they are ready,” she says.

Experts like parenting psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer are also fearful that if children concentrate on reading too early, other areas of development may suffer.

“It’s not a particularly remarkable feat to get young children to make links between letters and sounds,” says Gummer. “It all depends on whether they’re naturally interested in it and the positive reinforcement they receive.

“Learning to read is a great skill and opens up a child’s opportunities to learn almost anything else they want to.

“But proper literacy involves more than just reading – you also need comprehension and communication skills – ideally verbal and written. The big question for me is whether a comparable level of comprehension is developing at the same time.

“I get no indication from the videos of Larry Sanger’s son, for example, that the child understands what he is reading.

“Reading the words might prompt a question that will increase his understanding – but that isn’t the same as understanding what he’s actually reading.”

Gummer also fears that teaching tots to read could actually cause them stress or frustrate them at a time when they should be having fun and learning through play.

“Development tends to work best when it happens in an even balanced way – social, cognitive and physical skills reinforce each other.

“You see in the videos of Larry’s son that the child’s speech is not clear. His physical development – or mouth muscles – are significantly behind his reading skills.

“This may well lead to frustration in some children, who will not be able to communicate verbally as well as expected, given their reading ability.

“My approach would be to encourage children to take an interest in reading and books and let them manage the pace of reading development themselves. Pushing a reluctant child to read can put him or her off for good.”

Eminent psychologist Professor David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child and The Power of Play, is also worried that trying to teach children to read when they are very young neglects basic development – and when children are asked to learn tricky skills too early, and can’t cope, they get the message they are failures.

“Children are biological beings. They grow at certain rates. They need a certain time to grow and to develop these motor, visual and cognitive skills. Reading is a very complex task.

“Since ancient times, the age of six or seven has been known as the age of reason, the age when children can follow the rules and engage in formal education. The same holds true today.”

Elkind has suggested part of the reason parents are increasingly trying to teach their children to read so young is because work pressures mean they have less time with them.

Stressed by the competitive direction parenting is taking, they find it hard to sit and just “be” with their children. Instead they feel they should use the time they have to teach them.

Giving children reading lessons can also assuage the guilt some working parents feel about being away from their child – and provides visible evidence they are “successful parents”.

“Other parents are very competitive and they want their kids to do better than the other kids,” says Elkind. “So there are a number of motivations that go into it but none of it is supported by science.”

But Dana is unswayed. Instead of expecting too much too soon of children, she feels we are letting children down by setting our expectations too low.

“The more information we feed them during the critical first five years, the stronger their brain gets.

“It would be ridiculous for anyone to put me down for trying to educate my child.” – Daily Mail

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