[All: here is my letter in support of Robert Titzer and Your Baby Can, in response to this scurrilous complaint by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.  I encourage you to send the FTC similar responses, citing your own personal experience and, if you have it, linking your videos of your child reading at an advanced level while still a preschooler. –Larry]

Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20580

Re: the April 12, 2011 complaint of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood about Your Baby Can, LLC, and Dr. Robert Titzer

April 15, 2011

To whom it may concern:

My name is Dr. Larry Sanger.  My Ph.D. is in Philosophy and I have been involved in developing reference and educational websites for most of the last 13 years.  I am co-founder of Wikipedia (feel free to Google me) and started, or helped start, Citizendium.org and WatchKnow.org, among others.  As of this writing, I am professionally engaged in designing a free, non-commercial website intended to teach children to read.  I am also in the process of starting an online survey of early reading, with a colleague who has a Ph.D. in Psychology.  My work is all free and currently supported by the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi (though I am located in central Ohio).

I am interested in issues about baby reading–as it is sometimes called–because my own son first started learning to read at age 22 months, partly with the help of Your Baby Can Read. Now, shortly before his fifth birthday, he can read and understand chapter books intended for children six years older than he is; for example, we recently were occasionally switching off reading The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles at bedtime (Scholastic’s Book Wizard puts it at grade level equivalent of 7.3).  I chalk up his advanced reading ability partly to our early experience with Dr. Titzer’s Your Baby Can Read. Since 2008 I have occasionally corresponded and talked to Dr. Titzer, and I have found him to be helpful and honest person.  I find the complaint against him and Your Baby Can to be scurrilous and without adequate basis.    Writing to you was my own idea; I did not consult with anyone, or ask anyone’s permission, before writing this.  I simply want to make sure justice is done on these issues.

While there is at least fifty years of research about precocious readers, meaning children who begin to read before entering kindergarten, there isn’t much of it all together,  there is a complete lack of peer-reviewed studies of extremely precocious readers, or children who begin to read under the age of three.  (On the lack of research, see a blog post at http://j.mp/gYbRq9 by Dr. Timothy Shanahan, chair of the National Early Reading Panel, answering a question that I submitted.)

To help remedy this deficit of information, I wrote and posted, free of charge, a 140-page essay titled How and Why I Taught My Toddler to Read (http://www.larrysanger.org/reading.html).  This was written with extensive input from a wide variety of people, from critical experts as well as people who design products for early readers.  My essay is, to the best of my knowledge, the most complete, careful, and unbiased discussion of the issues raised by baby reading methods and programs, of which Your Baby Can Read is one.  It includes a review of the literature about early readers.  As a trained and critical philosopher, I tried to approach issues in an open-minded but critical fashion, conceding points to those critical of baby reading methods when warranted, but also subjecting expert opinion to critical analysis, and in the end, rejecting some of it.  Anyway, if the FTC wishes to evaluate the general claim, “It is impossible to teach babies to read,” this essay may help.  The claim may seem obviously true, but in view of the actual experience of thousands of people, it is neither obvious nor true.

The complaint by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood rests mainly on one basic claim: that early reading methods like Your Baby Can Read cannot teach babies how to read.  If this claim is refuted, the complaint is entirely undermined.  Now, in deciding whether to pursue the case, the FTC indeed should evaluate this claim.  Several points might help you in this evaluation:

1. The most relevant question, one completely ignored in the CCFC’s complaint, is not whether babies can read in the most stringent sense as well as, say, first graders.  It is in fact a misleading canard to insist that children who have memorized words like “hi” and “elephant” at age 12 months cannot really read by stringent definitions of reading, which would include being able to sound out new words phonetically and understand and answer questions about whole stories.  That might be true, but it is unfair and uncharitable.  Children who have memorized many words by sight have made an important start on reading.  Accordingly, the far more relevant question is whether children can get an enormous head start by beginning to learn, with programs like Your  Baby Can Read, while they are babies.  The answer to that question is, unequivocally, yes. This was my experience, as well as the experience of many others: we have daily experience of our children benefitting from being able to read to themselves throughout their preschool years.  This experience is completely ignored and dismissed in the complaint.

2. Search YouTube for videos using searches such as “baby reading”, “toddler reading”, “preschooler reading”, “two-year-old reading”, “three-year-old reading”, etc.   If you watch enough of these, you can get an idea of how children who use programs like Your Baby Can Read progress.  My own boy’s progress is documented on video at http://www.larrysanger.org/reading.html .

3. As bizarre as it may sound if you have never encountered it, the phenomenon of children being taught to read as babies is, in fact, quite old.  Glenn Doman (How to Teach Your Baby to Read) was the first to make a movement out of it, back in the 1960s.

4. It appears that many people, including the CCFC, were unduly impressed by the TODAY Show expose about Your Baby Can Read. While no doubt well-intended, this expose was extremely biased, second-rate journalism.  My point-by-point response to the program is here: http://larrysanger.org/2010/12/today-show-reviews-ybcr/

The complaint cites various “experts.”  The fact is that genuine expert opinion about baby reading is hard to come by.  I have tried rather hard to find a critical expert who would declare that she, or he, has extensive experience with children who were taught words in babyhood.  I have not been able to turn up any.  In other words, it appears to me that the people who are called experts have no expertise in the specific phenomenon under examination–extremely precocious readers.  They are experts about the psychology of reading, childhood development, reading education, and so forth–but not on baby reading.

Dr. Titzer’s not irrelevant academic training, together with his extensive experience with children who have used Your Baby Can Read–children who for example phonetically sound out words even before their second birthday, or who are reading at a third grade level before their fourth birthday–arguably qualify him as one of the leading experts on the topic.  One has to wonder whether the so-called experts found by the TODAY Show have ever met a single one of such children.

Another actual expert, whom you may want to consult, is Dr. J. Richard Gentry, an education expert and author of Raising Confident Readers. In his regular Psychology Today blog, he has written two very relevant columns, which I commend to your attention:

  • “Are Commercial-Product Claims that Babies Can Read Overblown?” (December 5, 2010)  http://j.mp/hO4AUi (Gentry’s answer is yes.)
  • “Digital Media and the Future of Beginning Reading: Brilliant Babies–at the Computer–Reading Words!” (March 28, 2011) http://j.mp/fjL6hx

While I do not count myself an expert on the subject, I have done a great deal of writing, research, and thinking, and have personal experience with the subject.  I am available to the FTC as a witness or consultant in evaluating the CCFC’s complaint.  Without taking time to analyze the entire thing, suffice it to say that it is full of many common fallacies and mistakes, so much so that it lacks credibility–as I can explain in depth, if needed.

Finally and significantly, I would like to point out that Your Baby Can Read is the subject of several upcoming studies.  It would behoove the FTC to wait for the results of these studies before taking any action.  You can justify a neutral stance by reference to the sheer amount and quality of anecdotal evidence.