My response to the CFCC's FTC complaint about YBCR

[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.


Update on WatchKnow Reader progress (April)

We are hip-deep in the initial building phase of the project.  We've got a demo going (nothing suitable for public consumption yet though) and made a lot of adjustments to the plan.  The whole plan of making an elaborate, complete demo turned out to be well justified; basically, it has turned out to be very important to make one "perfect" presentation before making the code that will allow me to replicate this forty times over.

So here's the deal.  There will be at least eight slides per "cluster":

  1. The word, written large (in various fonts), sounded out very slowly, and displayed karaoke style (in various colors).
  2. Sounded out faster.
  3. Blended, but slowly.
  4. Blended at normal speed.
  5. A high-quality, illustrative photograph (with the blended word as voiceover).
  6. A sentence including the word, which usually either defines the word or gives some basic fact about it.  Again, displayed karaoke style.
  7. A brief video (with the sentence as voiceover).
  8. Just the word, blended at normal speed again.

For each set of words and media, there will in fact be seven different presentations, based on selections of these slides: Sound It Out Slowly (which shows all the slides); Sound It Out Quickly (which shows the quick sound-out and then the word); Let Me Sound It Out; and then Audio Flashcards, Silent Flashcards (the words are not read to the user), Audio Sentences (illustrative sentences only, no words), and Silent Sentences.

I had something of a brainstorm a little while ago, which has meant a whole bunch of rethinking of stuff: if we're going to have videos of someone reading the words, why not show the videos on the same slide that the word occurs?  And why not make the audio track of the video the voiceover for the word?  Well, we've tried it out, and it works great. I think it's going to be especially great for babies and toddlers, who learn much more when they can see a face saying the word, with lips moving.

Another feature I'm adding is, for some words, multimedia dictionary entries: when you click on some words in the sentence slides, the sounding-out will be done on a pop-up, which will include the other content from a cluster (illustrative picture, sentence/definition, and maybe video).  It will be written so that, even if I have no visual media, I'll still be able to produce short, kid-friendly definitions.  H. loves clicking on words in our ebook reader programs, to look them up in the dictionary; I think making a kid-friendly version of that feature, with pix, is just what is needed to teach vocabulary.  We're also adding various handy options.

We've already done a lot of work, but we have a huge amount of work in front of us.  Once a single cluster is finally settled & debugged, we need to make it into a whole, perfect presentation.  And to do that, well, we have to write an authoring tool.  I have been working on requirements for that during the last couple of days.

Sometimes friends and family ask me why all this time and expense is necessary--why not use PowerPoint?  There are a couple reasons.  First, of course, not everyone has PowerPoint.  But the main reason is that we have to start from scratch if we want to have the main features, the "killer" features, that will make Reader potentially the best system  for teaching reading online: sounding out words while displaying letters (or groups of letters) individually, integrating that with video, including pronunciations and dictionary, and quickly and easily making new presentations that are all interlinked wiki-style.  In the end this will be basically an authoring platform for making a children's multimedia encyclopedia--something I've wanted to make since I was working on Wikipedia.  We're starting with a reading tutorial, but when we're done with it, I'll be able to jump pretty seamlessly into putting my old powerpoint presentations (like this one) on this platform, interlink them, spruce them up with dictionary definitions, add automatic quizzes...it should be pretty cool.


Chapter books H. and I read

Here is our list (by request), recently updated.  This includes only chapter books and a few others, excluding picture books, most science books, and little-kid storybooks, regardless how thick.  I also didn't include books (except two?) that we didn't finish.  We started and made excellent progress on quite a few more, but for different reasons gave up.

The numbers after the titles is the reading grade level according to the Scholastic Book Wizard.

I divided the list into originals and adaptations.

Amery, Heather.  Greek Myths for Young Children. 4.4

Atwater, Richard. Mr. Popper's Penguins. 4.9

Baum, L. Frank.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. 5.9-  Liked it very well.  Read it in something like a week—read a lot each day, every day.  Not really so difficult, easier than 5.9 indicates.

Brown, Dottie.  Ohio. Hello, USA.  H. liked it, we were on a geography kick.

Bulla, Clyde Robert.  A Lion to Guard Us. 3.9+ This turned out to be a pretty good book, not maybe a classic for the ages, but it made an impression and was useful for a window into one of the stories of history.  Historical fiction for kids.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. 5.9.  The original, Chronicle Books edition.  We’ve read this twice, once through a slightly abridged version of the original and once through the unabridged original.  We also listened to the original and Through the Looking Glass completely.

Collodi, Carlo. Adventures of Pinocchio. 4.2  Read twice—one of H’s absolute favorites.  Read while he was three, the language is pretty advanced and I had to explain quite a bit, but he didn’t mind.

Dahl, Roald. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. 5.9

Dalgliesh, Alice.  The Bears on Hemlock Mountain. 3.5x.  Simple, short—H. didn’t love it but it wasn’t bad.  Certainly not a classic for the ages as far as I’m concerned.

Dalgliesh, Alice.  The Courage of Sarah Nobel. 4.4x  Just the right age for H..  Really liked it, 4.5 stars.  Better than The Bears on Hemlock Mountain.

Dicamillo, Kate.  Mercy Watson to the Rescue. 2.3.  Read it in a half hour over dinner.  H. was rapt.  Almost too easy for him, though.  I’ll get one or two more of these for him, I’m sure, just for fun.

Edwards, Julie Andrews.  The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. 7.3  H. wasn’t too excited about this at first but by the end he said it was great and wanted to give it five stars; also, now wants to re-read it.  The vocabulary is rather self-consciously advanced, but sentence structure and theme-wise is not so advance.  Overall, perfectly accessible to H.

Fritz, Jean.  And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? 4.1  We really liked this, somewhat to my surprise.  Turned out to be quite engaging.  We’ll be trying more of the Jean Fritz history series.

Gannett, Ruth Stile. My Father's Dragon. 4.8

Gannett, Ruth Stile. Elmer and the Dragon. 4.7

Gannett, Ruth Stile.  The Dragons of Blueland. 4.6 – These three are fine books but frankly, nothing so fantastic.

Gipson, Fred.  Old Yeller. 5.4  One of the very best kids’ books, as far as I’m concerned.  H. ate it up.  It’s long but we socked it away pretty quickly.

Goodbody, Slim.  The Mind. Excellent introduction to both brain science and psychology—for children?  Who’da thunk?

Herge.  Tintin books: The Shooting Star; Tintin in Tibet; Destination Moon; Explorers on the Moon. H. liked these, especially Tintin in Tibet which we read practically in a single verrry long sitting, but not so much that he’s asked for a few more I got.

Kimmel, Eric A.  The McElderry Book of Greek Myths. – H. read two back-to-back right after we got this.  I thought they were very well-written and he seemed to like them.

Lindgren, Astrid.  Pippi Longstocking. 5.2-  H. was tickled by it.  Good, lightweight, not too long.  Appealed to his own irreverent personality.

Lear, Edward.  Complete Nonsense. – Finished all the limericks and half of the rest of it.  H. was into it but only in small, irregular doses.

Le Guin, Ursula.  Catwings series.  4.5  Read all four, then later re-read the first.

Mighty Machines. Paragon Q&A book.  H. was totally into this.  We read it 1.5 times.

O’Brien, Robert C.  Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nihm. 5.8  Both of us ended up loving this hugely, one of our best reading experiences; up there with Pinocchio, Charlotte’s Web, Tales from the Odyssey.

Osborne, Mary Pope.  The Magic Tree House: #1-39. H. loved these from age 3¼ until 4¼ or so, and then pretty suddenly was no longer interested.  Excellent gimmick, well executed—great way to introduce history, I have no doubt that he would not be able to read the history books I’m reading to him now without having read this.

Oxford Picture Dictionary. Sure, this is reference (and ESL), but we read it cover to cover in the course of about two years.  We easily spent more time looking at this one book than any other book, period.

Penner and Scott.  Dragons. Random House Stepping Stones Fantasy.

Platt, Richard.  D-Day Landings. DK Readers.  Don’t care for this series that much, but H. enjoyed this quite a bit—to my surprise.

Prelutsky, Jack, ed.  Read-Aloud Poems for the Very Young. – He liked this surprisingly well.  This is encouraging because the poetry really is not very different from more “serious” poetry of the sort you find in other sources.  Re-read it.

Sharmat, Marjorie.  Nate the Great, Nate the Great and the Monster Mess, Nate the Great and the Owl Express. 2.2.  Specifically written for easy and quick reading (even more so than, for example, the Magic Tree House books), they are not well written (stilted).  We weren’t sure whether we liked them after the first.  After the third, we’ve decided we’ve had enough.

Sobol, Donald J. Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective. 3.9+ Finished this, liked it quite well, and are mostly done with #2.  We don’t usually read more than one “mystery” per sitting.

Stevenson, R. L.  A Child’s Garden of Verses. – All but the last few poems.

Usborne Greek Myths for Young Children. Excellent storybook-type introduction to Greek myth.  Was accessible to H. at age 3, but only after being exposed to some mythology first from other sources.

Usborne Young Reading history books.  Toilets, Telephones, and Other Useful Inventions; The Story of Slavery; The Story of Spying; Alexander the Great; The Story of Rome; Julius Caesar; The Story of Islam; Crusaders; The Story of Pirates. These are all chapter books, and we liked them to varying degrees (not as much as the fiction), but H. hasn’t said “no” to many.

Warner, Gertrude. Boxcar Children. 3.2 – I think H. liked it rather well, but probably not enough to warrant reading more in the series.  Not a five-star book; maybe 3.5.

Wild Wild World. Paragon Q&A book.

Wilder, Laura I. Little House in the Big Woods. 4.2

White, E.B. Charlotte's Web. 4.9  Read twice.  Hugely popular with H., five stars.

White, E.B. Stuart Little. 3.9

White, E. B.  The Trumpet of the Swan. 5.1-  H. requested it.  It was quite obvious that H. liked it.  We didn’t take too long to get through it (a few months, on and off), and it’s 300 pages!  Then not long after we finished H. repeatedly requested to read it again, and we started in several chapters, stopped for a while, then finished.

Adaptations

Aladdin. DK Classic Readers.

Alice in Wonderland. The cool iPad app version.  We read the simple version then the long version, which is still (contrary to advertisement) abridged.

The Call of the Wild. Great Illustrated Classics.  This is a very nice series, with one full page drawing on every other page; but the text size is not huge, and the text is not “dumbed down.”

Graphic Universe comics (we loved these): Beowulf, Odysseus, and Trojan War. All three are really excellent entrees into these myths.  We’ll be getting more of these books.

Osborne, Mary Pope.  The Tales from the Odyssey #1-6.  4.5-5.6.  Listened to it all the way through, then read it all the way through, all in the space of 4-8 weeks.  H. loved it, and I did too.

The Invisible Man. Great Illustrated Classics.  H. picked this out from a website, and drove me on to read it to him.  He was fascinated.  Not light or easy reading, even in this adaptation, but interesting.

Peter Pan. Junior Classics for Young Readers, Creative Edge.

The Time Machine. Bullseye Step into Classics.  Easy-reading, short version, but H. loved this so much I had to read it to him twice and he read it again to himself.

Usborne Young Reading (these are all 60-65 pages, except for the anthologies; they’re uniformly excellent, we’d rate these either 4 or 5 stars):

Amazing Adventures of Hercules.

Beowulf. Usborne illustrated classic edition.  4.8?  Wonderfully accessible, exciting, H. liked it.

A Christmas Carol.

Don Quixote.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

Hamlet.

Jason and the Golden Fleece.

Illustrated Classics from Dickens. Usborne.  5.0-ish.  The language seemed strangely accessible, and what was truly amazing to me was that H. really liked this.

King Arthur.

The Prince and the Pauper.

The Three Musketeers.

Treasure Island.

Ulysses. Our least favorite version, but that’s only because the others were great.  This is actually very entertaining.

Usborne Illustrated Alice. Very nice adaptations, our first exposure, made it possible to read the originals.

Usborne Illustrated Classics for Boys. Six in one—great value.

Usborne Illustrated Classics for Girls. Ditto.

Wyss, Johann.  Swiss Family Robinson. Random House Stepping Stones—not a bad series, this, but we’ve only read a few of them.  4.5 or so.  I think H. didn’t like it hugely—rather below average compared to some others.  At the end, though, H. himself said it was “very good.”  100 pages, not too difficult.

Zonder Kidz, The Beginner’s Bible. Clear and relatively non-devotional.  H. liked it pretty well.


"The Greatest Art and Music"--together

Well, it might not be the greatest, but you'll recognize a lot of standard paintings and classical music.  I've matched them up and these will be used as "interludes" among the slides in the upcoming WatchKnow Reader app.  I had altogether too much fun making these.

Suitable for viewing by children (or that's my intention).  My own are fascinated by them.

Part 1, roughly on the theme of "awakening and childhood":

Part 2, "women and courtship":

Part 3, "material success":

Part 4, "foreboding" (Charles, this one has Water Music):

Part 5, "war and mortality":

Part 6, "religion, wisdom, and mystery":

Thumbs up, please!


Update about the Boys - February 2011

It's been a couple months since I updated this blog about what I'm doing with the boys, so here goes--subject by subject. The general method I've followed with H.'s education is unchanged: I read to him at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we usually do something educational after breakfast and after his nap (around 3:30 or 4 PM), and I read to him at bedtime. I've been following a subject-oriented schedule. For example, at breakfast, from Monday through Saturday, we switch between history and science. The schedule is designed with H.'s interests as well as my own priorities in mind. So H. rarely has any objection to studying a particular subject at a particular time, though sometimes he does, and then I rarely insist. As a result, I'm happy to say, H. has been well-exposed to a wide variety of subjects. How much of what he has read he actually remembers, I don't know; he doesn't like to be tested and is frequently cagey about stuff even when he does know it.

After a long phase (maybe six months) of not reading books as much, H. has started reading books more often again on his own--and I'm starting to have to clean them up again.  (It probably helped that we put away the Legos.  If he has access, it's all Legos, all the time.)  He has been picking up books that are "age appropriate," which is to say that they're easy for him to decode and understand, such as Berenstain Bears books.  He has been rediscovering books that he liked a year or two ago, as well as carrying around chapter books we've been reading.

We started quite a few bedtime books, and it's gotten to the point that I have to insist that we stick to a few, or we'll never finish any.  Out of the big stack next to H.'s bed, the two that we're mostly working on now are Julie Andrews' The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, a book I greatly enjoyed when I was nine.  At first, H. wasn't too keen on it, but he stuck with it and now likes it quite a bit more now that the kids are having experiences in Whangdoodleland.  We're also now reading the complete anthology of Thomas the Tank Engine stories (this one, by the Rev. W. Awdry) and are now well over halfway done.  The last time we picked up this tome was when H. was two years old.  H. also brought up the big thick Beatrix Potter anthology and we started reading that, but I don't know if we're going to keep it up.

We've read quite a few other books too; I can't remember all what they are.  H. is so crazy about Alice in Wonderland that when I asked what audio book I should download, he insisted on Alice and would not tolerate any other suggestion.  So we're reading/listening to Alice for the zillionth time (in the car).  It clearly appeals to H.'s odd sense of humor.  He loves nonsense.

As to handwriting, we're continuing to practice uppercase letters.  He is now able to write many words and even some easy sentences (if he's motivated).  He is learning spelling easily.  He always knows when he has misspelled a word.  He can detect typos and British spellings with near-perfect accuracy, and his tendency to correct my misreadings of texts continues unabated and is increasingly annoying!  He is gradually learning things like punctuation (made a nice question mark yesterday), spacing between words, etc.  He had learned to write all his letters in a rough way by a few months ago, but since then his handwriting has become considerably neater, because we've been working on getting it just right.  He doesn't especially like hard practice--do any 4-year-old boys?--but he tolerates it a few times a week, which has been enough to make progress.  Mostly we've been writing random things in writing tablet books, but we're also going through an uppercase letters workbook which is just right for the practice we need (this one).  Yesterday, we actually started learning lowercase letters--but I don't know if we'll keep that up.

Generally, he's been drawing and writing more in the last few months than he did before, I'm happy to say.  He's finally getting the informal practice that he needs.

A month or so ago I found an old blank diary and wrote "Memory Book" in very big letters in the front, and made a big deal of saying that H. must not write in it, except to record things that he has memorized.  So we thought up all the things he had memorized and I wrote them in the book.  We've added just a few items since then; this is more my fault than his, he is amenable to memorizing things a little, it's just that I take too long to find exactly the right poem or quotation to memorize.  I'm sure that this sort of "memory work" is something we'll do more of.

In math, H. has continued to resist doing much work in Singapore Kindergarten Math B, and I haven't insisted, so he hasn't made too much progress.  I occasionally try other math-building exercises.  I made some flashcards so he could memorize the math facts 0-3 (so he knows 0+0 through 3+3).  He doesn't like these much, and instead of memorizing them, wants to work through the problem every time.  Nevertheless, he does have them mostly memorized now, so soon I'll add 4 to the set.  I'm thinking of using Two Plus Two Is Not Five, which seems to have some nice strategies for memorizing math facts.  I'm also thinking of finally trying out Saxon Math or Jones' Geniuses math program.

Because H. saw some logic books and was requesting logic presentations, I got him Lollipop Logic and we've done about a third of that, on average every other week I guess.  In fact, H. did his very first bit of "homework" a few days ago.  I resorted to bribery.  (This is rare in our house, but it does happen.)  I said, "If you get Lollipop Logic and do a couple of pages, all on your own, and then bring it upstairs to me, then we'll get you a small ($5) Lego set."  He enthusiastically did as he was told.  The experience  was quite interesting.  He did all of the work 100% on his own, but he got about half of the items (it was a new type of problem) wrong.  He wouldn't haven't gotten them wrong if, as usual, I had been hovering over him and helping him.  So we went over all of his work, and I explained all the problems to him.  I'll be curious if he can do the same sorts of problems again--on his own.  I'll just try to get him to do so without a bribe...

There is one other subject that we are working through "systematically," and that is Latin.  We're using Rosetta Stone Version 3, and just a couple days ago H. finished going through Unit 1 (of three) in Level 1.  We always sit together while he does Latin.  He's remarkably good at it--there's no question that he is able to get through the program.  The software is intuitive to him partly because it resembles, somewhat, the sort of computer work we've done (with my presentations, Starfall, etc.).  Here I must confess that he wouldn't be making this progress if I hadn't made him do Latin (almost) every day after naptime, for 10-15 minutes.  I can see occasionally requiring H., now almost five, to do a few things, and Latin is one of them.  I just see such advantages to getting through this program relatively early, not least of which is the confidence he would have from knowing three languages reasonably well at an early age. He is mostly on board, and once we get started, he's definitely into it.  We have also made a little competition, since I am going through the material myself.  But I'm not keeping up with him.  I lag behind him a little.  I say, "I'm going to catch up with you," and he says, "No you won't, I'm going to be working on Unit 2 before you even finish Unit 1!"  Any little thing to keep him learning...  Clearly, despite his occasional resistance, he's proud of his progress, and can now be heard running around downstairs saying, "Puer currit!" (the boy is running).

Now, in most of the above subjects, H. has to practice something that is learned more or less systematically.  (By the way, speaking of practice, we started reviewing piano and he might start learning that again.)  This frequently requires cajoling and arm-twisting, but I am not enough of an Unschooler to leave his progress in these subjects to fate; I want to make sure he knows them, and knows them well.  In other subjects, it's simply a matter of me reading to him, and as he is almost always amenable to reading something at mealtimes, we get through quite a lot of material.

In science, we continue to read books about how heavy machinery works.  We've finished reading one such book (quite a good one) already, and are halfway through another, and started a third (this isn't nearly as good as the two from the "How Things Work" series).  These books introduce many principles of physics and engineering, which are interesting to him.  By the way, we are still semi-regularly building new circuits with Electronic Snap Kits (we have this one, but I wish I had gotten the 303), and he is almost able to build them to spec on his own.  He's also getting quite a bit better at doing Lego kits on his own; he can do the slightly harder ones on his own with just a few pointers.  Also by the way, we saw a monster trucks show and he loved it, and of course then we re-read his book on monster trucks and drew a detailed picture of one, etc.  We've also continued doing experiments from the Janice VanCleave Chemistry book, occasionally.  Anyway, we've also read quite a few other science books, though we've stopped reading about animals so much; I think that's become a little dull and repetitive.  We're working through Everyday Science: Electricity, a very meaty book about electricity, and Discovery Kids books on Earth and Space (didn't care so much for these), National Geo readers on Planes and other topics (these are better)--and various others, especially several about space, a regular topic for us.  Also, we went to the local science museum for a preschool science workshop on flight, which was kind of fun.

Geography, H. declared a month or two ago, is his favorite subject.  I took advantage of this by getting a couple (more) atlases and a couple of books about the state of Ohio, where we live.  We are almost done with a longish and meaty book about Ohio, suitable for 10-year-olds or so.  He even got through the history section, which I thought was a little dry.  The whole family now knows about Marietta, Ohio, and various other things about the state.  We visited the Ohio Statehouse, which is nearby, which made a very big impression on H.  (It's quite an impressive building.)  We've also looked now and then at Google Earth, and various maps, and read out of First Book of People and Places (pretty lame, really), and read all of I Wonder Why Countries Fly Flags (which is more interesting, although by dint of including many entertaining but fairly useless factoids).

We do read some fiction at mealtimes too.  Among other things, we've read a few more Berenstain Bears books, which are still some of H.'s favorites--we must own over 50 of those books.  We're slowly working our way through Around the World in 80 Tales and looking up the countries as we read the story that it is from.  We spent quite a few days reading The Adventures of Thor, the Thunder God, which is a really excellent, well-written and well-illustrated intro to Norse mythology.  I just happened to find it at Half-Price Books; thought it looked interesting, and I was right.  We also re-read The Velveteen Rabbit, and afterward watched this movie adaptation, which was really a stinker as far as I'm concerned.

In other subjects, we finally finished--after working on it approximately every other week for a year--the  Usborne Art Sticker Book. This is a great introduction to art, if your kid likes stickers, as H. does.  We also read How Much Is a Million, highly recommended, and started Millions to Measure, the sequel.  We're halfway through this children's Bible, which (as I'm agnostic) I'm treating respectfully albeit as a storybook; H. does understand that people in his family are Christians.  (When he was two, we read this one.  I guess, in a couple more years, we'll read an even more advanced one, and then finally we'll read the real thing when he's capable of taking it in.  I'm thinking of hunting around for children's versions of other religious classics.  I don't spot a comparable "Children's Quran" on Amazon--wonder why.)  We are still working our way through The Little Book of Big Questions--we don't pick that up too often anymore, though.

Now, finally, onto baby E., who is now four months old.  I have a whole passel of iPad apps that I use with him.  I must admit I use them more than I read books to him, for no better reason than that the iPad is usually closer to hand.  Frankly, the content is not all that different; for babies, it's mostly just a matter of showing single words and simple pictures.  Among the apps, we mostly do flashcard apps (of which there are many quite serviceable ones), although lately we've been using Tap Tap Baby, which is lots of fun, and a couple of other interactive apps.  Among the books, I've been reading That's Not My Puppy and a few different ABC books, as well as some Dr. Seuss board books like The Foot Book, which was one of H.'s favorites.

I started showing Your Baby Can Read to E. something like six weeks ago (when he was three months old, I think), and since then I've shown it to him not more than twice a week.  His Mama objects to showing the same video over and over.  Besides, he starts looking away after ten minutes or so, so I stop.  I think we'll probably start showing it more in a few more months.

Also, I made 4-5 presentations for E.  I took pictures of all sorts of items all around the house, and put the pictures with giant labels into PowerPoint.  These keep his attention.

E. is a very interactive baby.  He is very quick to smile and is quite ticklish--in these respects, very different from his brother.  He is also very vocal.  When I read to H. at mealtime, E. is usually in his mother's lap, and watches us with rapt attention.  Occasionally, he babbles while I read or while we talk, as if he is participating.  Clearly, the situation for E. is going to be very different than it was for H.

Sometimes, H. reads to E., although not as much as I had hoped.  The main problem so far is that E. is still small and is just now starting to be able to sit up without assistance.  Soon, anyway, we'll be able to sit them next to each other and big brother can read to little brother.


Kid-friendly paintings for Reader "interludes"?

UPDATE: there are a few example "interludes" now here and here.
To provide brief "breaks" in the WatchKnow Reader presentations, I'm going to display random artworks & music for a short period. I'm developing a list of the artworks. Here is what I have so far. Any requests?  Obviously, I'm including only very famous paintings.
1. Dali, Persistence of Memory
2. Botticelli, Primavera
3. Leonardo, Last Supper
4. Van Gogh, Starry Night
5. El Greco, Toledo
6. Rembrandt, Night Watch
7. Da Vinci, Mona Lisa
8. Rousseau, Sleeping Gypsy
9. Seurat, La Grande Jatte
10. Van Eyck, Arnolfini Marriage
11. Renoir, Le Dejeuner des Canotiers
12. Velasquez, Las Meninas
13. Bruegel, Tower of Babel
14. Vermeer, Malkunst
15. Holbein, The Ambassadors
16. Monet, Water Lilies
17. Michelangelo, Creation of Adam (Sistine Chapel ceiling)
18. Vermeer, The Girl with a Pearl Earring
19. Renoir, Le Moulin de la Gallette
20. Whistler, Whistler’s Mother
21. Altdorfer, Battle of Issus
22. Avercamp, Winter Scene on a Canal
23. Bruegel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
24. Caillebotte, Paris(ian?) Street, Rainy Day
25. Cassatt, The Child’s Bath
26. Constable, Hay Wain
27. Friedrich, Wanderer over a Sea of Fog
28. Gainsborough, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews
29. Veronese, Wedding at Cana
30. Wood, American Gothic

Looong interview with me by Dan Schneider in Cosmoetica

Off and on, for the last 2.5 years, I have been answering questions from poet and critic Dan Schneider, who has conducted a series of long, interesting interviews.  My interview, posted a few hours ago, is #27 in the series; Schneider himself gives the interview four stars (out of five).  That should tell you something about the Schneider: he's the kind of guy who asks questions that take hours and hours to answer, and then has the audacity to rate the answers.  The questions cover my life, Wikipedia, Citizendium, philosophy, and my reactions to various idiosyncratic puzzles that Schneider has come up with.  If you were to ask why I agreed to do an interview that ended up being 40,000 words long, without any compensation or anything, I'd say that I didn't know it was going to be that long, and Dan Schneider was very persistent.  And maybe this reveals just how vain I really am.


Draft for comment: early reading survey

The almost complete lack of specific research about very early reading methods has long been bemoaned by those of us interested in the topic.  For many, simply seeing other children, or our own, reading at a surprisingly early age has been enough to convince us that it is possible, and many are willing to accept as an article of faith or common sense that a child who reads 3-4 years earlier than is normal will be greatly benefitted thereby.  But others of us are very disappointed with the research situation.  Considerable advantages, direct and indirect, might accrue from the research community's recognition of the possibilities and benefits of early reading.  Moreover, the public at large would find more research useful in evaluating various products and methods on offer.

The lowest-hanging fruit would be an online survey of parents who have used such products and methods with their children.  While online surveys are subject to selection bias, we could still learn a great deal from a well-designed informational survey.

Toward this end, I am taking some time (while developing WatchKnow Reader) to develop a survey myself.  But I need the help of the interested community before getting your participation.  Please download it here:

Early Reading Survey (draft)
(for review/comment only, not to fill out yet; the final survey will appear in an online interactive form)

Please comment!  But don't fill out, except as a "practice run" to see if it makes sense.  Do you want any questions reworded?  Should I ask anything else?  The last subsection asks about opinions/attitudes; do you want me to add anything there?

Of course, I and the gentleman I am working on this with, Dr. Joe Thomas, will make the final judgment as to what appears on the survey.


A common error of school lessons, or, why I'm homeschooling

Here is one reason why I'm homeschooling, and why I would probably never send my children to a school--even most private schools.

I was looking over some instructional material recently (something I do often these days).  It was a sample curriculum for teachers, explaining how, in one lesson, they should teach Kindergartners the principle that we say aloud one word for each word we see written down.  Immediately I had the thought that this would be a pointless waste of time for most children.  Many children would have already gotten that lesson, and it would be boring to go over it; and if any child hadn't gotten it, it seems unlikely that any amount of time trying to teach it would likely be wasted, because the principle in question is highly abstract.

Indeed, because the principle is so abstract, both categories of children--those who understood the principle implicitly, and those who hadn't--would probably be puzzled by the attempt to explain something so abstract explicitly, and then during lesson time, they would instead focus on other aspects of the words and sentences discussed.  In other words, they would simply take what was supposed to be careful, by-the-hand explanation of some features of letters, words, and sentences, and instead use it as fodder for whatever random ruminations they have about letters, words, and sentences.  The result will be, on the one hand, a combination of dull head-nodding and robotic participation, and on the other hand, puzzlement about this or that aspect of the language on display which a student happens to notice, but is not explained.  The smarter (or luckier) students will learn much from the examples, regardless of what the ostensible lesson of the day is; the duller (or unluckier) students will not glean so much, and simply find the whole exercise boring.

Evidently, the curriculum designers had carefully analyzed, conceptually, the steps that a child must have gone through in order to learn how to read.  The idea is that each step is, then, to be explicitly taught to children.  "After all," the designers must be reasoning to themselves, "what better way to guarantee that a child understands a principle than to try, creatively of course, to teach the principle?  Once a child has been exposed to all the different principles needed to learn language, they'll be fluent readers!"  The designers even evidently prise out principles that are used, but probably never grasped explicitly, by children--such as that there is one spoken word for each written word--and attempt to teach those explicitly.

You might think that I am criticizing the curriculum designers because they are having the teachers teach explicitly, that they are being "instructivists" instead of "constructivists."  But that would be wrong; my criticism has nothing to do with instructivism versus constructivism.  It has to do with the order in which things are taught and the folly of standardizing what can't effectively be standardized.

There is a similar and well-discussed problem with the now-old movement called the "New Math," in which very abstract principles of mathematics, some of which were heretofore not discussed until high school or college, are taught to children.  The suggestion was that it would make children deep thinkers by teaching them about set theory and variables and other extremely abstract stuff when they are in early elementary grades.  The geniuses behind this movement evidently looked at the mathematics curriculum, noticed that, conceptually, it can be analyzed as Russell and Whitehead did in Principia Mathematica, and then had the brilliant idea that by teaching such principles to young children, one would give them a deeper understanding of mathematics.  A more boneheaded pedagogical notion can scarcely be conceived.  The entire movement, like that reading exercise I saw, is based on a very simple-minded error:

It is most efficient to teach children according to the order in which we, abstract-thinking adults, break down and analyze things logically.  Doing so ensures that children understand the matter deeply and critically, as we adults do; they cannot fail to comprehend if simple but powerful principles are introduced explicitly.

That, I'm saying, is wrong, but a lot of educationists seem to believe it and design our children's schooling based on it.

This is also what phonics workbooks and curricula often do--thereby giving phonics a bad name, when in fact as a method it is the best available.  You just don't have to get children to learn the abstract theory of phonics, of course, nor do you have to expect every child to learn the same phonics rules at the same time.

Anyway, in the grip of this widespread error, curriculum designers proceed to lay out scripts, in textbooks, workbooks, and lesson plans, that teachers and their charges are supposed to follow.  Students thereby systematically absorb the knowledge that the designers have broken into convenient, bite-sized chunks, presented in creative, fun, engaging ways--or that's how it's supposed to work.  But it doesn't work that way.  This kind of pedagogy obviously can work at the high school and college level, when the students are capable of abstract thought and gleaning abstract principles efficiently, but it obviously does not work for younger children.

As everyone (who has not been confused by college professors) knows perfectly well, children learn abstract principles gradually, by inferring from many instances.  Exactly when any given child happens to grasp a principle--when the light goes on--is completely unpredictable.  You simply cannot guarantee, for a classroom of students, that all of the lights will go on at once.  Now, I don't doubt that this can happen, and probably has happened, but only occasionally and with a really brilliant teacher and under highly contrived circumstances.  But if I am correct and children do learn different abstract principles at different times and under different circumstances, mainly by reflecting on many instances, then attempting to lead a whole class through by the hand, getting them all to grasp the principles at the same time and in the same order, is a fool's errand.

This is true not just of learning to read and mathematics, subjects which can be, after all, highly abstract.  Something similar is also quite true of more concrete subjects such as history and literature.  Different children fail to understand different pieces of vocabulary, all of which are essential to understanding a narrative.  Moreover, some children are ready to read a certain book, or are highly interested in it, while others aren't prepared (they don't have some basic concepts) or will never be interested in it.  What they need, of course, is individualized attention to the vocabulary of texts and individualized choices of texts.  The error (similar to the one identified above) seems to be:

We have a rough-and-ready idea of what children should read, and what topics they should study; we've got the book list and standards all mapped out.  The way to guarantee that students learn these texts and topics is quite simply to prescribe them and lead the children through them all at once, teaching the things they need to know.

Wrong.  As an advocate of liberal education, I of course agree that it's important to read certain books; I have nothing against book lists or even standards, per se.  But when books are best to read, and when certain standards are addressed, is, like it or not, a highly individual affair.  I'm merely pointing out a fact about the minds of children: they are ready to absorb things at different times, and the best way to teach them those books and topics differs greatly because abilities and proclivities develop differently.

When you get down to it, the problem really lies in a system that attempts to prescribe, centralize, or standardize the development of the human mind, which is necessarily an individual affair.  This, ultimately, is why we're homeschooling.  Most schools operate on the notion that the learning process can be scripted and applied to all equally, and that the script is best written by replicating some theoretician's abstract analysis of subject matters and skills, and then requiring all students to build up their mental contents by following the script.  Homeschooling allows the parent and child to work together to determine what the next best thing to learn is, and what the best way to learn it is.  It is grounded in the reality of what an individual boy or girl understands and appreciates right now, and builds logically on that.  Indeed, as a philosopher, I am very much a fan of system-building and abstract analysis, and as my own son's knowledge grows, I find myself thinking constantly about which part of the "edifice" should be constructed next.  In this way, a wholly individualized, ad hoc approach to education can still be fairly systematic.  But the thing that should be systematic is not the curriculum, but the child's mental development.


Wales declares Sanger arbiter of consensus on Wikipedia

While looking at the old Wikipedia-L archives, I came across the following deliciously ironic post from none other than Jimmy Wales:

[Wikipedia-l] subpages

Jimmy Wales jwales at bomis.com
Mon Feb 25 23:33:51 UTC 2002


kband at www.llamacom.com wrote:
[...]
> If he's still the final arbiter of all Wikipedia
> functionality, then this is a moot point. If, however, we're back to
> policy by consensus, then it won't be too hard. But Mr. Wales needs to
> tell us what the story is there.

Don't think of it as "Larry as final arbiter" on the one hand and
"policy by consensus" on the other hand.  The right way to look at it
is that Larry is the final arbiter of what the consensus is.  Since
agitators on all sides are likely to never concede that the consensus
is against them, we need to have a final stopping point.

That's Larry, or maybe me if the issue is something technically beyond the
scope of his knowledge, but so far, achieving technical consensus has been
pretty easy.

--Jimbo

So, I'd like to clarify a few things for people who actually care about accuracy in writing about the early history of Wikipedia--admittedly, there aren't many such people.

Occasionally, we find Jimmy Wales saying that I was merely a paid employee and merely carrying out his marching orders--as if he were leading the charge, and I were merely some back office functionary.  But we have it straight from the horse's mouth that, as late as February 25, 2002, I was "the final arbiter of what the consensus is" on Wikipedia, and that the declarer of consensus was "maybe" Jimmy Wales himself "if the issue is something technically beyond the scope of his knowledge."

I'd love for some journalist to confront Jimmy Wales with this.  Preferably live, on camera.

I'd also like to comment on what this says about Wales' notion of consensus, that someone in authority is needed to declare it in order to shut up dissenters, but I'll leave that to someone else.

UPDATE: I never really thought there was a consensus in that case myself; my approach was different, and more honest, than Wales'.