Review: "Your Baby Can Read"

Here is my review of the Your Baby Can Read videos, as posted on Amazon.com.

Many people have found that Your Baby Can Read works, especially if it is used as part of a larger literacy program that includes plenty of reading to the child.  I found that it helped quite a bit with my first child.  Now, at age 4.5, he is able to decode my college philosophy books, and we regularly read and appreciate books like Charlotte's Web and, recently, Old Yeller.

I have found over and over again that the critics of YBCR are people who think they know about how babies learn to read, but really do not.  By contrast, I, and the many parents I talk to who have used YBCR and other programs designed to teach babies to read, live every day with the results.  For us, it is not speculation.  We (many of us) see daily evidence that our kids are learning more than we knew they could learn.  You can read more about my story, including how we used YBCR, at larrysanger (dot) org (slash) reading (dot) html.

Since there are many reviews about this already, in the rest, I will mainly answer a few charges made about this program.  But first let me say that I'm giving this five stars because it actually works--or it can work, especially with other literacy support.

"It's boring": well, it's not as fancy as your standard Disney Channel or PBS Kids fare.  If your family is used to looking at that stuff, it's likely that you'll find YBCR boring, and your kids might too.  But if you're like our family and you basically don't watch TV except for some DVDs, chances are your kid will find that this is great.  For what it's worth, our little boy started watching this at 22 months and absolutely adored it, and demanded to see it daily (often more often, but we didn't let him) for a few months.  He thought it was great fun.

"I don't like the advertising": you're being asked to review the product, not the advertising.  I happen to agree that some of the advertising is obnoxious and over-the-top.  But the product is not.  In fact, the product itself is quite modest and unassuming.

"This is just a whole word program": sadly, you're right, for the most part.  There is some phonics material at the end of each disk, but not much.  And as much as I agree that this is a count against it, you can't ignore the fact that the program works, as far as it goes.  In my opinion, it's just important to supplement the program with phonics later on, that's all.  YBCR can serve as a nice leg up.  Moreover, I should point out that there are plenty of parents who report that their children have learned to read phonetically using just YBCR and without phonics "intervention."  That's not what I personally recommend, but I don't doubt that what they say can be done.

"My kid just learned the words in the video, and that's not many": well, yeah.  Did you really think that a program that is marketed to babies, toddlers, and preschoolers would, all by itself, cause such small tykes to read more than that?  On the other hand, isn't it amazing that they are able to read that much?  And, more to the point, if this is absolutely all that you do to support your child's literacy, then I would agree that your child will probably not learn to read.  You need to go farther.  It helps a lot to read boatloads to your child, holding your fingers under the words as you read them.  Doing phonics flashcards or some other little kid-accessible phonics program is also a good follow-up.  Playing with refrigerator magnets is a good idea.  But anyway, the point is that if you believe that simply plopping your child in front of a DVD, and doing little else to develop his literacy, will somehow cause him to read, then your problem is not really so much that you believe false advertising, your problem is that you misunderstood the advertising, the lengthy instructions to parents, and so forth.

YBCR was a great introduction to reading for our boy.  This product is getting a lot of attention for very good reason--not just because of the advertising.  Go to YouTube and search for videos of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers reading.  If you find out what those people did, you'll get a better, more realistic idea of what a tool like YBCR can do for you.


Update about the boys

Here is a "brain dump" about what I've been doing with my little boys, ages 4.5 and 2 months.  I will refer to them as H. (the older) and E. (the younger).H's letter to Santa

H's biggest accomplishment, recently, has been finally to learn to write not only all of his numbers, but all of his capital letters as well.  Learning the numbers has made it a lot easier to go through a math workbook (Singapore Kindergarten Math B).  But he still isn't that excited about math, so we don't make quick progress with it -- I'm not forcing him to do it, I'm just asking if he wants to. If there was any doubt that he has learned to write, well, a letter to Santa proved it.  I had to sit with him, and give him some hints (mostly, asking leading questions) about spelling, but it was 90% H sounding things out.  He made a list and didn't spend too much time on the polite pleasantries, but hopefully Santa won't mind too much.

The next day he got a "Thank You" note card out of my desk and was busy scribbling away on it.  Without my help, it wasn't exactly perfect, but I was impressed anyway.

For bedtime reading, we have been reading Old Yeller lately, and have only 40-50 pages to go there.  We also started Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which reminds me once again about just what a difference a year, or even six months, can make.  We tried out Charlie about six months ago, and even though it definitely seemed within his abilities, he wasn't interested in it.  Then a few days ago, we started watching the movie (still haven't finished doing that -- the superior Gene Wilder version), and then suddenly the book seemed really cool.

We got Lollipop Logic today in the mail, and H did six pages in a row, he was so excited about it.  (He has seen my logic books all collected up on the bottom shelf of a bookcase in my office, and asked me for a logic presentation, which I made, so he has decided he is interested in logic.)

Also, we're doing Rosetta Stone Latin, we're probably an hour into it or so, but split over a half-dozen sessions.  I had the old Rosetta Stone program (Russian), and the new version absolutely kicks the old one's butt.  It's a very kid-friendly program.  I don't know if H. is going to have the motivation to stick with it -- I hope so.

Of course we're continuing to do various other stuff, reading a whole variety of books.  Recently finished several books about Greek mythology and ancient history.  (Usborne, the book publisher, is absolutely wonderful, they make loads of different topics, and classics, accessible to kids.)  I know this all must sound very hard-core, but if he isn't saying "yes" to a book, I'm not reading it to him.  So even if he occasionally takes long math breaks, that's OK, he's still learning huge amounts.  But if we had not done various presentations and read various simpler treatments of topics in advance, he wouldn't be able to handle this now.

I'm sure I could go on, but that's enough for H for now.  OK, one other thing -- we got him a cheap digital camera.  He's been learning about that, and he can even upload the pix.

As to baby E., well, I was surprised that even shortly after birth, I was able to lie down next to him and hold the iPad a foot away from his eyes or so, and show him various flashcard-style presentations, and he ate it up.  He pays close attention for five or ten minutes...after that, I stop whether he's flagging or not.  I'm not going in any sort of systematic order through the various card sets we've bought, though I wonder if we should be.  Then starting about two weeks ago he started cooing, especially at this set about cats.  E. is quite a bit more interactive than H. was as a baby.

I also did this: I took my digital camera around the house and took pictures of all objects that I thought were familiar to E.  Even pictures of Desitin, the changing table, the trash can, etc.  Then I simply group the pix together into logical groupings, put then in a folder, and import them into a PowerPoint slideshow.  Putting names on the pix is easy.  (To make it fast enough to work with, I have to reduce the file size, which ppt does automatically if you know how to ask it.)  So I've sat E. in front of the computer, 2-3 feet away from the screen, and shown him these presentations.  He likes them, too.  H. likes them even more.  I made a presentation of H. illustrating various emotions, too.  This was lots of fun.

I can't wait until we have written the software that will make it possible to highlight the parts of words as they are being read -- we'll make it possible for you to match up parts of a word to different points in a waveform.  The goal is to do this matching automatically, thus allowing people to match digital books with audio books, so the currently-being-read syllable is always highlighted.  Anyway, more on that later.

Of course, I'm reading E. some actual books, but frankly, the content of the books we read isn't that different from iPad apps.  But we'll be doing more of that as he gets better at sitting upright in my lap and staring in the direction of a book.

Haven't started Your Baby Can Read yet.  I don't think he'd be able to see our small TV screen.  When are babies able to focus 15 feet away?


Are child development experts getting it wrong?

I just came across this Psychology Today blog by Richard Gentry, author of Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write -- from Baby to Age 7.  He poses the question, "Are Commercial-Product Claims that Babies Can Read Overblown?"  He goes on:

Or are too many child development experts from prestigious universities getting it wrong?

There is a controversy brewing over the definition of reading and whether babies and toddlers can learn to read. Driven by negative reaction to some of the commercial products that claim to teach babies and toddlers to read, print media and major news reports on television have recently quoted child development experts who state emphatically that "the baby's brain is not developed enough to read." WAIT A MINUTE! Sit back and take a deep breath. It may be a very good thing for a pre-school age child to learn to read words and phrases before age three and it may be a bad thing to equate this remarkable accomplishment with "the brain of a parrot." Show me a parrot that reads scores of flash cards with words and phrases through paired associate learning or operant conditioning! Reading word cards is not something trivial. When child development experts were asked if babies who pronounced the words or demonstrated actions to word cards such as "clap" or "arms up" were reading, many were emphatic: "No! The babies memorize cue cards. That's not reading." But automatic recognition of words, repetition, and memory are all aspects of proficient reading at any level. Joyful parent-child interaction helping the baby learn to read word cards is a good thing!

Read the whole thing, including the "What Does the Research Say?" section.  It's nice to know that there are some experts who are willing to buck the establishment on this.


Could you teach your baby to read?

Is your reaction, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is"?  I claim that you can teach your baby, toddler, or preschooler to read--probably.  What do you say to that?

I was thinking about how my essay on baby reading hardly made a ripple on its first day out in the world, despite being announced pretty far and wide.  There was no negative reaction; but there was hardly any positive reaction.  There was essentially no reaction.  I'm not sure why that might be, but my best guess is that people don't believe that there's anything to it, not enough to investigate it much.  To be sure, a 140-page essay is a bit much to expect an instant reaction to, but what about the video, the flash cards, and the presentations?  Nothing!  My explanation is that people simply don't believe that there's enough "to" claims like "your baby can read" to warrant much caring, much less investigation.

Let me make several claims, each of which I can back up with a lot of argumentation:

1. It's not just me.  Lots of people have done this.  You didn't know that?  Read my essay, especially Part 2, and you'll see.

2. It's really reading.  By age 2 or 3, lots and lots of kids who start out with Your Baby Can Read (YBCR) and the Glenn Doman method and similar methods are able to sound out new words, and understand age-appropriate books.  By the time they enter first grade, those kids read well above grade level.

3. And no, it's not because they're geniuses.  I'm not a genius, and I'm sure my little boy isn't either.  Lots of more or less average people have taught their little kids to read, and long before I found out about it.

4. I didn't pressure my little boy into reading.  If you think that's the only way to teach a tiny tot how to read, you're just mistaken!

5. It's not impossibly difficult or expensive.  Yes, I work from home and have some free time to help teach my little boy, but with the free materials out there now, and as the price of YBCR has come down, basically, you just have to spend some time doing this.  With the videos, or with looking at some powerpoint presentations or my flash cards...well, sure, it takes some time, and probably some money...but it's not a full-time job or anything.  Think of it as a side-hobby.  You could get deeply into it, the way I have, but you could have a nicely positive effect without doing so, I'm very sure.

OK, folks, what else can I say that will make you take this whole opportunity seriously?


Essay on Baby Reading

I started teaching my little boy to read beginning at 22 months, and by age four, he was decoding text (reading, in that sense) quite fluently at the sixth grade level, or above.

I've discovered that there isn't a lot written about the subject of baby reading.  So I have written a 45,000-word essay on the subject:

How and Why I Taught My Toddler to Read
PDFDOCHTML
(the PDF is best)

I've worked on this for two years, off and on.  It is formatted as a 140-page book, which I'm presenting to the public free, under a Creative Commons (CC-by-nc-nd) license.  Here is a video of my boy reading to me when he was two, then three, then four.  At age 3 years, 10 months, he read the First Amendment of the Constitution (in the video at 2:47):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIu8BGFqMm4

How'd we do it? We used a variety of methods: I read many books to him while pointing to the words, I showed him over 1,000 home-made flashcards (careful: 122 MB zip file) arranged in phonetic groupings, we watched the Your Baby Can Read videos, we used these (150+) PowerPoint presentations I made for him (here's an enormous 862MB zip file), and we did many other literacy-building activities.  All of this was done in a completely pressure-free way; I taught him to say “that’s enough” and immediately stopped when, if not before, he got tired of any activity. (UPDATE: these flashcards are in the process of being converted into a high-quality digital version at ReadingBear.org.)

I hope that by publicizing our case, we will raise awareness of the methods available that can, in fact, teach very small children to read with about as much ease as they can learn spoken language or sign language.

Working on early childhood educational content and issues is now my full-time job; among other things, I'm planning a new tool that will emulate the best aspects of Your Baby Can Read, but it will be free.  I've passed off leadership of WatchKnow.org to a new CEO, the very capable Dr. Joe Thomas.  Expect to see regular updates on this blog about my work, and I'll be asking for your feedback about my various plans and ideas.

Please use this page to comment on both the essay and the video.

UPDATE: if you want a copy of the essay on your handheld device (and can't figure out how to put the PDF on your device), you can buy it for $2.99 from the Amazon Store.  Someone asked for this, and I obliged!

UPDATE 2 (Oct. 3, 2011): my son is now five years old. He is now reading daily on his own, and has read himself a couple dozen chapter books, including The Story of the World, Vol. 1: The Ancient World (314 pgs.).

UPDATE 3 (Dec. 16, 2012): at six, my son switches between "serious" literature which he reads with a dictionary app, including Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, and The Secret Garden, and easier literature including Beverly Cleary books, the Hardy Boys, and Encyclopedia Brown. If his answers to regular comprehension questions are any indication, he's understanding what he reads pretty well.

UPDATE 4 (Mar. 26, 2013): I'm delighted to report that my second son, following methods similar to those I used with my first, is now 2.5 years old and reading at a first grade level.

UPDATE 5 (Aug. 25, 2014): my second is following in his brother's footsteps, reading a version of the Odyssey (he's crazy about Greek mythology—go figure) at age 3.5:

UPDATE 6 (June 4, 2020): for over a year now, my older son (now 14) has been studying a humanities sequence of my design (including history, literature, art, philosophy, religion, etc.). The texts are classics in English translation, including the Bible, Gilgamesh, myths and texts from ancient Sumeria and Egypt, Hesiod, all of Homer, selections from Confucius, Lao Tsu, long selections from Herodotus and Thucydides, plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, Socratic dialogues of Plato, much of The Republic, much of Aristotle's Poetics and Nicomachean Ethics, other philosophy, Plutarch's life of Alexander, and just now he's getting into Livy. The younger son (now 9) finished Harry Potter a second time and is now reading The Lord of the Rings. Like his brother, he has read plenty of age-appropriate classics like Treasure Island and Tom Sawyer. Both have managed to get by without reading a single Language Arts text (I wouldn't do that to them).