The Your Baby Can Read (YBCR) program makes claims about the efficacy of its reading program and the long-term effects of using its program that have no basis in reality. The creators of the program do not provide any data to back up their claims. Furthermore, the basic methodology that underlies the program has already been shown to be an ineffective way to teach children to read.
What is the Your Baby Can Read program?
According to the Your Baby Can Read® website, there is a “natural window,” that is, an optimal time for a child’s developing brain to acquire language skills. This optimal time begins at birth and lasts till age four. The Your Baby Can Read® (YBCR) program is designed to take full advantage of this optimal time. Using a combination of DVDs, books and flash cards, a child will learn how to read and as the video above shows, a child will recognize words and be able to demonstrate an understanding of those words. The site also notes that children who have acquired reading skills at a very young age show marked improvement both “in school and later in life.”
Does the Your Baby Can Read program actually work?
To answer that question we will look at a few reviews written by those who have used the program and then we will examine the science behind the program.
What The Reviews Say
A Google search of the phrase “reviews of your baby can read” turned up both positive and negative reviews.
Positive Review – http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/128138/review_of_your_baby_can_read_dvd_early.html?cat=25 – “My kids were recognizing printed language. The research suggests that babies and toddlers can learn to read words at the same they are learning to speak them. I can’t wait to move on to the next DVD.”
Positive Review – http://ezinearticles.com/?Review-on-Your-Baby-Can-Read-DVDs&id=1342703
“Your Baby Can Read is more stimulating for children than Baby Einstein in my opinion. Baby Einstein plays music and shows pictures of toys but Your Baby Can Read engages children in the video.”
“Show your child words as much as you can, their memories are excellent and introducing them to written language early will have great benefits. Imagine how confident your child will be of himself when he is reading way before his peers.”
Negative Review – http://trevorcairney.blogspot.com/2008/07/your-baby-can-learn-to-read.html & http://trevorcairney.blogspot.com/2009/02/your-baby-can-read-part-2.html
“Would I introduce my children to this program? No. This program does not teach children to ‘read’. Neither is it clear what its benefits are, nor if in fact it could have a negative effect on your child and impede their long-term learning. While the program’s creator claims research expertise in early literacy, I was unable to find much evidence to support this claim, and virtually no citations of his limited publications by other researchers. Instead of using this program I would encourage my children from birth by stimulating their language (singing to them, reading with them, asking questions etc) and learning (exploration, invention, creative play etc). In short, I would be constantly engaging with my child in varied ways.”
Negative Review – http://www.amazon.com/review/R2KE2E6GSS9OGD/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm
“1. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends NO screen time(both tv and computers) for children under 2 years of age. There have been many studies done which show screen time does more harm than good, regardless of what all of these products like to claim.”
“2. These videos simply promote memorization.”
“3. Your children will learn all of these things in due time. Its called Developmentally Appropriate Practice, which means you let children develop at their own individual time and pace, as well as for their actual developmental age.”
What Does The Science Say?
The Your Baby Can Read (YBCR) website provides a graph that plots measured reading grade level against the chronological age of children who were exposed to the YBCR program (the blue line) and those who were not (green and red lines). We see that when we compare the YBCR children against the non-YBCR children, that by age 6 the YBCR children are at least FIVE YEARS AHEAD of the non-YBCR children. If one were to imagine extending those lines further out, it seems that those children who did NOT have the advantages of the YBCR program will never catch up with those who did. This advantage, we are told, will remain with the YBCR children for the rest of their lives. (The website notes: “Studies prove that the earlier a child learns to read, the better they perform in school and later in life.”)
Does It or Doesn’t It Work?
The Data Proves That The Program Is Effective: It seems that the data proves the program’s effectiveness. However, there are two problems. First, the graph makes reference to scientific studies but we are never told which studies were used. Second, it notes that the children who used the YBCR program were tested but we are never told which tests were used to measure reading ability. Therefore we have no way to verify if the data that this graph is based on actually exists. All we have is a graph that has an air of scientificity (analogous to truthiness): a bit of visual hocus-pocus.
The Video Shows That The Children Are Reading: The children seem to be reading. They are shown a word and they respond accordingly. Yet this may be more Pavlovian than an example of true reading comprehension. In a critical review of this program by Dr. Steven Novella – an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine – he notes that
“The Your Baby Can Read program is an extreme whole word approach. Infants and toddlers are taught to memorize words, which they can then recognize and name from memory, even before they can understand what they are reading. Critics of this approach claim that this is not really reading, just memorization and association. Some even caution that by taking an extreme whole word approach, phonic understanding can be delayed and the net result can be negative.” [Emphasis added]
He goes on to note that
“[…]studies of neurological development and education show that forcing kids to learn some task before their brains are naturally ready does not have any advantage. You cannot force the brain to develop quicker or better.”
YBCR Is Similar To The Baby Einstein Program:While there are a few qualitative differences as noted in one of the reviews cited earlier, they still share the same general methodology: expose very young children to visual and auditory stimulation and they will become an Einstein.
The flaw in the Baby Einstein program and with any program based on a similar methodology can be summed up as follows:
“Arguments about the importance of the first three years are compelling because they have roots in scientific evidence about the brain and its development. But they rest fundamentally on mistakes about what that evidence means.” [Emphasis added]
The evidence that has been wrongly interpreted is the following: a baby’s brain forms new synapses at a rapid rate. This process stops at approximately one year of age and “the brain begins pruning synaptic connections, an activity that continues over several years.” (pg. 4, page references are to the document Million Dollar Babies). Based on this finding, a conceptual leap was made by proponents of this type of very early childhood education.
The Conceptual Leap
IF synapses form the connections between neurons and they effect learning, AND if rapid and crucial brain development – creation of synapses – occurs during the first few years of life AND if the brain’s development is crucial to one’s chances of success in life, THEN taking advantage of this crucial time period to shape the brain’s development is imperative. In fact, some have argued that “[I]f parents miss this chance to shape their infants’ and toddlers’ brain development, they will lose forever the opportunity” and by losing this opportunity they may do “lasting damage to their children’s potential.” (pg. 4, emphasis added)
However, underlying this conceptual leap are three fallacies.
1. The Form-Is-Function Fallacy: It is assumed that the “rapid development of synapses…means that they [children] have greater learning capacity than older people.” There is no evidence for this. The number of synaptic connections “does not tell us anything about learning capacity.” (pg. 5)
2. The More-Is-Better Fallacy: Numerous studies have shown that children who were neglected suffer from serious problems later in life. Therefore, it is best that parents do not neglect their children. We are all in agreement on this one. But there is no evidence to show that creating an environment that goes well beyond a general nurturing and learning environment and adds these types of intensive programs has any beneficial effect on a child’s development. This thinking – if a little is good then a lot must be better – is analogous to this conceptual leap: “because one vitamin is better for you than no vitamins, swallowing an entire bottle of vitamins must be even healthier. ” (pg.5 & 6)
3. The Critical-Periods Fallacy: Some studies have shown that there are critical periods for the development of some “very specific sensory and motor functions.” However, it does not follow that something as complex as reading has its own critical period. In fact, “no researcher has found a critical period for culturally transmitted knowledge and skills such as vocabulary, reading or math.” (pg 6)
So, does the program work? Let’s review the evidence.
A. The Video: We saw a video of a very young child who seemed to be reading. The child was shown the word “head” and the child said the word and pointed to her head. Did she really understand what she read? We don’t know. At this very early stage of child development, the child may have simply memorized the association between a visual cue that has four distinct shapes, a sound that is to be made when one is shown those shapes, and the object to point to when shown those shapes. (Dogs, by the way, are masters at associating auditory and visual cues with various activities but in no way would we attribute comprehension (except in our accidental anthropomorphization of their behavior) to what they are doing. See: Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know) We don’t know if any real comprehension has taken place. We are never told if any tests were performed to measure comprehension. We simply see an action that looks like reading and which we assume is reading.
B. The Data: We are presented with a graph based on scientific data. Some of the data comes from scientific studies yet we are never told which studies. Some of the data is based on testing of children who used the YBCR program. Yet we are never told which tests were used to measure their reading ability. In fact, we are given no supporting data at all.
C. The Methodology: We learned that the basic methodology of the program – using visual and auditory stimulation on very young children – has been discredited. The scientific justification for these methods are based on conceptual leaps – suppositions, really – that are not founded on science.(In the case of Baby Einstein, it was noted in the complaint filed at the Federal Trade Commission that “Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby’s marketing practices are based on express and implied claims that their videos are educational and beneficial for early childhood development. These claims are both misleading and false. They are misleading because they lack substantiation required by the Federal Trade Commission (“Commission”) for all express and implied claims.” (Source: Complaint filed at the Federal Trade Commission, page 6) Baby Einstein and related programs, which were owned by Disney (they acquired the programs from its original developer) felt compelled to offer refunds to parents who purchased the programs. Though Disney never admitted that the programs did not work, the threat of lawsuits seemed sufficient reason for them to institute the refund program.) We may find, in the near future, that there are ways to tap into the early developmental stages of the brain but, based on our current science, there is nothing to prove the efficacy of the methodology underlying the YBCR program.
The Final Answer Is….: The final answer is that it is unlikely that the program teaches anything that approximates reading. It looks like reading. But is it reading? We are provided no proof. We are provided no scientific evidence. So what does the program do? It may do the one thing that all new parents need it to do. It gives them the feeling that they are doing something important, proactive and positive for their child.
The Your Baby Can Read Website
Review in Associated Content
Critical review by a professor of education
Critical review on Amazon.com
Critical review by Dr. Novella, Neurologist at Yale Univ School of Medicine
Education Sector report on the Baby Einstein Program
Complaint filed at the Federal Trade Commission