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Study Debunks Claims That Babies Can Read

If it's good for a child to learn to read before kindergarten, then learning to read before preschool is even better, right? What if your child could start reading as an infant? That would give her an edge, maybe even guarantee her success throughout life. ... Hold on, is that even possible?

Several programs claim they can teach babies to read. One declares, "All babies are Einstein's [sic] when it comes to learning to read. Your baby can actually learn to read beginning at 3 months of age." And scores of parents attest to their babies' ability to read. But the question is: Are the babies actually reading or simply memorizing the appearance of words?

A recent study from New York University's school of education debunks the claim that babies can read.

"These children do not have the internal capabilities to learn how to read at this young of an age," says lead author Susan Neuman, an NYU professor and former U.S. assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

The study, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, focused on the program "Your Baby Can Read," which uses DVDs, flashcards and word books to attempt to teach words to babies as young as 3 months old. Researchers studied 117 infants aged 9 to 18 months over the course of seven months. About half of the infants were randomly assigned to use the "Your Baby Can Read" product daily. The other half did not receive the product or do anything special. During the study period, researchers visited with the babies monthly to assess development.

Fourteen measurements were used to detect if any reading skills were gained. For example, researchers examined recognition of letter sounds, words identified on sight, and comprehension.

"We tried to be as generous as possible. We wanted to look at the full spectrum of reading abilities," Neuman says.

At the end of the experiment, the babies who had completed the "Your Baby Can Read" program showed the same results on 13 of the 14 assessments as the babies who had done nothing.

"Our results indicated that babies did not learn to read," the researchers say. The only difference was in the parents' beliefs. Some maintained "great confidence in the program's effectiveness."

"There was the belief among parents that their babies were learning to read and that their children had benefited from the program," the study says.

"Your Baby Can Read" highlights this ambition in parents by holding them up as the "experts" in statements throughout its website: "Three decades of research show that parents are experts at determining their infants' language and cognitive abilities."

Critics contend that this "parents are experts" assertion is made to deflect attention from the fact that expert scientific research has found nothing to support the program's claims. "Your Baby Can Read" lists 14 studies attesting to the program's effectiveness, but none were published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

"Your Baby Can Read" announced it was going out of business in 2012 after an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission into the "genius baby" industry. But founder Robert Titzer has since regained rights to the company name and continues to sell his products.

The NYU study did not find any negative effects of the program, but Neuman encourages parents to promote their children's reading development in other ways. She suggests helping babies learn new vocabulary words by reading, singing, talking and playing games with them.

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