Dear Dr. B,

   I saw a commercial for 'Your Baby Can
on television and I am thinking of

   purchasing it. I've heard that the program
   is controversial but I can't imagine why it
   would be a bad thing to teach the baby a
   skill that he will eventually need to learn.
   Won't this just give him a leg up when he
   starts his formal education?

   — MG

Dear MG,

Although it might be fun to pull your super advanced baby out at dinner parties to perform party tricks and impress your friends, teaching your baby to read might actually have a negative impact on your child's development. Reading follows a developmental sequence similar to other developmental milestones. Before a child can learn to read in a meaningful way, they need to master important stages of language acquisition such as learning to speak, putting words together to make sentences, using language to communicate, and being able to identify words with similar sounds. Only after these skills are acquired, can children begin to understand that words are made up of sounds (phonological awareness), and that letters function to represent sounds in spoken words (the alphabetic principle). These pre-reading skills are typically acquired between 3 to 6 years of age.

Attempting to teach an infant to read prior to being cognitively ready is essentially the same as teaching your child a trick as opposed to a complex skill. That is, you may be able to get your child to say “cat” on command in response to the visual word cat but this would not be considered reading. I believe teaching your baby to read is not only unnecessary but it could potentially have a negative impact on long-term learning and development.

When you spend time training a child in a structured and repetitive way to read words before the process is meaningful to them, you are essentially taking time away from teaching more developmentally appropriate skills necessary for pre-literacy such as language acquisition. Or even skills that have nothing to do with language such as toilet-training. It is also important to note that children learn at the fastest rate when activities are matched to their developmental level.

Parents play an important role in facilitating and scaffolding their children’s early learning experiences. When spending time with your child, it is best to devote time to more meaningful learning opportunities such as following your child’s natural tendency to explore their environment and providing them with information and activities that are only a small step above what they are capable of doing on their own. Expose your child to language that is functional in their everyday life for communicative purposes and vocabulary that describes objects in their environment or in books that you read to them. Also, remember that there are many other important, yet developmentally appropriate, skills that are fundamental to future success in school that are not academic. Some examples would be social skills, imagination, self-control, persistence, and problem-solving.

In sum, I would recommend that you take advantage of natural teachable moments and don’t waste your time with structured, repetitive programs which claim to teach your baby academic skills that they are not ready to learn.

Hope thats clear,

Dr. B

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