Study: Babies Can't Learn to Read

Parents, however, enjoy believing their young ones are developing literary skills.

For decades, the "baby media" industry has been been selling anxious parents books, DVDs, flashcards, and other products that claim to teach very young children learn to read and do math. "All babies are Einsteins when it comes to learning to read. Your baby can actually learn to read beginning at 3 months of age," one company claims. Another promises that "teaching your baby to read is easy."

The industry has been under siege in recent years for making promises it can't possibly meet. In 2008, lawyers threatened a class-action lawsuit against Baby Einstein unless the company offered customers refunds on their DVDs. In 2011, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission accusing the program "Your Baby Can Read" of engaging in false advertising. The following year, the company announced it was shutting down. (It's back in business now.)

A new study from New York University's education school shows there's good reason to be skeptical of baby media—and that many parents aren't nearly skeptical enough. The researchers worked with 117 children aged 10 to 18 months and their families; some of the babies were given the Your Baby Can Read program, while the rest received no intervention. Over the course of seven months, the researchers assessed several metrics of language development and reading comprehension to see if the program worked.

At the end of the experiment, one thing was clear: "Our results indicated that babies did not learn to read." The babies who completed the Your Baby Can Read program scored the same as the control group on 13 out of 14 measures of early reading skills.

Susan Neuman, one of the authors of the study and a former U.S. assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said she suspects this conclusion can apply to most programs that claim to teach infants to read.

"I don’t think it’s a problem of the particular product," Neuman said. "I think it’s a problem of the issue of development. These children do not have the internal capabilities to learn how to read at this young of an age."

(This doesn't mean parents should do nothing to encourage their babies' literacy development, of course. Neuman said parents can read to their infants and coach them on vocabulary words. "Some children can determine whether a book is right-side up or up-side down as early as 14 months," she said. "There are some psychological, developmental capabilities that children are learning—they’re just not learning to read.")

That doesn't stop parents from hoping, though. A fascinating finding of Neuman's study is that even though the babies in the experiment group didn't learn to read, their parents thought they did. "There was the belief among parents that their babies were learning to read and that their children had benefited from the program," the study said.

This is a reminder of the blinding power of parental ambition. Parents want so badly to give their children an edge that they'll believe a program works even when there's no evidence that it does. And marketers are all too eager to capitalize on this credulousness.

"These program developers prey on the 'tiger moms,' on the wishful thinkers," said Neuman.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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