003: Did you miss the boat on teaching your toddler how to read? (Me too!)

So did you teach your toddler to read yet? And if not, why not?

I’m just kidding, of course.

I wanted to write this episode on encouraging literacy in middle to older toddlers, but the more I researched the more I found the issues go much further back than what you do in toddlerhood.

Then I found – and read! – a 45,000 word essay by Larry Sanger, who taught his baby son to read.  I’m not kidding.  Check out the link to the video on YouTube in the references.

My two-year-old can’t read yet.  Did I miss the boat?  Would her learning outcomes have been better if I had taught her as a baby?

Is TV a good medium to teach reading and vocabulary?

What are some of the things parents of young toddlers can do to encourage reading readiness when the child is ready?

We talk about all this and more in episode 3, and there’s more to come for older toddlers in a few episodes time.



American Academy of Pediatrics (2016). Media and Children. Accessed August 19th, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/Pages/Media-and-Children.aspx?rf=32524&nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%3a+No+local+token

Carlsson-Paige, N., G. Bywater McLaughlin, and J. Wolfsheimer Almon (2015). Reading instruction in kindergarten: Little to gain and much to lose. Available online at: http://www.allianceforchildhood.org/sites/allianceforchildhood.org/files/file/Reading_Instruction_in_Kindergarten.pdf

Christakis, D.A. (2008). The effects of infant media usage: What do we know and what should we learn? Acta Paediatrica 98, 8-16. Full article available at: http://echd430-f13-love.wikispaces.umb.edu/file/view/Pediatrics+article.pdf

Federal Trade Commission (2014). Defendants settle FTC charges related to “Your Baby Can Read” program. Available online at: https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2014/08/defendants-settle-ftc-charges-related-your-baby-can-read-program

Gray, P. (2010). Children teach themselves to read. Blog post on Psychology Today available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201002/children-teach-themselves-read

Gray, P. (2015). Early academic training produces long-term harm. Blog post on Psychology Today available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201505/early-academic-training-produces-long-term-harm

Harris, J., Golinkoff, R.M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2011). Lessons from the crib for the classroom: How children really learn vocabulary. In S.B. Neuman & D.K. Dickinson (Eds.) Handbook of early literacy research Vol. 3. (49-65). New York: Guilford.

Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R.M., & Eyer, D. (2003). Einstein never used flash cards. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.

National Center for Education Statistics (2016). Status dropout rates. Available at: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_coj.asp

Neuman, S., Kaefer, T., Pinkham, A., & Strouse, G.A. (2014). Can babies learn to read? A randomized trial of baby media. Journal of Educational Psychology 106(3), 815-830. Full article available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273814238_Can_Babies_Learn_to_Read_A_Randomized_Trial_of_Baby_Media

Sanger, L (2010). How and why I taught my toddler to read. Available online at: http://blog.larrysanger.org/2010/12/baby-reading/

Sanger, L. (2010). 3-year-old reading the Constitution – reading progress from age 2 to age 4. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIu8BGFqMm4

WatchKnowLearn (2016). Reading Bear. Website available at: http://www.readingbear.org/#

Zimmerman, F.J., Christakis, D.A., & Meltzoff, A.N. (2007). Associations between media viewing and language development in children under age 2 years. Journal of Pediatrics 151, 364-368.


Read Full Transcript


So is your toddler reading yet?  And if not, why not?

I’m just kidding, of course.

I will say that this episode has been the hardest one yet to research and write, just because there is *so much* information out there on the topic, which is “How to encourage literacy in preschoolers.”  Each time I thought I knew what my research question was I had to step back and consider an issue further back in the information chain.

I started by reading textbooks for teachers on how to teach children to read, including the theoretical background behind this work and how approaches have shifted over the years.  I like to start with textbooks because they tend to be rigorously researched and have lots of citations to spark my own research.

I also found – and read – a 45,000 word essay by Larry Sanger, he who co-founded Wikipedia, who successfully taught his own son to read – in the show notes for this episode on my website (at Your Parenting Mojo.com) you can find a link to a video of his son reading a book at 2 years 5 months, and reading the Constitution at 3 years 10 months.  Sanger did this using a video called Your Baby Can Read (which is available on Amazon even though Dr. Titzer, who started the program, settled a claim with the FTC and is not allowed to use the term “Your Baby Can Read” any more because it is an unsubstantiated claim.)  Basically the child watches programs from a DVD, reads the books, and looks at the flash cards and develops an ability to “read.”

So I was actually reading these things – Larry Sanger’s essay and several books – in parallel, using one answer questions raised by the other.  It’s safe to say that the preponderance of scientific evidence does not advocate for teaching your baby to read.  Indeed, the only study I could find on the topic was one conducted to test specifically whether Your Baby Can Read works, and found that it does not.  Another study that focused on vocabulary development rather than reading found that for each hour of “educational” DVDs that babies watched, they knew on average 6-8 fewer words, although the effect did appear to be transitory and was mostly gone by age 17-24 months.  Even Peter Sanger acknowledges that plonking your child in front of a DVD isn’t really the “ideal” way to learn to read.

I should also note that Sanger has developed a free set of tools called Reading Bear, based on the ones he used to teach his son – I’ll include the link in the references for this episode.  I was amused to see, though, that “Reading Bear is aimed mainly at children learning to read at the traditional ages of 4-7….But even younger children do enjoy and get something out of Reading Bear.”  Sounds like someone has read the FTC ruling on the Your Baby Can Read set and doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of that argument to me

But what about Sanger’s son? He is clearly reading the Constitution in the video, if not understanding it.  Can *some* babies be taught to read?  Should they be taught to read?  As a parent of a toddler, have I missed out on something by not teaching my daughter to read?

These were the questions I set out to answer for this episode.

I think ultimately it goes back to what we as parents want for our kids, and what our kids want for themselves.  Sanger says that he aims to give his son “a deep, serious liberal arts education”, which he characterizes as having substantial knowledge about many different subjects, being able to write well, being able to read difficult texts, being comfortable with numbers (or excellent, if one is in a technical field), being able to speak a few languages, and generally having a sophisticated outlook on human life and our place in the universe.  He argues that his goal is not to get his kid to graduate by age 12 and out into the working world sooner so his son can get a big richer at the end of his longer career, it’s the opportunity to have more years to spend on learning general knowledge like literature, history, and science, before specializing and getting into a profession.

To me, it seems as though Sanger has missed a step.  He’s assuming that a liberal arts-style of education is a good goal for all kids, and I don’t believe it is.  I’m still thinking this through so my approach may change in the future, but if I had to pinpoint what I want for Carys it would be that she lives a life that she considers to be satisfying and fulfilling.  I would really love for her to have a love for learning as well, but to me that’s a secondary goal.

As a reasonably well-educated parent it would of course make *me* happy if that involved her learning a lot about some of the subjects I consider important.  *But it might not make her happy*.  She may be perfectly fulfilled as an auto mechanic who never listens to NPR.  She might become a master plumber and be the person who can finally teach me how to install a hammer arrester on an existing water line (I failed at that a couple of weekends ago).  She might want to work in an oil field, undoing all the work I’ve tried to do in my corporate career, getting companies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.  None of those occupations *require* a liberal arts education, although it’s possible she could get that education and still find one of those jobs fulfilling.  As a reasonably well-educated parent it might make me cringe a bit to tell people at parties that my daughter was doing one of those jobs.  But ultimately it’s *her* choice to make, not mine.  Sanger talks about how some of his happiest and most rewarding times in high school and college were when he was really learning, and he wants his child to do more of that sort of learning, and enjoy it.  But what if his son doesn’t enjoy it?  I wonder what Sanger will do then.

But Jen, I hear you thinking, what could be the harm in it?  Clearly at least one baby has learned to read using Your Baby Can Read, even if a statistically significant sample in a scientific study didn’t learn to read using that method.  Shouldn’t you and I be trying to make up for lost time?

The scientific community does seem to have some consensus around the idea that *pushing* kids to learn skills like reading before they are ready and when they don’t really want to, can have harmful effects on later learning outcomes.  A 2015 literature review called “Reading instruction in kindergarten: Little to gain and much to lose” found that many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten, yet the Common Core State Standards require them to do just that – read in kindergarten.  No research documents long-term gains from learning to read in kindergarten.  Studies have shown that early academic training can increase children’s immediate scores on specific tests that the training addresses, but these initial gains are lost within 1-3 years and may eventually be reversed.  It’s also possible that academic instruction at an early age can produce long-term harm in the realms of social and emotional development.

Just like with every other aspect of children’s development, there appears to be a wide range of “normal” development related to reading.  Some children learn to walk at nine months; some walk at 15 months.  Some children learn to read as toddlers (it’s probably safe to say that babies wouldn’t learn to read without adult intervention); some children in a Sudbury-school type model where there is no direct instruction unless the student requests it, may not learn to read until age 14 or 15.

Two other things stood out in my research: firstly, that children will learn to read when they want to read to accomplish some other goal.  Peter Gray, who writes a blog on Psychology Today, asked parents who were in alternative forms of education when and how their children learned to read.  One woman wrote that her daughter had been telling people she couldn’t read until she was about age 7.  One day the daughter wanted to eat brownies and neither the mother nor the father wanted to bake them.  A while later the daughter asked the mother to turn on the oven and find her a “9 ex 11 pan” and, later, to put the brownies in the oven.  The daughter said “Ma, I think I can read now.”  The daughter read a few books out loud to the mother until the brownies were done.

A 19 year-old blogger who had been homeschooled said that her mother would read the first Harry Potter to her and her younger sister.  But the mother was busy and if she read too long her voice would get hoarse so, being frustrated at the delay and impatient to know what happened next, the blogger picked up the book and started reading.  Clearly these children had a reason to start reading, so they did it.  Not every child can just “read,” though – some of them do need explicit instruction.

Secondly, if you’re in the U.S. and your child isn’t reading by the end of kindergarten, he or she is officially “behind” according to the Common Core standards.  And now we find ourselves with a problem: we know that some children may not be able to read until much later than kindergarten age, but if they’re not reading by the time they enter first grade they’re going to get more and more “behind” as they can’t keep up with material that’s presented in a written format.

This puts parents whose children will go into a traditional school model in a bit of a bind.  You’ll be OK following your child’s lead as long as he’s not a late bloomer (because there is some evidence that boys develop reading ability later than girls).  Perhaps that’s one factor explaining why boys drop out of high school at a higher rate of girls – from the very beginning some of them are pressured to learn things before they’re ready and that just continues to cascade throughout their school career.  I’m just speculating on that one.

So assuming you haven’t yet taught your toddler to read, what should you be doing to encourage future literacy in your child without pushing it on them?  I’ll go into much more detail on this in a future episode, but I want to leave you with some things to get you started.  I should acknowledge here that different cultures have different ways of thinking of literacy.  Some cultures prioritize things like oral stories, songs, and music.  Others prioritize the written word but mainly use print for religious purposes (like reading religious texts) or practical purposes (paying bills and writing shopping lists). One thing that anyone can do to prepare a child for reading readiness, no matter how you use literature, is talk with your child in a way that enhances their vocabulary.  So no need for flash cards or new word memorization, but you can follow six principles of word learning developed by the authors of the book Einstein Never Used Flashcards, although these specific principles are found in a journal article they wrote with one of the graduate students.  The principles are are:

  1. Frequency – children learn the words they hear the most
  2. Children learn words for things and events that interest them
  3. Interactive and responsive contexts (like conversation) are more conducive to vocabulary learning than passive contexts (like TV viewing)
  4. Create meaningful contexts – rather than offering flashcards, learn words about baking while baking. Learn colors and textures while folding laundry.
  5. Tell children the definitions of the new words. When the child points to a toaster and says “what’s that,” instead of just saying “it’s a toaster,” say “that’s a toaster.  It’s cooking your bread for your breakfast.”
  6. Use words in sentences. Children’s learning of grammar feeds off their learning vocabulary, and vice versa. They learn how to use grammar correctly when they hear adults using grammar correctly.

I want to expand a bit on point number 3 because it connects back to the Your Baby Can Read program, which is presented in a series of DVDs.  The American Academy of Pediatrics officially discourages TV viewing in the first two years of life (although only 6% of U.S. parents are even aware of these guidelines which may partly explain why 90% of parents appear to ignore this advice).  The AAP states that its guidelines are based on the detrimental effects of “excessive” media use, and because “young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.”  So while Larry Sanger taught his son to read using a DVD set, he describes his process very explicitly – he always sat with his son while his son watched the DVDs and they talked about what they saw, and this interaction could have been responsible for some of Sanger’s success.  But, as Dimitri Christakis of the University of Washington points out, “the fundamental research question is not *can* infants learn from a screen under ideal circumstances, including an interactive parent, but is that learning somehow superior to alternative means of advancing child development?”

Many researchers agree that reading books to children is very important, but so is surrounding children with literacy in their everyday lives.  Following a recipe together as you bake a cake counts as a “literacy activity.”  So does sorting junk mail.  And discussing road signs you see while out on a walk.

One way to figure out a path is to let your child lead, which is something I stumbled on accidentally myself.  We were waiting outside a restaurant about three months ago (so my daughter, Carys, would have been about 22 months old).  It was a seafood restaurant and there was a humorous slogan along the bottom of the window – something like “fish or cut bait.”  Carys pointed to the “F” and said “what’s that?” I said “It’s an F.”  She moved along each letter asking “what’s that?”.  Not long after that my husband was at the mall and picked up an alphabet book at a bookstore so he could get his parking validated.  Carys and I went on a backpacking trip in Wales a couple of weeks after that and she made me go through that book every single night – even though I specifically requested we read a different book.  She knew about three letters of the alphabet before we left, and now she knows about half of it.  The whole thing is led by her: we read to her when she asks; we tell her letters when she asks.  Your child may well not be asking these questions yet and *that’s OK*.  Continue reading books – vary the books, as much as your toddler will allow, anyway – test him with longer books but mix in shorter books as well.  Consider running your finger under the line of print to see if she’s interested in what the print *does* – but be ready to back off if she finds it irritating.  Follow her lead.  My next question is “now that Carys has expressed an interest in learning letters, what do I do next?” That will be the subject of an upcoming episode.

Don’t forget that you can access all the references in this podcast on YourParentingMojo.com – look for episode 3, Early Literacy.


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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