Can A Baby Read?
Not So Fast! It's Just Shape Memorization...
Let me share a short story with you.
I'm sure that like most parents, you've probably seen the endless infomercials for Your Baby Can Read, which makes the claim that sitting your infant in front of the idiot box (my favorite name for the TV) will "somehow" teach your child to read.
And sadly, many years ago, when our 1st child was just a few months old, we actually did try it out, but after a short while, I instinctively knew that this was not the type of "reading" we wanted our child to learn. Let me explain...
At that time, I was an average dad, and like most parents, wouldn't hesitate to provide a supportive growing environment for my child. The infomercials looked so amazing. When we got the package, we put our child in front of the TV, hoping she'd learn to read. Big mistake.
Something didn't seem quite right, as I didn't feel that this was the proper way children should learn to read. It became apparent that babies who "learn" through this method were simply memorizing word shapes! - as was the case with our child. There was no learning of the "real mechanics" of reading and decoding. I wondered how my child would be able to read a word that she has never seen before, and I could not answer that question.
And indeed, we eventually did teach our child to read, not as a baby, but as a 2 year 11 months old toddler, and we taught her to read without TV, without computers, and certainly without memorizing word shapes - we taught her to read phonetically. Here, please watch this video.
By the time she was 5 years old, our first child was reading at a grade 5 level with a reading age of 11.9 years.
Teaching Babies to Read or Memorize Shapes?
There are a few of these baby reading programs on the market, and they tend to charge an arm and a leg. We need to really differentiate the meaning of "reading" and "memorizing" here, as when an infant appears to be able to "read" certain words he or she has been exposed to numerous time, it is committed to memory, and it appears that the child is able to "read" it. But give this same child a word never seen before, do you think he or she will know how to read this word? There's no previous exposure to the new word, how does the child figure out how to read it?
This is the difference between "reading by shape memory" and "reading by decoding (phonetic reading)". A child who learns to read phonetically will have the tools and knowledge to figure out how to read any new word encountered.
With the above mentioned programs, it is only a matter of shape memorization, and not real reading achievement. There's a false assumption by many that reading will come naturally to children, especially if you provide an environment rich in literature or provide extra "learning opportunities" such as these sit-in-front-of-the-TV-for-hours programs. This may be true for a select few bright children, but if it were true for everyone, then we would not have approximately 20% of the adult population in western developed nations as being functionally illiterate.
It really is a simple matter of teaching a child to read with the proper methods, and using the whole language method is certainly not the way to go about it! There's a serious reason why we do not recommend teaching children to read with sight words. No one should learn to read by memorizing word shapes. We have an in depth 3 part discussion of that here.
When to Teach a Baby to Read
There's no definitive answer on when kids should start learning to read. You will find differing opinions on this subject - some will say start as babies while others will suggest starting as late as 8 or 9 years old (which I think is just silly).
My personal opinion on this, is that most children can begin learning to read when they are able to speak clearly, and this is typically around 2 to 3 years of age. Being able to speak is a fairly important criteria because phonetic reading requires the development of phonemic awareness (along with phonics instructions), and the child will need to be able to say and pronounce the phonemes (sounds).
We developed our own super simple, yet extremely effective reading program. It is based on helping children develop early phonemic awareness along with synthetic phonics instructions. The program is taught in small, digestible portions that will even work for 2 to 3 year old children with very short attention spans. The lessons typically last 3 to 5 minutes, and each subsequent lesson builds upon and reinforces previously learned material.