Your Baby Can’t Read

Okay, perhaps YOUR baby can. It is possible. Stranger things have happened. But most likely your baby cannot read. Anyone telling you that your baby can is selling snake oil. Expensive snake oil.

What your baby can begin to do is recognize that certain signs or symbols represent certain objects. And that is pretty neat. But you do not need to spend hours training your baby to do this or buy expensive systems to accomplish this.

Once your child is a little older, he will begin to recognize that those black squiggly lines are letters. And letters make up words and words stand for certain things or ideas. But memorization of sight words, while important, is not “reading.”

My ten month old knows that squeezing his hand represents milk. This does not make him bilingual or fluent in sign language.

When my daughter was not yet two, my husband taught her to respond that two plus two equals “four.” But that doesn’t mean she was performing mathematical operations or understood addition as a concept.

Memorization plays an important role in learning, but it must have its proper place within a framework of other skills and concepts. First you learn what quantities and numbers are, then the idea of multiplication, and then you memorize the times tables.

Now, no harm is done by showing your baby the word “Mom” and teaching him to point to mom. It is cute, certainly.

And if you want to buy books or CDs or flashcards with suggestions for games, that’s great. As parents today we can be very isolated and sometimes we need these ideas for playing with our babies. Check out your local library and you will find tons of books with ideas for playing with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

However, I take issue with expensive systems that claim that rote memorization of images is learning to read.

Even worse if the website for the expensive system asks that you show a three month old videos an hour a day every day. And counsels you in tips to focus the baby’s attention on these videos if he does not wish to watch them.

Now, I do not think television is evil. However, studies I have read about how television affects the brain wiring under age two gives me pause about any “educational” program that insists on television viewing for young infants. School-aged children, especially at-risk school aged children, do learn from television. And I doubt that occasional viewing will harm a healthy baby. However, I do not believe television is the best or even a good way to set your infant on a path to a lifelong love of reading.

Please, take that time to playt with and read to your baby instead. If you do not speak the dominant language in your current residence, that’s fine–read in whatever language you can. And if you are not literate in any language, there are great free programs both for babies and for adults at many local libraries.

If library or other comunity programs are not an option, you can borrow or purchase books on tape and show baby the book while reading the tape. You can also buy a LeapFrog TAG system at a fraction of the cost of these expensive systems. If you really want video, there are free ones available on the web and most of them are just 5-10 minutes long.

Pre-literacy skills are important building blocks. Letter and sound recognition are steps on the road to reading. And a child who has some of these skills before entering school will be more confident and more likely to self-identify as a successful “reader” and “learner.” To extrapolate from that and conclude that a 10 month old “reading” (but not really reading) will have long-term benefits is simply not supported by current evidence.

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  1. yalechk says:

    Great blog post!

  2. Yen says:

    Ha! This is like parents who send their seven year olds to the gym (instead of, say, tossing a ball with them in the park). Thanks for pointing out that what’s important isn’t the end result, but what it takes to get there and what your child is learning in the process.

  3. Great post Candace! Thanks for talking about such an important topic. Renowned child psychologist David Elkind says that reading is a complex skill which builds upon a number of other skills that babies just don’t have yet. I’d like to share some further observations on this subject:

  4. Kate says:

    The Stern Center for Language and Learning has a great free online program called BUILDING BLOCKS FOR LITERACY that can be found at

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