1. A recap of the last post
I indicated in my last post that YBCR is primarily a word recognition program designed for children as young as 12 months. It aims to teach children to recognise words by ‘sight’ (instant word recognition), with the words being taught using a variety of stimulus materials including DVDs and word and picture cards. As with any sight word program, the child is taught to use visual clues such as the shape of the word, and some aspects of letter configuration (e.g. an initial letter, an unusual ending) to identify the word instantly. The program developer suggests that YBCR also seeks to develop incidentally some phonic skills as a by-product of the repetition of sight words, but the program does not systematically teach phonics.
I expressed three concerns with the program. Some of the readers of the post expressed other views in their comments that do not necessarily reflect my own views, you should read their comments as their own, not mine. I shall recap my three original key points:
- First, the program does not teach children to ‘read’ in the fullest sense of the word, rather it teaches them to recognise instantly a number of words. As I outline in a previous post (here), to be an effective reader any child ultimately needs to: learn the sounds of language and their correspondence with print; understand the structure of language and how it works; learn how to use language appropriately for specific purposes; and learn to comprehend, interpret, use, appreciate and critique written texts. The program is focussed on one strategy for instant word recognition. While some of the supporters of the program (as seen in their comments on my last post) claim that it teaches children incidentally about sound-symbol relationships, the program does not teach phonics and claims that it does help such skills are not backed by research.
- Second, if you introduce this program at ages as young as 12 months (as suggested by Dr Titzer) you are essentially introducing the child to formal instruction 3-4 years before what has traditionally been the practice. While Dr Titzer suggests that an early introduction to written language in the form of his program will accelerate learning, he does not provide any evidence to support the claim. I pointed out that the country that has some of the best literacy results in the OECD is Finland, a country where just 9 years of school education is compulsory and where it doesn’t start till age 7!
- Third, in introducing a program like 'Your Baby Can Read!' you are essentially devoting time to structured repetitive learning of a limited type that would probably replace other forms of learning. I asked parents to consider what they would stop doing while using the program.
2. What we know about the benefits and risks of acceleration of children's learning
a) Generic research on the acceleration of the gifted
Acceleration is the practice of speeding the progress of children through school grades and/or providing them with programs, activities or learning experiences typically experienced by older children. Acceleration can take many forms including early school entry, grade skipping, introducing children to academic skills such as reading much earlier than usual etc. In effect, using 'Your Baby Can Read' with your child at age 12 months is an example of acceleration. Most of the research on acceleration has been conducted with children aged 6 years and above and relates mostly to institutionalised education. Research on the acceleration of gifted children is generally accepted to be harmless for most children when the child is carefully selected and appropriately taught. The evidence (in general) also suggests that there are benefits for gifted children when the practice is adopted and some negative impacts when bright children are left in ungraded and unstimulating classes. Terman’s (1925) earliest study pointed in this direction and others have achieved similar broad findings, for example Kulik and Kulik (1982, 1992), Grose (1993), and Rogers (2004). However, questions still remain in applying this type of generic support for acceleration to approaches to the education of older children in formal settings, to a program like 'Your Baby Can Read' designed for very young children. Why, you ask? Here are a few reasons.
First, the studies cover so many different versions of acceleration (e.g. grade skipping, more advanced work, early school entry etc), that assuming a general effect for a program like YBCR may not be appropriate for your child. Second, research looks for trend data, uses mean scores, and general patterns. This 'smooths' the effects so that the varied ways in which examples of acceleration impact on individual children are masked. For example, in one pro-acceleration study at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth conducted in 1994, it was found that while 95% of the 175 participants perceived positive consequences of acceleration, almost 50% perceived some negative consequences and 2% reported only negative impacts. Neihart (2007), who supports acceleration, when examining socio-affective effects makes this point, reminding us that in spite of benefits from acceleration, "some accelerated gifted children do exhibit problems with conduct or mood." As well, she reminds us that there are documented cases of individual accelerated children having adjustment problems, and hence we cannot conclude that all gifted children should experience acceleration or enter kindergarten early. However, she suggests that the conclusion that academic acceleration will cause social or emotional harm to gifted children is not supported by research in relation to grade skipping, early admission to kindergarten or school “…we cannot make similar claims for other accelerative options, because they are not as well researched”. The main point to be made here is that parents need to make choices about acceleration based on their individual child and not assume that the benefits are uniform and that negative impacts don’t occur.
Second, many of the studies rely on qualitative research with less than rigorous methodology (Note: I'm not suggesting that qualitative research is generally non-rigorous). This is particularly the case in relation to emotional and social development, but is also the case (to a lesser extent) for academic development of young children. The research generally doesn’t control for pre-existing differences between subjects and often uses data in the form of student perceptions rather than measured psychological changes or behaviour. Most of this research is also descriptive and correlational and often participation is voluntary rather than random, making comparability more problematic. The same can be said for academic effects for young children.
Third, how studies define academic and social/emotional development varies greatly making comparisons between studies more difficult. This is particularly the case with the muddy term social and emotional development where studies use a variety of indicators (e.g. antisocial behaviour, leadership ability, self concept, peer relations, absence or presence of psychological problems variously described) and so on.
Fourth, in relation to assessing the impact of a program like YBCR, and in fact any home-based intervention, it is virtually impossible to control for variability in relation to approach, frequency and conditions. This limits our ability to make judgements about the likely impact of such programs for all children.
Fifth, the evidence in relation to the age at which formal instruction begins for literacy does not support the idea that starting early gives a long lasting positive benefit for children.
b) What developmental psychologists have to say?
While maturational theories have been critiqued at length in recent decades we cannot ignore the work of psychologists like Piaget whose work has been so influential in early childhood education. Piaget’s work and in particular, his notions of stages of development, have been badly interpreted at times. For example, we should reject the common assumption that stages of cognitive development are relatively fixed, that they unfold in a linear and automatic way, and that specific stages should be reached before children are ready for specific cognitive tasks like reading. Piaget never wrote this and in fact stressed that development involved an interaction between the child and their social and physical world. Margaret Donaldson provided one of the strongest critiques of the notion that developmental stages are fixed (here). Similarly, the application of the work of constructivists like the Russian psychologist Vygotsky (see my related post on scaffolding here and a helpful video here) has helped to underline the fact that development is not fixed. Vygotsky saw a much closer relationship between learning and development and indeed argued that learning affects development. Of course, this doesn't mean that it is appropriate to thrust any learning experience on a child whenever one we feel like it. Development is by definition progressive in all children, some tasks are more complex than others, some skills more abstract than concrete thinking, and language can be literal or metaphorical and so on. We cannot simply assume that children can do anything when we want them to without regard to their pre-existing skills and ability. Furthermore, we cannot assume that pushing our children into new areas of learning before they have important foundational skills won’t have an impact on them.
Piaget’s observations of children are consistent with the experience of parents and teachers, which is why the notion of clear stages became so firmly entrenched. The general observations, in effect, locked some teachers into thinking that this is the way it must be for children. While this view is not justified, we cannot ignore the observations of Piaget that in general terms the young child (up to roughly 2 years) is focused on sensorimotor learning and early language learning. At this time children are trying to learn how to move, use their hands and feet to manipulate objects, make sounds, exploring their world through all the senses and communicate with other people. From age 2 most children grow quickly as language users, learning that symbols can convey meaning and later trying to use symbols to do just this. They also begin to understand the difference between reality and fantasy, and to use objects as tools. From early school age most children begin to understand that they can manipulate symbols, make judgements about concrete or observable phenomena and manipulate them for their own purposes. Learning is still very concrete for the primary age child but an understanding of abstraction develops for most children. By the teenage years the child no longer needs concrete objects to make rational judgements, by this age they are capable of hypothetical and deductive reasoning.
Teachers and parents need to take care in assigning work to their children that is too difficult for them or inappropriate. The work of Vygotsky has shown that learning occurs best when the activity or task is within what he calls the child’s ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD). Vygotsky demonstrated that children learn not when doing things that are too easy (and repetitive), or when too difficult and frustrating, but when the task is just in advance of their capabilities. The best learning activities for your child are not necessarily those which they can complete alone, but rather, those which are a little in advance of their ability, which with help and support from a more skilled person (typically an adult), they can complete successfully.
c) Research specific to early literacy learning
One of the difficulties that I have with 'Your Baby Can Read' is that it places so much emphasis on sight word recognition, repetitive learning and memorisation. All have a place in learning but their predominant use at such a young age may divert time from other useful activities such as language stimulation, being read quality literature, discovery learning that stimulates problem solving and inquisitiveness. While some of the comments made in relation to my last post suggested that Titzer encourages parents to stimulate decoding skills and to use literature, the fact is that the primary focus of the program is whole word recognition. This approach while relevant and useful should always be used with other approaches such as decoding and phonics and more holistic approaches such as language experience (see my earlier post on it here), and the reading of quality literature to and with them (see my post on this topic as well here).
Some suggested in their comments to my first post that I was reducing this discussion to a debate between whole language and phonics, with my bias being towards phonics. I have been accused at times of stressing holistic approaches but never of being an apologist for phonics-based strategies. The reality is that my own research and writing have always demonstrated a concern for balanced approaches to literacy instruction (see for example my book 'Balancing the Basics'). This was the methodological concern that I was raising in my last post, that is, that YBCR relies predominantly on a relatively limited reading strategy. While whole word recognition can teach children to memorise and recall isolated words, the approach at best is a useful supplement to other strategies.
One of my over-riding concerns with approaches like YBCR is that children at a very young age are being placed under the pressure to learn material using repetitive memorisation traditionally not encountered until years later within the context of formal education. I’m not convinced that the evidence for acceleration at later ages and in typically formal education settings is relevant to children aged 12-24 months at home who have not been professionally identified as gifted nor assessed in relation to their needs as learners. My view as expressed in my last post is one that I still hold, I have concerns about unintended effects of ‘hot-housing’ (i.e. intense study to stimulate a child's mind) by parents at home with limited training and knowledge of language development and learning.
This is not a new view; in fact David Elkind devoted a whole book to the subject in the 1980s, ‘The Hurried Child’ (1981) in which he warned against the tendency for some parents to want to accelerate their children’s progress prematurely. Elkind (1986), Sigel (1987) and Minuchin (1987) are amongst those who have stressed that children need time and appropriate learning strategies to develop normally. Elkind also warned against the temptation to pressure children with simplified learning tasks at a very young age which inevitably end up relying on lower-level cognitive processes such as memorisation, repetition and simple word and sound recognition that could ultimately be at the expense of activities with greater richness and complexity.
4. Summing up
This has been a very long post but I want to stress just a few points in summing up. Parents who want to give their children a head start in life are using 'Your Baby Can Read'. This is a good motivation, but being well motivated does not equal being right. I have argued over two posts now that I have significant doubts about the wisdom of introducing children to a sight word program like YBCR at the age of 12-18 months, this does not mean that I don't see value in what it is trying to do for older children. There is little evidence to support the long term benefits of the program being used at such a young age, nor has there been sufficient attention to research that could discount any potential negative effects. This research should be done before parents can confidently use YBCR with total confidence. While there is evidence to support the benefits of acceleration for older children when learning in institutional settings, we should not assume based on this evidence that the research offers support for the use of YBCR.
While I didn't comment on Glenn and Janet Doman's work, most of my comments about 'Your Baby Can Read' could also be made about the materials and adaptations based on their book (here). Here's one example (click here).
One view on the problems with hot-housing (click here).
Readers of this post might also find the following posts of interest:
Teacher might find 'Scaffolding in action' of some use (click here)
When do children start writing? (click here)
Basic literacy support: Reading with children (click here)
The importance of play - Part 1 (click here)
Basic literacy support 3: Is phonics all we need? (click here)
The language experience approach (LEA) (click here)
Brain development and the first weeks of life (click here)