Teaching Babies To Read

Can preverbal babies learn to read? And if so, how?

From as young as 4 months old, babies are capable of learning to read – and they do it by learning whole words. Whole-word reading describes the process whereby a person recognizes a word at sight, without sounding out the individual letters.

According to Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, coauthors of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, “[Whole-word reading] is simply memorization and has little merit beyond the performance.”

This conclusion is drawn at the end of an anecdote from Hirsh-Pasek about a reading toddler. The child read a set of words shown to him by his mother, but says Hirsh-Pasek, when asked to read some different words, he became flustered. Write the authors, “He had learned how to memorize words, perhaps from their shape… but he had not really learned to read.”

Critics of early reading tend to pit whole-word reading (“bad”) against phonics-based reading (“good”). Hearing their arguments, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a case of either-or. In reality, almost all children learning to read depend on both strategies. Whole-word reading is easier, so most children learn their first words this way, before they know the sounds letters make. Many kindergarten and lower-grade-school teachers teach some sight words before starting on phonics.

When children learn to read whole words at what is considered a normal age, no one criticizes them. But some people find it unsettling, “wrong” even, for a very young child to be reading – and so they attack the method in order to prove that the child isn’t “really” reading.

Whole-word reading is just the first rung on the ladder of learning to read – as we can see from an analogy drawn by another early-learning critic, David Elkind. Elkind compares reading whole words to understanding the concept of nominal numbers (numbers as names) – the first rung on the ladder of learning math. He compares reading phonetically (sounding out words) to understanding the concept of ordinal numbers (numbers as part of a sequence), and reading phonemically (recognizing that letters can be pronounced differently depending on context) to understanding the concept of interval numbers (numbers as abstract concepts).

There comes a point at which reading cannot progress without phonics – there are just too many words to rely on memory alone. Children must move on to phonetic reading followed by phonemic reading in order to become successful readers. But just as we do not criticize a child who reads phonetically but has not graduated to the phonemic level, so it seems unfair to pour scorn on the abilities of a toddler who simply has not graduated from whole-word reading to phonetic reading.

Another concern expressed by critics of whole-word reading is that children will not know to read words from left to right. When choosing a TV- or computer-based program for your child, be sure to select one that includes an arrow for indicating the direction of reading. If you’re using cards or books, it’s a good idea to run your finger under each syllable of every word as you read out words.

Amazingly, babies taught to read whole words often begin figuring out the rules of phonics for themselves – in much the same way as babies learning their native language spontaneously figure out grammar rules. A new teaching-reading system for babies includes a specially designed phonics program aimed at facilitating the young child’s natural ability at decoding words. More proof that when it comes to teaching reading, it’s not a case of either-or – you can teach whole words and phonics right from the get-go.

Please visit BrillKids.com to learn more about teaching your baby to read.


One Response to “Teaching Babies To Read”

  1. Denise says:

    Great feedback!!

    If you are looking for an entertaining way to expose children to sight words, play a board game called, Er-u-di-tion.

    This award winning game incorporates over 300 sight words and the letters of the alphabet and their basic phonic sounds in an enjoyable, engaging activity, providing both teachers and parents with a useful tool.

    Cards are categorized so children of all reading levels can play together!

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