Ready to Read? by Vickie Glembocki. Article Review

Thanks to A.P.P. for sharing this!

1Review of “Ready to Read?” by Vicki Glembocki in the October 2009 issue of Parents magazine.

The article is very helpful in that it encapsulates, in a relatively short space, all of the prejudice, confusion, and lack of knowledge that surrounds the issue of teaching kids to read at an early age. It is basically “the party line,” and will be comforting to those parents who don’t want to take the time to investigate things themselves, and who are philosophically opposed to much early education in the first place. It comes out firmly against any efforts to teach children to read before the usual age of 5-6, quoting Elkind and Hirsh-Pasek. In fairness, I should say that it does have some useful information about the importance of learning vocabulary for learning to read–but then, I think that’s nothing new to Doman parents, who are teaching their kids vocabulary words and phrases all the time.

The article implies that the U.S. “space race” competition with the Soviets is what caused people, in the 60s and 70s, to emphasize academics earlier and earlier. I don’t know how far this is true, but I find it interesting that Glenn Doman’s 1964 book, “How to Teach Your Baby to Read,” is not given the slightest bit of credit. (Yes, *credit*. Not blame.) Of course, this wouldn’t explain why people *outside* the U.S. turned to early learning programs. Later, the article says, it was competition with other countries and with our own neighbors that explained it. The whole phenomenon of teaching kids early is dismissed as mere competitiveness–as if the *only* reason we might have for teaching our children early is so that they can do better than other kids. What about simply living up to the child’s own potential? Isn’t that what parents *do*? No mention of that whatsoever.

Indeed, not a single parent who engages in this behavior is interviewed in the article. I suspect that their sincerely held reasons and enthusiasm and successes, tempered by the realities of what they are trying to do, would undermine the tone and message of the article entirely. But the result is essentially an intellectually dishonest hatchet job.

As to videos, “Your Baby Can Read,” which arguably is the single biggest cause of the recent interest in early childhood reading, is not mentioned; instead, the article speaks in generalities about “educational videos.” (BrillKids is mentioned though.)

The section most directly about teaching babies to read is titled “Drills for the Diaper Set,” which as you can see sets the tone. I am sure that most of you who are using Doman-type flashcards and computer presentations would not dismiss these as “drills”; our kids can and do have as much fun with them as they have with books, which after all everybody agrees are great. (I believe that books are the /#1 most important educational tool at any age, and that the world is suffering woefully due to waning bibliophilia. So explain this to me: if it is wrong to use flashcards and flashcard-type videos with kids, because they are too “educational,” then why is it OK to read books to them?) Besides, drilling implies testing, and most of us agree that testing, generally, is to be avoided.

Anyway, the article quotes Janet Doman and goes on to dismiss the Institutes’ “How to Multiply Your Baby’s Intelligence” course as “the most aggressive approach to teaching kids to read: Start when they’re infants.” This single word, “aggressive,” intentionally or not expresses the whole mindset of our critics. In teaching our smallest children, we are being “aggressive.” Why? Note, it’s not because we’re teaching them, period; it’s because we’re teaching them in a way that is calculated to improve their academic success greatly. After all, all the critics always hasten to add that it’s important to prepare your child in various ways that anyone would agree constitutes a kind of “teaching” (e.g., reading to them, talking to them about what you’re doing, playing games and describing what’s happening, etc.). But the author and our critics apparently cannot imagine how we might teach our kids in the ways we do without being animated by aggressive competitiveness. How could that be healthy for children? What kind of parent uses their children for their own vicarious pleasure? Anyone who is so “aggressive” in teaching their children must be emotionally brutal to their children. Those are the subtle implications. The little word “aggressive” is basically a smear that needs to be carefully examined.

Lilian Katz, a professor, is the only one quoted here making anything remotely resembling challenging, interesting arguments. She says, first, that if kids learn to read “too early,” then “a lot of kids…fail to develop a love of reading and won’t pursue it on their own.” One really has to wonder if she is speaking about Doman-educated kids or, instead, kids who really did have “aggressive” parents, parents who forced them to learn against their will. I’ve finally gotten around to reading Kathy Hirsh-Pasek’s book “Einstein Didn’t Use Flash Cards.” She has the same problem: she simply *assumes* that anybody who is using flash cards or educational videos is “aggressive” and pressuring their children and probably spanking them if they don’t do enough academics, or something. The repeated admonitions from Doman, Titzer, and many others who say you never pressure kids, you show them stuff when they’re in a good mood, you stop before they’re ready to stop–there is no mention of this. I suppose they think that that is just for show. Well, some of us take it seriously. I have taught my boy to be very clear when he wants to stop, and when he wants to stop, I stop, period. I’m sure other parents are equally sensitive to this point.

I would enjoin Dr. Katz (and the author of the article, her editors, and her readers) to think a little about something: if a parent goes to so much trouble to try to teach their children at a very early age, don’t you think that most of them will be especially sensitive to *turning them off* to the idea of learning? I mean, it’s just a matter of common sense; it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to notice that if you force a kid to do something against his will, he will want to do it even less. Therefore, if you have any common sense and you are especially concerned to get your child to learn, then you naturally won’t force him to do so. Obviously there are going to be exceptions. Of course there are some very competitive and, indeed, aggressive parents who force education upon unhappy, resisting children. But it is simply insulting to assume that most parents who do early education are that way. It’s also unjustified and unfounded.

Now, if I’m going to be honest with myself, I’ll admit that Dr. Katz’s might seem to have some purchase in the case of my own little boy. He started learning to read at 22 months or so, and eighteen months later he can decode (without necessarily understanding) text at the 4th grade level or better. But he isn’t that interested in reading by himself, so for now he “won’t pursue it on [his] own.” (I actually would say he’s been reading a book every day, or every other day, by himself lately. I’ve asked his Mama regularly lately, and she says he’s in there reading away pretty much every morning. He just doesn’t like to read *for me* so much. I think because it’s more entertaining to be read to by Papa.) On the other hand, I think it takes time for every child to get around to reading a lot for himself, and of course most children (especially these days) who learn to read at the normal age of 5-7 *don’t* end up loving reading, do they? The question, which I am quite sure Dr. Katz hasn’t got the first clue about because there are no published data on this, is whether children who begin early have a greater or lesser desire to read independently when they are older.

Now, I’m not going to uncritically repeat what is said on this point. Doman and Titzer both imply that these children uniformly mature into enthusiastic readers and excellent students. As much as I would like to believe that, I recognize that they have motives that might color their judgment and/or perfect, pristine sincerity. Similarly, I hear *almost* nothing but success stories from the parents on YourBabyCanRead and other venues. But I also know that a well-known effect in science is self-selection bias: who is going to write to the list and say what a disappointment her child has been?

The worst I’ve seen are that (1) the kid doesn’t like the Doman method (so?) and that (2) a child who was very advanced at age five eventually became average in public schools (could it be because school is so depressing and discouraging and silly for a bright young person?). Anyway, I have to say that, lacking any convincing data or even some examples, I find the success stories *plausible*.

Dr. Katz’s second point is this: “Worse, if kids don’t pick up the concepts right away, some may start to think of themselves as incompetent. ‘Once a child thinks he’s no good at something, once he considers himself “dumb,” he doesn’t want to put in any effort,’ Dr. Katz adds.” This only reinforces my impression that Dr. Katz and the rest are assuming that Doman/early reading movement is made up of the sort of pushy and ambitious people, who try to push, schedule, and control their children at every moment. My reaction to that is: we’re not that way. I don’t get the impression, from talking to all the nice mommies online, that many others are that way. Doman, again, emphasizes that you don’t give a child an opportunity to think that he is dumb or not getting it. Teaching a young child is not a test, not at all like homework drills. Rather, it’s not that different from play time. If my boy, for example, doesn’t get the right answer, right away, I don’t usually correct him. (I will if I think it will help and won’t put him on the spot. He corrects me when I read to him more than I correct him. Seriously, because I frequently make mistakes as I read.)

Anyway, I can’t go through the whole article at this level of analysis because it would take too long. But I did want to comment on one other interesting tidbit: “…it’s also true that some preschoolers–maybe 2 or 3 percent of them, says Dr. Elkind–are able to break the code and legitimately read when they’re 3 or 4.” Legitimately? What the hell does “legitimately” mean? That’s another very revealing choice of words. The only way in which Dr. Elkind and his ilk can accept an early reader as “legitimate” is if a preschooler “breaks the code” for himself. It’s not “legitimate,” apparently, if a parent helps to unlock the code. Well, why not? No good reasons have been offered in this article. Why does it make the achievement illegitimate to offer gentle unlocking the code by doing no more than–say–watching YBCR and running one’s finger under words as one reads them?

I know the answer, though, because I’ve talked to some of these people in e-mail and via blogs. The answer runs like this: well, *you* of course are different. You are obviously a smart person (like us, I hear implied–not like those pushy, uneducated bourgeois parents) and you have given your child a “language-rich” environment. These other people don’t take the advice that Doman and Titzer give, and Doman and Titzer probably aren’t that sincere in giving their advice about keeping things all happy and fun. They will start pressuring their kids when they don’t “perform” as expected.

When I tell them that they are wrong about the other people in this movement, that I am not that different, they have nothing to say. They stop replying, or go back to their other talking points. It doesn’t penetrate. They also completely refuse to tell me how they know these things. Have they interviewed a lot of Doman parents or users of YBCR? Have they done any studies? Have they even seen one kid who can read at an early age?

Well, I don’t know. Maybe some studies will finally be done, and my own prejudices will be exploded. Maybe it will turn out that the vast majority of people who start these programs drop them; that the vast majority who stick with them have no significant impact anyway; and that too many of the parents who pursue these programs over the long haul are, in fact, pushy, “aggressive” types who turn their kids to learning. I could be wrong. I just don’t see any actual *evidence* of all that, and I’ve been on the lookout. I mean, I’ve asked, and I really would be highly interested in hearing stories (publicly, or privately in confidence) about the total failure of these programs when conscientiously, correctly used.

So…hatchet job. The “journalist” does not do credit to her profession.